It is a perhaps precarious thing to write about the death of someone I did not “know,” but maybe could have. This isn’t like eulogizing Whitney Houston, even if she indirectly provided a soundtrack to parts of my life. I had no delusions that I would ever follow in Whitney’s footsteps.
Erica Kennedy is … different. Long before I committed to being a writer, I daydreamed about being one. And as I flipped through the pages of Vibe, reading and re-reading the words of dream hampton, Lola Ogunnaike, and of course, Erica, a fashion publicist turned writer turned author, I saw not just words, but possibilities. When I found the gumption to tell my parents, “No, I’m not going to law school, I’m going to be a writer,” it was those women – and more—who turned my “maybe I can do this” into “yes, I actually can.”
I heard Erica was gone the way I hear most things: via Twitter. I’d logged on after an unusual hours-long absence due to writing deadlines. I caught a friend, one Erica and I shared, referring to Erica in the past tense. “Erica Kennedy was a great writer and friend,” she wrote. Was? Huh? I searched her name.
Erica, 42, was found in her apartment June 13, according to her cousin. The cause of her death isn’t publicly known. It took two days for news of her death to hit Erica’s writer colleagues, an eternity in modern journalism. Kimora Lee-Simmons, Erica’s best friend who appointed Erica godmother to her own daughters, Ming and Aoki, tweeted she was “devastated.”
I met Erica Kennedy in passing. At what industry party — an album release, a celebrity’s birthday, or a liquor company shilling its product — I don’t recall. After a while and enough open bars, they all seem to run together. I was a young writer with a few bylines and looking to make my mark. She was a veteran journalist and a debut author promoting her book Bling, and her face seemed impossible to miss. I knew of her before that, though, had been reading her words before I moved to New York. She didn’t know me, of course, but she did know my mentor, a colleague of hers, who was, in a way, vouching for me by introduction: “Erica, meet Demetria.”
I’ve never been one to stand out over celebrities unless I’d grown up listening to their music — Heavy D, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, etc. Writers have always been my rock stars. It took everything in me not to fan out and start listing my favorite pieces of hers. I kept protocol, kept my cool, extended my hand, and steadied my voice as I said, “It’s nice to meet you” just a bit too earnestly. She chatted with my mentor, her friend, as I stood by, a silent observer, recounting in my head every article I’d read with her byline attached.
Erica was the writer who gave other writers hope. Most want to become an author, and while cranking out 2,500 magazine feature stories on deadline is par for the course, writing a book — usually 75,000-90,000 words — seems daunting. But it remains a one-day, someday dream most aspire to when they find they time.
Erica found it. Bling was a massive tome, one that hit the New York Times bestseller list, another widely held goal that seems particularly impossible, and her book was optioned by Marimax. “She was the black girl that made it,” said an editor I talked to Friday while we comforted each other. “I didn’t know her, but I was soooo proud of her.”
Over the weekend, I spoke to many friends who were also friends of Erica’s. The ones I know met her the way modern people tend to meet: online. For years, Erica maintained an invite-only Facebook group, a carefully assembled coalition of empowered women — the names read like a Who’s Who — that had something to say and fearlessness to do so. Some she never met, others she invited to Peaches, a Brooklyn bistro, to pow wow. Her friends tell me now she had “her corner” there. It was one of the real-world places Erica encouraged them to follow their dreams or inspired them to push harder at whatever respective feat they’d committed to. “It’s crazy that most of my closest friends I met through Erica,” a mutual friend shared. It’s crazy someone so accomplished took the time to make the connections. It’s rare.
Twitter is where I finally got to “know” Erica. Her second book, Feminista, had dropped, and she seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time tweeting from Peaches, which is walking distance from my apartment. After months of sharing pop-culture commentary on which celebrity had gone hog wild, I suggested we meet up, maybe grab a Brownstone Punch, Peaches’ signature drink. She agreed. But we never got around to it.
I had a demanding day job, a blog as she did, and I was writing my own book, one for which the success of Bling directly paved the way. I meant to call and set something up. Tomorrow, which never came.
RIP Erica Kennedy.