The suffering of poor little rich girls
No, I’m not being ironic.
Like a lot of people who have been reading stuff on the ‘net this past week, I’ve gotten sucked into the tragic story of Casey Johnson, the 30-year-old heiress to the Johnson & Johnson fortune whose lifeless body was found in her home in the Hollywood hills last Sunday. Apparently she’d been dead for a few days; her last “tweet” was on the preceding Tuesday, December 29 — the ceasing of which, at least in the context of narcissistic, hard-partying contemporary Hollywood, should have triggered a few alarm bells among people who cared about her. The operative word in the preceding sentence, of course, is “cared,” although sometimes a person’s behavior can alienate even the most caring of friends and family.
So Casey Johnson was found alone and very dead in the squalor of her house, where the electricity had been turned off and the pool was green with algae. Her Porsche Cayenne SUV had been repossessed. If filmmaker and writer Kenneth Anger was working on a sequel to his 1959 book Hollywood Babylon, her death and the life story that preceded it might have provided one of the more memorable chapters. And sometime later this year, a well-written account of her decline and fall most likely will appear in Vanity Fair, which in September 2006 chronicled an earlier feud she’d had with an aunt who she accused of stealing her boyfriend during a trip to Cambodia.
But by 2009, Johnson was a self-described lesbian. In early December, a few weeks before her demise, a quite stoned-looking Johnson had appeared in a video with “Tila Tequila” Nguyen, wherein Nguyen — a bisexual stripper turned pop-culture icon and entrepreneur who some astute observers have branded a “fame whore” — announced the pair’s “engagement.” While Nguyen’s troll-like visage and skanky presence are inescapable, at least to consumers of junk culture, Johnson was more of a head-scratcher: Who? You say her dad owns the New York Jets? Her family’s company made billions on Band-Aids and other consumer products?
But, as Suzanna Andrews’ Vanity Fair article described, Johnson was a member of of new generation of rich kids — Paris and Nicky Hilton, Courtenay Semel, Brandon Davis, the various Kardashian sisters and others — who prefer the fame and celebrity available to the possessors of massive wealth and entitlement over the quieter anonymity their preceding generations generally sought. These fast-track, celebrated-only-for-family-money so-called celebrities are able to take advantage of trashy entertainment media that circle the lagoons of Hollywood and New York like sharks with a voracious appetite for any programming chum to fill their 24-7 content holes, and there’s enough of a public dumbed down by a constant fusillade of entertainment-kairetsu swill that makes it easy for, oh, a Paris Hilton to go from hot-party attendee to household name virtually overnight.
But I digress.
Before Nguyen sunk her greedy little fake nails into Johnson, the latter already was in accelerated decline. In November she was arrested for grand theft in Los Angeles, accused of stealing jewelry, clothing, shoes, underwear and 600 pages of a legal document from the residence of supermodel Jasmine Lennard, leaving a used vibrator in Lennard’s bed and a wet towel on the floor — a fair exchange, some might think. Apparently Lennard, who by her description was a concerned someone trying to help the troubled Johnson make it back to rehab or otherwise get help, is a friend of Courtenay Semel, the putatively not-so-nice heiress whose father once co-ran Warner Bros. Pictures before assuming the CEO reins at Yahoo!; Semel and Johnson were once a couple with, by some accounts, a less-than-sanguine relationship. And, to add another layer of the Byzantine, Semel and Nguyen were at one time a couple, too.
By her life’s end, Johnson’s family had either washed their hands of her, or else they were practicing the kind of tough love you put in motion with a family member who just won’t get well otherwise: She apparently was cut off from the gravy train, with the orphan Kazakhstani daughter she’d adopted taken away from her by family members concerned by her public unraveling. Rehabs hadn’t worked. And so poor little rich girl Casey Johnson, who had survived childhood-onset diabetes, and who had written a book about it with her parents in 1994, was left to die.
I write this from a laundromat, where I’m washing a couple of loads; I’ve got this thing about having clean clothes. There’s a large black woman here with her granddaughter, who looks to be around six or seven, and they’ve shlepped in several giant plastic trash bags filled with dirty clothes; the woman is very kindly coaching her granddaughter through the process of washing and drying. “We just drove here from New York,” she says. “I wanted to start our new life in California with clean stuff.”
There’s also a homeless man named Faygo, by his description an alcoholic who suffers from bipolar disorder, and his dog Cosmo, an Australian shepherd mix that is barely out of the puppy stage; Faygo eats a prepared dish he bought and microwaved at the bodega next door before folding his now-clean clothes and placing them into a duffel bag. When he doesn’t have a couch to crash on, he sleeps on the street — “in alleys, wherever” — with Cosmo keeping watch while he dozes. Having a dog for a companion while living on the streets apparently is a good thing, or at least it’s highly practical.
All of us in this urban laundromat are poor folks; none of us look like we’ve got trust funds to tap into when times get lean. The good thing is that, as the cliche goes, being poor builds character. What I think that means is that when you’re forced to endure the hardships of economic drought, you’re less likely to do stupid things with your money once the gravy starts flowing again, and you’ll always have that memory of wanting, not to mention a heightened sensitivity toward others who currently are enduring the vicissitudes of misfortune.
That’s a gift that the Casey Johnsons of this world never will have. But that doesn’t make them any less human than you or I. So when I stated at the beginning that I wasn’t being ironic, I meant that. All of us suffer, in different ways. Everyone is born and then progresses toward death, and we arrive there after whatever journey toward that end we choose, or is chosen for us. People born with all the advantages to life, who always have cash at their disposal to throw at their problems, still grapple with the emptiness of existence, and still experience pain for which money is no anodyne.
And while it’s easy to tut-tut the death of someone so privileged who floundered on the dock of life like a fish out of water, it’s probably a little harder to muster compassion for struggles that some of us find laughable. But that’s the appropriate thing to do; wealthy, entitled people have beautiful and radiant inner Buddhas just like you or I do. Even Paris Hilton and Dick Cheney have Buddha natures.
Of course, you think I’m kidding. I’m not. —Jackson Griffith