Alcoholism and drug addiction seem to strike more people in the entertainment industry than in any other occupation. Many performers with troubled childhoods turned to substance abuse before they were out of their teen years. Others responded to the stress of public life and grueling schedules by using alcohol and drugs to find relief.
Eight of the most popular entertainers in the world, now deceased, paid the price of life in the spotlight with their early deaths—Richard Burton, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Marilyn Monroe.
Richard Burton was a famous Hollywood star who was twice married to actress Elizabeth Taylor. One of 13 children, he was born in Wales in 1925. His father was a coal miner and his mother a bartender. He began his career as a Shakespearean actor on the stage in England before becoming a movie celebrity in America. Drinking heavily from the time he was a young man, Burton never accepted help for his drinking problem. At one point, he drank three bottles of vodka daily. He suffered many health consequences, including cirrhosis of the liver. He died in 1984 at age 58.
Billie Holiday, famous black singer and songwriter, was born Eleanora Fagan in 1915 in Harlem. After a troubled childhood, she began performing in nightclubs as a teenager. In her 30-year entertainment career, she influenced jazz musicians and singers throughout the world with her passion and style. She even gave a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall. Frank Sinatra called her his greatest influence. Beset by severe drug and alcohol problems, she died in 1955 at age 44.
Hank Williams, country and western singer and songwriter, was born in Alabama in 1923. From birth, he suffered from spina bifida, a painful condition that later led to drug abuse and alcoholism. As a child, he learned guitar from a black street performer. His career peaked in the 1950s at the time he toured the U.S. with Bob Hope. When he was a star, the Grand Ole Opry fired him for habitual drunkenness. Hank Williams died of heart failure in 1953, months before his 30th birthday.
Whitney Houston, one of the top-selling entertainers of all time, was born in 1963 to a middle class family in New Jersey. She began by performing as a gospel soloist in churches but soon started touring nightclubs singing popular songs. After a 3-year courtship, she married the performer Bobby Brown, who introduced her to cocaine and other drugs. As her addiction worsened, she failed to show up for many concerts or appeared onstage confused and intoxicated. She was found dead in a hotel bathroom in 2012, drowned in bathwater as the result of a cocaine overdose at age 44.
In 1958, Michael Jackson was born in Gary, Indiana. He began his musical career when he was 8 years old, singing with his brothers in the Jackson Five. In a few years, he became a solo performer, travelling on world tours. Not only were his songs immensely popular, but he introduced new dance moves to his fans—such as the Moon Walk. The “King of Pop” was accused of child molestation in his later years, and he died just before a comeback tour in 2009. His death was due to an overdose of drugs administered by his physician. He was 50 years old.
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1935, Elvis Presley was an American rock star—considered a major culture icon of the 20th century. Raised by loving, working-class parents, Presley’s family had little money and moved often. When they lived in Memphis, Elvis made his first recording at the age of 13. Not long after, he rose to fame. John Lennon once observed, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” Presley suffered from drug addiction during most of his adult life and died at age 42 of heart failure, a complication of drug use.
Born in Seattle in 1942, Jimi Hendrix was a musician, singer and songwriter who entertained audiences in the 1960s with his phenomenal guitar-playing skills. Videos of his memorable performances at Woodstock in 1969 are now collectors’ items. Hendrix was described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.” Like many musicians of his era, he frequently used drugs. He died at age 27 from complications of barbiturate use.
Born as Norma Jean Mortenson in 1926, Marilyn Monroe was raised in Los Angeles, where she spent most of her childhood in foster homes and an orphanage. She married for the first time at age 16. Playing dumb blonde characters in 1950s Hollywood films, she became a popular sex symbol. Her movie career was briefly troubled when the media discovered she’d posed for nude photos before becoming a star, but criticism soon passed. She was married to the baseball icon Joe DiMaggio for a short time and then to the playwright Arthur Miller. By the 1960s, her health was failing, partly due to drug addiction. She died of a barbiturate overdose at age 36.
These are cautionary tales for drinkers and drug users.