Inside The Death Of Lea Nikki Bacharach, Angie Dickinson And Burt Bacharach’s Tormented Daughter

Published April 4, 2024
Updated April 9, 2024

Lea Nikki Bacharach dealt with Asperger's-related symptoms all her life before she tragically died by suicide at the age of 40 in 2007.

Lea Nikki Bacharach

ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock PhotoLea Nikki Bacharach as a child.

Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickinson were some of the best-known people of their day, Bacharach for his songwriting and Dickinson for her acting. But the sad story of their daughter, Lea Nikki Bacharach, largely played out behind the scenes.

As Nikki grew up, it soon became clear to her parents that there was something different about her. She took a long time to start speaking, exhibited unusual behavior like saving every item that crossed her path, and developed vision difficulty. Nikki could be overwhelmed by loud noises, prone to tantrums, and obsessive about her interests.

But it wasn’t until Nikki was in her 30s that Dickinson realized that her daughter might have Asperger’s syndrome. Until then, almost no one knew that the developmental disorder existed. And for Nikki, it was tragically too late. She died by suicide at the age of 40.

This is her story.

‘Angie, You’ve Had A Girl’

Lea Nikki Bacharach was born on July 12, 1966, to two of the most famous people in the United States. Burt Bacharach was a songwriter whose compositions were recorded by artists like Dionne Warwick and Perry Como; Angie Dickinson had made a splash in 1950s Western films like Gun the Man Down (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959). They were married in 1965, and had their first and only child, Nikki, a year later.

But there were difficulties with the baby from the start. As Dickinson later wrote in Los Angeles Magazine, her water broke three months early and she was in labor for 26 hours. When Nikki was born, she weighed just one pound and ten ounces. No one thought she would survive, and Dickinson initially couldn’t bring herself to visit the new baby.

Nikki defied the odds and started getting stronger, though neither Dickinson nor Burt were able to hold their newborn daughter. Science at the time dictated that touching premature babies was too risky, so Nikki spent the first three months of her life in total isolation in an incubator.

Angie Burt And Nikki Bacharach

Public DomainAngie Dickinson, Burt Bacharach, And Nikki Bacharach, shortly after Nikki’s birth in 1966.

Nikki Bacharach’s Early Years

Though a doctor dismissed their concerns about brain damage, Nikki Bacharach’s parents noticed some troubling issues with her development. She developed strabismus, a vision disorder where one eye turns inward or outward, and didn’t speak until the age of three. Around four, Nikki started saving everything she came across, even broken glass, dog poo, or dead batteries.

That said, Nikki seemed highly intelligent. When she did speak, one of her first words was “meditate.” And she seemed to have inherited the musical gifts of her father.

But Nikki’s difficulties mounted as she got older. Other kids picked on her, and Nikki seemed unable to cope with even small problems. Though her parents hired a therapist, Nikki would throw tantrums, break her glasses, kick walls, and tear pages out of books.

Raising Nikki put a strain on an already strained marriage — Burt admitted to having had multiple affairs — and the couple separated in 1976 and divorced in 1980.

Burt Bacharach remained involved in his daughter’s life, however. Because he believed she would benefit from independence and separation from her mother, Nikki’s parents sent her to the Constance Bultman Wilson Center in Faribault, Minnesota in 1983.

“I did what I thought would be the right thing and it wasn’t the right thing and I was just trying to get her better,” Burt later told USA Today. He noted that his daughter had always held it against him.

As Dickinson wrote in Los Angeles Magazine, one of her daughter’s psychiatrists told her that it could take nine to eighteen months for Nikki to “get well.” Instead, Nikki Bacharach would spend 10 years there.

How Nikki Bacharach Was Diagnosed With Asperger’s Syndrome

Life for Nikki Bacharach at the Constance Bultman Wilson Center could be difficult.

As her mother wrote, the center was trying to “make her into something she was not,” convincing her she needed to hold a job and learn to drive because her parents weren’t going to be around forever. Nikki crashed two cars while learning how to drive, and cut off her hair because the center limited shower time.

As Burt Bacharach later put it: “I wish somebody would have just said, you’re not going to heal her, let her be.”

Burt And Nikki Bacharach

Burt BacharachBurt Bacharach And Nikki Bacharach in an undated photo.

In 1992, she prepared to come home. Nikki enrolled at Cal Lutheran to study geology and did well there. That said, she could only handle taking one class per semester because of her poor eyesight, and was ultimately unable to pursue a geology career for this same reason.

Meanwhile, she was increasingly disturbed by noises like helicopters and lawn mowers, which her mother described as “like a drill in her ear.”

Around this time, in 1994, the American Psychiatric Association added Asperger’s syndrome to its diagnostic manual for the first time.

The developmental disorder was first identified in the 1940s by Hans Asperger. According to New York magazine, he noted that it presented itself as “lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.”

This fit Nikki Bacharach well. But her mother had never heard of Asperger’s syndrome. At the time, most people hadn’t. Angie Dickinson didn’t learn about it until 2000, when her sister sent her a Newsweek article about the disorder. Finally, she seemed to have answers.

But, as Dickson wrote, “knowing what she had just didn’t help [Nikki] at all. She still simply couldn’t cope.”

The Death Of Lea Nikki Bacharach By Suicide

During the last ten years of Nikki’s life, she and her mother spent time traveling the world. Nikki especially liked Tahiti — she went 31 times — because its peace and beauty offered her a reprieve.

But Nikki was also increasingly concerned about losing her mother. Angie Dickinson had devoted her life to taking care of her daughter — she referred to Nikki as her “soul mate” — and Nikki became fixated on the idea of Dickinson’s death. She was also fixated on the idea of her own death.

As Dickinson and Burt Bacharach acknowledged, Nikki talked openly about suicide near the end of her life.

“She was very open about it,” Dickinson wrote, “even to people she didn’t know well.”

Burt agreed, but noted that he didn’t think his daughter would go through with it.

“It’s like the boy who cried wolf,” he told USA Today. “Somebody who says, ‘I can’t stand it. The helicopters are making too much noise and the gardeners and the blowers are making too much noise and if they don’t stop I’m going to kill myself.’ And you hear that enough and you know it’s never gonna happen and then one day she just goes and kills herself.”

That day came on Jan. 4, 2007. Lea Nikki Bacharach died by suicide at the age of 40.

In the aftermath, her family released a statement mourning her loss.

“She quietly and peacefully committed suicide to escape the ravages to her brain brought on by Asperger’s,” the statement read. “She loved kitties, and earthquakes, glacial calving, meteor showers, science, blue skies and sunsets, and Tahiti. She was one of the most beautiful creatures created on this earth, and she is now in the white light, at peace.”

After reading about the life and death of Lea Nikki Bacharach, discover the sad story of Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, Dorothy Dandridge’s daughter with cerebral anoxia. Or, learn about Candace Newmaker, the young girl who tragically died during an alternative therapy treatment.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or use their 24/7 Lifeline Crisis Chat.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Inside The Death Of Lea Nikki Bacharach, Angie Dickinson And Burt Bacharach’s Tormented Daughter.", April 4, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.