IT WAS NOT EXACTLY LOVE AT FIRST sight. “I wasn’t much impressed,” George Delury recalls. But not long after he met Myrna Lebov in March 1968 at the New York City news service where they were both writers, he found himself so taken by her wit and gentle ways that he decided he wanted to marry her. Lebov, though, was skeptical. “She had very good reasons to be leery,” says Delury, then a divorced father of a daughter and son. “I was not Jewish, drank too much, smoked—everything wrong.” His last proposal came in a letter. “I told her that she didn’t have to say yes, she didn’t have to say no,” he recalls. “I was just going to stick around.”
It had taken more than four years for Delury to win her over, but he and Lebov were finally married in May 1973. They settled in Manhattan and for years had “a good and loving marriage,” says Myrna’s sister, Beverly Lebov Sloane. The couple vacationed in Portugal, swam off St. Bart’s and found common ground in their passion for literature, movies and the New York City cultural scene. Lebov also found time to author several self-help books.
Then, multiple sclerosis—diagnosed shortly before their wedding—began to take its insidious toll on Lebov. It started with bouts of double vision, and by 1991 she was confined to a wheelchair. Eventually her memory and emotional balance began to give way, and she became so weak and ill that much of her energy was consumed merely by staying alive. Last summer that bleak existence came to an end in the earliest hours of July 4, when Delury, now 63, helped his 52-year-old wife drink a mixture of antidepressant pills dissolved in water and sweetened with honey. By dawn she was dead, and though a note she apparently signed said she had taken the solution “freely and without reservations,” some of her relatives say it was Delury—overwhelmed by the burden of caring for her—who pushed her toward death. “It looks very much like there was a lot of psychological coercion there for her to end her life,” says Sloane. Manhattan’s district attorney has pursued charges of second-degree manslaughter against Delury, who admits to assisting the suicide, but says it was merely his final effort to aid his wife—”a matter,” he says, “of helping Myrna to leave if she wanted to.”
Indeed, her life was hardly what it had been. The daughter of a tire merchant and a homemaker, Myrna Lebov graduated from Smith College in 1964 and worked briefly for the United Nations before earning a master’s degree in film and finding work as a writer. By all accounts she had been a lively, independent spirit, a Bohemian dresser with a penchant for books, theater and foreign films. But in her final months, the effects of her disease not only crippled her physically—on outings in the city, she worried she might lose control of her bowels in public—but often plunged her into deep depressions.
Delury became her constant nurse. When he lost his editing job in 1988, he started working at home, where he cooked and helped her to dress, bathe and eventually even to go to the bathroom. Lebov sought solace in religion, delving into her Jewish roots and becoming Orthodox, and her husband—grandson of a Methodist minister—converted to her faith. Several mornings each week they made a slow trip to their synagogue. “There’s a special look that a couple has when they’re in love,” says Simcha Weinberg, rabbi at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, “and they definitely had that look.”
But sometime last year, Lebov’s relatives say, Delury, who was barely getting by as a freelance editor, seemed increasingly overwhelmed by the stress and isolation of caring for his incapacitated wife. “He really seemed exasperated,” says Michael Gaylin, a screenwriter who is married to Lebov’s niece Alison. “In front of her, he would complain that she was a burden.” Lebov’s condition so deteriorated that she and Delury frequently discussed her suicide, and on Feb. 27,1995, Delury started a diary that he titled “Countdown: A Daily Log of Myrna’s Mental State and View Toward Death.” Gradually it became instead his own chronicle of bitterness and despair.
Even as her disease took its toll, relatives say, Lebov remained vibrant, talking about movies she’d seen or museum exhibits she’d attended. “I’d spend a day or even an hour over there talking to her, and I would just leave there feeling so good,” says Alison Gaylin. But Delury’s diary speaks of another side, which he says Lebov hid from her family. “She is frightened about her mental state,” Delury wrote last March 12. “Sabbath evening she couldn’t remember the blessing for candle-lighting…. It left her stunned.”
Delury recalls the final four months as a roller coaster of euphoria and depression. Lebov’s memory lapse on March 12 was overshadowed by her 52nd birthday party that same night, a chatty affair with several friends in attendance. “We sang “Happy Birthday” and…called for Myrna to make a wish,” George wrote. “I suppose she did, and then she blew out the candles. I almost lost it. I walked fast into the kitchen choking on sobs.”
By contrast, Lebov’s relatives—who had less frequent contact with her—remember those final months as more bitter than sweet, and in his diary, Delury does appear increasingly petulant. “No one asks about my needs,” he wrote on March 28. “I have fallen prey to the tyranny of a victim. You are sucking my life out of me like a vampire.” The same day, he outlined four choices facing him, all of them bleak: continue caring for Lebov, abandon her, kill himself or kill her. “That too remains an option,” he wrote, “though far more difficult without her cooperation.”
Whatever his ultimate role in Myrna Lebov’s death, her husband’s written record was marked by an enigmatic blend of the morbid and mundane. July 3, 3:30 p.m. Myrna has pushed up the schedule to tonight…. She was going to work on her suicide note, but at the last minute decided to watch Forrest Gump instead.
12:30 a.m. Myrna has just consumed about 3,000 to 4,000 mg of the [antidepressant] amitriptyline…. Very direct and businesslike. No tearful goodbyes, no jokes…. All rather anticlimactic.
2:15 a.m. Myrna is sleeping very soundly, breathing heavily. I’m going to grab an hour’s sleep.
5:30 a.m. Slept through the alarm. It’s over. Myrna is dead. Desolation.
When the police arrived to answer Delury’s 911 call, he was working on the computer, his wife of 22 years dead on the bed. “Won’t let me into the bedroom to water the hanging plants there,” he wrote. “I watered the others.”
In the wake of the death, what troubles Lebov’s relatives most is that despite her ailments they believe she had much to live for. She had discussed with her niece Alison, a magazine editor, a book project in which she would pose ethical and religious questions to rabbis. A doctor had recently prescribed lithium to help stabilize her emotions. (She never took it.) She had plans to see a Shakespeare play in Central Park with Alison the following week.
Delury says her relatives and friends simply didn’t confront the reality of her condition. The family counters that when Lebov and Delury discussed the possibility of suicide with them, he seemed more energized by the prospect than she did. And two months before her death, Lebov had invited Michael and Alison Gaylin to her home to hear a piece of news. When they arrived, says Alison, “she said the announcement was, ‘I’ve decided not to kill myself.’ And then we both hugged her.”
Since a plea bargain may come in the case this week, it may never be known whether Lebov actually changed her mind or whether Delury influenced her to end her life. But he insists that just as he and Lebov had shared their lives, they shared the decision to end hers—and that he never tried to hide how difficult everything became after her illness. “What would Myrna trust me to say if I began to lie like that?” he asks. “She knew perfectly well two lives were being lost.”
LORNA GRISBY in New York City