Before Baby Reindeer: the sad saga of David Letterman’s schizophrenic stalker

David Letterman in 1989
David Letterman in 1989 - WireImage
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In May 1988, a woman was questioned on her way into New York through the Lincoln Tunnel. Driving a Porsche, with a three-year-old boy in the car, the woman hadn’t paid the $3 toll. She told the toll collector that she was the wife of late-night talk show host, David Letterman. “I’m Mrs David Letterman and this is David Jr,” she said. “Don’t you think David Letterman is good for the toll?”

The car was indeed Letterman’s $80,000 Porsche but the woman was not Letterman’s wife. She was Margaret Mary Ray, a stalker and schizophrenic. The boy was her son, Alex. Ray had stolen Letterman’s Porsche from his driveway – the first reported incident in a high-profile, bizarrely brazen stalking campaign. Over several years Ray broke into Letterman’s home, where she surprised him at night, left odd gifts, and even did housework.

Ray became national news and a headline grabber – a national joke, in fact, when Letterman cracked wise about her exploits on his show, Late Night with David Letterman. He later pointed out that he never named her on air, and never pressed charges. “I wasn’t comfortable with the humanity of that,” said Letterman.

Ten years after stealing Letterman’s Porsche, Margaret Mary Ray – also known as Peggy – was dead from suicide. She had kneeled in front of a 105-car coal train.

There are echoes of Margaret Mary Ray, and her desperately sad mental illness, in Netflix’s dark comedy drama, Baby Reindeer. Created and written by comedian Richard Gadd, Baby Reindeer is based on his one-man show of the same name – a fictionalised account of his own ordeal at the hands of a stalker with many striking similarities to Margaret Mary Ray.

Powerfully tense and uncomfortable, Baby Reindeer not a stalker thriller in the vein of Fatal Attraction but a portrait of both the stalker and stalked. The depiction of the stalker, Martha (Jessica Gunning) is painfully sympathetic. Like Margaret Mary Ray, she is a very sick woman.

There were other celebrity stalker cases in the pre-internet age, when interactions had to be real-world and physical – before stalkers could send 41,000-plus emails, as happened to Richard Gadd. Most famously, John Hinckley Jr. became obsessed with Jodie Foster. He sent her letters and left messages, then tried to assassinate US President Ronald Reagan to get Foster’s attention.

Olivia Newton-John was targeted by two stalkers. The first, Michael Owen Perry, put her on a list of people he wanted to kill – and killed five members of his own family – and the second sneaked into Newton-John’s bed while she was on holiday. In 1995, Robert Dewey Hoskins tried to break into Madonna’s home and threatened to marry or kill her. He was shot twice and sentenced to ten years. Stalkers weren’t always taken seriously though, particularly – in the case of Margaret Mary Ray – women stalkers.

Ray was born in 1952 and grew up in Grayslake, Illinois. A childhood neighbour later described her as “the most wonderful, beautiful, all-American girl”. Her family, however, was afflicted with schizophrenia. Her father, a factory worker named George, was suspected to have suffered with it. One of four siblings, she had two brothers who were also schizophrenic and took their own lives. One brother drove into a tree at the age of 22. Another filled his garage with carbon monoxide aged just 21. “My family has paid dues, and I’m not sure what we did wrong,” her mother, Loretta Duvall, later said.

Margaret Mary Ray in court
Margaret Mary Ray in court

Ray married in 1973 and had four children. She was divorced by 1983 and lost custody of her children to their father – the result of her worsening mental condition. According to an obituary in The New York Times, Ray would hitchhike across the United States and lived in shanties without running water. She had a fifth child from an unknown father – Alex, the boy who was with her in Letterman’s Porsche. Ray’s mother eventually took custody of Alex.

Ray settled in Hotchkiss, where she did odd jobs and made friends. Following her death, the friends and neighbours said unanimously good things about her – that she was more than the schizophrenia that eventually consumed her. “She gave my life richness,” said one friend. “Lovable, unbelievably lovable.” But she would also suddenly disappear and suffer from bouts of anger.

As reported at the time, Ray had first entered David Letterman’s home in May 1988 – around the time she stole his Porsche. Letterman was out of town and she tried to move into his house – located in New Canaan, Connecticut – on two occasions with her son. By the following year she had gained a celebrity status of her own. Ray was interviewed on a TV show, A Current Affair, on which she explained she’d fallen for Letterman after seeing him on a documentary. “I could tell you that it was love at first sight,” she said.

Ray also confessed, “I don’t think there’s another woman alive who could love David Letterman as much as I do.”

Dr Louis B. Schlesinger, a Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, discussed Ray’s case on an ITV-produced documentary. Schlesinger described a rare delusional condition called erotomania, a subtype of schizophrenia, which causes the sufferer to believe that the target of their obsession – usually someone of a higher social status – is in love with them.

Margaret Mary Ray broke into David Letterman's former home in Connecticut several times
Margaret Mary Ray broke into David Letterman's former home in Connecticut several times - Getty

In other incidents, she was found asleep by his tennis courts. She also got into his house and left gifts – an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle and cookies – in his foyer. Another time she left him a book on meditation and a letter in his driveway. She wrote to him many times, in fact. Letterman could tell if she was on or off her medication from how she wrote. “When she was on them it was like hearing from your aunt,” he later said. “When she was off them, it was like hearing from your aunt on Neptune.”

During one of her break-ins – which led to a nine-month prison sentence – Ray admitted that she kept herself busy in Letterman’s mansion by “writing, watching TV, cleaning, washing the windows and doing the floors”. She added: “I like housework.”

