“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”—Neil Young.
Whether or not you agree with Young’s words, it’s hard to deny that a lot of famous people seem to die young. However short their life spans, these actors, writers, musicians, and leaders all managed to make their mark on history in a big way before their tragic and untimely deaths. Here are 50 heartbreaking facts about people who died young.
50. A Modern Tragedy
Born September 14, 1983, died July 23, 2011, age 27.
Amy Winehouse’s music was a mix of jazz, blues, soul, R&B and many others. Sadly, though, her amazing talents were often overshadowed by her personal life, which was filled with addiction and erratic behavior. She died of accidental alcohol poisoning in 2011.
49. The Cursed Tomb
Born c. 1341 BCE, died c. 1323 BCE, age 19.
King Tutankhamun was a pharaoh in the 18th Egyptian dynasty more than 3,000 years ago. His tomb was found by archaeologists in 1922, and since then he’s become one of the most famous ancient Egyptian kings. However, his reign didn’t last long: He died at 19 years old. From what we know, the cause of death was likely an infected leg.
48. Live Long and Prosper
Born March 11, 1989, died June 19, 2016, age 27.
Yelchin was an actor and musician who starred in films like Alpha Dog and the 2009 Star Trek reboot. He died in 2016 when his parked car rolled down his steep driveway and pinned him against a security fence, making him the latest tragic member of the 27 club.
47. You Don’t Get a Nickname Like That for Nothing
Born July 20, 356 BCE, died June 13, 323 BCE, age 32.
Known as one of the greatest military leaders in human history, Alexander of Macedon led his armies across Persia on a campaign that lasted over a decade. He was never defeated in battle, and the empire he created was the largest that the world had ever seen at that time. However, his life of unending conquest and battle took its toll: He died of malaria at age 32.
46. Maybe It’s Not Only the Good Who Die Young
Born August 31, 12 AD, died January 24, 41 AD, age 28.
Emperor of Rome for a little over three years, Caligula (real name Gaius Caesar) was known as one of the Empire’s more cruel leaders. He eliminated political rivals and forced parents to watch their own sons be executed. Eventually, he declared himself to be a god, and the people of Rome had had enough. He was assassinated by a group of guards in 41 AD well before his 29th birthday.
45. All Along the Watchtower
Born November 27, 1942, died September 18, 1970, age 27.
Jimi Hendrix is widely considered one of, if not the, greatest and most influential guitarists of all time. He was entirely self taught. In his short career, he had an enormous effect on rock music. He died in 1970 from drug-related causes.
44. You Could Hear the Pain in Her Voice
Born, January 19, 1943, died October 4, 1970, age 27.
Janis Joplin’s powerful voice echoed throughout rock and roll in the late sixties. She released iconic singles like “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee” before tragically dying from a drug overdose in 1970.
43. This is the End
Born December 8, 1943, died July 3, 1971, age 27.
Jim Morrison was the lead singer of The Doors. Morrison’s reputation for songwriting was only rivaled by his reputation as a sex symbol. In 1971, he left the band and moved to Paris to write poetry. He was found dead in his bathtub shortly after from what is believed to be heart failure related to his substance abuse problems.
42. No Second Fiddle After All
Baptized February 26, 1564, died May 30, 1593, age 29.
Though he’s not as famous as his contemporary William Shakespeare is today, in his time, Christopher Marlowe was a hugely successful and influential playwright. His play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was by far his most popular and enduring. He was killed in 1593 in a fight with three men over the bill at an inn.
41. Rock Me Amadeus
Born January 27, 1756, died December 5, 1791, age 35.
The name Mozart is up there with names like Einstein and Michelangelo as someone who represents the very peak of their field. But while his career was successful and prolific, it didn’t last long. In his early thirties, his mental and physical health began deteriorating, and he died at age 35 of uncertain causes.
40. A Young Poet
Born October 31, 1795, died February 23, 1821, age 25.
British poet John Keats’ poetry was met with a lukewarm response in his lifetime, but has since become revered for its imagery and philosophy. Keats contracted tuberculosis in 1819, and died just two years later.
39. Such Great Heights
Born July 30, 1818, died December 19, 1848, age 30.
