The Bright Future and Grim Death of a Privileged Hollywood Daughter

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In her brief life, Lyric McHenry was blessed: a childhood in Beverly Hills, an elite education and a budding film career. In death, things were more complicated.

Lyric McHenry was found unconscious in the vicinity of the Undercliff Avenue overpass near its intersection at Boscobel Place in the Bronx. No cause of death has been released, and questions swirl as the police try to piece together details. CreditCredit Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

By Zoe Greenberg

It was a desolate spot for the final moments of Lyric McHenry’s life: A patch of concrete in the Bronx, across from a construction lot filled with stacks of broken wood and surrounded by barbed wire. The sidewalk there is littered with broken glass and empty takeout containers. Weeds strain against a nearby fence.

Ms. McHenry had begun her night far away, celebrating her 26th birthday on the rooftop of the Dream Hotel in downtown Manhattan. With its sweeping views and stylish décor, the Dream seemed like a fitting place to celebrate Lyric, who in her brief life had blazed through Stanford University, mastered French in Paris, appeared on her best friend’s reality TV show and was now finishing a script for her own movie.

But in the early morning hours of Aug. 14, Ms. McHenry was found unconscious on this overpass, knees scraped, a small glassine envelope of what the police said appeared to be cocaine beside her. She turned out to be around 20 weeks pregnant, though her friends and family maintain she was unaware of it.

She was rushed to a hospital where doctors tried to revive her using Narcan, the drug that reverses opioid overdoses, but they did not succeed — she died around 6 in the morning. The medical examiner has not yet released a cause of death.

“You understand that what they’re saying is true,” said Doug McHenry, Lyric’s father, describing the moment he learned that his daughter had died. But at the same time, he added, he could not believe it. “It’s not true,” he said. “It can’t be true.”

In life, Ms. McHenry was a young woman who people felt was going somewhere. Friends and admirers watched her from afar, waiting to see what she would become: maybe a screenwriter or a movie producer, a reality star or a politician. She was at a moment of bright possibility, with all the avenues of a successful life branching before her.

After she died, The Daily Mail and Us Weekly picked up the story, dissecting the details of her final night. Articles described what she had been wearing, who she had been with. People who had never met her interpreted her death as a lesson, something to make meaning out of.

The spotlight on Lyric McHenry in life had meant that she was on the verge of becoming someonebut the spotlight on her in death seemed to foreclose all those possibilities. In the headlines and stories that followed, she was reduced to the facts as written in a hurried police report: black woman, pregnant, possible cocaine, deserted street in the Bronx. What more could there be?

Doug McHenry, Lyric’s father, and Maya McHenry, her sister, in West Hollywood, Calif., in September.CreditPatrick T. Fallon for The New York Times
Doug McHenry, Lyric’s father, and Maya McHenry, her sister, in West Hollywood, Calif., in September.CreditPatrick T. Fallon for The New York Times

Lyric McHenry grew up in Beverly Hills, surrounded by privilege. Her father was a movie director and a producer, and her mother, Jennifer McHenry, was a wardrobe stylist. Lyric was named after the heroine of the first movie Mr. McHenry directed; her younger sister, Maya, was named for Maya Angelou. Magic Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson both submitted statements to The Times saying she was like family to them.

The McHenrys sometimes traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer, and skied the trails above Lake Tahoe in the spring. Lyric attended Marlborough, an elite all-girls school in Los Angeles, and then followed in her father’s footsteps by going to Stanford.

The family felt that much of the coverage of Ms. McHenry’s death had been racist, tinged with the idea that she was a drug addict who deserved what she got.

“I don’t want this to be: black girl, drugs, something funky went on, what do you expect?” Mr. McHenry said in an interview in New York, where he had flown in the days after his daughter’s death to speak with detectives conducting the investigation.

Part of the reaction was about the way Lyric’s family and friends had learned that she had died: the story, and their grief, played out in the public eye.

On the morning of Aug. 14, a New York Daily News reporter woke Mr. McHenry on the West Coast with a question: Did he have any comment on what had happened to his daughter? He did not yet know what had happened to his daughter.

Lyric’s best friend from middle school, Chiara Towne, was at the airport in Los Angeles when her phone began to ring. At first she assumed the headlines were a mistake; she told a friend she thought they accidentally used Lyric’s photo simply because it was available online.

While battling what they see as inaccurate depictions of Lyric in the press, her family has also struggled with how to handle all the eyes that are now, inevitably, turned toward her, sometimes responding in contradictory ways.

