Exclusive: Bill de Blasio Speaks with WNYC About His Father's Suicide

Monday, September 30, 2013


Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio's father committed suicide in 1979, shooting himself while suffering incurable cancer, the New York Post revealed Monday. For the first time in nearly 35 years, de Blasio discussed the event publicly with WNYC's Anna Sale. "We knew his life was going to come to an end. We didn't expect it to be this way. And there had been such sorrow around it," de Blasio said.

De Blasio described waiting in the car with his mother as his brother went to identify his father. "It felt like a very, very long time, and a very confusing time," he said. He said he'd never told his son, Dante, about the suicide until today. De Blasio said his older child, Chiara, now a sophomore in college, was aware of the manner of her grandfather's death. De Blasio had previously told WNYC his father, an alcoholic and chain smoker, had been largely out of his life since he was a child.

"He was drunk pretty much every day so if I had anything to do with him it was in the context of that, some days a little less. Sometimes I would spend time with him earlier in the day when he was a little less drunk and you could have more of a conversation," de Blasio said Monday. "It was very painful that this was the consistent reality."

De Blasio's campaign issue a statement acknowledging the suicide shortly before the Post story was published. His campaign reached out shortly after that to arrange this interview, which he indicated would be his only public interview on the matter.

Following are excerpts:

We have discussed the difficult relationship with your father before. The New York Post reported today that when he was sick with terminal cancer in the summer of 1979 he shot himself outside a Connecticut hotel. Why have you never discussed this before?

It’s very painful for my family. You know at that point we had all talked to him about his health. He had been a very heavy smoker for a long time. He had lung cancer, he had emphysema, the cancer had metastasized.

It was clear he didn’t have much time left. He didn’t give any indication that this is what he would choose to do, but  we all knew the end was near one way or another.

It’s just very painful because it’s all the result of this horrible decline he went through. Talking about it obviously brings up what that whole long painful period was like but particularly the last year of his life. I’ve tried to be open about the broad reality of my youth and what was going on in our family. This particular piece is just particularly painful and difficult and wasn’t something I felt real comfortable talking about.

You were 18 that summer? How did you find out?

I had just turned 18. I don’t remember the exact moment of the phone call. I remember my mother telling me we had to go to Connecticut really suddenly. My memory is that the police called her. I remember very vividly not going in to identify the body. I just didn’t feel up to it, my brother Steven volunteered to do it. My mother certainly didn’t feel up to it.

It’s was an unbelievable incredibly difficult moment in life. We all thought we would be saying goodbye in some more traditional way and suddenly he was gone. But he was gone in such difficult circumstances over the course of years and years.

It’s very hard to figure out, it’s hard still hard to figure out to this day....

I remember just waiting while my brother went to identify the body. It felt like a very, very long time and a very, you know, confusing time. It has to be understood against the back drop of years and years of things just getting worse and worse. On the one hand, it was a shock. On the other hand it wasn’t a shock at all. 

We knew his life was going to come to an end. We didn’t expect it to be this way. And there had been such sorrow around it.

Was there a service?

There wasn’t a traditional service. He had wanted to be cremated and we did a little gathering back where we used to live in Connecticut and spread the ashes into Long Island Sound, in a place that he loved very much.  Where he used to sail.

You’ve talked about how your father was largely out of your life, after the time you were 7- or 8-years-old. This decade – was it a difficult decade with him?

We were in touch, but it was kind of sporadic...From the time of parent’s divorce...I would have been 8...that was around the time his decline intensified. Maybe the first year or two after they separated there was a little more normalcy,…but then it got less and less tenable pretty quickly. I remember in the middle and late '70s it was pretty rare to see him....

He was never far know he was just getting less and less able to handle things with each passing year. He was drunk pretty much every day so if I had anything to do with him it was in the context of that, some days a little less. Sometimes I would spend time with him earlier in the day when he was a little less drunk and you could have more of a conversation. It was very painful that this was the consistent reality. 

He also smoked all the time, which was the immediate path to his death. There was a delusional quality. He would constantly say he could stop whenever he wanted to, but he never could. He was very difficult to be around…and so it became less and less frequent. 

When you’ve talked about your father, you describe his service in World War II, and how like many veterans he came back a changed man. You talk about it through the lens of policy. At the base, have you still carried around some anger?

I’m certain anger and sadness and very, very powerful personal lessons in terms of how to live life and what not to do… I’ve talked very openly about this incredible juxtaposition of a guy who was a real hero. He volunteered to go to war and was in some of the most difficult bloodiest battles in history. Okinawa was literally one of the bloodiest battles, most horrible and bloodiest battles in the history of mankind....He got all the way through that and only lost his leg at the very, very end of the battle. To have heard him talk about that and then, of course, for years and years tried to figure out after his death who he was….there was something very noble and very good about him, particularly when he was young.... 

