Post by jernels
I'm trying to find a copy of the U.S. News article from May 17, 2004.
I went to school with Jana in Wisconsin, and have only recently learned
of her plight.
If anyone has a copy of the article or the follow-up editorial
response, I'd appreciate a copy. That will save me from trudging to
the main branch of the library to look it up in the files.
Here's the article. I don't have any of the follow-up...
A Fall From Grace
A former Broadway actress turned war photographer--and a life unhinged
By Kit R. Roane
On a frigid December morning last year, two New York City police
officers came upon a 52-year-old woman sitting on the stoop of a
brownstone in Manhattan's tony West Village. She was wearing a leather
coat over a blue sweater, gray sweat pants, and two ski hats. She had a
cup of coffee in her hand, a sweet Hav-a-Tampa cigarillo in her mouth,
and $1.91 in her pocket, all in change. She was surrounded by a bunch of
plastic bags containing the vestiges of her life: a few changes of
clothes, some cardboard for shelter, and a scrap of donated pizza.
Most important to the woman, however, was the stack of documents she
kept in a manila envelope, wrapped in plastic to stave off moisture and
stuffed in the front of her pants to protect them from theft. They were
her identity, proof that she still mattered. Once she had no such
doubts. In an earlier time, Jana Schneider was an award-winning Broadway
actress who, in an extraordinary career change, became a daring war
photographer. But then she disappeared. When she turned up again late
last year, she looked like just another bag lady. Her name, once in
lights, meant nothing to the two officers. Whether they feared she might
freeze to death or because, as her doctors wrote later, she exhibited
"paranoid ideations," Schneider was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center in
lower Manhattan for psychiatric evaluation.
Bellevue is a few miles and a lifetime away from Broadway, where
Schneider first experienced the heady taste of fame. The New York Times,
describing her 1985 Broadway performance in The Mystery of Edwin Drood,
had this to say: "She snarls like a tigress, baring her teeth and raking
the air with blood-red talons; she slithers like a snake, lasciviously
darting her tongue in and out with reptilian speed." Playing the
half-Ceylonese Helena Landless, Schneider went on to earn a Drama Desk
Award and a Tony nomination.
At Bellevue, Schneider was locked up in a psychiatric ward. A sign on
the door cautions visitors against taking in sharp metal objects or
allowing residents to "elope," a euphemism for escape. A woman who hated
to be hemmed in, who had gone where she wanted when she wanted,
Schneider was medicated and placed under constant observation, her
nights filled with the screams and rants of other patients.
The tigress of the 1980s seems to have utterly vanished. Now
middle-aged, Schneider wears schoolmarm glasses. Frail and soft-spoken,
she seems lost in an oversize cotton sweater, her brown hair cut short
and straight. Wherever she goes, Schneider carries her personal papers,
the jigsaw pieces of her puzzling life. Beauty queen, actress, war
photographer, Jana Schneider's story is simple, in some ways, a sobering
arc of hope, ambition, and tragedy. During the course of her journey,
she toted her cameras to some of the world's darkest places, documenting
pain, suffering, and death. But now she is in a cruel dark place of her
own, the personal hell of mental illness.
A STAR IS BORN
She was born Janet Ann Schneider on Oct. 24, 1951, the second of two
children, in McFarland, Wis. Only 260 people lived in the little farm
town at the time. Main Street was a gravel road divided by a massive
oak. Jana's parents, Lloyd and Daphne, moved to McFarland not long after
World War II. Lloyd set up his first law office in the back of a
grocery, but he had big plans. He started McFarland's American Legion
post, was a charter member of the Lions Club, and helped the town
acquire the land for its only high school. The town, Jana Schneider
recalls now, was "typical red, white, and blue Eisenhower." As a young
girl, she adored her father, and the feeling was mutual. "My sister was
an actress from age 2," says James, her brother, "and her most rave
reviewer was her father." In high school, she blossomed on the stage, a
rare talent who could both act and sing, according to Eugene Olson, her
English teacher. Schneider had another thing going for her. She looked
like a beauty queen and once placed first runner-up in the Miss Teen
A complex young woman, she showed compassion for the less fortunate but
was also obsessive at times. Some people found her difficult to
understand, recalls Steven Gibbs, her high school sweetheart. "It was
terrible to get a letter from her because she'd fill it up, writing
across the bottom and the sides and across the top." But what defined
her? He thought for a minute, then says, "She had no fear." She
certainly didn't worry about what people thought. During a final exam at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Schneider brought her pet ferret
along, leaving it in her book bag to scratch about just outside the
class. "A lot of students are reserved," says Robert Skloot, her drama
professor. "But she was a kind of an independent free spirit, a forceful
presence to contend with." Madison gave Schneider a taste of the world.
