In a cocoon of their making
On the evening of July 10, rising art star Jeremy Blake returned to his New York apartment, a converted rectory at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery that he shared with his girlfriend, Theresa Duncan. The couple, extremely devoted and still very much in love after 12 years, had eaten a late lunch together, and Blake invited the church’s assistant pastor over for a drink.
According to Father Frank Morales, Blake was the first to discover Duncan -- a blogger, screenwriter and video-game designer -- lying prone in the bedroom. “He was crying, visibly shattered,” said Morales, who entered the apartment five minutes behind Blake. “He was sobbing, kicking the walls, putting his head in his hands. But that night he got a grip fairly quickly.” A suicide note, a bottle of pills and alcohol were found near the body, police said.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Aug. 4, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Suicides: An article in Friday’s Calendar about the deaths of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan misspelled the last name of author George Pelecanos as Pelicanos.
Friends rushed to Blake’s side, including some from Los Angeles, where the couple had lived for several years, and the Washington area, where Blake was raised. “It was on the table: This guy’s an extreme suicide risk,” Morales said. “Six to 10 people took it in shifts looking after him. We had him blanketed.”
But after a week of supervision, Blake was “pulling at the leash,” Morales said, and returned to his day job as a graphic designer at the video game manufacturer Rockstar Games.
On July 17, a day before Duncan’s funeral outside Detroit, Blake took the subway heading for Brooklyn, where he was meeting a friend. A short while later, a woman phoned police when she observed the 6-foot-2 artist wander into the surf off New York’s Rockaway Beach, leaving behind his clothing, wallet and a short, hand-written suicide note. A fisherman discovered Blake’s body off the coast of New Jersey five days later.
The double suicide of this glamorous, well-connected and attractive couple has baffled and fixated branches of the Hollywood film community, the art world and the blogosphere. In the days since their deaths, a clearer picture has emerged of a couple bound very tightly but suspicious of outsiders and increasingly losing touch with reality. Though he was selling work at top art galleries, she had suffered a big disappointment when Paramount put a screenplay of hers into turnaround. And Blake and Duncan were sure people were conspiring against them -- in particular, the Church of Scientology.
In a 27-page “chronology” written by Blake in October in preparation for a lawsuit against the church that was never filed, he alleges the couple was “methodically defamed, harassed, followed and threatened” by Scientologists. The document lists Tom Cruise, filmmaker-artist-author Miranda July, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, former Viacom Chief Executive Tom Freston, alternative rocker Beck and Art Forum Editor Tim Griffin, among others, as players in the dispute. In addition, a number of Hollywood talent agents and major league art collectors were accused of being in on the conspiracy.
In many ways, the chronology serves as a portrait of growing paranoia: It begins with struggles over making a film and ends up with mentions of implied threats to the couple’s dog and sightings of “Scientology related satanic graffiti” near their Venice, Calif., home.
But also the papers flesh out a picture of Blake, 35, and Duncan, 40, as an Information Age “It” couple with an all-access pass to the hippest quadrants of popular culture -- but who failed to find their bliss in Hollywood.
Possessed of movie star good looks, remembered as “alarmingly brilliant” and at times jealously protective of each other, the couple has been posthumously dubbed “Theremy” by Artnet.com.
“They were like two parts of the same person -- very, very bonded,” said New York-based writer Glenn O’Brien, who vacationed with the couple at his country house days before Duncan’s death. “They were both extremely bright and knowledgeable. You could talk to them about the history of electricity or politics. Both were really scholarly in a pop sense.”
‘Never spent a night apart’
“They were a dynamic force, and I’m sure their brilliance circulated between them symbiotically,” said Jonathan Binstock, former curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where an exhibit of Blake’s final works will be mounted in October. “She told me once they had basically never spent a night apart in their relationship.”
