Suicide by nitrogen asphixiation
NEW YORK, N.Y.––Animal advocate and philanthropist Mary Max, 52, wife of pop artist Peter Max, was on June 9, 2019 found dead in their apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City from allegedly self-induced nitrogen asphyxiation, a bag-over-the-head method described by Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphrey in his 1991 book Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying.
“Mary Max left a lengthy voice mail message for a friend in London with instructions for what to do after she passed away,” reported Sharon Otterman of The New York Times, citing a statement by Mary Max’s longtime attorney, John Markham.
“She left farewell messages for people she loved: her husband; her closest friends; her brother Daniel; and her 94-year-old mother, Ruth,” wrote Otterman.
Mary Balkin before she became Mary Max
Born Mary Balkin on October 20, 1966, raised in Buffalo, New York, the future Mary Max attended Nardin Academy, a noted female-only private school in Buffalo, where she was salutorian, and Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, graduating in 1984.
Later she modeled in New York City, and appears to have played the lead female role, a character named Lynn, in the obscure 1993 suspense film Dangerous Affairs, written by J. Gregory Smith, directed by John Brenkus.
Photos indicate that Mary Balkin/Max had a long history of anorexia, she had an acknowledged history of depression, and several tabloid accounts of her death have mentioned a previous suicide attempt.
“In 1996,” recounted Otterman, “she was walking on a Manhattan sidewalk, when Peter Max, already an internationally renowned artist and 30 years her senior, walked up and said, ‘Hi, I’m Peter Max, and I’ve been painting your profile my entire life.’”
Peter Max: longtime veg & animal philanthropist
Mary Balkin worked for Peter Max “on various conceptual artistic and media projects,” according to a Buffalo News account, for about a year before they were married on July 14, 1997 aboard the yacht Cloud Nine. The ceremony was performed by then-New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
A vegetarian since taking up yoga circa 1966 as a pupil of the Indian guru C. K. Ramaswamy Gounder, better known as Swami Satchinanda (1914-2002), Peter Max had also long endorsed and financially contributed to animal advocacy, making celebrity gala guest appearances for PETA, for example, without becoming deeply personally involved.
Mary Max at first did not become deeply involved, either.
In Defense of Animals, 30 cats, & North Shore Animal League America
In August 2001, however, Mary and Peter responded to an appeal from Barbara Stagno, the New York City representative for In Defense of Animals, that mentioned “a surge of mother cats and their kittens awaiting the probable fate of too many animals” at the city Center for Animal Care & Control, Stagno summarized a week later. “Peter Max intervened in this matter by arranging for all 30 cats (and two beagles) to be transported to the North Shore Animal League,” of Port Washington, on Long Island, “where they will stay until they are adopted,” Stagno wrote.
“When I spoke with Mary Max,” Stagno continued, “she said that by way of a thank you, Peter would be pleased if would-be adopters could be directed to North Shore, to adopt not simply the kittens and puppies there, but also the many adult animals awaiting homes at North Shore.”
In February 2002 a Charolais cow escaped from a slaughterhouse in the Camp Washington neighborhood of Cincinnati, fled into the Clifton neighborhood bordering the University of Cincinnati, and hid out for 11 days in Mount Storm Park, a few blocks northwest of the Cincinnati Zoo. Mary and Peter Max funded transporting the cow, by then dubbed Cinci Freedom, to the Farm Sanctuary location at Watkins Glen, New York. Cinci Freedom lived there until she was euthanized due to incurable painful conditions of age on December 29, 2008.
In September 2007, meanwhile, took in an Angus cow who had “likely just escaped from a live market or slaughterhouse in Queens, and was literally running for her life” when captured by police and firefighters, Farm Sanctuary founder Gene Baur emailed.
Farm Sanctuary named that cow Maxine, Bauer said, “in honor of artist Peter Max and his wife and activist Mary Max.”
Mary and Peter Max attended the March 2008 launch party for Baur’s book Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, the April 2008 Farm Sanctuary “Gala for Farm Animals,” and a December 2008 benefit for Farm Sanctuary, as well.
Humane USA PAC & Voters for Animal Rights
By then Mary Max had long since made animal issues a focus of her life, working at first mostly behind the scenes.
Counting themselves “among the activists whose lives have been forever impacted by Mary Max’s influence are Jasmin Singer, digital director of VegNews, and Marisa Miller Wolfson, writer/director of 2011 documentary film Vegucated.
Singer and Wolfson in a joint memorial statement recalled that “Max co-founded Humane USA-PAC [in February 2004] to elect humane-minded legislators nationwide, and later helped launch Voters for Animal Rights, an organization that seeks to elect humane-minded legislators in New York City.”
Initially called Empire State Humane Voters, Voters for Animal Rights debuted in May 2017. “Our launch party at Peter Max’s studio was a success,” emailed cofounder Allie Feldman Taylor afterward. “Over 200 animal advocates attended, including many elected officials and candidates running for office. We also received kudos from [New York City] Mayor Bill de Blasio, who sent a video message in support of our first campaign, to end the use of wild animals in the circus.”