The campus was a hotbed of activism against the Vietnam War. Schneider
began shedding the mental constraints of her rural upbringing. In 1971,
she visited Belfast, Northern Ireland, and saw violent demonstrations.
No one, she recalls, was wandering around with a peace candle, as she
had back in Madison.
As much as she was drawn to human conflict, Schneider craved the
applause and footlights of the stage. In 1973, she graduated from the
University of Wisconsin and lost no time packing her pickup and heading
for New York. "She had no money," Gibbs recalls, "just a driver's
license, and that was it."
Schneider never liked her first name, so in New York Janet became Jana.
She found a ratty third-floor walk-up near the Theater District and
enrolled in Circle in the Square, one of the city's premier acting
schools. There were a few jobs, a play here, a voice-over there, a
commercial, but nothing steady.
Slowly, the good parts started coming. In 1977, she was cast in
Broadway's the Robber Bridegroom and went on tour as a featured player
in Shenandoah. In 1982, she was brought in as a replacement in Othello.
Her big break came three years later, when she was picked during an open
audition for the Mystery of Edwin Drood. Based on an unfinished murder
mystery by Charles Dickens, Drood won five Tonys. Part of its allure was
that the audience was able to vote for its choice of killer and ending.
Competition was fierce. Whoever received the most audience votes as the
killer got to perform a final solo. Some who worked on Drood recall that
Schneider, who played the conniving Helena Landless, was often the
audience's favorite. "She just vied for those votes," remembers Debbie
Corwin, an associate producer. "I always remember thinking, 'I wonder
what Jana will do tonight.' She just ate it up."
During her Broadway years, Schneider met Tom Wilson, a model and
musician, while photographing an Irish relief rally in New York City.
"He saw her across the room and thought she was beautiful," says his
mother, Peg Shumacher. "He was, I guess, smitten with her, as most boys
get with someone who is glamorous and outgoing and sure of herself as
Jana was." The couple married in 1986. The bridesmaids wore burgundy
velvet dresses. The bride dressed simply in a style from the 1920s.
"Jana was on her way up at the time," recalls Fran Bradfield, a close
friend. The moneymen of Broadway were knocking on her door, and she was
reading for some big names in Hollywood. But nothing jelled. When
Schneider left Drood, in 1988, her marriage was falling apart, and her
moment in the bright lights seemed to have passed. "She had contracts
signed for another production," Bradfield remembers, "then all of a
sudden they decided they wanted to redo the cast and take it younger."
Schneider was in her mid-30s. "That," Bradfield said, "hit her extremely
She continued to work but became increasingly depressed, complaining
about the politics of the theater. She needed to make a difference,
Schneider told friends. Finally, she turned her back on the theater. She
was going to reinvent herself, this time behind the lens of a camera.
IN THE WAR ZONES
Schneider had done some travel photography in Asia and had met several
photojournalists whose work intrigued her. She had also talked with the
heads of photo agencies about how to break into the business and learned
that the quickest path to success was to go where others feared to
tread. In October 1988, Schneider made her way to Sri Lanka. Her timing
was great. Big stories--Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall, Afghanistan,
Iraq, Bosnia--were coming, rapid-fire. Editors were desperate for good
photographers unafraid of danger.
Guts, Schneider had. She traveled endlessly--Pakistan, India, Cuba,
Angola, Baghdad, Sarajevo, Kabul, and cities across the former Soviet
Union. "She was aggressive, very determined," Jim Colton, then U.S.
bureau chief for the French photo agency SIPA, says, "and she wouldn't
take no for an answer." Schneider was among a handful of photographers
to document the retreat of Russian forces from Afghanistan and one of
the few photographers to remain in Baghdad during the first Gulf War.
Her photographs began appearing in newsmagazines around the world,
including U.S. News. Recalls Richard Beeston, the diplomatic editor for
the Times of London: "She was one of those larger-than-life characters."
At Bellevue, Schneider remembers her photos from this period as a
patchwork of dark memories, clicking off the moments as if sifting
through an old file:
Sri Lanka--"Four bodies, tortured to death, flies, their eyes open,
rotting, stinking, hung, with threatening messages posted on them."
