NORMALLY, when biographies cause problems for the subject, it’s because of something included in the book.
Comedian Bill Cosby may be the first much-loved figure destroyed because of what has been left out of his biography.
Five weeks ago, the man in my life presented me with Mark Whitaker’s 532-page account of Cosby’s life. It was a bestseller.
Whitaker, a former managing editor at CNN, had access to Cosby, and so, although the book was not described as an authorised biography, it was affectionate towards the entertainer. Why wouldn’t it be? Just watching Cosby walk through an airport was vivid confirmation for Whitaker of the unique place Cosby occupies in American life. Here’s the resultant vignette:
“Thank you for my childhood,” a petite, thirty-something white woman calls out when she sees Bill Cosby in the Richmond International Airport. She does it from a distance and keeps walking, as though she doesn’t want to intrude on his privacy, but she is an exception. Most of the travellers who recognise Cosby, as he makes his way from New York City to Virginia for a concert date in Richmond, want to come over and meet him, to shake his hand, to have a picture taken with him, to share details of their own lives as though he was a familiar visitor to their homes — which, of course, for much of four decades, he was.
Whittaker was following Cosby on just one of the 60 one-man shows he was booked to do this year. Most entertainers, when they hit their 77th year, are retired, appearing, if they appear at all, to receive awards and make guest appearances at celeb-fests.
Cosby does more than a show a week, and, even in recession-hit Middle America, fills venues. He travels on his own to these appearances, despite mobility problems and the fact that he can’t see anything more than arm’s length ahead of him, due to an idiosyncratic form of glaucoma.
He always dons a white sweatshirt for his performances, the fabric emblazoned across the chest with the Quaker greeting ‘Hello, Friend.’
For each of the people who greeted him in Richmond, just as for every person who has come up to him seeking an autograph or a hug or a shared selfie, Cosby was much more than a very funny man. As a child, I remember listening with my sister to her LPs of his monologues, the two of us enthralled by Cosby’s capacity to take the simple and obvious and turn it into comedic gold.
Like the story he told of having a relentlessly wicked toothache, which he dosed with every possible claimed cure, to no avail, until a female friend suggested two of the tablets she took for period pains. Desperate, but disbelieving, he swallowed the Midol and — as my sister and I used to say to each other, mimicking his starstruck vocal wonder — “The pain...WENT AWAY!”
He had a genius for being in the right place at the right time. Just as America was beginning to have doubts about the word ‘negro’ and to open up to the possibility that black men might be educated and witty equals, along came Robert Culp, a star actor who was creating I Spy, a TV thriller/comedy series based on the friendship between two star tennis players, one black, one white, who use their athletic careers as a cover for spying. The series was a major hit, although it was to be overshadowed, later, by The Cosby Show, in which Cosby played a wealthy obstetrician with a large and happy family — again challenging stereotypes.
All the while, he became rich beyond anything his single mother could ever have hoped for him. He shared his good fortune, pumping more than €20m dollars into universities and — with his wife — putting hundreds of young African-Americans through college. He was a good friend, providing guest appearances to old showbiz pals who were down on their luck, and making sure his charisma did not overwhelm their impact.
At every point in his life, different sectors of the populace identified with him. When his daughter became addicted to hard drugs, thousands of parents in similar situations watched as the Cosby parents delivered ‘tough love’ by cutting off funds and contact with Erinn, who, after she got clean, was reconciled with them. Then, his son, Ennis, was murdered, and parents who had lost a child watched as the grieving parents coped.
He was not afraid of controversy, doing a series of ‘call-out’ talks demanding that African-Americans accept responsibility for their lives by refusing to take refuge in the myriad of excuses available to them for failure in life. Political commentators noted that, in 2008, then presidential-aspirant, Barack Obama, deployed some of the same themes. Those commentators said the “the Cosby effect” contributed to Obama’s victory.
All of this is documented in Whitaker’s book, as is Cosby’s philandering in his younger years and the grief it caused his wife. But what is neither documented, mentioned, nor referenced are the allegations, which surfaced in the 1980s, that he had drugged and raped more than one woman.
“I was aware of the allegations,” Whitaker said, “but, ultimately, decided not to include them in my book. I didn’t want to print allegations that I couldn’t confirm independently...there were no independent witnesses and no definitive findings... this did not meet my journalistic or legal standard for including in the biography.”
If Whitaker’s statement was meant to calm the issue, it did the reverse. It was the first boulder in a reputational landslide.
Cosby and his wife, in a radio interview about lending their art collection to the Smithsonian, refused to answer questions. The audio — of Cosby’s silence and the interviewer’s description of him shaking his head — went viral. A major TV interview was cancelled by Cosby.
A TV series being developed for him was abandoned.
And Bill Cosby went from being one of the most-loved and admirable figures in showbusiness to a pariah.
Legally, Americans are entitled to avoid inculpating themselves in court and so do not have to answer questions.
Outside of court, media-saturated America does not see the point of that entitlement, believing that all anybody has to do is tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and all will be well.
Cosby did that, once, when a supposed out-of-wedlock daughter tried to extort money from him. He fought it, accepting that he had sex with her mother, several decades beforehand, but proving he had not fathered her child. When a number of women make rape accusations, that approach won’t work.
That this is an African-American tragedy is inescapable. That it may destroy, and silence, an archive of magnificent comedic art also looks inescapable.
Cosby went from being one of the most-loved and admirable figures in showbusiness to a pariah
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