SHOW BUSINESS

Funny valentine

Bill Cosby reports on love and marriage

Brian D. Johnson May 1 1989
SHOW BUSINESS

Funny valentine

Bill Cosby reports on love and marriage

Brian D. Johnson May 1 1989

The Café Figaro, an old coffeehouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village, is not the kind of place where stars are expected to turn up. The walls are plastered with varnished newspapers; nothing on the menu costs more than $5. But that is where Bill Cosby, television’s most famous family man, chose to meet Maclean’s for an interview. He used to work a nightclub down the street as a struggling comedian in the early 1960s. Although he now earns millions of dollars a month and owns five houses and a private jet, he still feels comfortable in the old neighborhood. It was early afternoon, and the coffeehouse was quiet. Ignored or unnoticed by the student clientele, Cosby sat at a table in the back. Smartly dressed in a sweater, slacks, loafers and a suede cap, he talked about his new book, Love and Marriage, a slim volume of cautious confessions skimmed from personal experience.

In the past, Cosby has protected his wife, Camille, from the public eye. But the book offers some insights into their 25-year marriage. A barbed valentine, it portrays a loving relationship that has endured difficult times. After a quarter-century, it seems that the sex has all but evaporated, and often there is not much left to discuss but the children—there are five of them, aged 12 to 24. Cosby tells about nasty habits, incompatible sleeping patterns and fights over bigger issues that remain unidentified. By turns tender, amusing and coy, Love and Marriage never ventures into the deep end of marital discord. “It isn’t exactly Hemingway,” Cosby said. “There’s no pain in there. The book is to make people laugh, make them identify and have a good time.”

Cosby has an exceptional talent for turning personal experience into comedy that nudges a common chord. His TV family in NBC’s top-rated The Cosby Show is closely modelled on his own. And, at 51, Cosby still recycles his life in concert monologues—a month ago he played arenas in Regina, Calgary and Saskatoon. In recent years, he has expanded his family-humor franchise into a publishing phenomenon. His 1986 book, Fatherhood, sold 2.6 million hard-cover copies, and 1987’s Time Flies, an ironic look at aging, sold 1.7 million.

Like the previous books, Love and Marriage is full of self-mocking reminiscence and humor. There is every reason to assume that it will sell as well as the others, contributing to a Cosby empire that includes commercial endorsements, album sales, TV syndication rights and shares in The Coca-Cola Co. According to Forbes magazine, over the past two years, he was the world’s second-highest-paid entertainer, after Michael Jackson. In 1988, Cosby earned $43 million, which averages out to almost $5,000 an hour, including sleep time. He spends summers in the south of France and winters in a restored farmhouse on 265 acres in Amherst, Mass.

Despite his wealth, Cosby manages to pass himself off as a clownish Everyman, treating his life as a bottomless well of folk wisdom. The new book divides his experience into two parts. The first, titled Love, fondly recalls his fumbling explorations of romance as an adolescent—the girl-watching vigils on street corners, the groping slow dances, the classmate who scared him away by pulling up her dress. The son of a navy mess steward, Cosby grew up in a Philadelphia public housing project. At 26, on a blind date in a bowling alley, he finally met his match in an uptown girl: Camille, the daughter of an army colonel. After a summary of their courtship, the book quickly jumps to the section titled Marriage. Sex is hardly mentioned again, aside from muted complaints about how physical passion has faded.

In the book, Cosby tends to portray himself as a little boy mothered by a wife far better organized than he is. He leaves his shoes wherever he takes them off; she turns out the light on him when he is reading late. She considers him so absentminded that she does not let him carry the house key. The book’s continual refrain is that Cosby is not the boss in his own home. “It’s the truth,” he said in the interview. “Anytime you leave a place for more than 12 hours to come back to it, eat, watch two hours of TV, then go up and shower and get into bed, wake up eight hours later, shower, get dressed, grab a juice or coffee, then out the door into a car, that is a place you can’t be the boss of.” Although he talks and writes affectionately about Camille, there is a definite streak of “Take my wife—please!” in the humor. Yet, while Camille is a new target, his previous books took a similar tack. “When you read Fatherhood," Cosby pointed out, “the guy says ‘Take my kids—please!’ and in Time Flies it’s ‘Take my body please!

To avoid offending Camille, Cosby says that he avoided delicate issues. Deciding what to leave out of the book was easy—“It came down to whether or not my wife was going to kick my ass.” But he added that he did not let her see the work until after it was published. “I gave it to her, and she took it upstairs. She said, ‘That’s very, very funny.’ She had only read up to Chapter 3. I don’t know if she’s finished it. She may be kind of dipping in with her eyes closed. Maybe she’ll have one of my daughters underline for her.”

