How Bill Cosby Took Down Bill Cosby
One April morning in 2006, I left a note for Bill Cosby at the back gate of his mansion that commands a five-acre spread in Elkins Park. It was an act of desperation. I was writing a profile of him, and I couldn’t get Cosby to respond to me. Sticking the note in his fence — I didn’t venture past the stern NO TRESPASSING warning to walk down his long driveway and knock on his door — is one of those silly moves writers make so they can say to their editors, “Hey, I tried.”
Then, a couple days later, I got a call.
It was from one of Bill Cosby’s handlers, inviting me to the Mississippi Delta, where Bill was staging a call-out in a few days. For the previous two years, Cosby had been going all over the country — Detroit, Newark, Baltimore, Milwaukee — lecturing black people in difficult circumstances about taking responsibility for their problems, urging them to stop blaming others, to act. He was bold and direct and angry, as if America’s black underclass was letting him down and he was going to fix that. Greenwood, Mississippi, a town of only 18,000, was beset by poverty, drugs and despair.
I’d said in my note that I wanted to talk to Cosby about the call-outs. His handler told me I could watch this one and then have dinner with Cosby at a small reception afterwards, attended by some of the participants who would tell their stories about self-reclamation.
During a long afternoon, Cosby lectured some 300 people in a convention hall in Greenwood, diving into the audience to ask questions and make demands — “You are not making sense. … You got to think, people” — but also flirting with that wide elastic face; of course, the crowd was easily his.
Then, dinner. I’d been told that Cosby hadn’t agreed to an interview — not yet, anyway. I was sure that patience was my best avenue to corralling him later, so I sat with him over chicken and black-eyed peas and asked him nothing. There was much to talk about — not only his call-outs, but something else that had just come to light in the Philadelphia Daily News:
A young Canadian woman named Andrea Constand, who worked for Temple University and had befriended Cosby, had accused him of drugging her and then, when she was in a near-comatose state, molesting her. Constand had filed a civil complaint in federal court in Philly in 2005, and her lawyers said that 13 women came forward anonymously, willing to be deposed in the suit, with their own stories about Cosby, many them claiming a similar drug-and-fondling m.o. And now three of those 13 women had come forward in the Daily News, beginning to publicly tell their stories as well.
At dinner, Cosby was distant and regal — or as regal as a paunchy guy in a patterned sweater and sweatpants can be. He didn’t try to charm me; he passed the rolls and butter when I asked. But our conversation didn’t go further than that. Even before dinner was over, it dawned on me: He wasn’t going to talk. Not then, not ever. Like many journalists, I’ve written profiles of people who won’t be interviewed, though I have never been invited to be with a subject who then holds fast to his decision not to talk. It struck me as bizarre: I would leave Mississippi having been bathed in the Cosby aura, and in the Cosby mission to save inner-city America, and that alone should be good enough for me.
I wrote the profile. There was a good bit about his call-outs, and I hit the allegations of sexual abuse pretty hard.
And then something else strange happened — or rather, didn’t. Andrea Constand settled her civil suit with Cosby, which included a gag order not to speak about it, and despite those 13 other women with stories of their own, the problem went away. Bill Cosby went right on performing, roaming the country doing his call-outs, and making a bundle through his TV show in syndication. I’d occasionally tell someone when Cosby’s name came up that I believed he was a sex perp, and start in on what I had learned: 14 women with stories! The response to that was invariably a little cross-eyed, because I was suddenly trying to flatten someone’s worldview. Cosby? Dr. Huxtable? What are you talking about?
I privately realized the problem: We really won’t deal with something we don’t want to if it’s possible to ignore it. And we ignored the accusers because we couldn’t square what they seemed to be saying — these mostly aspiring models and actresses who had stories to tell decades after the fact — with the image of Bill Cosby. But it wasn’t going away, at least not forever. One of his accusers, a lawyer named Tamara Green — who first told her story of being drugged and molested by Cosby to the Daily News in ’05 — nails it now in simple terms: “I knew it would emerge again because he’s so arrogant.” That even though the Andrea Constand accusation passed, he would keep speaking from on high, from the platform of “Bill Cosby,” and that’s what would eventually do him in.
SO MUCH DEPENDED on the strength of the image, that Dr. Huxtable and Bill Cosby were one and the same. Yet there were plenty of hints along the way that maybe that wasn’t the case. A woman named Autumn Jackson, claiming to be his daughter, tried to extort $40 million from Cosby in 1997, and he admitted to a “rendezvous” with Jackson’s mother and payments of more than $100,000 in support over the years. There were also plenty of minor episodes that let everyone know who was running things; for example, a contestant on You Bet Your Life, Cosby’s early-’90s redo of the Groucho Marx vehicle, wrote about the on-set vibe: “Just before we tape, the producer tells one contestant, ‘Your job is to make Mr. Cosby look good. Don’t try to make yourself look good, or he’ll chew you up and spit you out.’” When I was working on my profile of Cosby in ’06, four different assistants of his called me, sending glowing reviews and other information about him, which isn’t so odd, at least not for those who have four assistants. But the barrage of positive information, coupled with virtual silence from the man himself, was transparently controlling and paranoid.
As Cosby aged over the past decade, he began to come across as more cranky and strange than avuncular. Moreover, a younger generation might now know The Cosby Show from reruns, but certainly not as a phenomenon — that was their parents’ deal. (And also mine: My wife and I were newly married and living in the Bay Area in the early ’80s; one of our few friends was a college buddy who’d also migrated west, and every Thursday evening for a year or so we’d head to Brad’s house for a potluck dinner and a dose of the Huxtables, which served as a beacon of warmth — The Waltons with wit.)
