Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of trailblazing memoir ‘Prozac Nation,’ dies at 52
Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the groundbreaking memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America,” which sparked unprecedented dialogue about clinical depression and addiction, died in Manhattan on Tuesday at age 52.
The official cause of death was leptomeningeal disease resulting from a breast cancer metastasis, her husband, Jim Freed, told The Times.
Wurtzel was 27 when “Prozac Nation” was published and she went on to inspire others with her candid accounts of depression and drug addiction as documented in her influential memoirs. Similar stories from other writers liberated by her work soon followed.
The Times compared 1994’s “Prozac Nation” to Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted,” in that it “chronicles a beautiful, intelligent young woman’s breakdown, suicide attempt and subsequent treatment for depression.” Her book was eventually adapted into a 2001 film of the same name starring Christina Ricci.
“Prozac Nation” focuses on Wurtzel’s years as an undergraduate student at Harvard College, where she began taking Prozac while suffering from depression. Throughout the book, she recounts instances of casual sex and substance abuse. At the time, the antidepressant had only recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Despite, or because of, her fierce battles with depression, which were accompanied by frequent threats and promises of suicide, there was no one better to share something fun with than Lizzie — to see a movie with, to read the newspaper on Sunday morning, eat a tuna melt in a diner with, or listen to an old Velvet Underground or Bob Dylan record with at 3 a.m. in the morning,” David Samuels, a longtime friend and fellow writer, wrote in a statement to The Times. “She knew how precious it was to be able to feel anything at all, and she shared her pain and amazement at the world in ways that continue to resonate with people the same way that great music does.”
Wurtzel followed up “Prozac Nation” with more bestselling works, including “More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction,” which chronicled her experiences with drug abuse and rehab, and “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women,” a feminist essay collection saluting the contributions of prominent female figures such as Hillary Clinton, Margaux Hemingway and Nicole Brown Simpson.
While Wurtzel garnered acclaim for her fearless and self-aware approach to writing — especially in response to her debut — she also attracted harsh critics, who dismissed her testimonials as whiny and narcissistic.
“While she can go line for line with any writer in any business, what marks her as a lasting creative force is that she invented her own genre — the memoir of the 27-year-old girl who captivates and annoys everyone,” Samuels wrote in his statement. “She was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s bastard daughter by way of Rickie Lee Jones.”
Heralded by many as a flag-bearer of her generation, Wurtzel also lent her talents, stories and unapologetic opinions to a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker and New York magazine. In her 2008 op-ed for The Times, titled “Bitter ashes of burned bras,” Wurtzel offered scathing commentary on sexism in America and reflected on pop-cultural events ranging from Hillary Clinton’s presidential run to the 2004 TV drama “Entourage.”
“Walk onto the trading floor of any of the hedge funds that crowd the Lever House building in Manhattan and hardly a female face will be seen who is not a secretary or an assistant. Enter the software shops of Silicon Valley, go to the rows of terminals where geeky computer programmers design cleverly crafted new media,” she wrote.
“They are mostly smart boys, playing with their toys. Everything that keeps our economy running is run by men. Yes, of course there are women around — no one needs to remind me that Meg Whitman was the powerhouse behind EBay — but these are still treehouse atmospheres, boys’ clubs.”
As with all demons in her life, Wurtzel was unflinchingly open about her fight with breast cancer, discussing her fears and regrets in a raw 2015 essay for the New York Times, which detailed her treatment process, as well as her discovery that she carried the BRCA mutation. The BRCA mutation increases the risk of breast cancer in young women.
Wurtzel met her husband, author of “The Illiterate,” at a reading in Chelsea in 2013 and married him in 2015.
“She’s a mesmerizing person,” Freed told The Times Tuesday. “There was her extreme extrovert personality, her combative conversation style. She was a rock star.”
The two amicably separated a year ago but still frequently communicated. Freed helped take care of Alistair, Wurtzel’s beloved service dog who accompanied her to oncology appointments in Philadelphia.
“That was typical of her,” Freed said of her long-distance oncologist. “She didn’t find the best doctor in New York, according to her, so she went to Philadelphia. When she had her eye on something, there was no stopping her. She was relentless.”
