Anna Sale is the host and managing editor of Death, Sex & Money, WNYC’s interview show about the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation.
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 away...you 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.