The Life and Death of Daniel Auster, a Son of Literary Brooklyn

In a Brooklyn subway station one April morning, as commuters waited for a G train, a 44-year-old man named Daniel Auster was found unconscious on a platform after a drug overdose. He was brought to the Brooklyn Hospital Center, where he died six days later, after being taken off life support.

A D.J. and photographer who had long struggled with addiction, Mr. Auster was the son of the writers Paul Auster and Lydia Davis, and the stepson of the novelist Siri Hustvedt, making him a child of New York literary royalty. Eleven days before his death, he had been charged in the death of his 10-month-old daughter, Ruby.

Ruby had died on Nov. 1, 2021, while in his care. Mr. Auster’s wife, a 26-year-old graphic designer named Zuzan Smith, told the police that the baby was awake and in good health that morning when she left their apartment on Bergen Street in Brooklyn. In a deposition, Mr. Auster said he had injected himself with heroin before taking a nap beside his daughter. When he woke up, he found that Ruby was “blue, lifeless and unresponsive,” according to a police report.

He tried administering Narcan, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses, to revive her before calling 911. Ruby was pronounced dead at the nearby NewYork-Presbyterian-Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. The cause of her death was acute intoxication of heroin and fentanyl. Law enforcement officials have not commented on how she ingested the drugs.

Four months later, in mid-April, the medical examiner declared Ruby’s death a homicide. Mr. Auster was arrested and arraigned on charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a child. A Daily Mail video shows him shuffling into a van wearing handcuffs, as a reporter shouts: “Daniel, did you kill the baby? Did you kill the baby, Daniel?” On April 20, hours after he was released from Rikers on bail, he was found in the Clinton Hill subway station.

His family remained silent as tabloid photographers staked out the Auster-Hustvedt brownstone in Park Slope. Mr. Auster, 75, and Ms. Hustvedt, 67, declined requests to be interviewed for this article. (“We have absolutely nothing to say about this,” Ms. Hustvedt said.) Ms. Davis, who is 75 and lives in Rensselaer County, N.Y., also declined to comment when reached by phone. Ms. Smith could not be reached for comment.

This was not the first time family members had faced uncomfortable questions about Daniel, who played a part in two New York stories. One was criminal, centered on the most notorious murder in 1990s downtown nightlife. The other was literary, playing out slowly in books written by his father and stepmother, who reckoned with his struggles on the page.

As a teenager, Daniel Auster was immersed in the club kid scene that thrived at rave meccas like Limelight and the Tunnel. He was present in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment when the drug dealer Andre Melendez was murdered by the party promoter Michael Alig and his roommate, Robert Riggs.

Daniel, 18 at the time, was said to have been passed out during the murder, but the precise nature of his actions remains unknown, and the incident cast a shadow that followed him throughout his life. His link to the crime was gradually forgotten, but his arrest and death resurfaced speculation that his last name may have won him leniency with the law.

He was a misfit member of the club kids, a band of downtown personalities who created an underground nightlife universe at the Limelight, a club housed in an old stone church in Chelsea. They partied in glitter and platform heels, and they carried children’s lunchboxes stuffed with ecstasy.

A prodigal son of brownstone Brooklyn, Daniel attended the Packer Collegiate private school and was raised in a bookish milieu. Paul Auster, whose friends included the novelists Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo, was then at the height of his literary celebrity. When he wrote the 1995 movie “Smoke,” Daniel was cast in a bit part as a thief who shares a scene with ‎Harvey Keitel‎.

By night, he raved at the Limelight beneath cage dancers, often carrying a paperback of “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis. He soon fell under the sway of Mr. Alig, the club kid ringleader from suburban Indiana. As Mr. Alig reigned over the Limelight, and threw lawless parties in trucks and subway stations, teenagers flocked to his chaotic utopia.

“Daniel was a wild child,” said James St. James, a former club kid who wrote the 1999 memoir “Disco Bloodbath: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland.” “When he and Michael met, they were at a rave, and Michael ran over to me and said, ‘I’ve just met the love of my life.’ Then he dragged this boy over. They were inseparable after that. They became a couple from hell.”

“We all knew who Daniel was,” he continued. “It became this joke that Paul Auster had a kid from ‘The Omen’ on his hands.”

The scene changed when meth and ketamine replaced ecstasy, and Mr. Alig got addicted to heroin. It was against this backdrop that Daniel found himself at Mr. Alig’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment on March 17, 1996. What happened next has been told with variations, but this is the generally accepted account.

Mr. Alig’s drug use had resulted in a hefty debt to Mr. Melendez, a club kid known as “Angel” for his habit of wearing giant feathered wings. Mr. Melendez went to the apartment to collect his money, but the two men got into a fight. Soon, Mr. Riggs entered the fray, bludgeoning Mr. Melendez’s head with a hammer. Mr. Alig then suffocated Mr. Melendez before pouring Drano down his throat and sealing his mouth with duct tape.