In a statement the day after Lyric died, the family requested that “all speculation surrounding the circumstances of death cease until the real facts are determined.” But in mid-September, Mr. McHenry spoke with The Daily Mail, fueling that same speculation by saying he believed the possible cocaine found next to his daughter was planted and that “more than likely” a person calculatedly left her on the overpass.

At this point, the investigation is ongoing and the family is waiting for official answers.

But they say she was not some wild celebrity child. Her death, Mr. McHenry said, “was something that could have happened to anyone’s girl.”

After graduating from Stanford in 2014 with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity, Lyric moved to New York. She wanted to end up in Hollywood, friends said, but in the meantime she had other factors pulling her to the East Coast: her boyfriend from Stanford, Charles Mwalimu, was at law school in the city, and her best friend from childhood, Magic Johnson’s son EJ Johnson, was launching a reality TV show.

She was young and ambitious, comfortable in the half-glittering, half-gritty world of Downtown Manhattan. She moved into a tiny fifth-floor apartment in Chinatown, filling one wall with dozens of Post-it notes outlining a script she was working on, according to Rob Franklin, her roommate.

During part of the week, she filmed for the E! network reality show “EJNYC,” enjoying the high-flying lifestyle that later appeared on TV. She loved to dress up, and she posted photos of herself at fashion shows with friends or cheering on her 23-year-old sister, Maya, who is a model and was also on the show. Often, she gathered with friends at Lucien, a French bistro in the East Village.

Around the same time, she was working as a video production assistant at the website Refinery29, hustling to make it in digital media. She noted on her résumé that she was a video producer and writer “with a strong interest in entertainment and media, and how it can be used for education and social justice.”

She was able to do slivers of work at Refinery29 that aligned with that goal, producing a video called “Lingo With Lyric” in which she explored the concept of a postracial society. She interviewed New Yorkers on the street about the definition of “post-race,” later posting a clip of her grinning and holding up a microphone to a stranger. “Are we post race?” the photo asked. She captioned it, “Me and my new bff talking issuez (spoiler: the answer is no).” Meanwhile, on “EJNYC,” a spinoff of “#Rich Kids of Beverly Hills” that lasted for only six episodes, Ms. McHenry can be spotted at a Marie Antoinette-themed slumber party, drinking wine and getting a massage; eating a fabulous dinner on the Caribbean Island of St. Martin; and lounging in the Hamptons. She was often grinning, sometimes eyeing the camera as if she knew the situation was absurd but was nonetheless having a good time.

“Lyric — she went to Stanford,” Elisa Johnson, EJ’s sister, explained to viewers early in the season, by way of introducing her. “She has a real job.” Mr. Johnson declined to comment for this article.

Though she had a minor role on the show and rarely spoke, her star seemed to be on the rise. “Maya & Lyric McHenry From ‘EJNYC’ Are Seriously Successful” declared a Bustle article from the summer of 2016, which described Ms. McHenry as both a scholar and philanthropist.

Her friends and family reject the idea that Lyric was a “reality star.” She did appear to have a potential career in Hollywood ahead of her: maybe she would have become a screenwriter, or maybe a director or a producer.

Or perhaps she would have entered politics. She had thrown herself into the Obama campaign in high school and had raised money for the Stanford Democrats in college. When a college friend was having a bad day in New York, Lyric invited her to the Schomburg Center in Harlem to do archival research about Alex Haley, the author of “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” as a way to make her feel better.

To those who encountered her, it didn’t seem to matter exactly which path she chose. She would succeed, and people wanted a front-row seat to her rise.

“Everyone was like: ‘Who is this girl? I want to know her. I want to be her friend,’” said Zippy Guerin, a friend of Ms. McHenry’s from their sorority at Stanford. “It was like all eyes on her.”

A street near the intersection in the Bronx where Ms. McHenry was found unconscious.CreditJonah Markowitz for The New York Times

 

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A street near the intersection in the Bronx where Ms. McHenry was found unconscious.CreditJonah Markowitz for The New York Times

After her death, Ms. McHenry’s friends and family were angry and hurt by the tabloid speculation surrounding her, and in interviews they were defensive. Many said they could not speak to her drug use, though it was unclear whether that was because they had not witnessed it or because they did not want to speak ill of her.

Some friends acknowledged that Ms. McHenry may have used drugs recreationally, but said that it wasn’t a serious problem.