Which brings us to Hannibal Buress, a 31-year-old black comic who had been incorporating a quick bit into his act for a few months; he performed it here at the Trocadero on October 16th:
Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old-black-man public persona that I hate.
[Laughter, then a hard-edged Bill Cosby impersonation]
Pull your pants up, black people, I’m on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.
Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby, so, that brings you down a couple notches.
I don’t curse onstage!
Yeah, you’re a rapist so … People don’t believe me, they think I’m making it up. Bill Cosby has a lot of rape allegations. … If you didn’t know about it, when you leave here Google “Bill Cosby rapist.”
Philly Mag’s Dan McQuade happened to be in the audience that night, and he shot video of Buress; the Cosby bit went viral fast, and we know what happened next: More women began talking publicly about what they say Bill Cosby did to them. The accusations went all the way back to the late ’60s; the number of accusers is now up to two dozen. It won’t likely stay there. Cosby himself has said virtually nothing.
Perhaps it took a man coming forward in the way Buress did to put the allegations into the light of … what, exactly? Plausibility? There was nothing new, nothing more, at that moment at the Trocadero, than what I and others wrote about in 2006. Barbara Bowman, who told me her story of being molested by Cosby (which I published in this magazine in November 2006), wrote it up again for the Washington Post this November and wondered, “Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it?” She has a point, certainly — but Buress was also a fresh and forceful voice, outside the coterie of women who claimed long-ago abuse, and something of a star himself.
But an even more telling shift lies in why Buress railed at Cosby like that, albeit briefly. When you listen to the bit, he is clearly enraged, and his anger doesn’t seem to be as much about what Cosby may have done to women as how infuriating it is that Cosby would still attempt to tell Buress how to behave as a young black man. Buress went on Howard Stern’s show and said he wasn’t trying to nail Cosby over allegations that he abused women: “If I was going to do that, I would have did it on my own. That wasn’t my intention, to make it part of a big discussion.”
But Cosby’s vaunted image had cracked to the point that a young comic seeking much the same mantle Cosby once held was no longer having it. Cosby was infamous for having called up Eddie Murphy and other black comics to tell them not to use profanity onstage. Out of another time and place, and still lecturing from a remove of great wealth and harsh judgment. What Bill Cosby had done to women became, in that moment in Buress’s act, not the point but the vehicle, a grand fuck-you to a persona that had become an annoyance to him, and maybe a roadblock. This is not to say that Hannibal Buress doesn’t care about the rape of women, but they were beside the point of his real rage. He owes nothing to Bill Cosby, and the public slaying of Dr. Huxtable just might have freed him and maybe a lot of other people as well.
Tamara Green had it right: Bill Cosby’s arrogance would do him in.
IF YOU CONSIDER what’s going on in the NFL, and on college campuses, and currently with Bill Cosby, it seems we may now be a little more willing to believe women when they talk about bad things happening to them. One of the wrenching aspects of the recent Cosby saga is watching the new women tell their stories. There’s no getting around their pain. When they talk, something bad happened screams out loud and clear. In an email, Tamara Green, who lives in southern California, talks about that, how she now understands the load she’s been carrying all these years in its release:
Very recently I have felt a certain subtle lifting of my spirit. It’s as if there was a dark little place I was used to, like an interior wart or mole, which I had taken for granted for so long that it was a permanent part of me. That has let loose with the result that I have slowly come to feel wholly happy for the first time in a long long time. We are all vindicated, even those you don’t know about.
Bill Cosby, of course, has lost a great deal in the last few weeks: a new sitcom that was in the works, ties to Spellman College and UMass, stand-up dates, TV appearances. A few days ago, he resigned from Temple University’s board, or was forced off. However it happened, you could see it coming, that the man who had raised millions for the school and had been its public face had to go, and then he was, suddenly …
It’s a sad thought, no matter what we may think of Bill Cosby. He has given a great deal of himself to his school and his city, and it feels as if he has always been here, with us — a child of the projects who made good. But it is very difficult to imagine him having any public presence in Philadelphia ever again.
This week, I drove out to Cosby’s mansion in Elkins Park, the same place I left a note eight years ago. Meanwhile, a California woman claiming that Cosby had molested her at the Playboy Mansion 40 years ago, when she was 15, sued Cosby and then went to police. In a court filing, Cosby claimed her accusation was “absolutely false”; the LAPD has begun an investigation. One of the woman’s lawyers, Gloria Allred, came forward with three more accusers and challenged Cosby with two incredible options Allred said he should consider. One would be to waive the statute of limitations so that women claiming abuse from decades ago could file lawsuits against him. Option two: He could set up a $100 million fund, and the women would go before a panel of retired judges who would decide the veracity of their claims.
I have my own, hometown way of baiting Bill Cosby. At his mansion, I stop at the main gate and ring the buzzer. There are a couple of SUVs in the driveway, but nobody stirs. I ring, and ring again. Finally, a middle-aged guy in a sweatshirt and jeans comes partway up the driveway.
“I have a note for Bill Cosby,” I call to him, waving an envelope.
“Oh, I’m not allowed to take anything.”
“You can’t give him a note?”
“I can’t take anything.”
“You can’t give him a note?”
The man stares at me for a moment, then asks my name. I tell him, and he says, “Wait a minute.” He goes back down the driveway to the house.
A couple minutes later, he comes trotting back toward me. He takes the note. “I had to check to see if it’s okay to take it.”
“Is Bill Cosby here?”
“Did you call him and ask him if it’s okay to take the note?”
Now he backs up, smiling, and points at me, like, Hey, nice try, but I’m not telling you any more.
Fine. It’s a simple note, with my name and phone number and one question: Why?