If Only They Knew...


I, like so many, am reeling from the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

I am struck by the tremendous impact that Kate Spade had on people everywhere. It is even more extraordinary knowing that she wasn’t overly present for the past decade, which speaks volumes for the emotional connection to the brand and what she stood for. Wendy Liebmann, chief executive of the WSJ Strategic Retail Consultancy, talked about the significance of her appeal after a decade of not having a role in the business, “She had such resonance that, even though she wasn’t overly present, she gave customers an emotional-connection to the business, sustained it through the memory of what she stood for.” Spade was also one of only a few prominent women to lead her own line in the male-dominated fashion industry. If she only knew how much she was adored, admired, appreciated, cherished and revered.

Many have shared their personal experiences with this iconic brand and the face behind it. It was profoundly meaningful for women to be able to call this bag their own. They could relate to the colorful, cheerful, often quirky style her bags evoked; they were personable, reasonable and not too serious or pretentious. They were “relatable”; a bag became more than a bag. It became a symbol of a memorable moment in life that has been recounted with such significance and fondness by women worldwide. When you read these intensely touching stories you feel the connection consumers had with Kate Spade – saving every penny to splurge on a bag, remembering the wallet on her 13th birthday, the cocktail bag that was her first taste of glamour.  That these purchases are still in their possession and carry the memories and significance of making them feel special, feminine, mature, sophisticated is a testimony to who Kate Spade was and the influence she had. A first experience of owning one of her bags “marked a right of passage, or celebrated some achievement.”

“For many other brands, it was like a dream, [like] you were buying into some fantasy you were never going to live,” said Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer of branding agency Landor. “She wasn’t a fantasy. She was real, and you could relate to her. She was like that big, successful, older sister or your cool young aunt.” The personal connection women feel for her that has been detailed in these stories is remarkable.

That same personal connection was recounted last night on a very moving CNN special on the life of Anthony Bourdain. It was extraordinary to watch and learn about the vast number of people he touched, the many dimensions of this fascinating person and the impact he had on so many. 

He was beloved, a bravado with fowl language; artfully used, enormously sensitive which made him one of the great storytellers of all time. A cultural ambassador who understood other cultures as just human beings through food, which became a much larger mission. I loved his voice, his looks, demeanor, his brashness, his passion and curiosity. He had a charismatic personality and the tattoos confirmed, in my mind, a fearless nature combined with sexiness and strength. If he only knew how much he was valued, revered, emulated, loved and adored.

There are countless lessons, on many levels, in this moving CNN special for all of us. He was so much more than a television celebrity narrating a food show. Yes, the food brought them together but it was his ability to connect with anyone and everyone regardless of status, position, or race.  He had a voracious curiosity and made the interviews and shows more about the people, interactions, and experience. He made everyone feel as if they were a close friend and yet, it was said, he did not have really any intimate friends. Which makes this loss even more devastating because he was so honest in who he was – smart, irreverent, curious, passionate, living every minute of life. A masterful storyteller weaving together tales on cuisines and culture and the connections between them made you want to be there with him. His incomprehensible death and all of the others lost is baffling and disturbing that they were so tortured and no one knew this was happening. If you watch the special, note the friend that spent the day with him in Lyon. For it was pig, Beaujolais, more pig, more Beaujolais, repeat, repeat - this went on for 9 hours! They lived life at the table and it was gleeful, amazing and weird. 

It is profoundly disturbing that someone who was so beloved, who had such a pulse on the world, felt he could not go on living. Hearing a friend describe being with him was like “breathing rarefied air” was extraordinary. Depression isn’t discriminating. 

It does not define how much money you have, how smart you are, how fast you can run. There is no shame in admitting the struggles you are experiencing. It is crucial we recognize the monster that it is, recognize the signs and let loved ones know they will not be judged, criticized, scorned, abandoned.

I had a personal experience of this sort, which thankfully did not end up in tragedy. Someone I dearly loved wanted to take their life and fortunately a voice was brought to the surface. I was able to get confirmation on a decision I made to do an intervention, by myself, from a family member in rapid speed, which allowed for an emotional and physical commitment in less than 24 hours. This loved one recognized the need for help and was grateful, I believe, for the swift action of love and attention. It was only later driving home that I realized when talking to the family member, listening to the overwhelming emotion for the gratitude in the positive outcome, the toll this took on me in doing this alone and the magnitude of what could have been. I will be forever grateful that we recognized the cry for help that saved a precious life.

I hope we continue to bring attention to the desperate need to focus on mental health. There has been a stubborn rise in the national suicide rate since 1999. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US – this has to change. Suicide is a plague that has been long ignored. I am grateful there is attention and focus on talking about the need to help others and address the signs, to be a friend, not a critic. The fact that these people were cloaked in sadness and we did not know is so heartbreaking. Pain throbs through all of these stories. There is a tragic intensity in which these souls live their lives. Let us recognize the signs and let them know they can get help.

My desire is that we convey a hopeful promise for those in darkness that they can emerge stronger, happier, more loved than they ever imagined. The curative power of love, listening, connection, and being present is strong, enduring and transformative.

If only he knew...Jim Norton said of Robin Williams:

There is simply no way Robin could have understood the way the rest of us saw him. And there is simply no way he could have understood how much respect and adoration other performers had for him.

At least I hope he couldn’t have understood.

Because it’s too sad to think that maybe he did understand, and it just wasn’t enough anymore.

It was said of Anthony Bourdain, if you wanted to be his friend, you had to be you. I believe that is what we need to be for each other -- ourselves.

If you are in need of help, or know someone who is, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help. 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.