Say It Ain’t So, Bill A new bio avoids the difficult task of squaring ugly allegations against a cultural icon

Cosby: His Life and Times

Mark Whitaker (Simon and Schuster, 2014) 544 pages with index, notes and photographs

The irony of Bill Cosby is that his work has assiduously avoided offensiveness while controversy has grown and swirled around the man himself. The Cosby Show, arguably his signature creation, which ran for eight seasons beginning in 1984 and reached rare heights of success, barely discussed the topic of race at all and never did so directly—but brought the comedian both praise for depicting a successful African-American family and criticism for ignoring the plight of struggling blacks. Cosby’s impromptu speech at a 2004 event celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, in which he lambasted the behavior of poor black youth and fixed the blame on their parents, led some to applaud him for telling it like it was and even more to accuse him of haughty victim-blaming; this in the same year that saw the release of the live action adaptation Fat Albert, based on Cosby’s gentle, beloved cartoon series of 1972–85. And now, at the twilight of a career built on a persona of warm humor and lovability, come numerous and mounting allegations that Cosby has for decades been a sex offender, charges that some have long known about but that the general public only recently discovered. This has led many to vilify Cosby on the Internet, in print, and across social media; meanwhile, a few, unwilling to let go of their cherished image of the man, wanting to be loyal to their hero, perhaps flirting with denial, have held out shrinking hope that somehow it just is not true.

I confess to having spent a while with one foot in the latter camp. I hasten to add that I do not point fingers at those who have brought the allegations; the idea of more than a dozen women conducting a years-long conspiracy against an innocent man strains credulity, to put it mildly. Further, I do not want to contribute to a culture of obstructing justice for victims of sexual misconduct. It sickens and infuriates me that women must not only guard against male predators but endure scorn when they are wronged, and I say this as a man with two daughters. And it is because I feel this way—not in spite of it—that I have wanted to believe, not that Cosby’s accusers are lying, but that there is more to know, that the truth is more complicated than everyone thinks, that Cosby is not simply and unarguably guilty of crimes for which I would find it hard, if not impossible, to forgive him. And my desire to believe that, of course, is a measure of what the man’s work has meant to me.

At this writing I am 51 years old, and I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know who Bill Cosby was. But my earliest memory of consciously responding to a work of Cosby’s is from a Saturday morning when I was in fourth grade, at home sick in bed. I was watching my little black-and-white TV when a new cartoon came on, one I had never seen before. This was Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, whose young characters, living in a poor to working-class black neighborhood, were inspired by Cosby’s own childhood friends. That week’s episode showed Fat Albert, Bill (the young Cosby), and their pals going to summer camp, where they saw white kids for the first time (“Hey, hey, hey, what kinda dudes is they?”). I don’t think I had ever laughed so hard before at anything, and the show was no less funny for being so gentle—a hallmark of Cosby’s work.

… the kids in C. S. Lewis’s novels who stepped into their wardrobe closet and found themselves in Narnia happened upon no more wonderful a universe than I did when I heard Cosby’s comedy routines.

Was this before, or after, I discovered my older brother’s Cosby records in the basement of our house in Washington, D.C.? I can’t say, but discover them I did, and the kids in C. S. Lewis’s novels who stepped into their wardrobe closet and found themselves in Narnia happened upon no more wonderful a universe than I did when I heard Cosby’s comedy routines. There was Wonderfulness, with “Chicken Heart” and “Tonsils” and “Go Carts”; there was Why Is There Air?, which included “Kindergarten” and “$75 Car”; there was the incomparable To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With—works in which Cosby infused a child’s sensibility with an adult’s intelligence, in which he used words and sounds so quickly, and with such accuracy, that he created whole worlds in your mind. Put on the “Chicken Heart” track and you will, all at once, picture a 7-year-old boy in pajamas—who has been left at home by himself—setting fire to the sofa to drive away the monster from a scary radio program; see the boy smear Jell-O all over the floor to slow the monster up; hear the boy’s unsuspecting middle-aged father walk in and take a spill; listen to the sounds from the radio show (BOOM-boom, BOOM-boom); and, if you’re not careful, die of laughter. Check out To Russell, My Brother, and you will hear one man perform a two-character play of comic perfection, a stunningly real evocation of the way children behave toward one another. As I entered my teens I began to buy Cosby records of my own, none better than My Father Confused Me . . . What Must I Do? What Must I Do? The album is named for a track on which Cosby gives a brief, poignant hint of his ambivalent feelings toward his father before delivering some of the funniest lines in all of his work: “My father was a very bright man. He graduated … from high school, and was kicked out of college, for a number of things; but he was very very proud to be what he was. … He said some brilliant things in his life. But he confused me. … From age 1 to 7, because of my father, I thought my name was Jesus Christ.” What’s hard to convey here are Cosby’s speech patterns, the goofy inflections, the strategic pauses, the wistful rises that worked their way deep into my consciousness, and no doubt into my subconscious, surfacing sometimes even now in things I say.