The dead man was placed in a bathtub, where he decomposed for days on ice while Mr. Alig continued partying with friends. Finally, he dismembered the body in a heroin haze while Mr. Riggs spritzed Calvin Klein Eternity over the corpse to mask its odor. Then the men dumped the body into the Hudson River. They reportedly gave Daniel, who was using drugs in the apartment, $3,000 of Mr. Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence.

As rumors of Mr. Melendez’s disappearance began to spread, Michael Musto, the nightlife columnist at The Village Voice, wrote a blind item suggesting that Mr. Alig had killed him. A mutilated torso washed up on Staten Island, and Mr. Alig and Mr. Riggs were arrested that winter.

After pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter, Mr. Alig spent 17 years in prison and Mr. Riggs served 13. Daniel pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property with the promise of a five-year probation. He did not testify in court. In the crime’s aftermath, police cracked down on drugs in clubs, and a federal investigation targeted Peter Gatien, the eye-patch-wearing mogul who owned the Limelight, effectively ending an era of New York nightlife.

Mr. Riggs said at his sentencing: “What I am certain is that all of us involved, myself, Michael Alig, Daniel Auster and Angel Melendez, are victims of the same hideous evil, whose name is drugs.”

As the crime entered New York lore, the Limelight was converted into a David Barton Gym and the murder became fodder for true-crime books and movies, notably “Party Monster,” which starred Chloë Sevigny and Macaulay Culkin. Daniel became the rarely mentioned fourth man in the apartment, one who did not appear in the most popular retellings.

“After Daniel’s death, conversation about this thing that happened so long ago flared up again,” Mr. Musto said. “All these theories about why he wasn’t charged had always existed. If he knew more, why didn’t he come forward? Why did he fade from view and not have to testify?”

“I always wondered about him over the years,” he added. “He was an enigma.”

In his 2003 book, “​​Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture,” the journalist Frank Owen published the theory that the powerful district attorney Robert Morgenthau, who died in 2019 at 99, didn’t pursue Daniel on more serious charges because his priority was to bring down Mr. Gatien, and because he was friendly with his father.

“After the slaying,” Mr. Owen wrote, “Auster had been whisked out of the city by his father to a secret location. Paul Auster then contacted a family friend, who happened to be Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau. Morgenthau had a reputation for treating celebrities with kid gloves.”

Soon after Mr. Alig was released in 2014, he gave fresh details about the crime to The New York Post: “Me and Daniel Auster and Riggs all piled on Angel,” he said in the interview. “I smashed into his face to try to push him down. I either did it for too long or had more strength than I realized or maybe it was a combination of us sitting on top of him and he couldn’t breathe or whatever it was, he just stopped writhing.”

Mr. Alig, who was then almost 50, tried to reclaim his former glory as a nightlife promoter, but the murder’s specter followed him in a vastly changed city. He died of a drug overdose on Christmas Eve in 2020. Mr. Riggs entered academia after his release in 2010 and avoided the media spotlight.

In the wake of Daniel’s death, former club kids began reconnecting to discuss the past, and some reflected that Ruby’s death represented yet one more consequence of the era’s excesses.

“For years after Angel’s murder I thought, ‘Maybe this is all over,’” said Ernie Glam, who went on to be a newspaper reporter in Westchester County. “But the deaths of Michael Alig and now Daniel Auster and his daughter show that it’s not over. Addiction is never over. I don’t think of Daniel as a monster but as an addict who was a really sick person that needed help.”

Sidney Prawatyotin, who appeared in the 1995 movie “Kids” and became a graphic artist, was teenage friends with Daniel in the Limelight years.

“When we hung out, I always felt like Daniel was looking for a family,” Mr. Prawatyotin said. “I thought of him as a boy without a family. Like he was lost. He enjoyed doing normal things with me, like watching movies all night. At my parents’ place on the Upper West Side, he always liked spending time with my mom and hanging out with her. I think he eventually found family in the clubs, but then it got out of control for him.”

The second New York story that Daniel Auster was connected to began playing out on the page shortly after his birth in 1977.

For years, he provided creative fuel for his father, who depicted him in several books until he faded from his writings.

After the Melendez murder, Ms. Hustvedt, his stepmother, published a novel that featured a teenage addict who becomes involved in a killing strikingly similar to the real-life crime.

Ms. Davis, his mother, has examined practically every facet of ordinary life, including parenthood, in countless short stories and essays, but she has avoided including a character who resembles Daniel in her work.

