The Strange Death of the Twin Gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus – WKT5 #17
On July 19, 1975, building handyman, Bill Terrell, responding to complaints of a foul odor coming from a 10th floor locked apartment at 460 E. 63d St. and York Ave. in New York City, discovered the bodies of Dr. Cyril Marcus and his twin brother, Dr. Stewart Marcus. As first reported in the New York Daily News, Cyril was lying face down on the bed in a pair of shorts. Stewart’s body was found on the floor in another room near and identical matching bed, lying face up and completely naked. The handyman told police the place was disheveled, with large amounts of cash scattered throughout the apartment (this later turned out to amount to approximately 22 dollars) though there were no signs of a struggle. One of the armchairs was covered in human excrement. There were conflicting reports of both brothers living in the posh Upper East Side apartment, but the doorman said it was Cyril’s place and only he lived there.
The twin brothers were in their mid-40s. The medical examiner stated that, “Very roughly, it seems like Stewart had been dead for four days when he was found, and Cyril had been dead for only two days.” Their deaths were considered bizarre as there were no signs of violence. The medical examiner said that further tests would be done to determine whether they might have died from “some drug or chemical” reason.
The medical examiner’s officer conducted over 30 chemical tests on the bodies of Stewart and Cyril Marcus and still were not able to determine what killed the twin gynecologists. Despite reports that their apartment was littered with rubbish including liquor and prescription drug bottles ( by one report over 100 drug bottles), there were no traces of alcohol, barbiturates, narcotics or depressants in their systems.
Doctors Cyril and Stewart Marcus were nationally known physicians affiliated with the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center (today part of the medical complex that occupies several city blocks at 68th and York – Cornell Medical College, Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, etc…). The twins bore the titles of clinical assistant professors of obstetrics and gynecology and were co-directors of Cornell Hospital’s Infertility Clinic. They both published influential articles in some of the leading medical journals.
Some pointed to stressors and changes in recent months. Dr. Stanley Birnbaum of New York Hospital reported to the New York Daily News that the doctors were, “very dedicated, quiet and conscientious,” but that “they seemed to be having some emotional problems over the past year.” A 10th floor neighbor at their Sutton Terrace apartment put it more bluntly: “They were pretty weird.” The doorman at an East Side apartment where Cyril would often pick up his two daughters at his ex-wife’s apartment commented, “two years ago, he looked fine. But lately he looked awful – rundown, skinny. Since last summer I’d say he lost at least 20 pounds. He looked gaunt, very ill.” Staff at New York Hospital said that Stewart Marcus had always remained a bachelor.
In the fall of 1975, Linda Wolfe wrote an article for New York magazine called, “The Strange Death of the Twin Gynecologists”. Wolfe was an essayist, and is best known for her book, Wasted: The Preppie Murder, about the 1986 murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin, who was found strangled in Central Park adjacent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Robert Chambers was quickly arrested, the two had once dated, and had been seen together the prior evening at Dorian’s Red Hand, a bar near the museum at 84th Street. Wolfe had once been a patient of Stewart Marcus. She had experienced first hand the doctor’s odd behavior. During one visit, Stewart Marcus began to “shout and scream” at Wolfe, until her husband intervened and the couple stormed out of his office.
For years, both brothers had been taking massive doses of Nembutal, but as there were no signs of drugs in their systems at the time of death, medical experts ultimately concluded that the twins died from withdrawal after a desperate attempt to kick their prescription drug habit. Some questioned this ruling as there were no typical signs of withdrawal at the time of death – no bruising, tongue biting, or brain hemorrhaging. New tests were conducted and the determination was revised to conclude that Stewart could have died from withdrawal, but not his minutes-younger brother, Cyril. How did Cyril die? Even stranger, Cyril had outlived his brother by several days, and was observed leaving the apartment, only to ultimately return and die later alongside Stewart. Why did Cyril leave the apartment, and then why did he decide to return?
The twins grew up in 1930s Binghamton, New York, then later Bayonne, New Jersey. Not identical twins, though the two looked alike, the brothers were always together from childhood through their school years. Neither were athletic. No footballs for the Marcus brothers, their physician father bought them a chemistry set. They enjoyed playing doctor. “They didn’t seem to need anyone but each other.” a classmate remarked. The twins wore similar white shirts, with ties and jackets. “They were formal all the time, as if they couldn’t bear to face the world without putting on some kind of a mask.” Stewart’s one-time fiancee offered, “The twins were snobs”.