He was not always funny. Sometimes, in routines based on a parent’s-eye view of life, for example, sheer crankiness could take the place of sharp observation. And he wasn’t the only great comedian around: there was Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Steve Martin was coming up fast, Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy would be on the scene before long. But not only did most of those men owe a debt to Cosby: few, if any, could do what he did, or maybe it is more accurate to say that many of them did what he wouldn’t. There was plenty to be funny about if you had a modicum of talent and didn’t mind dumping on or alienating segments of the population—gays, say, or whites, or poor blacks. But Cosby’s work eschewed all that, and paradoxically, by touching on the things so many people knew and remembered and felt, it seemed almost to address each of us personally. Like the eyes of someone in a painted portrait, Cosby’s humor found you wherever you were.

That said, if you were black—like me—Cosby’s screen work could have a special appeal. As I discovered during my high school years, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when a local TV station began airing reruns of I Spy from a decade earlier, Cosby was cool. More than that, his character, the quiet-spoken, multilingual government agent Alexander Scott, was a model for how to operate in the world. Scott, every bit the equal of his white partner, Kelly Robinson (played by Robert Culp), did not go around shouting “Black power!” or “Black is beautiful.” He didn’t have to. He radiated toughness and intelligence with everything he said and did. If he was not an ad for equality, nothing was. If he was black, black was beautiful.

Cosby became known as “America’s favorite dad,” and so he remained for three decades, and so he might remain still, had not another black male comedian, Hannibal Buress, told his audience in October 2014 to “Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’”

Cosby’s status as an American icon became official at about the time I did: I turned 21 in 1984, the year The Cosby Show debuted. That the show’s premise was so novel at the time—it portrayed an upscale black family—said a lot about the racial situation in America; that the show was nearly as controversial as it was successful said something, too. In the debate over whether The Cosby Show was doing a service or a disservice by ignoring the black underclass, one question went unasked: why should one half-hour sitcom have to tell the whole black American story? Most viewers, of course, did not ask any questions at all about the show; they merely enjoyed the humor based on family dynamics, which were in turn, in the case of the Huxtables, based on mutual respect and love. I was a fan, too, though on the whole the program was never my favorite Cosby creation—mainly because, at some point between its second and third seasons, The Cosby Show contracted a debilitating case of cute. Still, people across America welcomed this now-middle-aged black man and his TV family into their homes and lives as they welcomed few others of any color, and I was glad to see my hero receive what I imagined to be his due. Cosby became known as “America’s favorite dad,” and so he remained for three decades, and so he might remain still, had not another black male comedian, Hannibal Buress, told his audience in October 2014 to “Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’”

The publication of Mark Whitaker’s book Cosby: His Life and Times, for which the author eventually secured his subject’s cooperation, coincided with the comedian’s severely thwarted return to the limelight: a TV concert special (with the now-ironic title Far from Finished) and a planned NBC sitcom, which has since been scrapped because of the allegations against Cosby. Whitaker has taken heat for not mentioning the accusations in his biography. (He has said that he was unable to substantiate them and thought it better to leave them out.) This very sympathetic book seems to touch on every other relevant matter, though. Whitaker’s writing might be called brilliantly nondescript; extremely readable, competent but calling no attention whatsoever to itself, it achieves a kind of invisibility, serving as a spotless window on Cosby himself—much of him, at any rate. As its 500-plus pages fly by, we follow Cosby from his poor childhood, to his directionless young manhood, to his rise to fame in his twenties, to his place at the top of the entertainment heap.

Cosby was born in the summer of 1937 in Philadelphia, the first of the four sons of William Cosby Sr. and Anna Cosby. Bill Cosby’s brother James, sickly from birth, died as a child. After that, William Sr., a factory worker who moonlighted as a handyman, spent more and more of his paychecks on drink, continuously fighting over money with his wife before leaving to join the U.S. Navy during World War II. The family spent years in wretched homes, including one falling-down place with no hot water and no tub in the bathroom; there, Anna Cosby had to wash her sons from a pot she heated on the stove. After her husband enlisted, Anna happily moved with the boys to the projects, in the days when those were temporary dwellings for families heading toward better things, rather than the sites of multigenerational poverty they would become. Young Bill became part of a tight group of neighborhood friends, while his mother—who had dreamed of being a teacher but became a domestic worker—pushed and prodded her highly intelligent but lazy, fun-loving son to perform up to his potential in school.

