From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
His world was coming apart, and millions of strangers knew it. Russell Armstrong-known to fans of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills as the brooding spouse of Taylor Ford Armstrong-had weathered the kind of horrific press perhaps only a reality star can understand. In July his wife had filed for divorce amid allegations of abuse and that the life of luxury they lived on TV was a fraud. Then came reports that he had also abused his ex-wife Barbara Fredrickson and a former girlfriend. There were also epic financial woes, among them a $1.5 million lawsuit over a bad business deal. "It's a very emotional period," Russell told PEOPLE, explaining that the abuse in his marriage-shoving not hitting, he claimed-was the result of the pressures of celebrity. By August, his ex-wife says, "he was despondent." So much so that he sent her a curt, chilling e-mail. "I'm getting destroyed," it read. "Help!"

Help did not come fast enough. At around 8 p.m. on Aug. 15, the 47-year-old self-styled venture capitalist and father of three (Aiden, 14, with Fredrickson, Griffin, 11, with former girlfriend Milette Fields, and Kennedy, 5, with Taylor, 40) was found dead, having hanged himself in the L.A. home he had been staying in since his separation. On a desk, "he left three perfectly stacked piles of paper for his first wife, Taylor and his accountant or lawyer," says a source. "It definitely didn't appear to be an impromptu thing." Friends and Taylor-described as "devastated" by her rep-are still reeling. "She's taking it really hard," says the source. Adds Russell's sister Laurie Armstrong Kelsoe: "He loved his family. This is the last thing I thought he would do."

From the start the Texas-bred businessman seemed a dark presence in the glitzy world of Housewives. By the time he met Taylor, an Oklahoma native and entrepreneur, at a Beverly Hills restaurant in 2004, Russell already had a checkered past that included convictions for battery and tax evasion. Still, the pair quickly wed. "Our marriage was full of love, support, dreams and rebuilding," he told PEOPLE. Their relationship also weathered his declaration of bankruptcy in 2005. Despite that, the duo agreed to do Real Housewives last year "because Russell wanted to support Taylor. He thought it was going to be something positive," says Fredrickson, who was on good terms with her ex-husband. But the stress of being on-camera "did irreparable damage to our marriage," Russell later said. (As of press time, Bravo had no plans to move the Beverly Hills Sept. 5 season premiere but will reedit footage; see box.)

From the start of filming, the Armstrongs struggled to live the jet-set lifestyle captured on the show. "In the past he had financial difficulties, but they weren't out there for the whole world to see," says Fredrickson. Lavish spending, including a $50,000 fourth-birthday party for Kennedy shown last season, didn't reflect their finances. "They lived way beyond their means," says his attorney Ronald Richards. "It was a challenge for him to cover their lifestyle."

In order to do it, Russell rented a Bel Air mansion and borrowed money "from friends, business partners-anything to stay aboveground," says a source. In July Russell and Taylor were sued by mymedicalrecords.com, a company he did business with, which claimed the couple had misused funds to "live a lavish lifestyle."

Russell acknowledged he had long-standing anger issues, which were worsened by stress and alcohol. A source tells PEOPLE he hit Taylor in the face over the summer, causing damage to her eye, which required surgery; she filed for divorce not long after the incident ("There's never been a documented allegation of physical abuse by Taylor," says his lawyer). When previous domestic-abuse charges surfaced (he was convicted of battery in '98), he expressed his embarrassment to friends. "He was such a proud man," says Fredrickson. "I think it was the humiliation that sent him over the edge."

However flawed he may have been, loved ones say Russell-and the children he leaves behind-deserve compassion. His family plans on giving him two memorial services, in Los Angeles and his native Texas. In the end his quest for riches and status "became too much," says his sister Laurie. "But I know he tried so hard."

  • Contributors:
  • Aili Nahas/Los Angeles,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg/Los Angeles,
  • Ken Lee/Los Angeles,
  • Johnny Dodd/Los Angeles.