Duncan is most frequently identified with her blog the Wit of the Staircase (from the French phrase “esprit d’escalier” -- the perfect witty response one thinks up after the conversation is over), which showcased her far-ranging cultural obsessions, including supermodel Kate Moss and discontinued perfumes. It became widely bookmarked among literary-minded Angelenos. She was also a freelance essayist, screenwriter and CD-ROM game designer whose titles -- Chop Suey, Smarty and Zero Zero -- attracted a cult following among girls.
Duncan and Blake fell in love when he began creating art for her discs. An animated mockumentary they collaborated on with artist Karen Kilimnik, “The History of Glamour,” was accepted into the prestigious 2000 Whitney Biennial. And in Hollywood, some agents and producers referred to Duncan, attempting to mount her first feature film, “Alice Underground,” as “the female Michel Gondry” for her intricate visual style.
“It’s disappointing the film didn’t happen,” said producer Anthony Bregman, who tried to get Duncan’s movie made, “because it would have revealed the real depth of her talent.”
Blake was a pioneering art star whose lush digital paintings blurred boundaries between animation, film and computer art. His work is in the permanent collections of museums including Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was in three Whitney Biennials.
The artist created a hallucinogenic dream sequence for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 romantic comedy “Punch-Drunk Love” and collaborated with Nashville poet-rocker Dave Berman of the band Silver Jews on a 2005 film, “Sodium Fox.” Binstock recalls the artist as a “visionary” whose art connected digital media to painterly tradition. “You could experience a video as you would a painting. It’s poetic, abstract, very rich work,” he said.
But several former friends and colleagues also describe a darker side of Blake and Duncan.
Bradford Schlei, head of production for Muse Productions, optioned the rights to George Pelicanos’ “Nick’s Trip” that was to have been Blake’s feature film directing debut. The project stalled just before a deal with Paramount Vantage was being negotiated, however, when Blake accused Schlei’s then girlfriend and the project’s screenwriter of being Scientologists. (Schlei says neither he nor the other two are affiliated with the church.)
“It was complete and utter craziness,” Schlei said. “Theresa sent around e-mails, delusional things. They’d say, ‘You’re a Scientologist, your girlfriend’s a Scientologist, we don’t want to be involved with you.’
“The thing that ended our relationship was when Jeremy said [my girlfriend] was trying to ruin Theresa’s reputation. None of this ever had to do with Jeremy. It was always about Theresa and her film career.” Several other sources confirmed Schlei’s account, recalling that Duncan’s e-mails grew wilder toward the end of her life.
“There was a paranoia thing going on there,” he continued. “If you sat with them for a while, drinking the massive Manhattans they were always drinking, and smoking Shermans, it always got came back to Anna Gaskell.”
On her blog in May, Duncan wrote a rambling 17-paragraph entry that accuses Blake’s ex-girlfriend, the art photographer Anna Gaskell, and her family of conducting a “smear campaign” against the couple while also supporting an ultraconservative political effort. In the legal document, Blake suspects Gaskell and her family of colluding with Scientologists, bikers and ex-CIA operatives as part of a “covert harassment campaign” against the couple.
Gaskell said she had not seen Blake in 12 years and never met Duncan. “Jeremy was an incredibly loyal friend. It’s a sad situation,” Gaskell said. “My family isn’t part of any right-wing conspiracy. My brother’s a Democrat.”
Despite being aligned with a who’s who of creative pacesetters and enjoying prestige in their respective fields, Duncan and Blake tried and failed to get separate movie projects into production in 2005 and 2006, then left Los Angeles.
The chronology presents a revealing glimpse of their last five years together: attending rock star birthday parties and taking power meetings with movie executives, hobnobbing with boldfaced names, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi and Emily Watson, while living in a state of semi-constant dread -- even if, as friends say, the couple’s apprehension about being victimized was not reason enough for them to commit suicide.
Singer-songwriter Beck, a practicing Scientologist for whom Blake designed an album cover in 2002, is singled out in the legal document as the person responsible for bringing the couple into conflict with the church. Made aware of how he is characterized, Beck recalled a productive but brief working relationship that was amicable. “I hadn’t heard from him in years, so the news of his suicide was heartbreaking,” Beck said in an e-mail. “The controversy surrounding it was completely out of left field for me.”
