The Big Idea

Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous

The upper class has its problems, too.

There are diseases of poverty, such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. There are diseases of affluence, such as lung cancer, high blood pressure, and type-2 diabetes. And then there are the hazards of extreme affluence, such as being thrown off a polo pony, flipping your Cigarette boat, or succumbing to altitude sickness on a vanity expedition to the Himalayas.

This point was brought home this week with the presumed death by drowning of Philip Merrill, the mid-Atlantic press baron who owns Washingtonian magazine. The 72-year-old Merrill was sailing alone on his 41-foot boat, probably without a life jacket, when he fell into the Chesapeake Bay. I mean no disrespect to Merrill or his family when I say that the risk of meeting this sort of end goes into the small but poetic category of problems unique to the rich and famous. Members of the middle class do not have to worry about falling off $250,000 sailboats because they don’t have $250,000 sailboats to fall off of.

In fact, the rich are less likely to perish in expensive boating accidents than in expensive flying accidents. Travel by private plane and chartered helicopter may be the ultimate corporate perk, but it is much riskier than flying commercial, claiming in recent years figures in entertainment, politics, and business including the R&B singer Aaliyah, Sen. Paul Wellstone, and Wal-Mart heir John Walton. The accident that killed golfer Payne Stewart and four others in 1999 was particularly grisly: Their Learjet depressurized. After the occupants suffocated and froze, the plane coasted another 1,500 miles on autopilot before crashing into a field in South Dakota.

An even greater hazard for the wealthy and privileged is the urge to fly their own planes. This costly urge killed country singer John Denver, who died when he pressed the wrong pedal on an experimental Rutan Long-EZ. John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and wife’s sister died when the single-engine plane Kennedy was piloting plunged into waters off Martha’s Vineyard. Though the crash was apparently caused by spatial disorientation on the part of an inexperienced pilot, there was speculation that Kennedy might also have been impaired by a foot injury from an earlier paragliding accident. If true, that would make the tragedy doubly wealth-and-fame-related. Of course, the Kennedy family is in a risk category all its own. One wonders if the surviving members are insurable at all, given the family history of driving off bridges (Teddy), smashing into trees while playing football on skis (Michael), death by drugs (David, Christina Onassis), plane crashes (Joseph Jr., Kathleen, Alexander Onassis, and, very nearly, Teddy), and assassination (JFK and RFK). These are terrible fates, but ones that members of the struggling middle class do not have to worry much about.

If you survive paycheck-to-paycheck, you can also rest easy about dying while fleeing paparazzi (Princess Diana); at the hand of a servant jealous of your other servants (Edmund Safra); at the hand of the president of your fan club (Selena); at the hand of a lunatic stalker (John Lennon); at the hand of an impatient heir (the royal family of Nepal); from a face lift (Olivia Goldsmith); in your Porsche, while drag racing (basketball player Bobby Phills); in pursuit of a speed-boat record (Stefano Casiraghi, husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco); while diving off your yacht (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys); after fighting with Christopher Walken (Natalie Wood); while trying to buzz Ozzy Osbourne’s tour bus (Randy Rhoads); from injuries sustained in a cross-country riding event * (Christopher Reeve); in staged violence on a film set (Brandon Lee); as a former vice president, atop your mistress (Nelson Rockefeller); or of a disease that subsequently gets named after you (Lou Gehrig). Given the increasingly democratic nature of the game, middle-class people as well as corporate executives are occasionally struck dead by lightning on the golf course. But relatively few are victims of less-democratic ego-sports like off-piste skiing (which killed 25 people in the French Alps this year), yacht racing, hot-air ballooning, or trying to set various speed records with test vehicles. If you aren’t worried that the Senate might not fully repeal the inheritance tax for estates above $5 million, you probably don’t need to be worrying about these perils, either.

The problem of having more money than sense also drives fatality statistics in the world of high-end travel. Given the cost of a tour to the top of Mount Everest (between $10,000 and $40,000), it’s safe to assume no one collecting the Earned Income Tax Credit was among the 10 deaths there last season. Similarly, while the poor of Africa are sometimes eaten by wild animals, it is only the well-to-do from other continents who face the risk of being mauled by lions or trampled by hippopotamuses, which surprisingly kill more people than any other animal in Africa.

The next frontier for extravagant death is, of course, space. Richard Branson is taking reservations for his Virgin Galactic airship, which promises “the world’s first affordable space tourist flights” to view the aurora borealis, possibly as soon as 2008. Affordable, in this context, is somewhere around $200,000. Let us hope it will be a round trip.

Correction: June 14, 2006: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that Christopher Reeve died from injuries sustained in a dressage event; in fact the accident occured in the cross-country phase of a combined-training equestrian event. (Return to the corrected sentence.)