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A New London story: the tragic death of Tony Hsieh

The publisher of The Day, back when he was the newly arrived executive editor, once observed as he presided over the morning news meeting that all stories led to New London.

Tim Dwyer's comment reflected the fact that so much national and even international news has threads to this compact area that the Census doesn't even categorize as metropolitan. Submarine warfare? COVID-19 vaccines? Homeland security? Nuclear power? Wind power? Native American casinos? Rising seas? Eminent domain? I could go on.

But I think his observation was partly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the habit of Day editors to look for local ties in the personal, human-scale stories. Maybe it's just six degrees of separation that so often a link emerges to a Norwich native or an East Lyme graduate or an event in New London history.

The national story no one could have seen coming was a local house fire. The who, what, when and where consisted of a celebrity entrepreneur's fatal injuries on a November night on Pequot Avenue in New London. The how of his coming to be here at all was a puzzle.

Tony Hsieh, the founding genius of the Zappos online shoe retailer and apostle of positive corporate culture, died in a hospital of the effects of smoke inhalation days after New London firefighters rescued him from a locked pool shed on Nov. 18, 2020. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death accidental. Day staff writers and the national media have reported many details since, but mysteries linger as to what led Hsieh to his untimely end here. He was 46 years old and far from his home in Las Vegas or his recent residence in Park City, Utah.

A house fire in the middle of the night always shakes up the neighbors. Even those who sleep through lights and sirens are disturbed the next morning by hearing what has happened to someone nearby. Proximity makes the victim less of a stranger, even if no one knew him. Tony Hsieh became, at the end of his life, the central figure in a New London story.

Now two Wall Street Journal reporters have tried to come up with an explanation of how such a thing happened in their new book, "Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh." 

In effect, they concluded that Hsieh's spent his work life trying to make other people's lives better while his own remained deeply afflicted.

Kirsten Grind is an enterprise reporter, focusing on technology companies and executives in Silicon Valley. Katherine Sayre covers gambling, including in Las Vegas where, she says, Hsieh is still revered for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalize the city for those who live and work there.

Sayre made the comment in an online WSJ+ discussion about the book. The authors say they tried to avoid making it "just a vehicle for telling a sad story." Their analysis comes with a warning that mental illness still carries a stigma in a competitive world. Hsieh was a charismatic leader who may not have wanted to lose momentum by focusing on his own health problems. Or, perhaps he was quietly channeling his own issues as he set about creating a culture of workplace "happiness" and "positive psychology."

Those terms are buzzwords in the upper strata of the tech CEO universe. Hsieh stood out even in that elite crowd as the boss who wanted his company culture to make people feel good at work. At the same time his own mental health deteriorated, the writers say, until self-medication with alcohol and other drugs made him enter a rehabilitation program in Utah.

He left the program early to concentrate on the biggest of Big Picture thinking: trying to find a formula for world peace. His condition spiraled, and some of his entourage got him away from Utah to the New London home owned by one of them.

It's not hard to believe that high-powered, driven people with outsized ideas might suffer deeply from the effects of not fitting in. Whether it can be proven by journalists who cannot interview the subject is another question. They can document Hsieh's last months but they can't know what was going on in his mind.

As unique as he was entrepreneurially, Hsieh was human. He died under conditions that affected many in the depths of the pandemic days of isolation, when drug overdoses were spiking to record levels and the mental health of adults, young people and children was raising alarms. The resulting awareness has resulted in this state and others finally passing laws with funds attached to provide counseling and, in some cases, hospitalization.

So yes, Tony Hsieh's untimely death was a New London story, but it doesn't end with the medical examiner's report. The story is that it doesn't have to end this way.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.




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