Day 79: Send In The Dead Clowns

originally published March 19, 2012

Every so often, we here at 1000 Words, 1000 Days like to touch upon the issues. We feel that, as a popular website with dozens of readers (projected annually), we have an obligation to lend a voice to the issues that touch us all.

Of course, I’m talking about suicidal clowns.

Wikipedia lists two clowns who have committed suicide, which leads me to believe this is a microscopic sliver of an epidemic in the world of clowns. Could it be that behind that greasepaint, those silly voices and those novelty props there lies the broken heart of a shattered being? A soul that has been dragged through unheard torments and unspoken agonies? I hope so, otherwise this will be a short article.

The first of these clowns is going to up my degree of difficulty a little. Achille Zavatta’s Wiki-page is decidedly short and lacking information; not good for one of only two subjects I have to work with. Almost makes me wish more clowns would commit suicide. Does that make me an evil person? Maybe.

Luckily, Frikipedia (which is what I’ve decided to call the French Wikipedia site) has a more extensive breakdown of his life, and hopefully the angst that led him to an early death. I’ll just have to translate using whatever French I can remember from that class I took in high school twenty years ago.

Alright, let’s see what I can discern. Born in 1915 in Tunisia. A ‘fois clown’ (which I think means a clown who works with liver pate), a trapeze artist, a horse-riding circus guy, and he was into something the French call “domptage”, which sounds dirty but I think just means he was an animal trainer. Frikipedia isn’t making this easy.

According to Google, it may also be a kind of shoe.

He was married three times, which could be at the heart of his sadness. Maybe it was being born into a circus family and never escaping the Big Top, even as our modernizing culture grew to see the circus as “kind of lame” and “not now, Baretta is on”.

In 1978 he developed his own traditional circus, but I think he had to shut it down in 1985. I’m not quite clear on the translation, but he may have rented his hat to a facility. Interpreting Frikipedia may be too much for my dusty skills. Ultimately, Zavatta made it to 78 years of age before deciding that he didn’t want to live on dialysis any longer. I don’t know how he killed himself. Somehow a joke about drowning himself in seltzer water seems wholly inappropriate.

Alright, Achille Zavatta was not the sad end result of a clown’s painted-on mirthful grin disguising an inner turmoil of loss and suffering. He killed himself because he didn’t want to suffer the loss of dignity and the agony of a lengthy illness. Maybe I’ll have a better story with Courtney Riley Cooper.

Born in Missouri in 1886 (where, thankfully, they speak English), Cooper ran away from home at sixteen to join the circus. He worked his way up through the ranks, whatever the ranks of the circus may be. I suspect he started as an elephant-dung shoveller, worked his way up to organ-grinder-monkey groomer, trapeze buffer, high-wire stringer, domptage person, peanut salesman, ticket seller, then that barker guy who stands out front and entices people to “step right up”.

Finally he became a circus clown. Well, not finally – he soon became the general manager of the entire circus. In fact, from what I can tell he wasn’t a clown for very long. But for the purposes of this article, it was that brief period of his life which led to his ultimate demise.

Cooper worked as a newspaper reporter for a number of papers, including the Kansas City Star, Chicago Tribune, and the Denver Post. Still, Cooper couldn’t wring the greasepaint from his arteries. The owners of the Post also owned the Sells-Floto Circus, which had taken over Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and was in need of some press representation. Cooper took on the role.

Still, what is a sad clown to do when the world is falling apart around him? In WWI, Cooper enlisted in the US Marines. He had to keep his real identity quiet, due to the US Military’s strict Don’t-Honk-Don’t-Tell policy.

After the war, Cooper returned to writing. For obvious reasons, I’m still going to dwell on his clown career as leading to his eventual suicide, not his career as a writer.

He wrote screenplays, short stories, novels, articles, and a number of non-fiction books. His subjects of specialty were crime and the circus. Clearly he associated those clowning years with trauma, and was trying to vent his demons through his prose. He was the first to write a biography on Annie Oakley. He wrote three novels that championed the formation of the FBI, making the case that shifty local governments and corrupt police forces were allowing chaos around the country.

Chaos not even an army of clowns could tame. Though that would make a great screenplay.

Because of his thinly-veiled campaign, he became buddies with J. Edgar Hoover, who called Cooper “the best informed man on crime in the U.S.” – not a sentence I thought I’d write in an article about suicidal clowns.

Another of Cooper’s big causes was the danger of illicit drugs, particularly that menace, marijuana. He worked with Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger on the 100% accurate article: “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth.”

Rumor has it Cooper was trying to get Washington on board with a conspiracy of German activity in Mexico in 1940. The government ignored him, and Cooper’s wife thinks that this may be the reason Cooper took his own life, hanging himself in the closet of a room in the Park Central Hotel in New York. Regular readers of this column (both of us) may be interested to know that this was the hotel where Arnold Rothstein was murdered by Dutch Schultz’s crew as revenge for the murder of Joey Noe in 1928.

I think we know the real reason for Cooper’s demise. Shortly before his death he had landed the job of chief publicist for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was seeing all those clowns, being haunted by that part of his past that he could never reconcile, that’s what drove Cooper over the edge.

It was a terrible loss. He left big shoes to fill.

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