Afghanistan--"Young Soviet relaxing on his tank, with his helmet on and
chewed down fingernails smoking a cigarette, and reading a book."
Iraq--"Moving searchlights and bright red tracers . . . time exposure of
the nighttime sky."
Bosnia--"Terrible huge road, incinerating bombs, starting over the hill
when one took off the side of the house, so we could see inside, like a
Many of her fellow journalists respected Schneider's aggressiveness and
were amazed by her strength--she often carried upwards of 70 pounds of
photo equipment and wanted to be among the band of brothers making their
mark and their living by shooting images of the dangerous and the
remote. But others criticized her ambition and worried about her
disregard for personal safety. "This was her Everest, her noble calling,
and she was absolutely prepared to do anything to succeed," says Edward
Gorman, a writer for the Times of London with whom she traveled for
nearly a year. "She was always trying to find this unbelievable image.
This was probably behind her reckless approach because she felt that if
she went that little bit further, people would notice." Asked what he
meant, Gorman recounted the last time he saw Schneider, at a riot in
Northern Ireland, in late 1989. While other journalists were hiding
behind cars, he says, "in her typical way, she was wandering around in
no-man's land with bricks flying."
Schneider was drawn to the excitement of "being out with all the other
photographers," she says, emphasizing that she was "just covering
stories" like them. "As a photographer, you have the news of the day,
the news of the week, the news of the year, the news of the decade," she
said during one of several interviews at Bellevue. "Each picture will
Schneider's aggressiveness was legendary. In May 1992, she turned up in
Sarajevo. Retired Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, the Canadian commander of
the United Nations forces in the former Yugoslav city, remembers
Schneider vividly. "She was like a breath of fresh air, vivacious in the
midst of all those stinky male journalists. I was impressed by her
dedication. I told her she would end up either famous or dead." Many
journalists had been wounded or killed, so they began working in a
"pool," where one team went out and shared its photos with others. Not
Schneider, though. "She was after getting the story," MacKenzie says,
"not helping her colleagues."
Schneider's aggressiveness finally caught up with her. On June 17, 1992,
she and a Slovenian journalist named Ivo Standeker crossed into a
section of Sarajevo called Dobrinja. It was one of the most dangerous
parts of the city, a war zone unto itself. Dobrinja was cut off from
Sarajevo by Serbian gunmen, who made sport out of picking off Bosnian
civilians in their apartments. Schneider and Standeker made it past the
Serbian gunmen into Dobrinja, then stopped for a few seconds, so she
could snap a photo. The view was of some white curtains blowing
peacefully in an apartment window against the backdrop of a menacing
Serbian tank looming on a hill. "Then I felt one of the worst blasts of
sound and air that I had ever heard, and it threw me back through the
air," she recalls, gripped by the bloody memory. The tank shot twice
again. Two men rushed the journalists into an ambulance. Schneider tried
to talk to Standeker, but he was vomiting. Then he fell unconscious. "It
is such a serious part of my life, I don't want to misremember it,"
Schneider says now. "I haven't talked about it in a long time."
Standeker died; Schneider was flown back to the United States to recover
from shrapnel wounds to her legs and head.
The tragedy thrust Schneider back into the public eye. Newspapers across
the United States reported on her injuries. People magazine and Street
Stories, Ed Bradley's now defunct CBS television program, produced
lengthy profiles. Each is a bit of an embarrassment for Schneider now.
Bradley's program drew attention to her good works--particularly how she
took care of Bosnian refugee Fikret Alic for months after his escape
from a Serbian concentration camp. But Schneider also came off in the
interview as a bit of a self-promoter. She risked going into war zones,
she told Bradley, because she relished staring into "the corridor of
death," adding that "there was no story if I didn't." Asked by Bradley
how many times she had been raped while covering war, Schneider replied
coolly: "More than once."
Schneider seemed to be back on her game. She started a fund for victims
of the Bosnian conflict and traveled around Wisconsin talking about the
ravages of war. Volvo asked her to star in a commercial. Schneider,
naturally, obliged. The 90-second spot was shot in South Africa in 1994.
A fast and sturdy car is critical to the photojournalist's career, the
spot says, as Schneider intones, "I can't get a photograph if I'm not in
position. This car gets me in that position. Equipment is everything:
eyes, camera, car."
