Live Through This

My Dead Boyfriend

Why River Phoenix and I are still going steady.

Illustration by Minna

I was 13 on Halloween in 1993, when River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in front of the Viper Room on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard. I was already wearing all black, in honor of the holiday, when I heard the news; I kept on doing so, in mourning, for the next few days, despite my school’s dress code, which stipulated navy blue and khaki. Though some of my male friends teased me, most people (teachers included) understood that I was sick with the loss, and gave me a wide berth.

Though we’d never actually met, River was one of my true loves, and I couldn’t believe he was gone. I loved his delicate, almost feminine face, with its high cheekbones and narrow eyes. River seemed tough, but, unlike other actors his age, also sensitive—dreamy and faraway. There weren’t any boys like River in my school—as far as I could tell, there weren’t any boys like River anywhere in New York City. When Sassy magazine published a story called “I Saw River Phoenix Brush His Teeth,” I knew just what they meant—that it was amazing to imagine such an otherworldly creature doing something so pedestrian.

River was my first in a series of dead (imaginary) boyfriends, a list that included Jeff Buckley, Chet Baker, and the king of all dead boyfriends, James Dean. These fall into two camps: the already dead (James Dean and Chet Baker, by the time I got to him) and the phonecall-in-the-middle-of-the-night (River, Jeff Buckley). I had a type—waifish and likely to moan, prone to drug use and looking good in black-and-white photographs. River’s death was the hardest to take—we’d grown up together, at least from my admittedly obsessive and skewed perspective. My family and I would talk about River ad nauseum over pancakes on weekend mornings, planning our future life together. My parents liked River, too—his portrayal of tough-kid Chris Chambers in Stand By Me had won us all over, and I think we collectively wanted to feed him, to make sure he was doing OK. His photographs, clipped from magazines, wallpapered my bedroom. I watched all of his movies over and over again, the good ones (Running on Empty, Stand By Me), the bad ones (A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon), and the late ones that hinted at the drug troubles to come (The Thing Called Love, My Own Private Idaho).

What is it about stars who die prematurely that is so hard to resist? Is it the unrealized potential, or is it that we never have to see the inevitable downfall? The dead-sweetheart phenomenon holds true across gender and generation: Marilyn, Kurt, Selena, Tupac, and Heath all fit the bill. There are countless actors and actresses and musicians who peak early and then vanish from view, and college kids don’t have posters of them on their dorm room walls. There is something inherently morbid about being a teenager, and I think the romance of the sex/death connection is never stronger than when you’re in high school. After all, who doesn’t read Romeo and Juliet and think, just for a second, that it’s the only satisfying ending?

There were, of course, other women in River’s life—Martha Plimpton, his co-star in Running on Empty, and Samantha Mathis, his co-star in The Thing Called Love. When he died, Plimpton said that River “left an indelible mark on [her] soul,” which made me want to hold her hand, and still does. The thing that strikes me most when thinking about River now is that he was only 23 when he died, eight years younger than I am today. He was still sorting himself out, deciding what he loved and needed, whom he loved and needed. I was a mess at 23, bloated from too much beer in college and trying to be a writer with zero success. I had a boyfriend, who is now my husband, but I fear I wasn’t as nice to him then as I should have been.

I hate to think about all the other interesting things River would have done with his life, the performances he would have given, and more important, the man he might have become. Not for me, of course, but for someone equally devoted. He would have made me happy by aging on screen, the two of us getting old together, separated only by space and celluloid. Instead, I keep getting older without him. ♦

35 Comments

  • darksideoftherainbow October 31st, 2011 7:19 PM

    i feel this way about brad renfro. what made me super sad when he died was that it seemed like not many people cared. it wasn’t talked about as much as other deaths. brad renfro had been my celebrity boyfriend every since i saw him in the client <3

    • kalika_ma October 31st, 2011 8:41 PM

      Oh man, I fell into such a depression (I wa salready sliding that way on a nice mixture of heavy drug use and unchecked depression) when Heath Ledger died and then not a week later (but to waaaaaay less media coverage) Brad Renfro died. I don’t know what it says about me that all my celebrity crushes either OD’d (River, Heath, Brad) or killed themselves (Jonathan Brandis). I’d force myself to have a crush on Mick Jagger cause that bastard is never gonna die, but, like, ew.

