Eyes Wide Shut

Rating Death's Value in the Age of Celebrity Hype

If anyone needs another lesson about the relative value of human life in a celebrity culture, you don't have to look any further than a hill in Central Park. That's where 39-year-old Susan Fuchs was found last Thursday morning, on a scrubby west side knoll. Fuchs was slain alongside the shopping bags that held most of her worldly possessions, her pants and underwear torn off, her head bashed in and haloed with blood. She'd been dead perhaps eight hours. That's a guess gauged according to accounts of a neighborhood woman, who had no problem being quoted to the effect that she'd been disturbed by a "cacophony of screams" in the park at 2 a.m., followed by silence. Afterward this good samaritan closed her window and went to bed.

The body was found at 11 a.m. by a stroller, who alerted a Parks Enforcement Patrol officer, who alerted one of the crackerjack cops assigned to the Central Park precinct. This is the same precinct, you may recall, whose personnel once failed to respond to numerous reports from passersby of a menacing teenage gang roaming the park after dark, fully an hour before certain members of this gang waylaid and beat a woman jogger nearly to death. Two members of that same highly skilled police unit later sat unawares in an idling patrol car two minutes away from the glade where the woman's beaten body had been dumped— face down, her arms tied behind her back with her jogging bra. The fact that the Central Park jogger survived owes a lot to two drunk guys who happened across her as they stumbled home.

You may also have some recollection of the fine preventive police work carried out in 1995, when Maria Isabel Monteiro Alves was pulled off a path in Central Park while jogging and bludgeoned to death. Although the Fuchs and Alves murders were separated by six years, they occurred just yards apart in an area that remains, in some ways, as wild as it was when the park was designed. Maps call it the Great Hill. It's well known to rock climbers, who surreptitiously go bouldering on its high schist outcrops. It's well known to the homeless who loiter and camp out in the relative obscurity of its untraveled paths.

The Central Park Murder of Susan Fuchs (left), and the John Kennedy Media Spectacle (right)
photos: Michael Sofronski (left); Meg Handler (right)
The Central Park Murder of Susan Fuchs (left), and the John Kennedy Media Spectacle (right)

The body, as I say, was discovered at 11 in the morning.

At about this time, the obscenely bloated ranks of the media were deployed along the Eastern seaboard to cover a spectacle whose intrinsic meaning was negligible, except if you used it as a mirror for some scary truths about our emotionally hollow age. I'd been drawn to this orgy myself, equally horrified and snake-fascinated by an outpouring of "grief" over some apparently genial and fantastically well-connected young rich people.

I'd been to 20 N. Moore Street and watched the throngs of "mourners" making instant cathexis for the cameras, "identifying" with the young "victims" as avatars of Camelot cut down in their prime, a perfect couple who embodied our hopes and dreams, symbols of America's longing for nobility, etc. (As Gore Vidal once said somewhere, Americans will do almost anything to avoid noticing the existence of a ruling class.)

I'd watched as some weird folks in white saris arrived in Tribeca and placed blue daisies on the John and Carolyn altar, as though making puja to their gods, before starting a spooky chant of "JohnjohnJohnjohnJohnjohn KennedykennedyKennedy." I'd seen little Jon Benet clones being pimped by their mommies, shedding crocodile tears first for Extra!, then for Australian broadcasting, then for CNN. I'd ogled the school group in satin playing violin for the cameras, and the savvy Los Angeles gospel troupe that proceeded to grab what one hapless WBLS radio personality announced was fulfillment of "Andy Griffith's prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes." (How 'bout that one, Aunt Bea?)

I'd seen the news hyenas do live feeds from outside the Catholic church where Jacqueline Onassis once worshiped; where the iron fence was now upholstered with floral tributes and heartfelt notes condoling people the writers had never met ("Love You Alwayz" read one missive, addressed to John Kennedy in heaven). I joined the rest of the gawpers on Madison Avenue, craning for a view of 350 guests gathered for a "private," invitation-only service at which the deceased were, as it turns out, upstaged by the First Fibber.

By the morning of the Kennedy/Bessette memorial service, Clinton had already turned on his notorious waterworks for the networks and proved definitively that there's nothing about which he won't prevaricate. (Regarding the president's televised claim that young Kennedy's dinner at the White House was his first since John F. Kennedy was incumbent, there was unfortunate contradictory evidence in the presidential archives: Jackie and John Jr. had already visited at least once, with that other notorious liar, Tricky Dick.)

And, I have to admit it, I'd watched a lot of CNN. I watched with special interest on the day a passerby found Susan Fuchs's body in the woods because, as it happened, I'd been returning from a reporting gig in Harlem when I came upon that grisly scene around 11:45. I was shocked by what little I could make out ("They said her head was bashed in," a bystander, Mayra Morel, told me. "This area, there's a lot of crackheads sleeping inside. Even the police won't go"), not least because I often use the park, those paths, that hill.

In what could indulgently be termed my naïveté, I'd imagined that NY 1, at least, would interrupt blanket coverage of Coast Guard cutters ferrying assorted Kennedys, Smiths, and Shrivers to and from Woods Hole (an image right up there with the Yule log for soporific effect). I kept expecting someone to mention the fact that there'd been an incredibly brutal killing in the middle of the city, in the jewel of our urban parks system, in a place about the size of Monaco— one that, if you believe Rudy Giuliani, is just as safe.

It didn't happen. Nobody broke in with a report. Half a day elapsed before there was any television coverage of Fuchs's murder. And even then the stories— which you might imagine would evoke the shame of Kitty Genovese (what kind of place do we inhabit where your reaction to hearing bloodcurdling cries is to pull the window shut?), or the fact that three of the more brutal park attacks in recent memory took place within a five-minute radius of one another— chose to focus on the fact that murder statistics have dropped 75 percent over the past six years.

Some people matter. Others do not. No need to stop the presses for that bit of news. But a week into the ratings-and-circulation carnival attending the deaths of three people few had met, and that most were supposed to have "loved," a nobody with a history of mental illness and a family that not many of us will ever encounter had her skull smashed in the middle of Manhattan. It's too much to suggest that nobody cared. But it does say something about the irremediable grotesquerie of a 24-hour news cycle that television held off the Fuchs murder for six hours in favor of a celebrity ash dump, while the dailies played it later, inside and small.

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