Whitaker has taken heat for not mentioning the accusations in his biography. (He has said that he was unable to substantiate them and thought it better to leave them out.) This very sympathetic book seems to touch on every other relevant matter, though. … it achieves a kind of invisibility, serving as a spotless window on Cosby himself. 

He rarely did. After testing into Central High, the most prestigious public school in the city, Cosby got such abysmal grades that he repeated semesters before transferring to Germantown High and eventually dropping out altogether. Finding himself working in a shoe-repair shop, fearing that he would go nowhere in life, he joined the Navy like his father. Asked by the recruiter if he was enlisting so he could see the world, Cosby answered, “No, I just want to get off my block.”

The military gave Cosby the discipline he lacked. He ran track for the Navy and took a correspondence course to get his G.E.D. At a track meet near the end of his service, he met and impressed a coach from Philadelphia’s Temple University, who arranged for Cosby to get an athletic scholarship to the school. One of Cosby’s professors, delighted with an essay the young man had written, read it aloud to his classmates, who howled with laughter—leading Cosby to realize that he had a gift for comedy. He began performing locally. In the audience one night was a British couple who loved his act and who had a friend at the Gaslight Café, a club in New York City. After successfully auditioning there, Cosby left Temple for New York, sleeping in the storeroom of the Gaslight in the summer of 1962 as he developed his act. A write-up in The New York Times helped build his following, and in 1963 Cosby had his debut on The Tonight Show. By then he had given up race-themed jokes, delivered in the mode of Dick Gregory, for the universal, observational humor for which he would become known.

Those classic comedy albums followed, as did Cosby’s TV stardom: the producer Sheldon Leonard, wanting to create a show with a black actor in a prominent role, cast Cosby in I Spy opposite Robert Culp. Culp successfully mentored Cosby—who knew nothing about acting—while writing most of the episodes of that one-of-a-kind show; the two formed a bond strong enough to withstand Cosby’s winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Actor in a Dramatic Series, over Culp, three years in a row. Cosby’s work on I Spy changed television, clearing the way for other blacks to star in prime time shows.

Cosby would have his lesser successes and outright failures in prime time—The Bill Cosby Show, The New Bill Cosby Show, Cos—before starring in the show whose impact would dwarf even that of I Spy. The Cosby Show has been credited with helping the country warm to the idea of electing its first black president, and if you think that exaggerates the show’s power and reach, consider this: Cosby later met a black former prisoner who recalled that watching The Cosby Show with his white guards had helped him form a bond with them. The prisoner’s name? Nelson Mandela.

In addition to Cosby’s loyalty to friends and support for black causes and institutions, Whitaker’s biography delves into its subject’s darker—if not darkest—sides, including the temper that has occasionally burst into physical violence and the “roving eye” of the man married for more than fifty years. Whitaker’s failure to mention the rape allegations may seem to readers— may, in fact, be — downright weird; and yet that failure, or decision, or whatever you want to call it, is a kind of accidental virtue. A book that mentioned the allegations might of necessity be dominated by them, but having a book that does not talk about rape, together in the world with media coverage that talks about nothing else, highlights the chasm that is at the heart of the whole mess, that makes it so confusing and painful, that raises fundamental, unsettling questions about the human makeup. To read the Nov. 22, 2014 Washington Post article “Bill Cosby’s Legacy, Recast,” a detailed history of the accusations, is to find it very difficult to maintain one’s hope that Cosby is innocent. So how can a man who lured, drugged, and raped numerous women be the same man whose best-loved TV series took pains to project a feminist sensibility? How can he be the man whose Fat Albert series so gently, so sensitively taught kids valuable life lessons? (A friend I have known for decades told me recently that a Fat Albert episode permanently kept him away from drugs.) How can Cosby the rapist be the man who has sat down to talk with gang members, leading one particularly hardened young woman to weep with gratitude? How can he be the man who performs while wearing a sweatshirt that reads “Hello, friend” because that was the greeting his murdered son, Ennis, exchanged with others at his Quaker school? How can he be the man who has donated millions of dollars to education, whose tirades about black youth—whatever you may think of them—stemmed from a real desire to see his people do better?

To say that the good Cosby has done outweighs the bad is, at best, to oversimplify matters and, at worst, to make a morally dubious statement. (Try saying that about a philanthropist who raped your sister, daughter, or wife.) It is of limited use, too, to say that we must always separate the artist from the art if we are to enjoy art at all. That is because, in this case, the person we took to be Cosby is—was?—his art. Maybe, maybe, it is possible to hang onto that persona, a positive force in the world, even as we know that it is the creation of that other Cosby; but between the two of them, they have broken my heart.