One issue never mentioned in the book is infidelity. In the 1970s, Cosby used to frequent Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner’s Los Angeles mansion. But when bluntly asked, Cosby replies that he has never cheated on his wife. He admits that his marriage has weathered at least one severe crisis, but talks about it only in the vaguest terms. “Where did it happen, for what reason and how did it get to be that big is anybody’s guess,” he said.

Cosby is a wary interview subject. His patriarch’s frown rarely gives way to the little-boy grin. And he speaks with the stern voice of a man who has a PhD in education from the University of Massachusetts and who employs a psychiatry professor as script consultant on The Cosby Show. In fact, the series evolved from his concern about the state of TV morality. “I saw these producers and writers with Tiparillo cigarettes throwing paper airplanes around the room and saying, ‘Yeah, shock value,’ ” he said. “All the jokes were on the parents—I wanted a show where the parents won.”

The pioneer of the 1980s wave of family sitcoms, Cosby is still dismayed by the complexion of contemporary television. Dismissing ABC’s highly acclaimed thirtysomething, he said, “Their idea of integration is that they’re grooving with the Four Tops and the Temptations.” He criticizes Saturday Night Live for its all-white cast. And Cosby, who became one of prime time’s first black stars with Robert Culp in the 1960s series I Spy, is unimpressed by Miami Vice's stab at integration. “The white People magazine,” he said, “put Don Johnson on the cover and left the other guy in the dust.” Disputes over the hiring of black cast and crew marred the production of the 1987 movie Leonard Part VI, a flop that he wrote, produced and starred in. Cosby’s poor record on the big screen remains a sore spot. “Bill’s a big baby, who needs to be cuddled and mothered,” says Leonard director Paul Weiland in Fast Fade, a recent biography of former Columbia Pictures chairman David Puttnam. “He’s got a huge ego.” But as a performer, Cosby said, “you have to be bigger than the event. That’s where the ego comes in. If you’re a quarterback, the Grey Cup can’t be bigger than you are. You have to say, ‘I am the Grey Cup.’ ”

As he left the coffeehouse and walked across the street, Cosby was definitely bigger than the event. In a 30-second span, screams issued from the window of a passing bus and, as he stepped into a plain black Dodge, he was spotted by a trio of fashion models sitting in a sidewalk café. Turning to one who looked like a teenage version of his wife, he quipped, “Could you send me your clothes when you’re finished with them?” The woman laughed as the car slipped away into the Manhattan traffic. Even with love, marriage, fame and fortune, part of Bill Cosby is still the street-corner comedian, doing his best to make the girls smile.

LOVE AS A TENDER TRAP

Bill Cosby’s Love and Marriage offers a trench-level glimpse of the war between the sexes. Cosby charts his romantic progress from early pangs of adolescence to his less-than-perfect marriage with Camille, which has endured a quarter-century. Some highlights:

• I can’t remember where I have left my glasses, but I can still remember the smell of the first girl I ever fell in love with when I was 12: a blend of Dixie Peach pomade on her hair and Pond’s cold cream on her skin; together they were honeysuckle for me.

• As I danced with Millie and thought about Ruth, I was sweating the way I did when I played basketball; but sex was harder than basketball because I didn’t know the rules for staying out of foul trouble.

• I knew there was no possibility of my touching Camille’s breasts (I’d be lucky if she'd let me do that after we were married), but I wondered if I should try to make contact with something more acceptable, like her knee.

• No man ever grows up in the eyes of a woman—or ever grows familiar with the rules for dealing with her. Sigmund Freud once said, “What do women want?” The only thing I have learned in 52 years is that women want men to stop asking dumb questions like that.

• If any man truly believes that he is the boss of his house, then let him do this: pick up the phone, call a wallpaper store, order new wallpaper for one of the rooms in his house, and then put it on.

• In the early days of our marriage, Camille used to sleep with her back against me and I often put my leg over her. In those days, no physical position, no matter how awkward, was anything but enchanted entanglement.

• By our 15th year, however, we were no longer in sync in the sack. And today, she will turn to me while I’m reading and say, “Now hear this. It is time to go to sleep.”

• Maybe the best answer a husband can give to How was your day? is I spent it dreading that question. Or maybe the husband should draw first and ask his wife, How was your day? Then, however, he is liable to hear the four grimmest words of all: I had the children.

• So far, most of marriage has been the Ziegfeld Follies for Camille and me. And now we’re getting ready to send in the clowns.