One of the Brontë sisters, along with Charlotte and Anne, Emily was made famous by her novel Wuthering Heights, which is still considered a classic of English literature. It would be her only successful work before she died of tuberculosis in 1848.
38. 21 for 21
Born November 23, 1859, died July 14, 1881, age 21.
An icon of the Old West, Billy the Kid was an infamous outlaw and gunfighter. Born in New York City, he headed west at a young age and began his career of violence and bloodshed. He was said to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life. He was hunted down and shot by Sheriff Patrick Garrett in 1881.
37. Death of the Author
Born November 1, 1871, died June 5, 1900, age 28.
Though less popular today, Crane’s work in literary realism was hugely popular and influential in his time. His novels The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets are both considered to be classics. He died of tuberculosis in 1900.
36. Partners in Crime
Born March 24, 1909 (Clyde) and October 1, 1910 (Bonnie). Died May 23, 1934, age 25 and 24, respectively.
Bonnie and Clyde were a famous gangster couple who operated at the height of the Great Depression. Through newspaper coverage and a Hollywood movie, they’ve become known as folk heroes, but during their spree, they killed at least 13 people. Eventually, they were betrayed by a friend and killed in a shootout with police in 1934.
Born September 7, 1936, died February 3, 1959, age 22.
If you like rock and roll in any of its forms, Buddy Holly might be to thank. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were all influenced by his music. His career was cut short, though, when he and two other young musicians were killed in a plane crash on February 3rd, 1959, an event that would go down as “The Day the Music Died” in Don McLean’s hit song “American Pie.”
34. Chantilly Lace
Born October 24, 1930, died February 3, 1959, age 28.
J.P. Richardson Jr., known as “The Big Bopper,” was a former DJ who recorded songs in his spare time. His hit single “Chantilly Lace” brought him fame but he died shortly afterwards in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly.
33. Stay in School
Born, May 13, 1941, died February 3rd, 1959, age 17.
Another young star taken too soon on “The Day the Music Died.” The first hispanic rock star, Valens quit high school at 16 years old to tour as a rock musician. Valens was just 17 when he died along with Holly and The Big Bopper.
32. A Most Maternal Labor
Born December 17, 1937, died March 26, 1969, age 31.
John Kennedy Toole died an unpublished author. However, his mother was determined to posthumously publish his manuscript A Confederacy of Dunces. Thanks to her efforts, the book was printed and even won the Pulitzer Prize. We hope it brought some comfort, considering the matter of Toole’s death; he died by taking his own life in 1969.
31. Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Born September 7, 1964, died March 26, 1995, age 30.
In 1995, hip-hop master Eazy-E, aged only 30, checked himself into the hospital for what he believed to be asthma symptoms a year. The reality was much direr; they diagnosed him with AIDS. While he passed away just one month later, Easy-E spent the last part of his life making amends with his rivals, including Ice Cube, Snoop Dog, and Dr. Dre.
30. A Little Bit of Sympathy
Born November 24, 1864, died September 9, 1901, age 36.
Aristocratic inbreeding came hard for the Post-Impressionist French artist Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec. Born to wealthy first cousins in 1864, Toulouse-Lautrec inherited a disease that stunted the growth of his legs. His adult height was just 5 feet tall. To cope with his angst, he became addicted to the “green fairy,” AKA absinthe. During his 36 years of life, Toulouse-Lautrec also became as a leading name in art for his empathetic treatment of tawdry subjects, such as cabaret, in Parisian life.
29. For the Children
Born May 4, 1958, died February 16, 1990, age 31.
Keith Haring transformed the way that New York art nerds would think about graffito. His murals were used to give children a creative purpose. But he was tragically diagnosed with AIDS in 1987. Haring would devote the last three years of his life to producing as much art as he could and establishing the Keith Haring Foundation to raise awareness and promote AIDS advocacy.
28. I Knew Them Before They Were Famous
Born June 23, 1940, died April 10, 1962, age 21.
Sometimes called “The Fifth Beatle,” Sutcliffe was a close friend of John Lennon’s and the original bass player for the group. However, he would leave the band in 1961, never even recording in studio with them and seeing none of their success. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1962, before the Beatles had even charted a single hit.
27. The Bombshell Blonde
Born June 1, 1926, died August 5, 1962, age 36.