Duncan’s efforts to make “Alice Underground,” a screenplay she wrote about two girls who accidentally kidnap a rock star, that she hoped to direct as her debut feature, lay at the heart of the perceived Scientology conspiracy.
In 2001, Duncan began developing the project with Fox Searchlight, but it never got off the ground. In 2005, “Alice” was brought by producers Anne Carey and Anthony Bregman to Paramount, where they hoped the project would be greenlighted by its Nickelodeon Films division.
Several sources say Duncan prepared scrapbooks filled with visual cues for the film -- Kate Moss, to name one, was the basis for the movie’s lead role -- and met with Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Federline, among others, to cast it. The script received serious consideration at a table reading on the studio lot in February 2006.
Ultimately, “Alice” never went into production because the studio and the producers could not agree on a budget and executives remained unconvinced of the film’s appeal to its target audience, preteen girls. “We couldn’t make the budget work,” said Bregman. “It was a very complicated film visually, a very ambitious film for a first-time director. That’s why it didn’t happen.”
In the chronology, Tom Cruise is accused of having used his clout at Paramount, where his production company was then based, to personally derail “Alice” because it offended “his profound loyalty to Scientology.” Several sources close to the project said the allegation is baseless. Cruise’s spokeswoman said: “The Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan suicides were a terrible tragedy. However, Tom did not know them and had absolutely no connection to their project or Paramount’s disposition of it.”
An agent at United Talent Agency is named as the “main villain in ruining the film’s progress” at Paramount. A spokesman for UTA said, “We spent considerable time and energy trying to get the film financed. We are saddened by this tragedy.”
Also in the chronology, Miranda July is accused of spreading unspecified defamation about Duncan in New York and is identified as a “Scientologist filmmaker” even though she is not affiliated with the church. July declined to comment. And a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, Karin Pouw, called the conspiracy allegations “bizarre.”
Around this time, friends and associates recall receiving accusatory group e-mails from Duncan. In one of them, she denied a rumor of having had an affair with a famous artist -- a rumor no one contacted seemed to have heard about, let alone believe.
In the spring of 2006, according to the chronology, Blake and Duncan began documenting cars with Florida license plates and graffiti (some allegedly resembling Duncan’s signature) in their neighborhood as more evidence of the conspiracy. Around this time, Blake tossed urine onto the barbecue of neighbors who the couple suspected were Scientologists. He and Duncan were living in an office complex adjacent to Muse Productions’ Venice offices after having been evicted from their apartment when Schlei encountered Blake shortly before the couple moved to New York in early 2007.
“He got a job at Rockstar,” Schlei said. “He said, ‘I like New York better. It’s going to be awesome. I’m going into a new phase.’ ”
After the couple moved into the church apartment, Father Morales recalls them rapidly integrating into the church community. The two attended service every Sunday, a new thing for them, and kept a Bible on their coffee table. On July 3, Duncan helped orchestrate a benefit for restoration of the church.
Asked if he thought Blake and Duncan were running away from something, Morales said: “They felt they were being harassed by certain individuals. I have no way of knowing if it’s true. I’d say, ‘You’re here now. We’ll protect you.’ I did sense they felt this was a sanctuary for them. They felt they had gotten away.”
Schlei, who had tried to persuade Blake to direct a film for him even after the artist accused him of being in on the conspiracy, has a theory about what compelled them to take their lives.
“I think Theresa, in one of her rare moments of self-reflection, recognized she had burned all of these bridges in Jeremy’s career with the paranoia,” Schlei said. “Jeremy was her creation. And she was killing the thing she created, this great, terrific artist. She realized what she had done. To let him live, she had to go. But in a symbiotic relationship, one couldn’t last without the other.”
Schlei also pointed out that one of Blake’s favorite movies was Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” in which a character played by Sterling Hayden takes his own life by walking into the sea.
“Life imitates art,” Schlei said.