By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 1 of 3
What was left of forty-year-old Jeff Dahl was placed in an incinerator, reduced to ash and poured into a modest urn.
That didn't bother Gary Watson, Jeff's best friend. He believed that Jeff would have okayed the cremation of his remains. But Gary didn't like Jeff's burial site--a small, unmarked spot near a main road in a Westport, Connecticut, cemetery--and he was disturbed by the sight of an anonymous worker idling near the small knot of mourners gathered to bid their farewells to Jeff on that late October day. The man held a shovel in his hands, but not for long. Acting instinctively, Gary stepped forward, seized the tool and began to dig. No stranger is going to bury Jeff Dahl, thought Gary. That's my job.
Jonathan Dahl, Jeff's younger brother, watched Gary nose the shovel into the soil, his head swimming with contradictions. Jonathan and Jeff had been inseparable as kids: Dwayne, the eldest of the three Dahl children, referred to them in a school essay as "those two." But as the pair grew older, they took divergent paths. Jonathan graduated from Columbia University in New York City and landed a high-profile reporting job at the Wall Street Journal. But Jeff struggled with drug abuse and mental illness; at 27, after an argument with his well-to-do parents, Ted and Sheila, he simply dropped out of sight. Six years later, in 1988, when Ted was near death, he asked Jonathan to find Jeff and bring him back into the family. After more than a year of searching, Jonathan located Jeff in Denver, where he was living the life of an itinerant musician and still suffering from the afflictions that had led to his initial disappearance.
Thanks to an article Jonathan wrote about Jeff for the Journal in 1991, their reunion caught the national imagination. Television appearances were scheduled, book and movie contracts were signed. The attention Jeff had sought for so long seemed finally to be within his grasp. But there was to be no happy ending for Jeff Dahl. Despondent and lonely, he hanged himself in the psychiatric ward of Connecticut's Norwalk Hospital on October 20, 1995. Jonathan and his wife, Jessica, stood by when Jeff's life-support system was disconnected the next day.
As he watched Jeff's friend dig, Jonathan wondered if anything could have been done to prevent this lamentable last scene even as he envied Gary for being so decisive. "I was very close to Jeff and loved him very much," Jonathan says. "But my proper upbringing wouldn't have let me take the shovel out of that guy's hand. It was absolutely the sweet, right thing to do. But I couldn't do it."
Perhaps nothing could have been done for Jeff Dahl. But although his story mirrors the fate of a great many homeless people, he was far more than a statistic. To Jonathan, Dwayne and Sheila, he was astoundingly bright, witty and open--the only Dahl who was comfortable telling the others that he loved them. To Gary, he was a man who felt emotions more intensely than anyone else and returned them with equal ferocity. To Jeff's ex-wife, Michelle Fox, to whom he was married for most of 1994, he was a person whose severe pain often overwhelmed his finest instincts. To his fellow musicians, he was a gutsy performer who would do anything--absolutely anything--to produce a reaction from his listeners. And to patrons of Cricket on the Hill and the other Denver clubs where he plied his craft, he was scatological and hilarious. What they didn't realize was that his compositions--songs with names such as "White Trash," "Give Me Food Stamps" and "The Man With the Giant Right Arm"--weren't simply gags. They were his life. And they were true.
These tales drew precious little from Jeff's upbringing. He was born in 1955 in the prosperous Connecticut community of Darien. Ted was an IBM executive who planned corporate conferences; he would make films for the presentations and line up guest speakers such as former President Gerald Ford and astronaut Neil Armstrong, as well as entertainers like magician David Copperfield. The work was exciting and paid well; the Dahls wintered in the Bahamas and spent much of the rest of the year relaxing at Darien's exclusive Tokeneke Club.
Jeff got along well with Dwayne, the quietest of the Dahl boys and four years his elder, but they didn't grow as close as he and Jonathan, who was born three years after Jeff. The younger boys shared a room and proved remarkably compatible: Sheila says that for all their clashes in later years, they almost never squabbled as children. Jeff delighted in drawing pictures for Jonathan or making toys for him from pieces of cardboard. Later, he defended Jonathan from neighborhood thugs, and once saved his sibling from choking on the strap of a toy gun that had become snagged on a tree branch. As Jonathan wrote in his Journal article, the incident "went down in family lore as the day Jeff saved his brother's life."
As children, the Dahls were very athletic--Jonathan was a fine tennis player and Dwayne competed in track--but Jeff stood out. He taught himself to swim at age five, and within a few years, he was winning swimming awards at Tokeneke. His I.Q. was rated at 135; Sheila remembers that when he was in eighth grade a teacher told her that Jeff was already writing at a professional level. His musical and artistic creativity made him a soulmate for Ted, who would consult Jeff whenever he was putting together a conference.