After medical school, when the Marcus brothers began their medical residencies together, a fellow student remarked:
“They were schizoid…. When they talked to you – and most of the time they didn’t talk to anyone, just to one another – you got the distinct impression that their responses were artificial, that they didn’t really have emotions that other people did, but were aping others’ emotions, trying to imitate them.”Linda Wolfe, The Professor and the Prostitute and Other True Tales of Murder and Madness, (New York, Open Road Media, August 26, 2014), 121
Former patients were similarly troubled. One woman who eventually gave birth to twins commented how Stewart, her obstetrician, greeted the impending news with contempt and distain, “… it was as if giving birth to twins was something too special for the likes of me.” Offered another:
“Having them in attendance was horrible. One checked with his fingers to see how far I was dilated. Then he called his brother, and had him check too. Then they did it again. It was painful enough to have one person checking the dilation, excruciating to have two people doing it. It was also, I should add, totally unnecessary. But they did it anyway. It was as if one couldn’t bear to do something without sharing what he was doing with his brother.”Linda Wolfe, The Professor and the Prostitute and Other True Tales of Murder and Madness, (New York, Open Road Media, August 26, 2014), 122
Only once did the twins separate, when Stewart transferred briefly to University Hospital at Stanford. Within a year he was back in New York and started a private practice with Cyril. In the 60s their medical practice prospered. They did research and published in many scientific journals. They co-authored what was considered a classic textbook, Advances in Obstetrics and Gynecology. It’s not known at what point prescription drugs entered their lives, but by the 1970s they had become addicted to barbiturates and amphetamines. All the while delivering babies and performing medical procedures. Their behavior became arrogant and erratic. One day Cyril threw a tray of sterilized instruments at a patient. He would often call patients from restaurants like P.J. Clarke’s and ramble on with stories such as the one about a woman he claimed to have treated for the after-effects of having sex with a large dog.
Their building handyman, Bill Terrell believed that in 1972 Cyril suffered an overdose. Terrell was passing through the hallway when he heard a buzzing coming from inside Cyril’s apartment. He knocked, then pounded on the door but no one answered. Alarmed, Terrell immediately called Stewart, telling him, “There’s something not quite kosher at your brother’s place. I think he needs your help.” Terrell said that Stewart then put down the phone for approximately 90 seconds. Terrell said he had the feeling that Stewart was somehow, “consulting the air waves, communing with his brother.” (others have speculated he may have also been considering to cut ties with Cyril then and there, or merely taking the time to pull himself together, no doubt being in a drug-induced state of his own). After what seemed like an eternity, Terrell finally heard, “You’re right. He needs help. I’ll be right over.” Stewart and Terrell found Cyril lying fully clothed and unconscious in the foyer of his apartment. He was resuscitated, hospitalized, then quickly back at his practice seeing patients, though it has been suggested that Cyril suffered a stroke during this overdose that may have caused brain damage.
By 1974 their once crowded waiting room had emptied. The office grew dirty, the rent went unpaid, the brothers’ speech slurred. The medical profession has always been slow to deal with problems amongst its own for fear of a lawsuit, but by 1975 the chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Hospital, Dr. Fritz Fuchs, gave the Marcus brothers an ultimatum: get treatment or resign. The twins opted to kick their drug habit alone, without assistance. They isolated in Cyril’s apartment, stocked with TV dinners and anticonvulsive medication. At some point, one of them went to a drugstore to pickup a barbiturate prescription. Sometime between July 10 and July 14, Stewart overdosed on Nembutal and died.
And this is were things get even weirder. After Stewart’s death the doorman of the apartment had an encounter with Cyril. The younger twin appeared to be trying to escape, making his way out of the building. The doorman noticed Cyril’s disorientation and frailty and offered to help. Cyril curtly brushed him aside with, “I can manage on my own”, but once out in the street, he quickly retreated back into the apartment. Back with Stewart, Cyril left a kind of a suicide note. He placed a copy of the Iris Murdoch novel, A Fairly Honorable Defeat face down in the middle of one of the rooms. The book is about two brothers, and a mischievous and satanic figure named Julius who makes a bet he can break up the relationship between a homosexual couple. Other than medical works, it was the only book found in the apartment. After placing the book, Cyril appears to have simply lied down and waited to die.