  • ichewmylips October 31st, 2011 7:26 PM

    I loved this. so beautiful

  • rebecca October 31st, 2011 7:28 PM

    just wanted to say thanks to rookie for inviting me to embrace fall’s creepy witch vibes! today, at my orthodox jewish day school, my friends and turned off the lights of our gym locker room and lit tea candles. we sat on the floor and contacted spirits on my ebay-purchased ouija board. when the sophomore girls came back to change out of their gym clothes, they sat on the floor, joined our circle, and helped us ask debbie (a middle-aged murder victim from 1976) about her life. it all felt very girl power-y and dark, kind of like the craft. and i confess, it was even cooler when we got caught contacting spirits and i had to speak to my principal, an old rabbi, about the wrongs of practicing pagan rituals. it felt like a movie, but better, because it was real.

  • MichyMich October 31st, 2011 7:50 PM

    Man, I have to admit that it’s pretty sad whenever musicians/actors die young. To me, one of the saddest ones was Jeff Buckley – too hot to die. I cried when he sang “Hallelujah” and I also have his album, Grace (one of the BEST in the ’94 other than Live Through This). To this day, his voice feels haunting at the same time, comforting whenever I listen to his songs today.

    Anyways, there’s a Jeff Buckley biopic coming up soon – get prepared to bring a box of Kleenex.

    • WitchesRave November 6th, 2011 8:48 AM

      I heard that there are 2 in the works, one with Penn Badgely as Jeff, and another with the guy who plays Spiderman on Broadway…I really hope neither screw up his legacy

  • amelia October 31st, 2011 7:57 PM

    Corey haim, all over! I am much younger obviously but within years- YEARS- of me getting into 80s movies and obsessing over him, including watching The Lost Boys and Lucas like it was going out of style, I heard the news that he died, and if you followed it you know he died fairly broke and alone. when there was an outpouring of love for him, with actors and legends calling him a huge talent, etc., it prompted Corey Feldman, his long time best friend and costar of course (who lost two good friends and costars, including River, fairly young) to ask where all this love was when he was alive, struggling to get jobs. Heartbreaking.

  • oriana October 31st, 2011 8:02 PM

    I experienced a similar reaction. I found out about River’s death when I was 14… in 2007, haha. I know, I know, it doesn’t really count! But I cried like he had just died right then. It was so weird. I watched ‘Stand by Me’ and some of his other movies with my dad and then he broke the news to me that River died the very year I was born. Hm.

    River was such a beautiful soul.

  • Littlegirllost October 31st, 2011 8:05 PM

    R.I.P River!
    He’s one of my favourite actors/people of all time. i’ll never forgot how upset I was after I first watched stand by me and found out the person who played Chris Chambers died a year before I was even born, it really broke my heart . x

  • lyndsey October 31st, 2011 8:17 PM

    omg river was the most beautiful man in the history of all men ever. after i saw my own private idaho and fell in love with him in a way that no longer made me a pedophile (.. stand by me), i mourned for weeks. he had already been dead 17 years, but nevermind. thanks for writing this. he’s definitely worth remembering.

  • Dylan October 31st, 2011 8:26 PM

    I loved this, oh my god, so much.

  • CariStereo October 31st, 2011 8:27 PM

    A few days after his passing, a friend and I were going to see a pal’s band play across the street from the Viper Room. We saw from afar that there was a makeshift altar/memorial and went to check it out. The usual items were there: religious candles, flowers, messages of grief. There were a few things there that I never forgot, and to this day, whenever River Phoenix comes up in conversation, I picture that sidewalk altar. Among the graffiti on the wall was a message from a girl who had written, “Hi River! We met a few weeks ago at —-’s house. Call me! #—” and below that, an ashtray with smoked joints and a Rick Springfield cassette. It just impressed in me that odd connection of celebrity in people’s minds that often only makes sense to them. Plus, Hollywood is a strange town.

  • airheads October 31st, 2011 8:42 PM

    You killed me with that last sentence. This is beautifully written, and I think it’s something we all can relate to, only with different celebrities and artists.

  • kittenmix October 31st, 2011 9:17 PM

    Nick drake and Elliott smith, Everytime I listen to either of their music it is just so overwhelmingly sad. Drake especially, considering he was just eating cereal and talking to his parents, and then he was dead.