It's tough stuff to make sense of to this day.

It does change for me the story about your decision in your early 20s to start your public life with your mother’s last name, not your father’s last name. Was this a part of that?

It had started before. I had made the initial decision even in the senior year of high school that I was starting to think about the name....I asked for one of the diplomas or one of the certificates to have de Blasio put in as a middle name. That was in May and he didn’t die until July so already something was deep in me starting to feel like I really wanted to identify myself at least also with my mother’s side.

That was intensified from the time I went to see my grandfather's hometown in 1975… It was obviously a very complicated reality.  

Your identity as a father has been not only a central part of this campaign but something that was quite important to you. Did your kids know your father killed himself?

Chaira did. Dante knew about his cancer. I don’t think we had chosen to go into a lot of detail about more than that.

Have you had an opportunity today to talk to Dante?

Yes, yes I have. He’s a very mature guy. He understood all this in the context of it's unfortunate that these things become part of the public discourse. But the larger story had already been told many times in our family about my father's troubles…so it’s difficult to talk about with him, but it’s not a surprise to him on one level. 

Is there anything else about this experience you want to share?
I really wanted to answer questions with one person and then not come back to it.  I think one thing I would say is I think some things still need to be respected about families and I think its fair that I that I would answer these questions for one person and explain the situation for one person but after that I don’t have any intention to talk about it any more. 
Is there anything else about this experience you want to share?

I really wanted to answer questions with one person and then not come back to it. I think one thing I would say is I think some things still need to be respected about families and I think its fair that I that I would answer these questions for one person and explain the situation for one person. But after that I don’t have any intention to talk about it any more.


Andrea Bernstein


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Comments [22]

Reva B Golden from Brooklyn, NY

The NYPost is a putrid rag - we know that. But there are those
who will put some weight on what it says and Bill deB believed
he had to respond to it. He chose the news organization he wanted -
he may have chosen Ms. Sale - or he may have given his consent to
be interviewed by her - and he's savvy enough to decide carefully
how he wanted to do it. If he didn't have any idea of what was
going to be asked, then he shouldn't be Mayor of NYC. Ms. Sale
certainly didn't accost him - perhaps wasn't aggressive enough to
be able to do that in any case. His advisers would probably have
prepared him for the interview, and they are savvy too, especially
his wife according to the media; if they were clods he would not
have won the primary. I can even conceive of Ms Sale giving Bill an indication of which questions she would ask so he could be prepared.
However, you slice it, this is a difficult and painful topic and he
probably elected to do what he did because he believed it would be
the least painful way for him to do it - and because he felt it was
absolutely necessary - thus he appears transparent - hiding nothing
from us. I can't believe that the public is so naive as to blame
Ms Sale as you guys have. Bill is a big guy - and I don't mean his
height. He's all grown up. He has to know what he's doing and what
he's saying - painful or not. The likes of Ms Sale is not likely
to intimidate him or intrude on him. He certainly knows how to avoid
answering what he chooses not to answer. If he's not savvy enough
to handle this interview I won't vote for him. But I believe he's
savvy and street smart and I will. Actually, even if I didn't like
him I would vote for him rather than vote for any Republican at this

Oct. 14 2013 08:52 PM
Well Done Dan from nyc

Calm the **** down!
The ugly press dogs were the first who went after him for this 'revelation' - WNYC is giving BDB a PLATFORM to air his views to counter the DOGS at the 'Post.'
Calm down. Of course it's no one's business - but let the Man Talk.

Only the idiots who read the Post would care about this PRIVATE family matter.
WNYC is doing a good job.

Oct. 04 2013 01:56 PM

DTores, good points. I could also hear the grief in Bill De Blasio's responses, as he answered all of the questions in a very professional manner. This topic is very personal and Anna Sale's was simply not equipped nor qualified to really conduct this interview.

I think it's horrible that De Blasio was essentially forced to discuss this topic with a "reporter," due to the NY Post releasing the information about his father's suicide and history. I guess in the game of politics, nothing is sacred to the media anymore.

Again, I was disturbed by Anna Sale's probing questions. She seemed to enjoy drawing the dagger in deeper as she asked about whether De Blasio's children knew. I could tell from her questions and tone that she was just looking for the latest sensational scoop and not really concerned about the overall gravity of the topic and the psychological ramifications that this has on De Blasio and his family.

But on a much brighter note, Bill De Blasio has emerged from the tragedy a very successful man. Not a lot of people are able to overcome such adversity and thrive. I however think it was in very poor taste for WNYC News/Anna Sale's to conduct such a difficult interview in this manner.

