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Kate Spade suffered years of mental illness, sister says. Suicide 'not unexpected'

Grieving deeply, Kate Spade's older sister told The Star on Tuesday that her famous designer sister suffered debilitating mental illness for the last three or four years and was self-medicating with alcohol.

Spade's apparent suicide on Tuesday, at age 55 inside the bedroom of her New York Park Avenue apartment, "was not unexpected by me," Reta Saffo, Spade's older sister by two years, told The Star by email from her house in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Family members struggled mightily to help Spade but to little avail, she said. "Sometimes you simply cannot SAVE people from themselves!" she wrote. Spade seemed concerned how hospitalization might harm the image of the "happy-go-lucky" Kate Spade brand, she said.

She saw how her sister seemed fixated on Robin Williams on the day, in August 2014, that he committed suicide by hanging.

"I think there was a plan even as far back as then," Saffo said.

Reta .JPG
In November 2001, Reta Brosnahan Saffo, Kate Spade's sister, was a parent volunteer adding some holiday color to Pembroke Hill School on State Line Road. She now lives in New Mexico. Keith Myers

Saffo emailed The Star shortly after it posted an online story about Spade's death. Spade was born and raised Katherine Brosnahan in Kansas City, graduating from St. Teresa's Academy and then attending the University of Kansas before transferring to Arizona State University. Saffo contacted The Star to say that the story had misspelled Spade's childhood nickname, Katy.

The Star made the correction and asked Saffo if she would speak by phone about her sister or if there was anything else about her that she wanted reflected. Saffo responded that she was not willing to take a call and had taken a sedative. She noted her husband is a medical doctor.

She continued: "I will say this was not unexpected by me. I'd flown out to Napa and NYC several times in the past 3-4 years to help her to get the treatment she needed (inpatient hospitalization). She was always a very excitable little girl and I felt all the stress/pressure of her brand (KS) may have flipped the switch where she eventually became full-on manic depressive.

"I'd come so VERY close to getting her to go in for treatment (to the same place Catherine Zeta-Jones went for her successful bipolar treatment program). I'd spoken with them on the phone (not telling them exactly who the patient would be). They agreed to fly in and talk with her and take her with them to the treatment center.

"She was all set to go — but then chickened out by morning. I even said I (would) go with her and be a 'patient' too (she liked that idea) I said we could talk about it all — our childhood, etc. That I could help her fill in any blanks she might have.

"That seemed to make her more comfortable, and we'd get sooo close to packing her bags, but — in the end, the 'image' of her brand (happy-go-lucky Kate Spade) was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out."

Spade's husband and business partner, Andy Spade, assisted in trying to coax her into treatment, making plans on how it would work and who would take care of their daughter, Frances Beatrix, known as Bea, Saffo said. "Nothing ever came of it."

"After numerous attempts, I finally let go," Saffo wrote. "Sometimes you simply cannot SAVE people from themselves! One of the last things she said to me was, 'Reta, I know you hate funerals and don't attend them, but for me would you PLEASE come to MINE, at least. Please!' I know she perhaps had a plan, but she insisted she did not."

Saffo said her sister was at a hotel in Santa Fe when she saw the television news report of Robin Williams' death.

"We were freaked out/saddened," Saffo said, "but she kept watching it and watching it over and over. I think the plan was already in motion even as far back as then."

Saffo ended her email about her sister: "She was a dear little person. So dear — so kind, so funny. I'll miss our 6-7-hr-long phone conversations between NY and NM.

"I'm off to bed for a good cry."

To get help

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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