Death Comes for the Comic Novelist

The interactive website Ranker has set up a listing that describes 13 celebrities who died on the toilet. This seemingly tasteless and pointless compilation by Carly Silver is part of Ranker’s subject category entitled “Celebrity Deaths.” Most of the deaths listed are of historical figures, some of quite ancient vintage, but there are six of 20th century celebrities, including Evelyn Waugh (along with, inter alia, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland and Lenny Bruce). Here’s the relevant portion of the Waugh entry:

The circumstances of Waugh’s passing are a bit unclear, some speculate he not only died on the toilet, but had actually drowned in it. According to reports, Waugh returned from mass when he headed to the toilet. When he didn’t return, his family went looking for him and found him dead on the floor. One friend said he was found with water in his lungs, though that is disputed. Whether he died on it or in it, Waugh definitely collapsed on the commode in 1966 and passed soon after. It was common knowledge that Waugh was in poor health and his official cause of death was from heart failure.

The rumor of death by drowning in the toilet itself has been convincingly discredited in an article linked in the Ranker entry. This is by Waugh’s biographer Martin Stannard and appears in a 1998 collection entitled Writing the Lives of Writers (Gould and Staley, eds.). It is worth further consideration to put the Ranker entry into factual perspective. Stannard explains (pp. 13-15) that Graham Greene was the source of the rumor about Waugh’s drowning in the toilet and, after a fairly thorough investigation, involving interviews of contemporaries and witnesses (including Greene, Christopher Sykes and Fr. Philip Caraman) and research of medical records, Stannard concluded:

The literal truth here, then, appeared to suggest that Greene’s fictive imagination had elaborated Caraman’s story and added water to the lungs…

The Ranker entry has the unfortunate effect of keeping alive the untruthful rumor that Stannard’s researches had disproved. Still, fact checking is not something on which Ranker rates very highly. See previous post. 

Here’s another take on the story, also linked by Ranker, that manages to be both slightly more factual and light-hearted about an inherently gloomy subject. This comes from a Roman Catholic literary weblog (Dappled Things) and, although undated, was apparently posted in March 2015; it is entitled “Biffed: or, The Strange Death of Evelyn Waugh upon the Thunder-Box.” 

This entry was posted in Academia, Biographies, Books about Evelyn Waugh, Men at Arms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.