Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Haunted Heart

Haunted Heart: a Biography of Susannah McCorkle
By Linda Dahl
University of Michigan Press

Like British jazzman Ian Carr, Susannah McCorkle was a jazz (or jazz-influenced) artist who struggled with depression. While Carr has emerged from “out of the long dark,” McCorkle would ultimately succumb to her “black, black blues.” (p. 256) In Haunted Heart, Linda Dahl describes the tragic arc of McCorkle’s life and the music she was inspired to create.

Nobody can truly know the inner turmoil that led McCorkle to plunge to her death in 2001 but biographer Dahl documents a painful family history that clearly caused a lifetime of anguish for the vocalist. Her father and older sister, as portrayed by Dahl, arguably should have been institutionalized. Her mother Mimi was distant, overly critical, and competitive with the young Susie McCorkle. Dahl relates a childhood incident of Mimi’s mothering:

“She [Susannah] wished she could be far, far away. She was already in the habit of taking money from her mother’s purse to buy clothes; next, she began to stare at her jewelry, calculating its worth for her getaway. She was chilled, she added, when one afternoon her mother turned around, witch-like, and told her, ‘They wouldn’t get you far.’” (p. 23)

Sadly, McCorkle was poorly served by the psychiatric community late in her life, when she most needed help. However, she received a brutally accurate diagnosis from a Berkley counselor while in college: “Your family is a burning building. Get out.” (p. 36)

She did get out, living abroad for years, thanks to the financial support of her guilty parents. McCorkle had planned to pursue a career as writer, but she made a life changing discovery in Italy: recordings by Billie Holiday. As Dahl writes:

“By temperament, Susanna [as she then spelled it] was an introvert. As a writer, she was drawn to the compressed form of the short story, densely atmospheric, moody pieces. In Billie Holiday’s singing—and in the material she sang—Susanna sensed a powerful new kind of storytelling, what writer Will Friedwald describes as the ‘art of the miniscule.” (p. 67)

Although her inspiration was Holiday, stylistically she straddled jazz and cabaret, and the venue she would be most associated with would be the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room, the crown jewel of the cabaret world. Although McCorkle would have admirers from both camps, her in-between position may have contributed to her sense of isolation.

Reading Haunted Heart is like watching a runaway train speeding towards a certain derailment. Despite her successes, her family and what Dahl describes as McCorkle’s bipolar disorder, would pull her down time and again. The reoccurring references to self-defenestration can make one wince, as when McCorkle appeared on the great Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. Dahl writes:

“Susannah complimented McPartland on her playing. ‘You really brought out the sadness in the song,’ she told her. McPartland returned the compliment, then laughingly added, eerily in retrospect, ‘As long as nobody throws herself out of a window!’” (p. 246)

McCorkle would do exactly that the following year. Haunted Heart is an insightful book, but it can be a tough read (though compulsively readable). McCorkle was talented and tormented, as Dahl describes in at times painful detail. McCorkle comes across as someone understandably flawed. Given the history of abuse and depression Dahl compiles, one can never judge her too harshly.

When someone like McCorkle commits suicide there are always questions, and a need for closure. Haunted Heart is a compelling portrait of an artist who was defeated by inner demons that may supply some of those answers, delving deeper into the psyche of its subject than Shipton’s biography of Ian Carr. One suspects however, that McCorkle would have wished to retain more mystery. Though McCorkle wore many masks in her life, she revealed much of her pain through her singing. Whether she was jazz or cabaret, her loss was a music tragedy.