In the fall of 1987, I arrived in New York City. I wanted to study acting, and got accepted to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Some friends of mine, Greg and Kenton, from my University of Toronto days, were now doing graduate work at Sloan Kettering and offered up their couch in their student housing apartment, located at 70th St. and York Ave. I think I arrived by train via Grand Central Station, then took a cab to the Upper East Side.
Manhattan in 1987 was still not so different from New York in the 70s. The Deuce was not yet gentrified. It was unsafe to walk through Central Park at night. There must have been a garbage strike, I remember mountains of debris piled along the curbs. At night the rats would follow you for several blocks.
Coming from Toronto, I knew crime, but not American type crime. Everyone remembered the Alison Parrott murder. The 11-year-old girl had been lured to Varsity Stadium the previous summer, her remains found two days later in the woods near Etobicoke. Greg, Kenton and I had lived in a dorm behind Varsity Stadium. We all remembered that. But we had never experienced anything like the ‘the preppie murder‘. Robert Chambers’ legal process was playing out in the New York courts in the fall of 1987. It was hard to ignore the 24-hour updates in the New York Post and Daily News. Chambers was roughly our age. He dressed nice. He didn’t appear like the sort of sex pervert we’d been told all our lives to watch out for. I know at some point we all found ourselves at Dorian’s Red Hand, the 84th Street bar where Chambers and Jennifer Levin were last seen before Chambers strangled her. Finishing our beers, we did not then venture to the crime scene together. That I did alone. It was a grassy area in the south shadow of The Met ( today, near the Group of Bears sculpture). Chambers would later try to explain it was all some kind of misunderstanding – Jennifer had enjoyed rough sex. Chambers’ skin was found under Levin’s fingernails, where she had gouged him, attempting to stop him from strangling the life out of her.
I did not often come that far west to the eastern edge of Central Park. My morning commute each day in 1987 was a sixteen block straight-shot down York or First Ave. Recently I Googled my walk to school, but there was little I recognized. Diners have been replaced with Starbucks. Everything appeared bigger, and higher. I remember along First, just before the Feeling Groovy bridge there was a run of a Chippendales, a TGI Friday’s, then finally some comedy club – Comedy Works or Comedy Store or something. Early in the mornings there was always a lot of puke from the previous evening, and some poor slob would be out front hosing it down. Then you’d cross under the 59th Street bridge, that little parkette from Manhattan would be on your left. A few more blocks and you’d reach 54th, where The Playhouse was located.
The Neighborhood Playhouse, and its acting founder, Sanford Meisner, were most famous for teaching Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton. First year was a little like the military where they’d strip you down then slowly build you back up. Full Metal Jacket was coming out then, and my teacher was a lot like the Gunnery Sergeant in that film. Robert Modica was a chain smoking, former Marine, and self-proclaimed former Jesuit. He looked a little like the actor, Robert Loggia. Modica yelled a lot, there were a lot of fists slamming of tables, and he would give speeches about our fallen boys at Anzio, Iwo Jima, Saipan and Guadalcanal. It was only years later when I realized that these sermons were modified versions of the William Demarest bar speech from Preston Sturges’ Hail The Conquering Hero.
At that time, everyone wanted to study at The Neighborhood Playhouse. One day I came in the front door and there in the dimly lit lobby – the whole place was dimly lit, like someone went around remove every second lightbulb to save on the electric bill – was Joan Rivers and her teenage daughter, Melissa looking like Regan from The Exorcist. I don’t know if Melissa wasn’t good enough or lost interest, but I never saw her again.
I would learn later that of course they all had lived in that midtown neighborhood. Rivers was near 54th and 1st, her friend and celebrity hairstylist, Ken Battelle lived a block up on 55th, his studio, Kenneth’s was located further down 54th at Madison. Battelle was responsible for reviving Marilyn Monroe’s look in the late 50s, so of course she had lived at close range at 57th near 1st. Then her friend, Monty Clift had been only a few blocks away at 61st and 3rd. Further up on East 72nd Street was the clinic of Max Jacobson, the original Dr. Feelgood. Jacobson supplied everyone from Monroe to JFK with methamphetamines, and was the de-factor pill consultant for the film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann‘s Valley of the Dolls (co-staring the up-and-coming Sharon Tate). Jacobson got busted in 1972 for peddling speed. It was the opioid crisis of its time, an era when highly lethal prescription drugs administered at the hands of your doctor was de rigueur, and certainly self-medicating doctors was the norm.
