Nelson Sullivan Cause of Death: The Tragic End of a Downtown Legend

Nelson Sullivan was a video artist who captured the vibrant and diverse nightlife of New York City in the 1980s. He filmed hundreds of hours of footage, featuring famous and emerging artists, drag queens, club kids, and celebrities. He was also a friend and mentor to many of them, such as RuPaul, Keith Haring, and Michael Alig. His videos are a priceless record of a creative and cultural era that is now gone. But how did he die? And what legacy did he leave behind?

A Heart Attack on Independence Day

On July 4, 1989, Nelson Sullivan died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 41. He had just returned from filming the fireworks at the Statue of Liberty with his friends. He collapsed on the floor of his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived with his dog Blackout. His friend and roommate, DJ David Padilla, found him and called for help, but it was too late. The cause of death was officially listed as a heart attack, but some speculated that drug use may have contributed to it. According to Vice, Sullivan had a history of cocaine abuse and had recently started using ecstasy. He also suffered from high blood pressure and obesity, which increased his risk of cardiac arrest.

Sullivan’s death was a shock to his friends and fans, who mourned the loss of a beloved and talented person. His funeral was held in his hometown of Kershaw, South Carolina, where he was buried next to his mother. Many of his New York friends attended the service, wearing colorful outfits and playing his videos. They also organized a memorial at the Pyramid Club, one of his favorite venues, where they celebrated his life and work.

A Pioneering Video Artist and Vlogger

Nelson Sullivan was born in 1948 in South Carolina, where he grew up in a wealthy and conservative family. He moved to New York in 1971, after graduating from Davidson College. He worked as a classical music salesman at Carnegie Hall and ran his own hair salon. He also studied film and photography, but he found his true passion in video. He started filming his daily life and adventures in 1983, using a handheld camcorder that he carried everywhere. He documented his interactions with his friends, his visits to clubs and parties, his walks around the city, and his trips to other places. He also filmed himself, turning the camera to his face and narrating his thoughts and feelings. He was one of the first video artists to use this technique, which is now common among vloggers and selfie-takers.

Sullivan’s videos are not only entertaining and humorous, but also insightful and historical. He captured the essence and diversity of the downtown scene, which was marked by creativity, experimentation, and subversion. He showcased the talents and personalities of artists who later became famous, such as RuPaul, Keith Haring, Lady Bunny, and Deee-Lite. He also preserved the memory of artists who died of AIDS, such as John Sex, Cookie Mueller, and Ethyl Eichelberger. He recorded the changes and challenges of the city, such as the gentrification, the crime, and the AIDS crisis. He also expressed his own views and experiences, such as his sexuality, his spirituality, and his aspirations.

Sullivan’s videos were not widely seen during his lifetime, as he had limited means of distribution. He occasionally screened them at clubs or galleries, or gave copies to his friends. He also planned to write a book based on his videos, but he never finished it. After his death, his friend and collaborator Dick Richards inherited his video archive, which consisted of nearly 1,500 hours of tape. Richards digitized and edited the tapes, and uploaded them to YouTube, where they gained a new audience and appreciation. He also donated the original tapes to the Fales Library at New York University, where they are available for research and preservation.

A Lasting Influence and Inspiration

Nelson Sullivan’s videos are a valuable source of information and inspiration for anyone interested in the history and culture of New York City in the 1980s. They are also a testament to his vision and passion as a video artist and a storyteller. He was a pioneer of vlogging, selfie-taking, and reality TV, long before they became popular and mainstream. He was also a friend and supporter of many artists, who credit him for helping them launch their careers and express their identities. He was a legend of the downtown scene, who left a lasting impression on everyone who knew him or watched him.

Nelson Sullivan’s cause of death was tragic and premature, but his legacy lives on through his videos and his friends. He showed us a world that was colorful, diverse, and exciting, and he invited us to join him in his adventures. He also showed us himself, as a person who was curious, generous, and authentic. He was a true original, who deserves to be remembered and celebrated.