DMV Redux: An Expanded List of Writers Who Met Death By Motor Vehicle

August 2, 2011 | 5 books mentioned 7 5 min read

When we posted our “List of Writers Who Met Death By Motor Vehicle” here recently, we acknowledged that the list was most likely far from exhaustive. Readers proved us right. Today, thanks to reader comments, we expand our tribute to writers who left us too soon:

coverItalo Svevo (1861-1928) – Aron Ettore Schmitz was born in Trieste when it was still part of Austro-Hungary. In 1907 Schmitz, who wrote in Italian, hired an English tutor who had come to Trieste to work for Berlitz. Sixteen years later, in 1923, writing under the pen name Italo Svevo, Schmitz published his third novel, Confessions of Zeno. It was met with the identical reception of its two predecessors: stupefying silence.

It was then that Schmitz/Svevo’s English tutor from years before, one James Joyce, began championing the novel and got it translated and published in France. Confessions of Zeno, which purports to be the journal of a man undergoing psychoanalysis, was hailed in France as a masterpiece, and Italian critics soon took notice. James Wood recently called the novel “the great comic document of modern stasis and neurotic introspection.”

coverSvevo, who was notoriously absent-minded, was hit by a car while crossing a street in Motta di Livenza, Italy, and he died a few days later, on Sept. 13, 1928 at the age of 66. At the time he was working on Further Confessions of Zeno, a sequel to his most famous novel. On his death bed he told his daughter Letizia, “Don’t cry. Dying is nothing.”

coverHorace Kephart (1862-1931) – Horace Kephart is best known as the author of Our Southern Highlanders, a non-fiction book about the people of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. Kephart also worked as a librarian, wrote books extolling the virtues of the outdoors, pushed for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and even finished writing a novel two years before his death. It wasn’t until 2009, 80 years after it was finished, that Smoky Mountain Magic was finally published.

On the night of April 2, 1931, Kephart, who fought a life-long battle with alcoholism and mental illness, hired a taxi to take him and the visiting Georgia writer Fiswoode Tarleton to a moonshiner’s still. On the way back to Bryson City, N.C., the driver lost control of the car and crashed. Kephart was thrown 40 feet from the wreck and died instantly, as did Tarleton. The New York Times obituary declared that the writers had gone on a “moonlight sightseeing ride.”

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) – Frank O’Hara, a charter member of the New York School, was known for his breezy, intimate, seemingly tossed-off poetry. O’Hara was also an accomplished pianist, art critic and curator who counted among his many friends such celebrated artists as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Joan Mitchell.

Here’s O’Hara on the New York School’s ebullient embrace of the absurd: “There was a great respect for anyone who did anything marvelous; when Larry (Rivers) introduced me to de Kooning, I almost got sick, as I almost did when I met Auden; if Jackson Pollock tore the door off the men’s room at the Cedar it was something he just did and was interesting, not an annoyance. You couldn’t see into it anyway, and besides there was then a sense of genius.”

Early on the morning of July 24, 1966, O’Hara was struck by a dune buggy on a beach on Fire Island, where motor vehicles are prohibited. He died the next day of a ruptured liver at the age of 40. His biographer, Brad Gooch, has suggested that a fitter man might have survived the accident, but by then the hard-drinking, hard-living O’Hara was a burnt-out case. Once, during a game of “20 Questions,” O’Hara was asked, What do you fear most? He answered, “Living beyond 40.”

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) – When I was in college, semiotics was the rage and Roland Barthes was a big reason why. Everywhere I turned someone was talking about the signifier and the signified, the death of the author and the birth of the scriptor, slippage, the delusion of the knowable text.

coverA decade later, on Feb. 25, 1980, Barthes attended a lunch in Paris put on by Francois Mitterand, who was preparing to run for president and enjoyed the company of intellectuals. While walking across rue des Ecoles on his way home after the lunch, Barthes was struck by a laundry van. Though serious, his injuries were not considered life-threatening. In the hospital he complained to Michel Foucault about the “stupidity” of the accident. At the time Barthes had just published what he referred to as his “little book,” Camera Lucida, an essay in 48 fragments that was not the expected application of semiotic methods to intimate experience; it was, rather, about photography and love and grief, specifically the grief that followed his mother’s death in 1977.