Most of these people and places have vanished. I was surprised to find that one had survived. The Madison Restaurant (in the late 80s it was the Madison Food Shop) is still located at the northwest corner of 53rd and 1st. Many a breakfast was shared here before class. I once sat across a booth occupied by Bill Murray and Sydney Pollack, the Tootsie director and occasional actor was a decade away from appearing in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. If you walked a few blocks south toward the United Nations there was one of the last Horn & Hardart automats in the city where you could drop some change in a slot and get an egg salad sandwich or piece of pie. I heard they turned it into a Burger King.
I recently talked to my friend Kenton, because I couldn’t remember much about the area where we had lived at 70th and York. He said we liked a bar across the street called Nimrods. It was one of those places in the basement of a brownstone, you’d walk down a flight of stairs into this urban cave. The owner, Wolfgang, was one of the last to resist televisions above the bar. We’d sit there a do shots of Jägermeister, a novelty at that time. There was also the obligatory NYC pizza place, “It was run by an old guy who threw dough in the air in the classic way, who was seriously drunk all the time and had burn marks from the oven on his arms.” Then I asked Kenton about the Marcus brothers. He had worked at New York Hospital, possibly occupying the same lab space as the twin doctors, Stewart and Cyril – had he heard any stories?:
“No personal stories. I remember being absolutely haunted by that film and reading some bio stories (probably in NY magazine) about them when the film came out.”
Memories Can’t Wait
The film of course is Dead Ringers – David Cronenberg‘s psychological horror thriller about the twin gynecologists, played by Jeromy Irons, and in the movie called Beverly and Elliot Mantle. Cronenberg was influenced by Linda Wolfe’s New York magazine article – as well as a fictionalized account in the novel, Twins. Cronenberg earned some flack for the tabloidesque title, but Dead Ringers is actually the name of a 1976 Esquire piece written about the Marcus brothers by Ron Rosenbaum and Susan Edmiston (essentially an expanded retelling of Wolfe’s 1974 article). For the most part, Cronenberg sticks to Wolfe’s script. We see the young Mantle boys given a chemistry set, and playing doctor with a neighborhood girl (Toronto’s modest Annex neighborhood stands in for the New Jersey suburbs). The deterioration of their practice is portrayed as we watch Irons slowly unravel. It’s all pretty much by the book until it isn’t, and things take the inevitable Cronenberg turn. Beverly enlists a downtown artist to create some new surgical instruments that come out looking like medieval weapons of torture. He then attempts to perform an operation on a woman using the instruments, the scene ends with him being unable to breath and lunging for the patient’s gas respirator (In reality it was Cyril Marcus who once launched himself across the operating table grasping for a patient’s anesthetic mask. Cyril also once attempted to perform a circumcision using the dull handle of a surgical instrument.). Fans of Cronenberg would instantly recognize the reference to his previous film, The Fly, when Ronnie (Gena Davis) has the nightmare of giving birth to a grotesque insect pupa. The gynecologist conducting the procedure is played by David Cronenberg. By the time we move to Dead Ringers, Irons – covered head-to-toe in red-death robes and surgical mask with only his glasses showing – is now a dead ringer for Cronenberg.
I had seen the world premiere of Dead Ringers at Toronto’s Festivals of Festivals in the fall of 1988, but I had not made the connection, nor had anyway of knowing at that time that the real gynecologist twins had lived down the street from me on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I had walked past Cyril’s apartment at 460 E. 63d St. and York Ave. on an almost daily basis for close to a year. Had I arrived a decade earlier, I might have even mingled with them in a drug store, or seen them grabbing a slice at ‘Burnt Arm Guy’s Famous’.
The film rather closely tracks the ending of Doctors Stewart and Cyril Marcus. Beverly / Cyril attempts to leave the now deceased Elliot / Stewart. He goes outside and calls his ex-lover Claire, played by Geneviève Bujold ( a shared love interest of the twins, one of the less convincing elements of the film, and there are several) from a pay phone. Claire asks, “Who is this?”. Beverly hangs up the phone, retreats indoors, and waits to die in his twin brother’s arms.
