Can celebrities trust their doctors?

6 minute read

Doctors to the rich and famous invariably relish a vicarious involvement in their patients' lives


Last year was not a good year for rock stars, let alone actors and other celebrities.

While not dying like flies, there have been enough ascending to the giant rock arena in the sky to make one examine the phenomenon.

From the unroyally descended Prince to the troubled George Michael, the list of premature deaths is surprisingly long considering the marvellously extended lifespans that baby boomers now expect. It does not take more than a brief scrutiny to see how many have died from drug and alcohol abuse, thereby honouring a long tradition in their business.

It is no mystery that substance abuse is so rife in the entertainment industry. Rock stars, regardless of their talent, will, by nature, be petulant, self-indulgent, narcissistic and demanding individuals; it was ever thus and will ever be.

The pressures of celebrity are not easy to deal with. The hours are long and difficult, there is constant pressure to produce more hits and they are surrounded by pushers and users eager to attract victims with money.

Add to this, the reality of is that those who go into the creative business are often troubled, insecure or depressed personalities. For proof of this just consider how many actors have social phobia to start with.

There are almost too many examples to mention. Charlie Chaplin’s father, an actor, died at a young age of cirrhosis of the liver. The Barrymores, possibly encouraged by a tendency to manic depression, drowned themselves in alcohol. Heroin was popular in the jazz age – witness Charlie Parker. The hugely talented Bix Beiderbecke, dead at 28, was a tragic booze hound. At 29, Hank Williams, the greatest country and western singer of them all, died in a drug-fuelled haze. Elvis Presley, who became a bloated carcass so full of tablets that he rattled, fell off the toilet at 42. More recent cases, all sadly missed, include guitarist Mike Bloomfield and Canned Heat vocalist Bob Hite.

The excesses of today’s rock stars coincide with the cultural view that drug use is not just acceptable, but desirable. To use drugs is mandatory cool. Add to that the commercialisation of supply, despite its illegality, to an extent not seen since prohibition; and, technological improvements that has provided drugs of fantastic potency such as hydroponic cannabis, crystal meth and crack cocaine.

Abuse is not restricted to street or recreational drugs. There is often a pattern of insomnia, fatigue or pain treated with prescription medications, which becomes part of the daily chemical soup until it is impossible to decide which one is the chief offender. Herein lies the role of the celebrity doctor. They make indecent amounts of money from their marks and invariably relish the vicarious involvement with the rich and famous.

Elvis Presley was supplied with obscene amounts of drugs by Dr Nick Nichopoulos. Dr Conrad Murray put Michael Jackson on what was effectively an anaesthetic to get him to sleep – and thus despatch him to moonwalk nirvana. A colleague at medical school got into trouble for his generous prescriptions of benzodiazepines to actor Winona Ryder. Howard Hughes who, despite his reclusive existence must count as a celebrity, became addicted to opiates after a plane crash, having several doctors on retainer to keep him supplied.

There have been many, many more. Mostly, it is remarkable how little penalty is exacted from these doctors for behaviour that effectively amounts to medical manslaughter.

Their invariable defence is that they were doing the best they could to control their patient’s addiction, thereby indicating, if nothing else, that they had their fingers crossed when uttering the primum non nocere (do no harm) part of the Hippocratic oath.

These doctors pale into insignificance next to Max Jacobson, aka Dr Feelgood or Miracle Max. Jacobson’s modus operandi, to use the appropriate forensic term, was to give “miracle tissue regenerator injections” of amphetamines, animal hormones, bone marrow, enzymes, human placenta, painkillers, steroids, and multivitamins. If supplying drugs to celebrities is your mark of success, then he hit the jackpot: no less than former US president John Kennedy.

The president relied on Jacobson to pump him up with amphetamines for energy and vitality – the effect on his rampant libido was a happy bonus. His injections nearly caused a disaster at the Vienna conference with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and led the Russians to believe Kennedy was weak and unpredictable, if not vulnerable.

Jacobson would frequently visit the White House to treat his patient, but this came to an end after 1962 when another of the president’s doctors threatened to report him.

This did not restrain his feckless dispensing. The list of entertainers and celebrities supplied with amphetamines by Jacobson, who was based in New York, is phenomenal: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Leonard Bernstein, Humphrey Bogart, Yul Brynner, Maria Callas, Truman Capote, Montgomery Clift, Rosemary Clooney, Cecil B. DeMille, Marlene Dietrich, Eddie Fisher, Judy Garland, Alan Jay Lerner, Mickey Mantle, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe, Zero Mostel, Anthony Quinn, Paul Robeson, Nelson Rockefeller, David O. Selznick, Elizabeth Taylor, Billy Wilder and Tennessee Williams.

Many of the users found they could not do without the shots and became addicted, making them even more dependent on Jacobson.

Problems arose with the death in 1969 of former presidential photographer Mark Shaw at the age of 47. The autopsy showed that he had died of acute and chronic intravenous amphetamine poisoning. Jacobson’s office was raided, the drugs removed and his medical licence revoked in April 1975.

Jacobson was a mirror-image of Hitler’s quack doctor, Theodor Morell. Both were appalling physicians with poor personal hygiene but an uncanny hold over their patients, facilitated by the energising injections of vitamins, amphetamines and organ preparations they gave.

There were two essential difference, however. Jacobson was Jewish and had to flee the Nazis to Prague, Paris and ultimately New York. Secondly, although Morell may have used his own products from time to time, there is no evidence that he was addicted. Jacobson, on the other hand, was a heavy user of amphetamines until his death, which in all likelihood was hastened by that drug abuse.

Addicted rock stars, actors and entertainers come and go. Sadly, far too many of the truly talented are taken from us too early because of their drug use. Whatever the issues when they start, when celebrity doctors become involved, the outcome can be fatal.

Robert M Kaplan is still working on his latest book

End of content

No more pages to load

Log In Register ×