Another time, Ray explained her break-in to the police as “a surprise visit” and once told a suspicious cabbie, “He’s expecting me. I’ve got papers to drop off.” At one point, Ray convinced tradesmen working at Letterman’s home that she was his wife, and they gave her a lift into town.

The New York Times reported that Letterman only felt threatened once – when he was in bed with his girlfriend one night and looked up to see Ray standing in his hallway. According to Letterman, she immediately ran away. He reportedly found her sleeping in a guest bedroom on one occasion. In all, Ray was arrested eight times for trespassing on Letterman’s property.

A 1990 column in an Ohio newspaper summed up the media reaction, in which a columnist published a conversation she’d supposedly had with a friend about Ray. “Don’t you think Letterman ought to give in and pay attention to her?” said the friend. “After all, he’s not getting any younger and he’s not married. He certainly is no Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson. Maybe he better take advantage of the situation?” The columnist was unsympathetic. “You’ve got to be kidding… she has to be a nutcase.”

Letterman himself poked fun at the situation on his TV show. When he took Late Night with David Letterman from NBC to CBS in 1993, Letterman listed “things I have to do before I leave NBC,” which included “send change of address forms to that woman who breaks into my house.”

To mark the network move, the Los Angeles Daily News ran a jokey multiple-choice quiz about his show’s years on NBC. The stalking story was so widely known that under the question “who was Dave’s first guest on his first show?” answers included Bill Murray, Johnny Carson, and Margaret Ray.

Letterman spoke more seriously on the matter too. He told The Advocate, “The thing is, she’s insane. And you don’t want to do anything to make it worse than it is. It’s been five years now, and I’ve tried a lot of things, and none of them have worked.”

Following her death, forensic psychologist Reid Meloy commented on how Letterman’s gags may have fuelled the obsession. “David Letterman would unwittingly contribute to her delusion by making reference to her on his late-night show,” explained Meloy. “He translates her delusional fantasy into a reality in front of millions of television viewers.” The delusions “made her feel important,” said Ray’s mother. “She enjoyed that.”

David Letterman interviewing the Duchess of York in 1996
David Letterman interviewing the Duchess of York in 1996 - AP

Ray’s daughter, Anna-Lisa Johanson, said that “the attention given to her, and the actions of the authorities, made her situation that much worse.”

According to reports at the time, Anna-Lisa was forced to take a restraining order against her own mother – and she told her university to call the police if they ever saw Ray. “I’ve always loved my mother,” Anna-Lisa said, “but I hated the woman who broke into David Letterman’s house.”

Ray spent various stints in prison and mental institutions for trespassing – a reported 24 months in total. After serving seven months of her original nine-month sentence, she was released on a Friday – and was back at Letterman’s home by Sunday.

While incarcerated, Ray’s mental state would improve with medication. But she would deteriorate once she was released and stopped taking her meds.

After five years of stalking Letterman, Ray’s attention turned to the astronaut, Franklin Story Musgrave. Ray wrote him letters and sent packages. She also broke into his house and turned all the taps on. In another incident she posed as a reporter and interviewed Musgrave at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Musgrave suspected something was odd when she didn’t take any notes. When she wrote to Musgrave as the reporter, he recognised her handwriting. Ray was sentenced to time in a Florida jail for stalking Musgrave. When she was released, even the judge criticised a lack of legal support to ensure that Ray got the medical help that she needed.

A month before she died, Ray was featured in the TV magazine, Extra, where she talked about her mental health struggles and said that she thought David Letterman understood her.

Margaret Mary Ray took her own life on October 5 1998 – at a remote spot near Hotchkiss, Colorado. She was 46 years old. She had written a last letter to her mother, writing “I’m all travelled out” and “I chose a painless and instantaneous way to end my life in the valley I loved.”

At the scene of her death, she placed her purse on the ground, with a quick note with the phone number of a friend who could contact her family. David Letterman responded to the news through a spokesman. “This is a sad ending to a confused life,” he said.

Jessica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer
Jessica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer - Ed Miller/Netflix

Bizarrely, her celebrity continued. At the end of 1998, American newspapers listed her among the notable, high-profile deaths of that year, alongside Tammy Wynette, Linda McCartney, Dr Spock, and Lloyd Bridges. The kooky behaviour – reliable tabloid fodder – overshadowed the tragedy of her mental illness. “Margaret Mary Ray,” read the listing. “Stalked David Letterman.”

Baby Reindeer treats its subject with the kind of sympathy Margaret Mary Ray deserved when she was headline news. In a 2019 interview with the Telegraph, Richard Gadd revealed that over several years his stalker sent him 41,071 emails, 350 hours of voicemail, 744 tweets, 46 Facebook messages, 106 pages of letters, sleeping pills, a woolly hat, a pair of boxer shorts, and a cuddly reindeer toy.

She also turned up at his work, at his comedy gigs, and spread a rumour that his father was a paedophile. The stalker drove a “freight train” through all important aspects of his life, he said. The police didn’t take it seriously at first. “I was getting told off for harassing the police about being harassed,” he told The Guardian. He added: “I’ve been through two police investigations in my life and they’ve both been hilarious, fly-on-the-wall terrible. Honestly my advice to someone who ever thought of pressing charges would be: it’s a f------ nightmare process, and it takes years.”

Gadd – like David Letterman – has never named his stalker. Her portrayal in Baby Reindeer is “an emotional truth, not a fact-by-fact profile of someone,” Gadd told GQ. Gadd even puts the microscope on his own behaviour and remains sympathetic. As he said in 2019, “I’m not the only the victim, she’s probably an even bigger victim than I am.”

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