The first literary portrayal of Daniel came in 1982, when he appeared as a child in“The Invention of Solitude,” a memoir by his father. The book explores Mr. Auster’s strained relationship with his father, with Daniel serving as a Proustian vehicle for the author’s self-discovery. It heralded Mr. Auster’s arrival as a bold postmodern voice in American letters, and the theme of the absent father and the searching son would recur throughout his work.

Mr. Auster wrote the memoir during a bleak period. He and Ms. Davis — who met as undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard College before living together as translators in the South of France — had separated after four years of marriage, and his father had just died. While Mr. Auster and Ms. Davis took turns raising Daniel, Mr. Auster moved into a tiny office on Varick Street in Lower Manhattan, where he wrote in isolation.

The book is filled with impressions of Daniel’s childhood, notably Mr. Auster reading Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio” to him at bedtime: “For the little boy to see Pinocchio, that same foolish puppet who has stumbled his way from one misfortune to the next, who has wanted to be ‘good’ and could not help being ‘bad,’ for this same incompetent little marionette, who is not even a real boy, to become a figure of redemption, the very being who saves his father from the grip of death, is a sublime moment of revelation.”

He adds: “The son saves the father.”

Mr. Auster’s breakthrough work, “The New York Trilogy,” published in 1987, established him as a fiction writer. One of its three novellas, “City of Glass,” includes a writer named Paul Auster who is married to a woman named Siri and has a gentle son named Daniel.

The depiction of the son character was markedly different in 2003, when Mr. Auster published “Oracle Night,” a novel featuring an acclaimed Brooklyn writer with the surname Trause (an anagram of Auster), the father of a violent addict named Jacob whom he eventually disinherits. Nearly a decade later, in the 2012 memoir “Winter Journal,” which describes the dissolution of his marriage, the author barely refers to his son.

Mr. Auster met Ms. Hustvedt at a poetry reading a few years after his separation from Ms. Davis. They were married in the early 1980s and settled in Park Slope. Ms. Davis moved to the neighborhood to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth.

Over the next decade, Mr. Auster and Ms. Hustvedt became leading figures of literary Brooklyn. Articles noted the warmth of the writerly household, including a 1995 profile in The New York Times, in which Mr. Auster expressed delight at receiving a postcard from Daniel, who was on an Outward Bound program in Maine. The next year, Daniel was making pilgrimages to the Limelight.

In 2003, Ms. Hustvedt published “What I Loved,” an acclaimed novel that attracted scrutiny for appearing to borrow heavily from reality. The book’s second half focuses on a boy named Mark who grows into a deceitful teenage addict and clubgoer. He torments his father, Bill, and intimidates his stepmother, Violet. He also becomes intimately involved with a nightlife figure who is arrested for the murder of a drug dealer named Rafael Hernandez.

“Violet had long suspected that Mark hadn’t told the full truth about the murder,” Ms. Hustvedt writes. “Mark had fooled him, the way he had fooled us all.”

Of the book’s father and son, Ms. Hustvedt writes: “Bill loved his changeling child. His blank son, his Ghosty Boy. He loved the boy-man who is still roaming from city to city and is still reaching into this traveling bag to find a face to wear and a voice to use.”

The journalist Joe Hagan analyzed the overlaps of fact and fiction for The New York Observer. Writing in Slate, the critic Katie Roiphe defended Ms. Hustvedt and criticized the Observer article as “pernicious” for its “implication that there is something unnatural about Hustvedt for exposing her family to the reading public.” In 2006, when asked by The Guardian if the novel had borrowed from real life, Ms. Hustvedt said: “I’m not going to talk about any of that.”

Ms. Davis married an abstract painter, Alan Cote, after her divorce from Mr. Auster. She began teaching at Bard College and produced translations of Proust and Flaubert. In 1995, when Daniel was 17, she gave him the chance to use her as material: The author photo for her novel, “The End of the Story,” in which she smiles easily at the camera, bears the credit “by Daniel Auster.”

A new wave of appreciation for her body of work came at the time of the publication of “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” in 2009. Five years later, she published a story collection, “Can’t and Won’t,” which she dedicated, in part, to Daniel.

In a 2014 profile of Ms. Davis in The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear homed in on “Selfish,” one of Ms. Davis’s stories about parenthood: “That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel,” Ms. Goodyear wrote.

The article also described how Ms. Davis once asked Daniel for his advice on a short story that included an unkind detail about her own mother, who was still alive at the time. He recommended that she remove the detail to spare his grandmother’s feelings, and Ms. Davis followed her son’s counsel.

When Ms. Goodyear asked her about the tradition of lifting from reality to write fiction, Ms. Davis replied: “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.”

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” she said. “Children are off-limits.”

In 1998, not long after the start of his probation, Daniel attended a screening of “Party Monster: The Shockumentary,” a documentary about Mr. Alig and the Melendez murder. His presence came as a surprise to other club kids who were there that night. Approached by a Page Six reporter after the screening, he said he was “going away” and “wouldn’t be reachable all summer.” Daniel then faded from public view.