Even in life, as in art, things got mixed up. The Dead Ringers Esquire piece, written two years after the twins’ discovery, reported that for months the media got it wrong in reporting that Cyril was found on the bed, and it was Stewart on the floor. It was in fact the other way around, which leads one to wonder which twin in fact died first, and precisely which brother actually ventured out into the world? At at this point, does it even matter? They had been born minutes apart and were known to frequently impersonate each other. Some have even speculated that the Marcus brothers weren’t even twins, but promoted themselves as such to give an air of wonder and uniqueness.
The Esquire article suggests an even more macabre folie à deux played out in the summer of 1975:
“The remnants of their last days together suggest that in some respects the twins lived out a kind of nightmarish children’s party. There were dozens of bottles of sweet soda pop all over the place—wild cherry, strawberry, vanilla cream, Rooti root beer, Coca-Cola. There were cookies, cakes, and ice cream, too. And they never had to clean up.”Ron Rosenbaum and Susan Edmiston, DEAD RINGERS A bizarre case of the death of twins, Esquire, March 1, 1976
Linda Wolfe’s essay on the Marcus brothers can be found in her collection of stories, The Professor and the Prostitute and Other True Tales of Murder and Madness. The lead off piece concerns the 1983 bludgeoning murder of a Boston sex trade worker, Robin Benedict at the hand of her john, former Tufts University professor William Douglas. It is another tale of obsession and identity, a locus of writing Wolfe excels at. Douglas was introduced to Benedict at a bar in Boston’s red light district known as the combat zone, and from that point it seemed inevitable that his destiny would be to eventually kill her. Wolfe has an acute understanding of this stark element of social behavior. So does Cronenberg. From Videodrome‘s Max Renn to Johnny in The Dead Zone to Seth Brundle and the Mantle brothers, inevitably it is the fate of every Cronenberg hero to hole-up somewhere and wait for death or rebirth. Here’s how Wolfe concludes her New York magazine piece on Stewart and Cyril Marcus:
“Many people I spoke with after the twins died felt that there was something mystical about Cyril’s behavior and suggested that he had been, in effect, almost drawn against his will to share his brother’s fate. It made me realize that some primitive terror of twins still lurks in contemporary man. We have come eons away from the kinds of superstitions that drove aborigines of Australia to murder one or even both of a twin set at birth, that prompted some West African tribes to kill not just twin infants but the women who had given birth to them. But some of us (perhaps the Marcus brothers themselves) nevertheless attribute to twins superhuman sensitivities like extrasensory perception or the ability to communicate without words. And when these doubles, born on the same day, die at the same time, their fate arouses in us an almost primordial anxiety.
… The simultaneous or nearly simultaneous death of twins happens rarely, but when it does, it seems like some mysterious arithmetical proposition far beyond the ordinary computation involved in life and death, and it so frightens and unnerves us that we seek extrarational explanations.
But mysticism is unnecessary in the case of the Marcus brothers. The explanation for their nearly simultaneous deaths lies in the extraordinary attachment they felt toward one another and the extraordinary disregard they felt for the world of singletons.”
Linda Wolfe, The Professor and the Prostitute and Other True Tales of Murder and Madness, (New York, Open Road Media, August 26, 2014), 133
As a conclusion, it took a lot of work remembering 1987 New York. I know we were all reading Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz as the new and fresh literary things. I had to pump my friend Kenton to get the noggin movie-engine running. I found some journals I had kept from those New York years. A lot of what I wrote was about my experience at acting school, but my inspirations on Brando or Duvall or anything that Sandy Meisner taught us about his method was not going to light a candle. What I did keep that is interesting is the names of people and places, specific dates and addresses. The only reason I remember the Madison Food Shop is because I wrote it down, and I was shocked to find it still thriving at 53rd and 1st. There’s an entry from April, 1988 that reads:
“Gallery at 57th and 5th Ave. for Vince’s showing tonight 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.”
This is a reference to the American painter, Vincent Desiderio. At the time, Vince was struggling to find his way in the New York art world. My friend, Greg knew him best, and we would often show up at his openings to show support. Once, the three of us served as artist models for one of his paintings. He brought us to the roof of an East Side apartment, and had us pose in the snow while he sketched. One of us served as a dead body lying in the snow, the other two were observers standing over the body. I think I was the dead body.