But this was all illusion. Inside, Schneider was troubled. She returned
to Wisconsin from Bosnia deeply depressed, according to her family and
friends. Behind the bravado, she was haunted by her part in Standeker's
death and her own close call. She began to focus more on the victims of
war. Among them was her friend Darja Lebar, a Slovenian journalist in
Sarajevo who had been shot in the face a few months after Standeker
died. Schneider helped Lebar raise money for her operations and find
doctors to reconstruct her face, and gave her a place to stay at her
parents' home in Wisconsin. "I couldn't open my mouth, and it took me
eight months to learn how to speak again," Lebar says. "One operation
was about $109,000, so Jana helped me out a lot."
Schneider also started working on a screenplay about her life and began
seeing a psychologist to talk about trauma. After Lebar returned to
Sarajevo, Schneider vowed to get back into journalism. "But she wasn't
really up to it," Lebar says. Schneider became increasingly distressed,
seemingly lost and erratic in her interests. Her brother, James, recalls
that she began a prolonged legal fight over a rent-stabilized apartment
she kept in New York and refused to settle. Work on her script stalled.
She also began running up huge bills on credit cards, he says, and even
bought an expensive horse, an Oldenburg jumper named Arctic Kachina
Schneider's mother-in-law, Peg Shumacher, had lost contact with her
after Tom Wilson filed for divorce in the early 1990s. Then, in 1996,
Schneider showed up at Wilson's funeral. She had changed drastically,
Shumacher says. Schneider appeared haggard, was living out of her car,
and seemed antagonistic, insulting two neighbors who offered
condolences. "She was--before--very outgoing, and full of vim and
vinegar," Shumacher recalls. "But the day of the funeral she was not
good at all. She looked like a street person. I felt very bad for her."
Schneider's mother and other family members couldn't keep up with her
wanderings. She called from time to time, usually requesting money from
some place on the other side of the Earth, then often vanished before
the money arrived. When her father died in January 1998, says Suzanne
Severson, her cousin, "she just dropped out of the picture completely."
Schneider didn't even make it to the funeral, a slight that Lloyd
Schneider's American Legion post buddies still talk about today.
Schneider continued to wander. In 1999, she showed up in Slovenia at the
home of Ivo Standeker's mother. Schneider called Darja Lebar and asked
to meet her there. They hadn't talked in five years. When Lebar arrived,
she says, Schneider looked unwell and complained repeatedly of
conspiracies. "She was saying someone had made a plan to destroy her,"
Lebar remembers. "I was translating for her, and it was very difficult.
I didn't want to upset Ivo's mother." Asked what she thought was going
on, Lebar says: "A lot of people actually snapped after the war because
they didn't deal with their issues. When I saw her, it was kind of like,
I was always afraid that you go crazy after all of that. You go to sleep
a normal person, then wake up crazy."
Eventually, Schneider turned up back in McFarland. It was at 3 in the
morning on a freezing winter day. She was, says her brother James,
"absolutely depleted." Schneider was traveling with several cats, and
her brother says she continued to talk of conspiracies and secret
communications. Family members were worried. They hid all the guns in
the house and tried to persuade Schneider to enter a hospital. She
refused. Instead, James says, she became combative and accused him of
"stealing her estate." James was in charge of their father's property
and all of the trusts he had set up before his death, a fact that still
rankles Schneider. She left her mother's house two months later and set
up residence in her father's empty office on Main Street, keeping
resolutely to herself, even refusing to open the door to friends or
She spent some time in New Hampshire, but in early 2000 she took off on
a trip around the United States in her Volvo wagon. Her companions:
several parakeets and two Persian kittens named God and Bob. She drove
to Washington, D.C., and watched the House of Representatives conduct
business for a day, then headed down to Fort Myers, Fla., looking for a
job. "I wanted anything from receptionist, to secretary, to maid," she
says. No one would hire her, so she headed to Texas, intent on becoming
a crime-scene photographer, then crossed into Mexico, hoping to get work
at a U.S. government agency. Once again, no luck. Customs officers took
her birds into custody when she crossed back over the border. By then,
Schneider says, she was living off antique currency inherited from her
father. Initially, she tried to sell the currency, mostly bills, but
people "really weren't offering that much," Schneider says, because
"they saw that I was in trouble." She ended up trading the money for
little more than gas and food and landed, eventually, in Moose Pass,
Alaska. Years before, she had filed a compensation claim against Iraq
with a United Nations fund meant to help those who had lost property
during Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Schneider's claim was for a
little over $18,000, for confiscated camera equipment. Hearing that the
money was about to be released, she waited in Moose Pass, whiling away
the time in another search for work. "I didn't get any of the jobs, so I
stayed in a hostel in Anchorage, and I also lived with a man, a great
big blond-haired grizzly in Alaska," she says. "Then the money arrived."