In her lifetime, Monroe was one of the biggest stars in the world, and she’s still considered a sex symbol today. She starred in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot, and had high-profile marriages with baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller. Monroe died of a drug overdose in 1962. According to the coroner’s report, Marilyn Monroe overdosed on at least 40 Nembutal pills, but there wasn’t a single pill found in Marilyn’s stomach. The coroner explained that this was likely because she was an addict, and as such, her body would have digested the pills faster. This explanation hasn’t satisfied conspiracy theorists who maintain the there was foul play.
26. A Poet’s Pain
Born October 27, 1932, died February 11, 1963, age 30.
Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and her poetry collections The Colossus and Ariel are all still popular today, and her Collected Poems won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Plath is also remembered for her troubled marriage to poet Ted Hughes and her struggles with depression; she committed suicide in 1963.
25. The Real Fifth Beatle
Born September 19, 1934, died August 27, 1967, age 32.
Stu Sutcliffe and many other people were called “The Fifth Beatle” over the years, but Paul McCartney himself said “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.” The band’s manager, Epstein influenced the Fab Four in terms of dress and performance, and played a major role in their meteoric success. In 1966, the Beatles retired from live performances, and Epstein’s influence waned. He died from a drug overdose a year later.
24. The King of Southern Soul
Born September 9, 1941, died December 10, 1967, age 26.
Known as the King of Southern Soul, Otis Redding was an early legend of rock and roll, popular with both black and white audiences. He died in a plane crash, along with four members of his backup band, in 1967, just a few days after recording the song that would come to define his career, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
23. The Other First Man
Born March 9, 1934, died March 27, 1968, age 34.
Gagarin was the Russian cosmonaut who famously became the first person to travel to space in 1961. His flight lasted just 108 minutes, and he traveled around the Earth at 27,400 kilometers per hour. He died in 1968 in a plane crash before he could return to space again.
22. The Master
Born November 27, 1940, died July 20, 1973, age 32.
Maybe the most popular martial artist ever, Bruce Lee brought Chinese martial arts to Hollywood cinema with movies like Fists of Fury and Enter the Dragon. Lee died in 1973 from an unexpected reaction to painkillers.
21. The Van Gogh of English Singer-Songwriters
Born June 19, 1948, died November 25, 1974, age 26.
Almost entirely unknown in his lifetime, Nick Drake’s music has since become beloved by fans all over the world. Unfortunately, Drake never lived to see his music appreciated. He died from an overdose of his antidepressants in 1974, which most people believe to have been a suicide.
20. The Answer Is a Needle in the Hay
Born August 6, 1969, died October 21, 2003, age 34.
Elliot Smith struggled with mental health issues all his life, stemming from a troubled childhood with his stepfather. He died at the age of 34 from an inconclusive suicide. According to his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, the two had been arguing when Chiba locked herself in the bathroom for a shower. Chiba then heard a scream. She found Smith with a knife in his chest and pulled it out. He had left a note, and the coroner listed his death as “suicide” with homicide as an open possibility. His posthumous albums were released to continued critical acclaim.
19. Heights of Tragedy
Born July 12, 1884, died January 24, 1920, age 35.
The Franco-Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani was not alone on his journey to the grave. The 35-year-old contemporary of Picasso died of tubercular meningitis on January 24, 1920. His widow—who was eight months pregnant with the couple’s second child—threw herself from a window in an apparent suicide just a single day later.
Paul Guillaume and Amedeo Modigliani
18. A Viking Burial for Bysshe
Born August 4, 1792, died July 8, 1822, age 29.
Percy Bysshe Shelley involved himself in enough tragic things—like friendship with Lord Byron—to fill his own list. But his life came to a grim conclusion in 1822, when the writer drowned in while sailing on the Gulf of Spezia. Some literary conspiracy theorists claim he delicately took his own life at sea. His widow, Mary Shelley, would insist the boat simply wasn’t seaworthy.
In either case, Shelley was just one month shy of his 30th birthday. When the body was cremated, everything burned except for his heart, which had calcified. Instead of burying it, Mary Shelley wrapped the heart in a silken shroud, and supposedly carried it with her almost everywhere she went. One year after her death, the heart was found in her desk wrapped in the pages of one of Percy’s final poems.