Her latest writing, according to Freed, was a continuation of the 2018 essay she wrote for the Cut, on discovering that her real father was allegedly Bob Adelman, the renowned civil-rights photographer. Her mother had kept the affair secret from her daughter and only confirmed it to her after Adelman’s death. The two met at Random House in the 1960s while working on a teen weekly.
About Donald Wurtzel, the father she was raised with and estranged from for several years before his death in 2014, Wurtzel wrote in the Cut, “I have been working out that relationship all of my life, in writing and therapy and conversation, with cocaine and heroin, with recovery and perseverance, and with my thoughts. I think so much. I can’t stop thinking. It’s all exposed. I don’t have a subconscious. You can’t surprise me. But this surprised me. I have been working out the wrong problem.”
Upon news of her death, several of Wurtzel’s friends and admirers took to social media to pen tributes, including journalist and “Catch and Kill” author Ronan Farrow, who met Wurtzel while studying law with her at Yale.
“She started mid-career as I was starting young,” he wrote on Twitter. “We were both misfits and she was kind and generous and filled spaces that might have otherwise been lonely with her warmth and humor and idiosyncratic voice. She gave a lot to a lot of us. I miss her.”
Another of Wurtzel’s contemporaries, Amy Friedman, saluted her as well, recalling some of the last words her friend spoke to her.
“[Wurtzel] was one of my closest and dearest friends,” Friedman tweeted. “She fought this disease until the very end. Just 10 days ago she told me, ‘all there is to do is to move forward.’ A beautiful soul. May her memory be a blessing.”
Wurtzel received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College before studying law at Yale. She was born July 31, 1967, in New York City and is survived by Freed and her mother, Lynne Ellen Winters. A private funeral for friends and family is being held Wednesday. Her family is sitting shiva.
Freed said a public memorial for Wurtzel is in the works so that anyone who wants to can speak about her. “That’s how Elizabeth lived her life — in the spotlight,” he said.
He also added that Wurtzel was inspired by the #MeToo movement — in which her friend Farrow has been a key figure — and “was elated that the time of reckoning had come.” According to Freed, she met a few weeks ago with journalist E. Jean Carroll, who recently added her voice to the movement by accusing President Trump of rape.
“It cannot be the case that we went through all that bra-burning and consciousness-raising to be left choosing between, yet again, the madonna or the whore,” Wurtzel wrote on feminism in 2008. “Balance is difficult. But we can do it; we’re women. Like Ginger Rogers, we’ve been doing everything that men do, only backward and in high heels, for a very long time.”
Former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton’s tell-all book “Ball Four,” which detailed Mickey Mantle’s carousing and the use of stimulants in the major leagues, shocked and angered the baseball world. The right-hander was an All-Star in 1963, going 21-8 with six shutouts, but he finished his 10-year career with a 62-63 record and 3.57 ERA. He was 80.(AP)
Billionaire Ross Perot blazed across America in the 1990s as a third-party presidential candidate and won nearly 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 election, finishing third behind Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican President George H.W. Bush. The diminutive Texan was an early tech entrepreneur who founded Electronic Data Systems, a computer services company, in 1962 with $1,000 in savings. He was 89.(Peter Muhly / AFP/Getty Images)
Lee A. Iacocca’s swaggering persona dominated the automobile industry like nobody since Henry Ford. The salesman extraordinaire had a spectacular career, punctuated by his role as father of the wildly popular Ford Mustang in 1964, his epic 1978 firing at the hands of Henry Ford II and his dramatic rescue of Chrysler in the early 1980s. He was 94.(Associated Press)
Pitcher Tyler Skaggs grew up an Angels fan in Santa Monica and joined the organization as a first-round draft pick. He battled injuries throughout his career but started 24 games last season and showed signs of dominance this year. He was 27.(Charlie Riedel / AP)
Judith Krantz wrote blockbuster romance novels including “Scruples” and “Princess Daisy” that sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Her books have been translated into more than 50 languages, and seven have been adapted as TV miniseries, with her late husband, Steve Krantz, serving as executive producer for most. She was 91.(Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images)
Gloria Vanderbilt transcended her famously disjointed childhood and later upheavals to become an actress, artist, author and fashion and merchandising icon. The “poor little rich girl,” as newspapers tagged the heiress, ultimately created a fortune that exceeded the immense one left by her great-great-grandfather, 19th-century shipping and railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. She was 95.
