Yesterday, 119 years ago, Woolson died. The news appeared all over the U.S. and Britain, as well as in Italy, that she had fallen to her death in Venice. After a couple of days, the news began to circulate that she had not fallen but jumped. Her family rushed into print with an account from a cousin who had rushed to the scene, negating the theory of suicide. However, a later letter to the family from the woman who was caring for Woolson (though not the night she died) provided a full account of what happened that evening, including Woolson asking the nurse to leave her room. When the nurse returned, the window was open and Woolson was on the pavement below. Based primarily on this letter, Lyndall Gordon makes a pretty strong case for suicide (in A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art).
What we know for sure is that she landed in the street below her third-story window, on the back of the palazzo she lived in, which fronted the Grand Canal. When I was in Venice last October, I found the street, which I had thought was a back alley of some sort. It is not. The street leads to the San Salute Church and is thus a well-traveled thoroughfare. A steady stream of tourists traipses by. Shops selling Murano glass, scarves, and t-shirts line the narrow street with buildings towering on either side, blocking out the bright sun.
For about half a minute, though, I had the dark street to myself. Poor Connie had lain on the pavement for only a minute or two before she was found by passersby, even though it was the middle of the night. Her gondolier carried her inside. She was unconscious and lived only 45 minutes. When her cousin arrived the next day, she found Connie on her bed, her face peaceful. She had found her rest.
The question of why Woolson would take her life is a complicated one. I haven’t yet written that part of the story (the end). What I refuse to do, however, is to make her life story simply a long march toward her decision to take her own life. Having seen the street where she died, however, I understand how public her death was. Just as her life had become a public one with the popularity of her writings, so her death, splashed across papers from Venice to San Francisco, was anything but private.
(Interestingly, January 24 is also Edith Wharton’s birthday. Wharton was 21 years younger than Woolson. They never met. Both, however, were very close to Henry James. Although Wharton never uttered a word about Woolson, she must have known about her. Wharton had only begun to publish when Woolson died.)