17. No Future
Born May 10, 1957, died February 2, 1979, age 21.
The Sex Pistols were one of the world’s first and most influential punk rock bands. Perhaps nobody embodied the band more than Vicious, their troubled bass player. In late 1978, his girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found dead of a stab wound on the floor of their hotel room. Vicious, in a drug-fueled haze, at times said he couldn’t remember what happened, and at others confessed to killing her. Though released on bail shortly after, he entered a downward spiral, and was found dead from a drug overdose a few months later.
16. Love Will Tear Us Apart
Born July 15, 1956, died May 18, 1980, age 23.
The lead singer and songwriter of the band Joy Division, Ian Curtis’ music was dark, moody, and likely inspired in part by the intense depression Curtis suffered from his entire life. He committed suicide by hanging in 1980. His story was dramatized in the 2007 movie Control.
15. One Love, One Heart
Born February 6, 1945, died May 11, 1981, age 36.
Undoubtedly the world’s most influential reggae musician, Bob Marley’s music is still hugely popular worldwide. He helped introduce the world to the genre, and was perhaps the first international superstar to come from outside the developed world. He died of cancer in 1981 at just 36 years old.
14. An Admirable Legacy
Born July 28, 1958, died June 28, 1981, age 22.
Diagnosed with cancer at age 18, Terry Fox had his right leg amputated as a result. He was then inspired to undertake his “Marathon of Hope,” in which he would run, artificial leg and all, from one side of Canada to the other to raise money for cancer research. He made it thousands of miles, but unfortunately, before he could make it through the province of Ontario, his cancer returned and he was forced to stop. He died in hospital a little over a year later, and has since become a Canadian national hero. Every year, millions of dollars are raised for cancer research at events in his name—totaling $750 million as of January 2018.
13. The Curse of the Crow
Born February 1, 1965, died March 31, 1993, age 28.
The son of Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee became an actor like his father, starring in kung fu films like Legacy of Rage and Kung Fu: The Movie. In 1993, he was cast in the film adaptation The Crow comic books, and during filming he was meant to be shot at by a gun with blanks. However, due to complications with a prop gun, Lee was accidentally shot. He died from his injuries shortly after.
12. Child Prodigy
Born August 23, 1970, died October 31, 1993, age 23.
Older brother to Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix was a teen idol whose roles ranged from the troubled Chris Chambers in Stand By Me to young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He died from a drug overdose outside the famous Viper Room in West Hollywood in 1993.
11. Still I Rise
Born June 16, 1971, died September 13, 1996, age 25.
Tupac Shakur was one of biggest names in the gangsta rap scene of the nineties. He was closely involved in gangs in his early life, which inspired his music but which also created tensions for him as his fame grew. He was shot and killed by an unknown person in 1996, likely because of the growing East Coast/West Coast rap feud. According to Las Vegas police officer Chris Carroll, the first on the scene, Tupac’s last words were “f*** you,” after which he refused to speak to any other police officer.
10. Life After Death
Born May 21, 1972, died March 9, 1997, age 24.
If Tupac was the face of West Coast gangsta rap, Biggie was the same for the East Coast. He was discovered by Puff Daddy in the early ’90s, and would go on to record some of the most popular rap music ever created. He was killed in 1997 by another unknown gunman, potentially again in connection to the East Coast/West Coast feud.
9. One in a Million
Born January 16, 1979, died August 25, 2001, age 22.
Aaliyah became a star early in her life, signing a recording contract at age 12 and releasing her first hit album at age 15. She was killed in a plane crash at 22 years old, just shortly after she had starred in Romeo Must Die and released her third album.
8. The “27 Club”
Not so much a person as a group of people who’ve inadvertently joined a special club: the phenomenon known as the 27 Club links together the large number of artists and musicians who’ve died at the age of 27.
In 2011, a medical journal published a study concluding that the 27 Club is more of a coincidental phenomenon than an actual statistical likelihood, so if you’re 27 and an artist, no worries.
7. The Father of the Blues
Born May 8, 1911, died August 16, 1938, age 27.
You maybe haven’t heard of Robert Johnson, perhaps the greatest blues guitarist of all time, but you’ve definitely heard his story. Johnson was a hugely influential early blues musician who was said to have sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play the guitar. At age 27, Johnson was poisoned and died a few days later, and was one of the first famous musicians to join the infamous “27 Club.”