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was best-known for his films, including the 1968 critical and box office hit “Romeo and Juliet” and a 1990 “Hamlet” with Mel Gibson. His massive opera productions included a version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” that became the most-often presented production in the Metropolitan Opera’s history. He was 96.(Paolo Cocco / AFP/Getty Images)
Danish-born socialite Claus von Bulow, left, shown with attorney Alan Dershowitz in April 1985, was convicted in 1982 and then acquitted three years later on two counts of attempting to murder his American heiress wife, Sunny, with injections of insulin. The high-profile case has been called one of the most sensational courtroom dramas in modern U.S. history. He was 92.(Charles Krupa / AP)
Bill Buckner’s 22-year Major League Baseball career started with the Dodgers and included seasons with the Cubs and Red Sox. He had more than 2,700 career hits and won the National League batting title in 1980, but he was best known for an error in the 1986 World Series that allowed the Mets to win Game 6 and extend Boston’s championship drought. He was 69.(AP)
Herman Wouk explored the moral fallout of World War II in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny” (1951) and other widely read books. Determined to produce a “great war book,” Wouk wrote “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance,” in the 1970s, and the two sweeping novels became the basis for a pair of television miniseries. He was 103.(Douglas L Benc Jr / AP)
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Tim Conway came to prominence on television as a bumbling ensign in “McHale’s Navy” opposite Ernest Borgnine from 1962 to 1966, then became a regular on “The Carol Burnett Show,” where he famously developed a knack for making costar Harvey Korman crack up. He also starred in the “Apple Dumpling Gang” movies in the 1970s and gained fame with a new generation as the voice of Barnacle Boy on “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He was 85.(George Brich / AP)
Doris Day was a big-band singer who became a Hollywood star in such lighthearted movies as “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “Lover Come Back” (1961), two of the three films she made with Rock Hudson. From 1948 to 1968, Day appeared in 39 films, but in the early 1970s she walked away from Hollywood and spent most of her time in Carmel, where she was an animal rights activist. She was 97.(AP)
Actress Peggy Lipton rose to stardom in the late 1960s on the counterculture police series “The Mod Squad” and later starred on TV’s “Twin Peaks.” Over five seasons, “Mod Squad” earned Lipton four Emmy nominations and a 1971 Golden Globe award for best actress in a TV drama. The wife of music producer Quincy Jones and mother of Kidada and Rashida Jones, Lipton was 72.(ABC)
Peter Mayhew played the Wookiee warrior Chewbacca in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Standing at 7 feet 3, the British actor brought the character to life physically, whether battling Stormtroopers alongside Han Solo or playing chess against R2-D2. He was 74.(AP)
John Singleton’s 1991 debut, “Boyz n the Hood,” was an inner-city coming-of-age story that earned two Oscar nominations and put the young filmmaker in the company of emerging black moviemakers such as Spike Lee and Mario Van Peebles. Singleton went on to direct “Poetic Justice” (1993), “Higher Learning” (1995) and “Baby Boy” (2001), which featured Taraji P. Henson at the start of her career. He was 51.(Christopher Polk / AFP/Getty Images)
John Havlicek, shown above dribbling against Bill Bradley of the New York Knicks, was the all-time leading scorer in Boston Celtics history. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984, Havlicek played all 16 of his professional seasons in Boston from 1962-1978, winning NBA titles in each of his eight Finals appearances, including five over the Lakers. He was 79.