Oct. 01 2013 07:21 PM

Ugly, tabloid stuff -- WNYC has disgraced itself.

Oct. 01 2013 06:15 PM

WNYC NPR has veteran, professional journalist, like Brian Lehrer
and Lenny Lopate.

Why send Ms. Anna Sales to interview Bill de Blasio, about such
a sensitive topic, as his father's suicide, instead of top of the line
professionals like Brian Lehrer and Lenny Lopate?

Ms. Sale was in over her head.

Oct. 01 2013 05:45 PM

I really cringed when I heard Ms. Anna Sale, ask such personal,
painful questions about Mr. Bill de Blasio's life.

"Why have you never talked about this before," ask Ms. Sale?
"How did you find out," ask Ms. Sale?
"Was there a service," ask Ms. Sale?
"Do your kids know, your father killed himself," ask Ms.Sale?

I can hear the pain in Mr. De Blasio's voice as he is respectfully
answering these profoundly disturbing questions.
Ms. Sale's probing, jabbing the needle in even more, when she
goes into asking about his kids and if they knew.

It just feels, that Ms. Sale was picking the scab off a deep wound,
and that her questions were just wrong.

This was a vomit inducing interview, the questions went far beyond,
what is appropriate to ask anyone about a chapter in their life,
that was obviously so painful, so personal.

Being a candidate for any public office, should not open anyone up
for this anal probing interview.

I commend Mr. De Blasio, for being such a gentleman, answering
this Rona Barrett's interrogation.

I respect Mr. De Blasio for his work in Nicaragua and respect him
even more for putting up with Ms. Anna Sale=Rona Barrett's questions.

Oct. 01 2013 03:26 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Actually, no, BigGuy--I don't want to know if he's thought of killing himself. Not at all. I'd rather know what kind of public servant he intends to be, what his record of being a public servant has been, and perhaps some personal details about what kind of neighbor and citizen he is. This pushes it too far, and legitimizes the NY Post's so-called rationale for running it. Yes--from a strategic standpoint, I understand why the campaign wanted to respond in some way, but no--I don't need a fireside chat that probes the story further.

Those who suggest that any of us who object to the way WNYC handled the story don't want a discussion of mental illness miss the point. I welcome more of that kind of discussion, but on a practical level, in terms of how we should consider handling it legislatively, culturally and practically. Forcing someone to talk about a painful family occurrence (and yes--the original sin is the Post's) is not the way forward in doing so.

There are plenty of people who don't need journalism to go this far in order to make a decision about deBlasio's candidature--we voted for him in the primary, and will again in November. This should be an opportunity, however, to think how much we feel we're entitled to someone's more painful memories. deBlasio was subject to a type of outing no one should forced to endure, and he handled it with aplomb.

That doesn't change my mind about how WNYC and Anna Sale handled this. I'm also not going to soon forget how in the bag WNYC was for Christine Quinn in the run up to the primary, and refused to probe her on important issues listeners asked for; the irony isn't lost.

Oct. 01 2013 11:59 AM

Bill De Blasio requested the interview with WNYC in response to the NYPost story. He makes it clear that this is the only interview he will give about his dad's suicide.

Anna Sale handled things tastefully with decent manners. This is news we do not want to know and do not feel we need to know, so its not easy for the newsmaker or the reporter.

Children and grandchildren of suicides are more likely to commit suicide. Bill De Blasio was not asked whether he has ever thought about killing himself. That's what the public would like to know, but not what any one, even a reporter, wants to ask. That's very, very rude to ask.

Indirectly, Bill answered that question. He assuaged any doubts we may have about how he lives his life by informing us how he adjusted to his father's war injuries and bad habits. Bill's dad was an injured vet who self-medicated with smoke and drink. Bill, in turn, has great respect for war veterans, does not smoke, and hardly ever drinks. He always has. That's all to the good for his family -- and for us -- the citizens of New York City.

Oct. 01 2013 10:38 AM
Chris from Brooklyn

Public figures can expect, in this day and age, for any personal history to come out and be exposed. Not having read any other story about Mr DeBlasio's family history, this interview seems to have been conducted in very good taste. The subject of suicide and mental illness in one's family is a delicate, difficult subject. Having also experienced suicide in my family , I feel a closer connection to Mr DeBlasio on a human, compassionate level. People who go through tragedy at a young age emerge more mature and more sensitive into their adulthood. This doesn't change anything, since I was planning to vote for him anyway as the Democratic candidate.

Oct. 01 2013 10:23 AM
Peter Engel from Brooklyn

To me the only thing that's shameful here is some poster's discomfort with public discussion about mental illness.

