John Gastaldo : Photographer

"As Painful as Cancer"

Twenty-seven years ago I was living on the East Coast and working for the Advocate newspaper in Stamford, Connecticut, 45 minutes from New York City.  It was a small daily and after several years I was getting bored and wanted to chase bigger stories.  Suburbia can do that to a newspaper photographer, but especially one raised in Lower Manhattan.  Then one day I heard a report from the late CBS Radio reporter and colleague Fran Schneidau about the umpteenth trespassing action of a lady named Margaret Ray.  You'd remember her as the lady who in the late 1980s and early 1990s was profoundly obsessed with late night talk show host David Letterman.  She'd make her way up to his home in New Canaan, CT and trespass on his property.  All the New Canaan cab drivers got to know her and would phone the police after they dropped her at his house from the train station.  She always claimed to be Letterman's wife, was arrested eight times and eventually got sent to psychiatric hospitals and served time in jail.  One of the last times she was arrested(it could have been her last time in CT), I decided to get a photo of her.  Maybe it would be worth something, I thought.  Not for the Stamford Advocate, your typical "family newspaper," but maybe for a magazine or photo agency.  

I drove the ten miles to New Canaan police station and waited for her release on my lunch hour.  I remember it being a warm spring day and I thank the bailiffs who woke me up from my brief catnap under a tree.  I ran over to the sally port, stood over the rail, and waited for her.  When she came out, she noticed me, and I thought, smiled.  Now when I look at the photo, I see a broken smile.  She looks troubled.  One hand is clutching a tissue in her shackled hand, and in the other, an unsmoked cigarette.  To this day this photo has never been published, social media, print, or TV.  

I put the image in my files and concentrated on getting to a bigger newspaper.  Five years later, she was released from prison for stalking NASA astronaut Story Musgrave in Florida and moved back to her beloved Colorado.   She had been prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Haldol for her schizophrenia but eventually stopped taking it. "I'm all traveled out. I chose a painless and instantaneous way to end my life in the valley I loved," she wrote in a last letter to her mother.  Then Margaret Mary Ray, aged 46, knelt in front of an oncoming coal train.  After her death, Ray's daughter, Anna-Lisa Johanson, completed the picture of a woman who too often found her way into late-night comedy.  She said that her mother was "destroyed by a mental illness just as deadly and just as painful as cancer." "And unfortunately we are not at the point in our society…where we understand this disease and treat those who have it with the compassion they deserve."  This is a reminder that today is May 1st, spring is here, but it's also the first day of Mental Health Awareness Month.