Charles Van Doren was one of the first intellectual stars of the television era as a contestant on the NBC show “Twenty One,” but quickly became the country’s leading villain after admitting that his winning streak had been rigged. After he and nine other game show contestants pleaded guilty to perjury and were given suspended sentences, Van Doren slipped into obscurity and became an editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was 93.(Hulton Archive / TNS)
Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle was gunned down outside his Marathon Clothing store in the same South L.A. neighborhood where he was known as much for his civic work as he was for his hip-hop music. He was 33.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Warner Music)
Luke Perry played bad-boy heartthrob Dylan McKay in the 1990s TV drama “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The series put the affluent ZIP Code on the map as it became a pop-cultural phenomenon with Perry as the disaffected, ever-mysterious love interest of the romantic leads. He was 52.
Sidney Sheinberg, right, with Steven Spielberg and Lea Adler, Spielberg’s mother, at a 1994 Beverly Hilton gala.
(Shepler, Lori / Los Angeles Times)
Jan-Michael Vincent was a golden boy of 1970s Hollywood action films and went on to star in the mid-1980s TV adventure series “Airwolf.” But his erratic behavior and cocaine consumption was a major reason “Airwolf” was canceled. He was 74 by most accounts, but the death certificate listed him as 73.(Alex Garcia / Los Angeles Times)
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André Previn conquered L.A. with his artistic genius twice: first as an Academy Award winning composer of Hollywood movie music, then as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A conductor and pianist who toggled between classical, pop and jazz, Previn won Oscars for “My Fair Lady” (1964), “Irma la Douce” (1963), “Gigi” (1958) and “Porgy and Bess” (1959). He was 89.(Patrick Downs/ Los Angeles Times)
Guitarist Peter Tork, far right, became an overnight star in 1966 as one of the Monkees. Critics derided the made-for-television rock band as the “Prefab Four,” but their slapstick NBC comedy series helped make them a phenomenon and foreshadowed the craze for music television that emerged in the early 1980s. He was 77.(Michael Ochs Archives)
Dodgers right-hander Don Newcombe was the first outstanding African American pitcher in the major leagues and in 1949 became the first to start a World Series game. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound hurler was also the first player in major league history to have won the rookie of the year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. He was 92.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Michigan Democrat John Dingell Jr. used his considerable power in the House of Representatives to uncover government fraud and defend the interests of the automobile industry. Known as “Big John” and “The Truck” for his forceful nature and 6-foot-3-inch frame, Dingell was the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. He was 92.(Win McNamee / Getty Images)
Albert Finney starred in films as diverse as “Tom Jones,” “Annie” and “Skyfall.” One of the most versatile actors of his generation, he played an array of roles, including Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, a southern American lawyer and an Irish gangster. He was 82.(Graham Barclay / For The Times)
Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson was the only major leaguer to be named most valuable player in both the National and American leagues. One of baseball’s most feared sluggers, he became the first African American to manage in the big leagues in 1975, when he filled that position for the Cleveland Indians. He was 83.(Richard Stacks / TNS)
Michelle King was the first African American woman to lead Los Angeles Unified School District. Her major accomplishment was pushing the graduation rate to record levels by allowing students to quickly make up credits for failed classes. She was 57.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Grammy-winning singer and songwriter James Ingram topped the charts in the ‘80s with hits like “Baby, Come to Me” and “Somewhere Out There.” He also co-wrote the Michael Jackson hit “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” He was 66.(Stefano Paltera / AP)
Emmy Award-winning writer Bob Einstein was best known as stuntman Super Dave Osborne, whose feats always went wrong. The comedy veteran got his start writing for 1970s variety shows such as “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and he later played Larry David’s devout friend Marty Funkhouser on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He was 76.(Archive Photos / Getty Images)
Carol Channing was a Broadway star best known for her enduring portrayal of the title character in the musical “Hello, Dolly!” A winner of three Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, she appeared in the play at least 5,000 times. She was 97.(Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images / Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Mary Oliver, one of the country’s most popular poets, focused on spirituality, nature and New England. Her poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and the National Book Award in 1992. She was 83.(Josh Reynolds / For the Times)
Herb Kelleher built Southwest Airlines into the biggest discount carrier and set the standard for budget air travel for more than three decades. He and co-founder Rollin King used a formula of short, no-frills trips that spawned dozens of imitators. He was 87.(Ed Betz / AP)
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