After a month in the hospital, Barthes’s condition deteriorated and he died of “pulmonary complications” on March 25 at the age of 64. When he’d left for the lunch with Mitterand he was working on an essay on Stendahl entitled “One Always Fails to Speak of the Things One Loves.”

John Gardner (1933-1982) – John Gardner was a member of a breed that has all but ceased to exist in America, the man of letters. A silvery ventriloquist, he was equally at home writing novels, short stories, poetry, children’s books, a biography of Chaucer, criticism, translations, essays, and instructions for other writers. Gardner was also an inspiring teacher and a practicing alcoholic, and he wasn’t shy about saying what was on his mind.

He said Kurt Vonnegut’s novels “have the feel of first-class comic books.” He said Saul Bellow is “actually not a novelist at heart but an essayist disguised as a writer of fiction.” He said Thomas Pynchon is “full of winking and mugging despair.” Occasionally he did – almost – have some kind words for his contemporaries, such as: “Malamud is a great artist, an enormously serious writer, but he keeps blowing it in his novels.” To which Bernard Malamud replied, “Whenever Gardner hands you a cake, it’s loaded with worms.”

On the afternoon of Sept. 14, 1982, four days before he was to marry a former student named Susan Thornton, Gardner was driving his Harley-Davidson motorcycle on a rural Pennsylvania road when he lost control, went onto the dirt shoulder, and was thrown off the bike. He was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital at the age of 49. An autopsy revealed that his blood-alcohol level was slightly below the legal limit.

Seth Morgan (1949-1990) – Like Richard Farina, Seth Morgan died in a motorcycle accident shortly after the publication of his first and only novel, Homeboy. The son of a poet who was also heir to the Ivory soap fortune, Morgan had a privileged childhood that included listening in on his father’s conversations with such friends as e.e. cummings, Robert Lowell, and Dylan Thomas. There were demons in the house too. Morgan’s mother drank herself to death, and a brother committed suicide.

Morgan had lock-up-your-daughters good looks, a trust fund, and a wild streak. He dropped out of UC-Berkeley in 1970 and moved in with Janis Joplin shortly before she died of a heroin overdose. Morgan spiraled into heroin addiction, pimping and armed robbery, eventually serving 30 months in prison. Homeboy lays out the rococo San Francisco underworld of pimps, junkies, hookers, strippers, and drag queens that Morgan knew first-hand. A New York Times reviewer raved that Morgan wrote with “the picaresque authority of a Joycean Hell’s Angel.”

On Oct. 17, 1990, Morgan hopped on his motorcycle with Suzy Levine and proceeded to slam into a post on a bridge in New Orleans. Neither was wearing a helmet. Both died instantly. Their blood-alcohol levels were well over the legal limit, and Morgan also had cocaine and Percodan in his bloodstream. He was 41. A cop at the accident scene remarked that if Levine had been wearing a helmet she might have lived, and if Morgan had been wearing one he might have had an open casket.

Finally, a reader identified only as “AWS” wrote, “I believe Annie Oakley died in or after a car crash. Was she a writer? No, but I wish she had been.” We know how you feel, AWS. So many creative, fascinating people die in motor vehicle accidents without having written their stories. A few who come to mind are the cowboy movie star Tom Mix, the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, the great erotic fashion photographer Helmut Newton, and that prolific producer of potent psychedelics, Owsley Stanley. The stories they could have told! As for Annie Oakley, she was in a severe car crash in 1922, but she survived it, recuperated, and returned to performing. She died four years later, from pernicious anemia, at the age of 66.

Image credit: Unlisted Sightings/Flickr

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.