what a mess

The Last Traces of Elizabeth Wurtzel

Elizabeth Wurtzel at home in 1994. Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Elizabeth Wurtzel died nearly three years ago. Since then, silence: No announcement of a repository of her papers, no posthumous publications, no conferences for the countless writers indebted to her. And so her friends — the women who helped her prepare on the morning of her mid-chemo wedding in 2015, the women who took her spectacular text messages and cropped them into essays — were shocked to find out only after the fact that the writer’s personal belongings were sold off in an online auction last week.

These estate-sale auctions, hugely popular during the pandemic, are usually straightforward — used and useful objects, sold off at a competitive price. This one felt different: Many of the objects were without worth apart from the aura of their owner; many were worth more than a price tag could suggest.

That the auction was a surprise to those who knew her best was bad, and the tackiness of a storage-space online auction was rotten — Wurtzel would have laughed but also been horrified, friends thought. The bargain-basement prices that resulted made it feel all the more cruel.

The contents of the desk. Photo: From Auction Ninja.

There was the handbag that they knew Wurtzel would have wanted to go to a specific friend (and even with a reserve of $6,500, the Birkin did not find a purchaser). There went the entire contents of her desk (including three heaping cups of pens and pencils), sold off for $29. The desk itself, beautifully marked with use, had a bit of a bidding war and went for just $535, still way under estimate. A drawing of her rescue dog, Augusta, sold for $20. (I bought her coffee table for $100 — “Needs Refinishing,” the listing claimed incorrectly — precisely because of the signs of hard use on it.)

Wurtzel had a romantic attachment to luxury that’s common among people who grew up without money and who thrive within a constant roar of financial chaos. A music writer for this magazine, she became one of the most famous Gen-X writers with her first book; her second netted her a half-million-dollar advance. “I never saved or invested,” she wrote in New York in 2013, “because I believe if you take care of the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves.” (This is not generally true, in case you find that viewpoint seductive.) Wurtzel’s permanent record is littered with tax liens, a bankruptcy filing, even an eviction in New Haven while she was in law school in the mid-2000s, as her apartments were littered with Hermès scarves and Chloé sunglasses.

The Wurtzel aesthetic was consistent across the auction lots, from the hippie-ish engraved silver bracelet ($19) to the heap of half-used perfumes (Tom Ford’s Café Rose, Suave, Estée Lauder’s Youth-Dew, $130). She was one of those women who used scent as another means to aggressively assert her presence; it was part of what could make you unable to decide, as the hour got late, if you were her honored guest or her hostage.

Cancer has never made anyone’s financial life less chaotic. Despite years of illness, it seems as if no one, including herself, expected it when, at the beginning of 2020, Wurtzel died at 52. She was somewhere in the process of divorce — according to friends, when she died she had signed divorce papers, but they were not filed, but also her husband was close to her until the end. Similarly, she had significant conflict with her mother, Lynne Winters, having found out that her father was not actually her father just a few years prior, but her mother was also near. There was, apparently, no will. (Neither Wurtzel’s husband nor mother responded to inquiries.)

That Wurtzel held a law degree and yet made a flagrant mess of her own estate seems perfect. She put on all the best disasters.

In ones and threes, her objects were taken from an extremely tidy, La Guardia–adjacent storage building. Off went the leather belts and scarves and first editions and Andy Warhol lip gloss plus an entire lot of early-on chips from at least three 12-step programs. They say you can’t buy sobriety, but you could buy these chips for $85.

It was sad, everyone agreed. That’s what the friends said. That’s what the woman coming to pick up a Bruce Springsteen book with Wurtzel’s scrawled notes in it said, too.

The unsold items, and the mysterious remaining contents of the storage locker that weren’t put up for auction, would be returned to the custody of Wurtzel’s mother. Last week, The Fine Print said that a “dealer” was “trying to place Wurtzel’s manuscripts with a university library.” One of the most important writers of her generation has been dead nearly three years and no institution has made a home for her papers? Fucking criminal.

The Last Traces of Elizabeth Wurtzel