But the reality show did seem to be a turning point in Ms. McHenry’s partying, according to her ex-boyfriend, Mr. Mwalimu. She had moved to New York in part because her relationship with him was getting serious and they were talking about marriage. Together the two explored the city, uncovering new restaurants and visiting the Comedy Cellar, where they once saw Chris Rock perform a surprise set. But Lyric’s life on TV was a tricky adjustment for their relationship, Mr. Mwalimu said.

“We were just living different lifestyles in a way. I’d be studying and go to class and stuff. More or less, those types of shows pay you to go out. She was coming back at different hours,” Mr. Mwalimu said.

Initially, he said, Lyric was careful to steer clear of cocaine.

But as time went on, he said, she became more and more comfortable with the drug. “Especially when you have money and you go out all the time with people who do, some people keep that drug around more easily than others,” he said. “After a while, it became a casual thing.”

Eventually, Mr. Mwalimu and Ms. McHenry broke up, partly because of their diverging lifestyles, he said.

“Over time, it was kind of reaching a place where her addiction was starting to really solidify and escalate,” he said. Mr. Mwalimu said he and Ms. McHenry discussed her seeking counseling for her drug use in the summer of 2017, but that she resisted it.

Even after they broke up, though, they stayed close friends. The day of her birthday party — the day before she died — they had lunch together in the West Village. She was excited about a script she was working on, he said, and delighted by a hidden garden in the heart of Manhattan they found after lunch.

Other friends, including Ms. Guerin and Ms. Towne, fiercely contest the idea that Ms. McHenry had an addiction.

In the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Midtown, where Mr. McHenry was staying while consulting with police investigators, I asked Maya McHenry if Lyric struggled with addiction. She hesitated, and her father answered instead.

“I don’t think she struggled with addiction,” he said. “I think she partied.”

“She partied like everybody else parties,” Maya added. “I think it was getting a little bit out of control, but that’s just because we live in 2018 now.”

The sunset scene on a recent Saturday at the rooftop bar of the Dream Hotel, the site of Ms. McHenry’s birthday party, where she was last seen.CreditJonah Markowitz for The New York Times
The sunset scene on a recent Saturday at the rooftop bar of the Dream Hotel, the site of Ms. McHenry’s birthday party, where she was last seen.CreditJonah Markowitz for The New York Times

After the reality show ended and she and Mr. Mwalimu broke up, Lyric returned to Los Angeles, and she seemed to thrive. She moved back into her childhood home, and spent hours with her best friend from middle school, Ms. Towne, watching Disney movies, working on scripts and wrangling with the big questions of the future.

Then, in August, Lyric visited New York for her 26th birthday, and her sister threw her a party at the Dream Hotel. Lyric was skilled at cultivating her image, and the night of her birthday party was no exception. She posted a video to Instagram of her in a pink dress smiling at her reflection in the mirror, and later, a clip of her on a rooftop, blowing a kiss to the camera.

Around 2 a.m. Lyric vanished from the club. One friend thought she had left to find a co-worker who was supposed to be coming to the party; another thought she had gone to get drugs.

A surveillance clip showing a young man outside the Dream Hotel.Published OnCreditCreditNew York Police Department

It’s not clear where Ms. McHenry did go before ending up in the Bronx hours later. The police department released a surveillance video that showed a young man outside the Dream Hotel. None of her friends said they recognized him; he did not appear to be part of her friend circle from high school or from college. Makshya Tolbert, a friend from Stanford who lived near Lyric’s old apartment, said she had heard vaguely about a man in the Bronx whom Ms. McHenry knew.

“All I can say is I have no idea what business Lyric would actually have in the Bronx,” Ms. Tolbert said. “Our friends don’t live there. Our friends barely live uptown.”

Back at the rooftop party, Lyric’s sister and friends became anxious. She had been as radiant as ever at the club, tipsy and giddy as the night went on. Now she had simply disappeared and wasn’t returning calls or texts.

“I don’t know where you are bud, but please allow me this ask: be safe, come home, we are here,” Mr. Mwalimu texted her.

Maya McHenry, who left the bar when she couldn’t find her sister, said a short prayer before going to sleep.

“Dear Lord,” she whispered. “Please make sure that my sister is safe, and that everything is O.K.”

The memorial service for Ms. McHenry in West Hollywood in September. Her death, Mr. McHenry said, “was something that could have happened to anyone’s girl.”CreditPatrick T. Fallon for The New York Times
The memorial service for Ms. McHenry in West Hollywood in September. Her death, Mr. McHenry said, “was something that could have happened to anyone’s girl.”CreditPatrick T. Fallon for The New York Times
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