Schneider wanted to start over again as a photojournalist and bought a
plane ticket to Europe in early 2001. Beginning in Prague, she says, she
hoped to do a story on fascism. Then she moved to Slovakia and on into
Austria, where, she says, she bought more parakeets. "They made me
happy," she explains. But there was to be no new journalism career.
Instead, she continued traveling, first to Germany, then crossing into
France, and, finally, Spain. She had a feeling she was being watched and
wrote a long note, faxing it to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, expressing
her concerns about "surveillance [and] harmful technology."
Life became even more dire. Her car died, and someone stole her keys,
her jewelry, and the money she had left over from the United Nations.
She hitchhiked to Italy. In late 2003, several American tourists found
her wandering outside Rome, homeless and broke. A short time later, Udo
Schreiber, who had been her Vienna-based photo agent during the war in
the former Yugoslavia, received a call from the Austrian police.
Schneider had illegally crossed into Austria from Italy. "She was on the
street," he says, "very disturbed, not clear in her mind." Not long
after, Schneider received help from Caritas Internationalis, a
humanitarian agency in Vienna. "The man of Caritas said she spoke really
quite strange things, that everybody of her family died," Schreiber
says. "She was so strong a person, to be lost without anything on the
streets, without a camera. This was unbelievable to me." Caritas bought
Schneider a plane ticket to New York in late summer of 2003. In some of
the paperwork she filled out for her return home, Schneider listed
several contacts, including a retired Army colonel named Millard Peck,
whom she had met in Bosnia. Tracked down in Virginia, where he lives
now, Peck says he corresponded with Schneider over several years during
the 1990s. "She was a very prolific writer, a wonderful writer, very
artistic," he says. "She overwhelmed me." Told of her condition now, he
added: "I attribute that to a girl with scars, to getting beaten up in
In New York, Schneider sailed through customs and immigration.
Bedraggled, looking very much like a homeless woman, she carried no
baggage and had no money. "There was no police, no questioning," she
says. She hitched a ride to Manhattan. Then she started looking for
Life became a series of moves. Some shelters offered only food, some
just a bed for a day or two at a time. Occasionally, she stayed with
men, she says, who took pity on her. She was cited for vagrancy, she
recalls, but the charges were dismissed. Then, on December 10, the
police picked her up again. "They got a call about someone named Jana
being boisterous and loud, but Jana was just sitting there quietly
smoking a cigarette," she said recently. "However, I knew my days were
up. It was getting too cold to survive outside anyway." The police took
her to Bellevue, where her talk of extraordinary accomplishments seemed
little more than the ravings of a deranged woman. A state court ordered
her involuntarily committed.
At Bellevue, Schneider spent her days reconnecting with friends through
the pay phone in the hall and talking with her court-appointed lawyer
about her chances of getting out of the psychiatric ward. She was put on
medication to help with her depression and to control what her doctors
believed were psychotic episodes brought on possibly by schizophrenia.
The medication seemed to be taking hold, and Schneider began trying to
persuade family members to help her get back to Wisconsin. She wanted
money from a trust to rent an apartment there and to see the
psychiatrist who had helped her after her injury in Bosnia. Former
mentors and friends were eager to help her reconnect with the community.
And Schneider was already pondering what she'd like to do once she was
well--maybe teach children back in Wisconsin or participate in community
But those hopes have vanished, at least for now. Bellevue, a mental
health way station, doesn't provide long-term care. When she couldn't
get family help, the hospital sought to transfer Jana to the Rockland
Psychiatric Center, a soaring complex 18 miles north of New York City.
Jana fought to be released. But in March, faced with sending Jana back
into a city shelter or placing her in Rockland, a state court judge
chose the latter. "The greatest fear I have is that she will become a
part of this system," says Michael Genkin, her lawyer. Even patients who
are very "accomplished,"Genkin explains, can easily be lost in the
That is also Schneider's greatest fear. Before her recent move, she
noted that on pleasant days patients were allowed on the roof of
Bellevue. It is fenced and contains playground equipment, including a
sandbox, jungle gym, and three yellow slides. But Schneider went up
there for the view--to look out over the city's expanse of crooked
rooftops, and the promise of a world just beyond her reach.