Suicide Vows: When Elderly Couples Bid Farewell Together

The recent dual suicide of Bernard and Georgette Cazes at Paris' landmark Lutetia Hotel is a symbolic nod to the right-to-die movement, but also a melancholic reminder of eternal love.

Lover's knot
Lover's knot
Frédéric Potet and Marion Van Renterghem

PARIS — They are already a legend, Bernard and Georgette Cazes, the elderly lovers who chose to die together because one could not live without the other. The stoic symbolism of their joint suicide at the shared age of 86 is perhaps more romantic because of the location where it was carried out: a luxurious Art Deco room of the famed Lutetia hotel in central Paris.

A few days after the couple's death on Friday, Nov. 22, several of their friends received letters Bernard Cazes had sent them. The one addressed to Michel Kantor, a colleague from the magazine La Quinzaine Littéraire, ended with “Farewell, friend.” The one received by Dominique David, from the French Institute of International Relations (FIIR), had been written with a steady hand. It said Bernard's wife was losing her eyesight and that he could not imagine living without her. “You should know that we will do anything we can to end our lives. It is with difficulty that I bid you farewell,” he wrote.

On Thursday, Bernard and Georgette Cazes had left their quiet home in Issy-les-Moulineaux, in the southwestern outskirts of Paris. They booked a room at the Lutetia, the hotel where Georgette had found her father in 1945 after he spent five years in a German prison. The circle was complete. They lay down next to each other and were found the following day, hand-in-hand, plastic bags over their heads.

The Lutetia in Paris' 6th Arrondisement — Photo: Elaine Vigneault

For some time, Bernard had been putting his affairs in order. He sent friends some of his old articles, disposed of outstanding paperwork, made phone calls to ask for the addresses of people he had not seen in a long time. A former senior official at the French General Planning Commission, the economist and philosopher always had an interest in the future — including planning everything about his own fate.

Thierry de Montbrial, director of the FIIR, remembers him as an “action-fueled intellectual with a beaming smile.” His colleagues at the publication mention his discretion, his passion for the Times Literary Supplement, the detached and caustic humor that made him smile when he read Maurice Nadeau’s Trotskyist tropisms in the Quinzaine.

Georgette, an elegant and refined elderly woman, was a former literature professor who read all the time — relying on bigger and bigger print as her eyesight diminished. Like Bernard, having control over her decisions in life was of fundamental importance. She stopped working one year before the age limit. “She ceased her activities one by one, when she deemed the time had come, a time that only she could decide,” her son Jérôme tells us.

Georgette left two short letters addressed to the State Attorney. The first, written by hand, explained that she “decided to take her own life.” The second, typed, is a formal complaint, accusing “the French state’s lack of respect of its citizens’ rights” when they want to “leave life serenely.”

Pills and two letters

Coincidentally, three days after the discovery of the Lutetia lovers' bodies, another elderly couple was found dead in Paris, following a joint suicide. Aged 84 and 81, the two retirees took their lives together, presumably by ingesting pills, in their apartment located in the Invalides neighborhood of the capital. Next to them, two letters: one explaining the act, the other for the “people to notify.”

What do these two double suicides represent among the 3,000 cases registered every year in France of people aged 65 or older taking their own lives? They are negligible, in statistical terms, but mean much more when it comes to symbolism. Leaving together, hand-in-hand, may say as much about elderly depression as about the right to be able to die with dignity. Premeditated for a few years, as it was for Bernard and Georgette Cazes, the act is also not exclusive to wealthy or intellectual classes.

In July 2007, in the small town of Saint-Rambert-en-Bugey, near the Alps, a couple escaped from a retirement home to throw themselves in front of a train. He was 81, and had started working as a typographer at the age of 12. She was 83 and had worked as a clerk before buying a bar and a hotel-restaurant with her husband. They never had any children and loved each other passionately.

But was the prospect of one dying before the other, as in the other cases, the only reason that led to their decision?

Right to die

Sorting out the reasons that can push someone to commit suicide is no easier when it is done in tandem. In September 2010, in the northern French town of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a couple of retirees were found dead in their car, with their 37-year-old disabled daughter. “Money and housing problems” were blamed.

But there is a particular risk in two people trying to die together: half succeeding. Last July, an 80-year-old man and his 84-year-old wife drove their car into a canal north of Paris. The woman died. The man was “saved.”

Claire Quilliot, wife of the former mayor of Clermont-Ferrand, also lived through such a dual attempt. One July evening in 1998, the couple lay down after ingesting pills and having sent letters to their children, as well as a message that the former mayor and French housing minister, 73, concluded with these words: “We have lived a long life. I don’t feel like being a mere spectator.”

Roger Quilliot

Resuscitated by paramedics, Claire Quilliot would make another attempt at suicide five years later. It failed again. And another in 2005 — which succeeded — by drowning in a lake, by then at the age of 79. She was part of the French Association for the Right to Die with Dignity (ADMD) and could not bear the idea of living without her husband’s “passionate love.”

This same kind of burning love was described by the philosopher André Gorz and his wife Dorine when they took their own lives aged 84 and 83 in September 2007, in their own house. Before disappearing, the essay writer had dedicated a book to his wife (Letter to D.: A Love Story), which he concluded in a premonitory way: “We both wish not to survive the death of the loved one. We told each other that if, who knows, there's a life on the other side, we would want to spend it together.”

Bernard and Georgette Cazes probably thought the same thing before heading upstairs to their room in the Lutetia. They too had always told loved ones they would choose their own time of death. “But," their son Jerome points out, "without ever specifying the date.”

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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