The people attacking Ms. Sale -- who did a fine job -- are up in arms over nothing. The hyenas at the NY Post were doing a story on the suicide of Mr. de Blasio's father. His campaign did the smart thing by getting out in front of the story instead of hiding. They reached out to a real journalist who would tell Mr. de Blasio's story well, without any sensationalism.

Oct. 01 2013 09:46 AM
Betty Samuels

Its interesting hearing what he has to say and how he handled it..also that is resonates still which of course it always will! Its what one does with it that matters.It has nothing to do with politics. I don't think it is anyone's business but since it came out its profound and interesting to hear his thoughts.

Oct. 01 2013 09:07 AM
Asquith Reid

I know Bill deBlasio from way back when. He has done nothing but fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
His unselfish sacrifices and hard work have earned him the right to rise through the political ranks and become New York City's Mayor.
The press is a bunch of dogs who prefer rotten meat. They scavenge for the garbage that they think will arouse the worst in people. All for headlines, regardless of how many lives they ruin.
They are puppets of the government and those who seek to control public opinion for their selfish agenda.
Congratulations, Bill for rising above spite of...

Oct. 01 2013 08:54 AM
Special Monkey from East Village, NYC

Wonderful story !!! I am so glad I know about Bill's father's suicide, it really informs my vote. I understand it is a great way to diffuse / get in front of a NYPost story, but for Christ's sake, how stupid, and who gives a FUCK!

Oct. 01 2013 08:49 AM
Holly L White from Brooklyn

This is not news - it in no way impacts how he will perform as Mayor or even sheds light on his values. It is personal family history. I am disappointed that NYC would conduct this interview.

Oct. 01 2013 08:49 AM

I don't think WNYC is being intrusive, I think they're doing him a favor. I'm sure he's quite happy with the extra media attention, it gives him a chance to appeal to the "I feel bad for you" voter, the ones who haven't been bought off by his populist fantasy promises.

Oct. 01 2013 07:59 AM
Sherman Greene from Upper West Side

Why? What does this have to do with NYC politics? I thought the first two minutes were obscene, & I shut it off after that.

Oct. 01 2013 12:55 AM

This interview in no way furthered the conversation on Mr. de Blasio's fitness to be Mayor of NYC. This is tabloid journalism.

Sep. 30 2013 09:58 PM
Leanne from Brooklyn

I can't believe someone would stoop this low to bring another person down. I think it was beyond intrusive for the NY Post to dig into Mr. De Blasio's father's records and very sad that the media even expected him to comment on something so personal and painful.

The media has turned into a bunch of hyenas willing and able to eat away at anyone and anything in its path. I guess they are doing this out of spite and hatred because billionaire bloombucks pick didn't get the democratic nomination. American so-called "journalists" are nothing more than a cruel group of gossipers. A real journalist would have left a candidate's private matters, private! He doesn't owe anyone any explanations about his father's death.

Sep. 30 2013 09:51 PM
Duncan from Denver

I'm sorry, I fail to see what you all are so up in arms about. While the accusations y'all leveled would be accurate had WNYC been harassing De Blasio, but as is clearly stated, his campaign reached out to them for the interview. It is clear that he would have rather had this remain private, but the NYP saw fit to publish his painful family matter. His campaign reached out to WNYC because, and this is my guess, WNYC (and maybe Ms. Sale) where who Bill elected to speak with.

Good work interviewing about a painful, difficult subject. I feel for Mr. DeBlasio for having to relive these painful memories so publicly.

Sep. 30 2013 09:46 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

WNYC and Anna Sale have now jumped the shark.

I don't care that the reporter brought her voice down to a cozy level; this is an excessive, abusive interview, and far beyond the bounds of taste and good journalism.

Mr. deBlasio doesn't owe you--or anyone else--a word on this subject. Are we so short on news (tasteful and/or quotidien) that you had to follow the New York Post down this slimey rabbit hole? I expect news media the caliber of NPR and WNYC to be far more high-minded in their editorial choices. This is clearly a painful issue for the deBlasio family, and you've gone somewhere you shouldn't have. Shame.

Just stop yourselves already.

Sep. 30 2013 08:08 PM
Cara Muhlhahn from NYC

Is there nothing sacred!!!. Does a man not deserve to keep certain elements of his life private regardless of how public he will be? I thought wnyc had more taste than that. Shame on you!!!

Sep. 30 2013 07:53 PM
Francine Dolins from Ann Arbor, MI

This reporter, Anna Sale, should be ashamed of herself for being a voyeur and asking personal questions of Mr. de Blasio, when the issue of his father's illness and suicide have no impact on the election and should have no interest for the public's perception of this mayoral candidate. Use some kind of ethics in reporting please, Ms. Sale, and report on issues that matter to the public.

Sep. 30 2013 06:22 PM

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