Dead at 39

This post is about life and gifts.

Last night, we watched the George Gershwin movie, “Rhapsody in Blue,” made in 1945. The lead was played by Robert Alda, Alan Alda’s dad. Alan Alda was Captain Hawkeye Pierce in the long-running M*A*S*H television series, among other successful roles.

In the Rhapsody in Blue movie, George Gershwin’s key trait was his inability to rest. He was always in a huge hurry to finish the current project so he could start another. It’s easy to say that he was pressed (almost to distraction) to create because he had a sense he would be dead at age 39, but is that possible? 

Did he know? 

He never married. He was as much a failure at romance as he was a success at writing music. His gift came with a cost. Is that true of other gifted people? These talented individuals died early, too. Elvis Presley was 42 at his death, Judy Garland, 47, Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46.  And Robin Williams, 53. 

Did they know?

We all have gifts. Some of us have more than others. Some people’s gifts are more evident to outsiders because movies or plays or musical pieces make the gifts public. For some folks, their gifts are never opened. The gifts are left under life’s tree and are never claimed. Maybe those people are spared the angst of Gershwin, et al. 

Do we know? 

I would like to say my gifts have come with a cost, but they haven’t. I haven’t pursued them to distraction. Is that good or bad? Does every gifted person who pursues their talent die early? No. But on the other hand, what is the cost of not opening your gift, or at least only opening one end? Has that life been a waste? What would have happened if Gershwin lived longer? Garland? Would they have lived longer without the hot pursuit of fame, perfection, creation? What drove them? Would a longer life have been worth it? What were they here to do?


My ficitious novel “Deathlist, Death, and the Devil” lets people know how long they have to live. Exacty. How. Long. With or without gifts. With or without using them to build tall buildings, swing a golf club, write an opera, or sing in the choir. 

If you knew you were going to be dead at 39, would you live differently? I would hope I would live my life here forward with a different speed and heightened pressure to finish. For that, I would need to embrace  fearlessness. So I ask…

What would you do if you knew?