|Good thing Kim Novak didn't jump off the bridge; Jimmy Stewart wouldn't have been able to save her.|
This great New Yorker article is required reading in my Abnormal Psychology course:
"As Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the Golden Gate, watched his beloved suspension bridge rise over San Francisco Bay in the nineteen-thirties, he could not imagine that anyone would use it without due care for its designated purpose. “Who would want to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge?” he told reporters. At the bridge’s opening ceremony, in May of 1937, Strauss read a statement in a low voice, his hands trembling. “What Nature rent asunder long ago man has joined today,” he said. The class poet at Ohio University, class of ’91, Strauss also wrote an ode to mark the occasion:
As harps for the winds of heaven,
My web-like cables are spun;
I offer my span for the traffic of man,
At the gate of the setting sun.
Three months later, a forty-seven-year-old First World War veteran named Harold Wobber turned to a stranger on the walkway, announced, “This is as far as I go,” and hopped over the rail. His body was never found. The original design called for the rail to be five and a half feet high, but this was lowered to four feet in the final blueprint, for reasons that are lost to history. The bridge’s chief engineer, Mervin Giacomini, who recently retired, told me half seriously that Strauss’s stature—he was only five feet tall—may have been a factor in the decision. Known as “the little man who built the big bridge,” Strauss may simply have wanted to be able to see over its side.
In May, 1938, Strauss died of a heart attack, likely brought on by the stress of seeing the bridge to completion. A plaque dedicated to him at the southern end of the bridge a few months later declared the span “a promise indeed that the race of man shall endure unto the ages”; at that point, six people had already jumped off. And at the dedication ceremony A. R. O’Brien, the bridge’s director, delivered a notably dark eulogy. Strauss “put everything he had” into the bridge’s construction, O’Brien said, “and out of its completion he got so little. . . . The Golden Gate Bridge, for my dead friend, turned out to be a mute monument of misery.”
In the years since the bridge’s dedication, Harold Wobber’s flight path has become well worn. I spent a day reading through clippings about Golden Gate Bridge suicides in the San Francisco Public Library, hundreds of two- or three-inch tales of woe from the Chronicle, the Examiner, the Call-Bulletin: “police said he was despondent over domestic affairs”; “medical discharge from the army”; “jobless butcher”; “the upholstery still retaining the warmth of the driver’s body”; “saying ‘goodbye’ four times and looking ‘very sad’ ”; “ ‘sick at heart’ over the treatment of Jewish relatives in Germany”; “the baby’s cries apparently irritated him past endurance”; “footprints on the fog-wet girders were found early today”; “using his last nickel to scratch a farewell on the guard railing.” The coverage intensified in 1973, when the Chronicle and the Examiner initiated countdowns to the five-hundredth recorded jumper. Bridge officials turned back fourteen aspirants to the title, including one man who had “500” chalked on a cardboard sign pinned to his T-shirt. The eventual “winner,” who eluded both bridge personnel and local-television crews, was a commune-dweller tripping on LSD.In 1995, as No. 1,000 approached, the frenzy was even greater. A local disk jockey went so far as to promise a case of Snapple to the family of the victim. That June, trying to stop the countdown fever, the California Highway Patrol halted its official count at 997. In early July, Eric Atkinson, age twenty-five, became the unofficial thousandth; he was seen jumping, but his body was never found.
Ken Holmes, the Marin County coroner, told me, “When the number got to around eight hundred and fifty, we went to the local papers and said, ‘You’ve got to stop reporting numbers.’ ” Within the last decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology have also issued guidelines urging the media to downplay the suicides. The Bay Area media now usually report bridge jumps only if they involve a celebrity or tie up traffic. “We weaned them,” Holmes said. But, he added, “the lack of publicity hasn’t reduced the number of suicides at all.”"