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Seth Morgan’s Last Ride

by Esquire

The tale of salvation begins as all good ones do, with high birth and great promise. Seth Morgan was born in 1949, the son of Frederick Morgan of Park Avenue, poet, a founder of The Hudson Review literary quarterly, heir to a fortune built on soap.

As a boy, Seth listened in as his father chatted philosophy and poetry with friends like e.e. cummings, Robert Lowell, and Dylan Thomas. Seth was a bright child with a genius for wordplay and a talent for trouble; he bounced a devil-may-care swath through elite private academies in New York (Saint Bernard’s), Connecticut (Hotchkiss), and Switzerland (The American School). Vocational training was not a high priority, thanks to his artistic bent but also to the trust fund that would supply, at the very least, his mad money-between $26,000 and $30,000 a year.

Seth was also blessed with good looks and lady-killer charm, which no doubt brought many high adventures his way. He commenced one such exploit in 1970 when he dropped out of Berkeley to move in with singer Janis Joplin, whom he had met while making a cocaine delivery to her Marin County home. Joplin was crazy about Seth, and even called City Hall to inquire about a marriage license. According to Buried Alive the 1973 biography of the singer by Myra Friedman, Joplin pleaded with Seth to force her to stop taking heroin, but he thought it was simply a play for more attention. “We might have married,” he wrote in a biography for his publisher, “were it not for her untimely check-out.”

After Joplin’s death, Morgan’s notorious appeal won him many hearts, among them that of an unlucky waitress in Sausalito. Drunk one day, driving her on his Harley, he slammed into a house that had once belonged to Jack London. The crash left his girlfriend’s face partially paralyzed; Seth later said he married her in part so she wouldn’t sue him. His descent continued: His job talking rubes into a San Francisco strip club was his most reputable career during a period in which he also became a heroin addict, a pimp for his next bride, and an armed robber (he once pinned a victim’s hand to the floor with a knife.) In 1977, he pleaded guilty to one caper and was sentenced to jail.

In an interview to promote his book, Morgan acknowledged that he had spent years “under the influence of cocaine, planning the strategic degradation of women.” He blamed his mother, an alcoholic beauty who drank herself to death in 1964, and who, he said, raised her sons with such coldness that Seth’s brother leaped to his death off the Oakland Bay Bridge. Middle child Seth called himself “an addictive personality growing up in an alcoholic household,” honing his skills of deceit and manipulation.

He was released from prison after 30 months, returned to his barker’s job in San Francisco, and took up with a stripper. Life went on that way until 1986, when he moved to New Orleans, where he first received notice for being arrested twice in six months for driving while intoxicated. The second time, he collided with the police wagon used to pick up drunk drivers. “he was funny, very polite, always smashed,” says Barbara Cruthirds, the lawyer who represented him. “He told us he had dated Joplin. He told us he was writing a book. He was always loaded, so I’d say, ‘Okay, sure, Seth.’ We didn’t believe a word he said.”

Susan Schilling, a preacher’s daughter Seth met at a dentist’s office, visited Seth at his house in New Orleans during the summer of 1990. She walked in on what she later called “a horror show.” “I was stunned. Seth was paying guys to have sex with junkies or prostitutes. He was shooting cocaine into a woman’s vein and watching the women perform sex acts for him. It was really so incredibly humiliating. I called them his sex circuses.”

On October 17, 1990, shortly after midnight, Seth Morgan and Suzy Levine approached the right lane of the bridge at about 40 miles per hour. He steered too far to the right and nicked the edge of the median strip. The bike shot up in the air.

Seth flew forty miles an hour face first into the piling with such force that he uprooted the eight telephone poles. Seth “stopped abruptly,” Sergeant Barrios explains, then rolled another 24 feet, coming to a halt in the roadway. His rider, Suzy, missed the piling and soared beyond Seth, landing 45 feet away from the point of impact in a fetal position. both died instantly.

An autopsy found that Seth had cocaine and Percodan in his blood and .3 percent alcohol - three times the legal limit. Suzy had .28 percent alcohol in her blood.

“If she’d been wearing a helmet, she might have lived,” says Officer Carmine Menchel, who visited the scene later. “If he’d been wearing one, he might have had an open casket.”

Suzy Levine was buried in Carter Cemetery in Springfield, near New Orleans. Her father, Robert Skidmore, says, “There’s a lot of anger in the French Quarter because people think Seth had a death wish and took my daughter with him. I believe he killed my daughter.”

Seth Morgan was buried in a small private ceremony in Maine.


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