It couldn’t have been further from the wilds of Idaho, where she was raised, or the streets of Paris, where she’d spent some of her restless youth. But the one-room Santa Monica apartment where Margaux Hemingway’s badly decomposed 41-year-old body was found on July 1, 1996, was a sadly fitting locale for a woman whose visions of stardom vanished almost as soon as they appeared.
For some time, it appeared Margaux would escape her family’s famous curse. Her larger-than-life grandfather, Ernest, was a manic-depressive, a notorious drinker, and, in 1961, dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. His brother, sister, and father had also killed themselves.
By contrast, Margaux’s early days could not have been more full of life. On a 1974 business trip to New York City with an Idaho PR firm, the then 19-year-old met entrepreneur Errol Wetson. They promptly fell in love, she moved to Manhattan that fall, and they married in June 1975.
Soon, she was charming the uptown elite, rubbing elbows with influential fashionistas, and dabbling in modeling. At the peak of her fame, Hemingway landed a then-unprecedented million-dollar contract as the face of Faberge’s Babe perfume, appeared on a 1975 cover of TIME as one of the ”New Beauties,” and starred in her first film, 1976’s critical and financial failure Lipstick, with younger sister Mariel.
To cope with the pressures of celebrity — as well as her 1978 divorce from Wetson — Hemingway began boozing it up regularly at Studio 54. ”I never thought that alcohol would become a problem,” she told PEOPLE in 1988. ”I always thought [it] would give me…strength and courage….” Sadly, it didn’t impart enough of either to stave off depression, epilepsy, and bulimia.
She bottomed out in 1987, following her divorce from her second husband, filmmaker Bernard Foucher. After a stint at the Betty Ford Center, Hemingway attempted — and failed — to reignite her career with infomercials, a 1990 Playboy spread, and B movies like her last film, 1995’s direct-to-video Vicious Kiss.
When artist Judy Stabile, who had known Hemingway since 1990, arrived at the apartment on July 1, she was just looking for signs of her suddenly MIA friend. Upon climbing a ladder to the bedroom window, Stabile saw Margaux lying lifeless on her bed. Late in the summer of ’96, the L.A. County coroner’s office ruled that Hemingway killed herself with an overdose of phenobarbital, but Stabile isn’t convinced. ”I just think Margaux would have left a note if she was going to kill herself,” she says. ”What she needed was help, love, and understanding of the mental illness that runs in her family.” It didn’t come soon enough.