On HSUS board
Continued Singer and Wolfson, “For years, Mary Max produced an action alert email list, encouraging her many readers to contact legislators about various animal-friendly bills. [She was] executive producer of Vegucated. She was a founding board member of the Coalition for Healthy School Food. She also served on the board of the Humane Society of the United States,” from 2005 until her death.”
Recalled a statement from the Humane Society of the U.S., “She backed the Safety Net Program, a pet surrender prevention initiative that eventually morphed into our Pets for Life program. The initiative kept thousands of animals in homes all over New York by providing support and resources to those of limited income who were struggling to keep their pets.”
Peter Max, the HSUS statement added, “usually accompanied Mary to HSUS board meetings in Washington D.C. and elsewhere. He was a consistent presence at associated social gatherings. Invariably, he would introduce himself to others with the words, ‘I’m Peter, Mary Max’s husband.’”
Despite the prominence of Mary Max’s participation in pro-animal campaigns, Singer and Wolfson lamented, news coverage of her suicide often “failed to mention the tireless work of this relentless ambassador of animal rights.”
The ANIMALS 24-7 archives include media releases mentioning that Mary and Peter Max attended the League of Humane Voters fifth anniversary party in October 2006, another League of Humane Voters party on November 15, 2006, to “celebrate the victory of every LOHV-NYC endorsed candidate in yesterday’s election,” and yet another party on November 29, 2006 to announce that the League of Humane Voters, Farm Sanctuary, and the Humane Society of the U.S. were “forming a coalition to ban the sale of foie gras in New York City.”
Then in April 2007 Mary and Peter Max were among the celebrity guests at yet another League of Humane Voters fundraiser.
Mary and Peter Max kept up a busy social calendar raising money for animal causes through 2010, when they attended a Mercy for Animals gala in January, and helped Alley Cat Allies to initiate an awareness campaign in March.
“Peter and I share our home with seven rescued cats,” Mary Max told media. “We have a special place in our hearts for all felines.”
Mary and Peter Max in September 2010 hosted a benefit for United Poultry Concerns and the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos.
By then, however, Peter Max, who rose to art world superstardom before Mary was born, was visibly slowing down.
“By 2012, Mr. Max’s mental faculties were beginning to wane,” reported Amy Chozick of the New York Times on May 28, 2019. “He would sign books, squiggle designs on cocktail napkins for dinner companions, or hold a brush and put some paint on canvas for public appearances, but he struggled to truly create. In the next couple of years, Mr. Max stopped painting almost entirely.
“Several years ago, he received a diagnosis of symptoms related to Alzheimer’s, and he now suffers from advanced dementia,” Chozick said.
“His estranged son, Adam, and three business associates took over Mr. Max’s studio,” Chozick continued, “drastically increasing production for a never-ending series of art auctions on cruise ships, even as the artist himself could hardly paint.”
Earlier, Chozick wrote, “Mr. Max was so prolific — and Park West,” the cruise ship art auctioneering firm, “was such a voracious buyer — that like many popular artists, he often relied on assistant painters to stretch canvases, paint backgrounds and apply templates. But Mr. Max always did the creating, according to individuals familiar with his work in this period.”
Later, though, according to Chozick, Peter Max would be taken into his studio, “be instructed to hold out his hand, and for hours, would sign the art as if it were his own, grasping a brush and scrawling Max. The arrangement, which continued until earlier this year, was described to The New York Times by seven people who witnessed it.”
“Mary and Libra Max,” daughter of Peter Max, also involved in animal advocacy, “would later allege in separate court proceedings that they were both barred from the studio,” Chozick summarized.
Mary sought guardian for Peter
Mary Max in 2015 petitioned the Supreme Court of the State of New York “to appoint a guardian to oversee her husband’s business,” Chozick continued. “Ms. Max told the court that Adam had taken custody of his father and concealed his whereabouts from friends and family — that he had effectively ‘kidnapped’ Mr. Max, according to court filings. Adam said he was protecting his father from his stepmother’s verbal and physical abuse.
Ultimately,” however, “a judge ordered Mr. Max to be returned to his wife’s care at their Riverside Drive home, appointing a guardian to oversee both his business and personal matters.”
Yet another of at least five lawsuits pertaining to the $93-million-a-year Peter Max art franchise was filed, according to Chozick, barely two weeks before Mary Max killed herself.
Among the last people involved in animal advocacy to hear from Mary Max was apparently Paul Shapiro, who founded Compassion Over Killing in 1995, was director of farmed animal campaigns for the Humane Society of the U.S. from 2005 to 2016, and is now cofounder of The Better Meat Co., promoting plant-based meat alternatives.
“She’d regularly email or call me to talk about strategies,” Shapiro posted to Facebook, “to commiserate over similar health issues we both were having, or often just to offer kind words about my work, including both in my best days and during my worst. Her last email to me was just this past May 28, and was solely an out-of-the-blue message of kindness and support, something very typical of Mary.”