Richard Connor: It’s true and all too tragic – success can’t buy happiness

Kate Spade in 2004. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

My reading habits inextricably lead me to stories about leaders and those with a reputation for business success. I presume I am seeking to unlock the secret to entrepreneurial magic.

Usually, the magic I discover is not at all secretive. Hard work, attention to details, and a passion for work are the keys. What is often characterized as “vision” is not a sharply defined objective seen in clear-eyed, 20/20 focus but a flickering dream illumined by the courage to chase it.

As the first full week of June brought the premature heat of summer, The New York Times, still the best newspaper in the world and one of the world’s best excuses to retreat to a cool room and read, served up stories about a pair of successful entrepreneurs. One of the stories was thoroughly uplifting; the other was sad in the way that only stories with tragic endings can be.

First was a feature about Maguy Le Coze, cofounder with her brother and still owner of Le Bernadin, the Midtown Manhattan seafood restaurant. It was written by Alan Richman, if you go searching.

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Then came a torrent of news and information about designer Kate Spade, who at 55 committed suicide by hanging herself in her New York apartment.

Days later, the stories about Spade, the empire she built after exploding onto the fashion scene with an innovative line of women’s handbags, and, finally, her untimely death continue to roll through my mind. I can’t stop wondering what tragic collision of life’s challenges led someone who had known such enviable summits of success to an inescapable valley of despair.

Spade and her husband, Andy Spade, built a company that had profits of $100,000 in 1993 and sold for $2.4 billion to Tapestry Inc. in 2017.

In the rough and tumble, fiercely competitive and vengeful business of fashion, Kate Spade was known as kind, unassuming, funny and totally without airs.

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“She was so sharp and quick on her feet. She could make me laugh so hard,” her husband’s brother, comedic actor David Spade, wrote on Instagram after her death.

And she was generous. Kate and Andy Spade used their wealth to create a philanthropic foundation focused on encouraging economic empowerment for women.

Stories such as hers remind us that success in business and monetary wealth do not necessarily equate to happiness and security.

According to her husband, Spade suffered for many years with depression and anxiety. When I read about her and others who suffered similar fates, my mind attempts to mold questions around rational behavior and norms but of course rationality has nothing to do with mental illness.

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Spade had a 13-year old daughter and when we try to imagine how someone could leave a child with this legacy – well, we just can’t. We can’t because on most good days we are all rational and somewhat clear-thinking.

Rumbling through my mind as I have fixated on this death is an essay I read years ago. It was by the late novelist John Gardner, a 1960s and ’70s writer who was on the verge of committing suicide but stopped because, as he recalled and wrote: “Suicide by a parent sentences at least one of their children to the same fate.”

I doubt there is scientific, empirical data to back up his statement but it struck me as true then and it does now.

Depression is crippling and I have seen it among friends. Watching a friend grapple with it years ago I set out to learn more. The best book I found was Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by the novelist William Styron. It both explains the ravages of the illness and also offers hope for those who can go the distance with it.

According to a Washington Post report about a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates in this country have increased dramatically since the turn of the century. In half of all states, the Post reported, suicides increased by 30 percent or more between 1999 and 2016 – a year in which there were nearly 45,000 suicides in the United States. In many cases, the deaths involved people who had no known history of mental illness.

“You just never know the demons that people are dealing with,” Fern Mallis, a fashion industry consultant who knew Spade during her rise to prominence, told the Associated Press.

If you choose to do so, it’s interesting to compare and contrast the story about Maguy Le Coze with that of Kate Spade. Both have been highly successful business people in highly demanding and challenging businesses and in the jungle of New York City. One, at 73, is still at the top of her game. The other, nearly 20 years younger, was unable to go on for just one more day.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at