    • WitchesRave November 6th, 2011 8:45 AM

      I love Nick Drake too! He definitely needs more recognition for the beautiful music he created

  • Lascelles October 31st, 2011 10:45 PM

    I saw Jimmy Reardon recently on cable.

  • jessejames October 31st, 2011 11:08 PM

    Elliott Smith will forever be my true love…

    Have you seen River Phoenix in ‘Dogfight’, it is one of my favorite movies ever… It’s set in the 50′s/60′s AND it has Lili Taylor, what’s not to love?

    • jessejames October 31st, 2011 11:09 PM

      (And it’s on Netflix Instant view right now…)

    • wemisswhatweneverhad November 1st, 2011 12:40 AM

      oh yes! so good!

  • Sonja November 1st, 2011 12:26 AM

    such a beautiful piece. i miss him too. I miss them all.

    ps. YES !YES! DOGFIGHT..a must-see! xo

  • wemisswhatweneverhad November 1st, 2011 12:40 AM

    oh man oh man, i am obsessed with him so much i am so glad this is on the site

  • Harriet November 1st, 2011 4:39 AM

    That was really beautiful. It’s Jim Morrison for me :’(

  • Arabelle November 1st, 2011 9:23 AM

    I totally crush on river and i’m gay as a rainbow. perfect being

  • fizzingwhizbees November 1st, 2011 2:31 PM

    This is mad nerdy, but I totally feel that way about Jonathan Larson, who wrote RENT and then died of an aortic aneurysm at age 30. He just seemed like the most beautiful person and it breaks my heart to think he could’ve written so many more great shows.

  • Bardot November 1st, 2011 3:46 PM

    This almost reduced me to tears. I can’t even begin to explain my love for River Phoenix but this article almost did it for me. I was born in 1996 so I wasn’t around when he was and didn’t have that experience of him dying but whenever I think about it it makes me so sad. He had such a beautiful soul and would have carried on to do so many amazing things for himself and the planet. Thank you for writing this Emma x

  • timelady November 1st, 2011 4:03 PM

    Your River Phoenix is my Heath Ledger. I remember I was in sophomore year of high school, in the back of the journalism room, when one of our editors (a junior) burst into hysterics. We asked her what was wrong, and she pointed at the computer screen. TMZ had just reported Ledger’s death. He’d been my movie star love since I’d watched 10 Things I Hate About You when for the first time when I was 10. I still get weepy watching any of the films he’s been in.

    I love River too, though. Stand By Me makes me cry like a little baby. I grew up in LA, and I’ve gone past the Viper Room in Hollywood. S

  • Motherfunker November 1st, 2011 4:49 PM

    Genuinely in love with this post. I can relate so much.

  • Microbyte1 November 1st, 2011 7:18 PM

    i’m not alone anymore

  • Chrissi November 1st, 2011 7:50 PM

    Oh my god, I could have written this whole thing, down to being 13 and in all black when it happened…my family and I adored him in Stand By Me, Indiana Jones, etc. I think my mom even cried when he died. This post is beautiful.

  • Emma S. November 1st, 2011 10:20 PM

    Kisses to you all!

  • Renatotherescue November 2nd, 2011 10:16 AM

    hmh, i dont want to think about how it would be if bob dylan died..
    tho i think thats a little different, since hes not young, and it even might be better for him, ohwell
    i dont know river that well, but he sounds like an interesting actor!

    XXX

  • abillionjennifers November 2nd, 2011 12:08 PM

    Brad Renfro!! He was so dreamy. Drugs are bad people :(

  • WitchesRave November 6th, 2011 8:43 AM

    Heath Ledger is mine, I remember hearing his death on late night radio when i was 11 and i burst into school the next day devasted by his death, but no one really knew who he was ( Batman hadn’t come out yet).

    I now look up interviews, watch all his movies (Candy is incredible) and just remember what an incredible and different actor he was..

    • WitchesRave November 6th, 2011 8:50 AM

      Joaquin Phoenix, River’s brother, is also incredible…I really hope he bounces back and makes more films because the ones he has made are all great

  • flawlessfrogs November 27th, 2011 6:59 PM

    This is really beautiful…it made me want to cry. Most of the articles you read about him try to rationalize his death, his drug use or paint him as the bad seed or a martyr. This is just reminiscent and sad.