In his 20s, he grappled with addiction and studied photography at the State University of New York, Purchase, creating portfolios heavy on noirish New York City streetscapes. During class one day, when a teacher referred to the movie “Smoke,” Daniel raised his hand and said he had acted in the film, adding that Mr. Auster was his father.

“He didn’t talk about his past, but I eventually learned he’d had a tumultuous one,” recalled Matt Licari, a fellow photography student at SUNY Purchase. “It seemed like school was meant to be a new start for him.”

“He had a reputation for disappearing,” Mr. Licari continued, “but there’s no question that Dan was a great photographer. It was sensitive work. I still recall one picture he took of a priest watching a burning building. After graduating I remember he started taking pictures of lost gloves around the city.”

After college, Daniel began working at A-1 Record Shop in the East Village and gigging as a D.J. specializing in house music at Le Poisson Rouge and elsewhere. He published his street photos in New York Press, an alt-weekly paper. A black-and-white picture of his was used as the cover art for “A Mown Lawn,” a slim chapbook by his mother.

Announcing himself with a personal website that highlighted his photographs, he wrote on its About Me page: “I grew up in the wonderful borough of Brooklyn in New York City. My first camera (a Pentax K-1000) was given to me at age 11 and I’ve been photographing ever since. People watching was a hobby I acquired early on in life, so this translated naturally into photography becoming an obsession of mine, with an emphasis on people, my favorite subject matter.”

He was arrested several times throughout his 30s, including two charges for drug possession and one for petit larceny.

At the same time, his half siblings prospered. Theo Cote, the son of Ms. Davis and her second husband, established himself as a videographer and photographer. Sophie Auster, the daughter of Mr. Auster and Ms. Hustvedt, became a model and singer-songwriter. Her debut album, which she recorded in high school and released on a small French label, features songs written by her father, who cast her in two movies he directed, “The Inner Life of Martin Frost” and “Lulu on the Bridge.” She also appeared on the cover of French Elle with her mother.

In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Paul Auster gave what appears to be his only on-the-record comment about his son: “He is currently finding himself — ask me again in a couple of years.”

In 2013, a year after the publication of Mr. Auster’s memoir “Winter Journal,” Tal Gafny, then a graduate student in fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, sent Daniel a message on Facebook. An avid fan of Paul Auster, Ms. Gafny said she had found herself wondering why Daniel was largely missing from the recent memoir’s pages. Weeks later, Daniel replied to her. It was the start of a correspondence that Ms. Gafny would include in “Finding and Losing Daniel Auster,” a chapter of her dissertation.

In their exchanges, they shared their struggles about having divorced parents and fractured childhoods. Daniel eventually confided that he had noticed his absence from “Winter Journal.”

“We made a mutual discovery of having a similar internal void,” Ms. Gafny wrote in her dissertation. “The empty space we both carry became the focal point of our encounter. I was hoping that we could use this as a starting point for a collaboration.”

They agreed to meet in New York.

“I’ve never met someone before like this, not knowing them at all, but I’m fully ready to take a chance and see you,” Daniel wrote to her. “I’ve experienced much pain in my life, but much joy too.”

When Ms. Gafny arrived, he abruptly canceled.

“He wrote me saying, ‘I’m not going to be able to make it,’” she said in an interview. “The reason was he’d had some kind of relapse. He said he was sorry and needed to concentrate on himself.”

She kept writing Daniel but never heard from him again.

Over the last decade, Daniel posted photos that offered a rough chronicle of his life: his father’s manual Olympia typewriter in Brooklyn; a woman in sunglasses outside a San Francisco methadone clinic; children playing soccer in Morocco; stray cats in Spain. Along the way, while immersed in Berlin’s rave scene, he grew close to a young artist named Zuzan Smith.

Last summer — eight months after the birth of their daughter — they were married on a boat in a Berlin canal. Daniel cradled Ruby as Ms. Smith stood beside him wearing an emerald green dress and veil. A friend officiating the ceremony recounted how she moved to the United States to be with Daniel and how the couple had emerged from pandemic lockdown with a child. After the exchange of vows, Daniel’s half brother raised a toast, and someone read words of wisdom sent along by Ms. Davis, who was watching the ceremony online from New York.

The young family moved into a small apartment in Park Slope, not far from Paul Auster’s brownstone. Daniel read bedtime stories to his daughter and took her for strolls around the neighborhood. In a photo taken for her first Halloween, the family is dressed up as characters from “The Wizard of Oz” — Daniel as the Tin Man, Zuzan as Dorothy and Ruby as the Cowardly Lion. Later that fall, neighbors noticed a jumble of toys and baby clothes on the Bergen Street sidewalk.

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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