6. Radiant Child
Born December 22, 1960, died August 12, 1988, age 27.
Beginning as a street artist who made graffiti under the name SAMO, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art would eventually become world-renowned. As he became more popular, he began to struggle more and more with drug use. He died of an overdose in 1988.
5. The Man Behind the Joker
Born April 4, 1979, died January 22, 2008, age 28.
Beginning his career with movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale, Heath Ledger quickly became known as a talented actor. He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Brokeback Mountain, becoming one of the youngest people ever nominated for the award. Shortly after portraying the Joker in The Dark Knight, Ledger died from an accidental drug overdose. He would posthumously receive the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role.
4. Candle in the Wind
Born July 1, 1961, died August 31, 1997, age 36.
The mother of Prince William and Prince Harry and the onetime wife of Prince Charles, Princess Diana was a hugely popular figure in the British Commonwealth in her lifetime, and was known for her humanitarian efforts. Her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996 shocked the world but she remained popular. She was killed in a car crash, along with her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, in 1997. Twenty years after the fatal car crash, a firefighter named Xavier Gourmelon revealed Princess Diana’s last words, spoken before she as she was pulled from the wreckage: “My God, what’s happened?” She suffered cardiac arrest shortly after being loaded onto a stretcher. She was resuscitated, but died later in hospital of her injuries.
While many blamed the paparazzi for the crash, who were relentlessly pursuing the car Diana was in at the time, an investigation in 1999 revealed that Henri Paul, the driver of the car, was under the influence of alcohol and several prescription drugs, which could explain his inability to keep control of the car at such high speeds. As such, no charges were laid on the photographers who’d been chasing Diana that night.
3. The Maid of Orleans
Born c. 1412, died May 30, 1431, age 19.
Jeanne D’Arc, or Joan of Arc, as we know her, was a young French woman who, after having visions of God, helped lead the French to victory over the English at Orléans during the Hundred Years War. Captured by the English a year later, she was convicted of heresy. But, contrary to popular belief, that’s not what she was executed for. She was offered life imprisonment if she admitted guilt, and she signed a document confessing to her sins and pledging to change her heretical ways. But you can’t keep a good woman down: days later, Joan put her male soldiers’ clothing back on and defiantly claimed to hear voices again. The judges, furious, condemned her to the stake as a “relapsed heretic”—but not for straight-up heresy.
2. Live Fast, Die Young
Born February 8, 1931, died September 30, 1955, age 24.
In a short span, James Dean became a cultural icon and a symbol for 1950s youth. He is only one of two actors to win Academy Awards for Best Actor posthumously, winning in 1955 for East of Eden and in 1956 for Giant. He died in a car crash in 1955. Although Dean’s passenger, Rolf Wütherich, did not remember the moments before the crash when he was interrogated in the coroner’s deposition, sources report that Dean’s last words were, “That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us” right before he crashed into a car crossing over the center line.
1. Heart-Shaped Box
Born February 20, 1967, died April 5, 1994, age 27.
As the lead singer and songwriter for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain pioneered grunge music, creating extremely unique and influential music in the early nineties. The albums Nevermind and In Utero enjoy popularity and acclaim to this day. However, Cobain struggled with depression and anxiety his entire life, and struggled to deal with the fame that his music brought. He committed suicide in 1994.
Due to the high-profile nature of the case and the rampant conspiracy theories perpetuated by fans, Seattle Police decided to revisit the case of Cobain’s suicide in 2014. Detectives claimed an undeveloped roll of film with photographs of the scene that had sat in an evidence locker for years. These photos provided a clearer image of Cobain’s final moments than the Polaroids that had been previously used. Upon re-evaluation of the scene, the detective only confirmed the finding that Cobain had killed himself, but they initially refused to release these new photos to the public, saying “What are people going to gain from seeing pictures of Kurt Cobain laying on the ground with his hair blown back, with blood coming out of his nose and trauma to his eyes from a penetrating shotgun wound. How’s that going to benefit anybody?” However, some of the photos, including one tragically showing the hospital bracelet he still had on his arm from the detox program that he had escaped from just days before his death, were later made publicly available.
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