Time to Laugh, Time to Cry

Richard Pryor with daughters Rain, left, and Elizabeth at the Kennedy Center in 1998 for his Twain Prize ceremony.
Richard Pryor with daughters Rain, left, and Elizabeth at the Kennedy Center in 1998 for his Twain Prize ceremony. (1998 Photo By Khue Bui -- Associated Press)

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By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Hers is a life lived bumping around the margins of fame. Rain Pryor didn't get the Nicole Richie-esque existence filled with endless shopping and carefully cultivated fabulousness enjoyed by other children of the stars. Sure, her dad had fame and money, lots of both. He was, after all, Richard Pryor.

But a lot of the time, she says, the money went to the hookers hanging out at his house -- "Daddy, the whores need to be paid"-- and not to paying child support to his many ex-wives raising kids far from the Hollywood Hills. So hers was a childhood of abundance and of lack, of private jets and welfare checks, of elaborate vacations in Hawaii and a gig selling hot dogs on the beach when she was 13.

Now an actress, comic and singer, Rain Pryor, 37, has spent her life navigating tricky terrain. She is the daughter of an exceedingly complicated African American icon who famously set himself on fire, and an equally complicated blond, blue-eyed Jewish woman who fervently believed that she was black. In a new autobiography, Pryor writes of lighting candles for Shabbat with one set of grandparents and also listening attentively to her great-grandmother, a onetime bordello owner, breaking down racial realities as she shuffled a tarot deck: "You black, Rainy. The world's gonna see Rain as a [black person] no matter what her mother is."

Somehow, over the years, she managed to shake off the craziness and the pain, to integrate her dual identities -- finding an outlet and mining a few laughs from it all in her new memoir, "Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss With Richard Pryor."

"You're either going to go down the path of self-destructiveness," Pryor says today, chic in black high-heeled boots and a cape, her riotous ringlets flatironed into submission, "or you're not. . . . Success is the best revenge; it's the ultimate ha-ha. Statistically, I should be strung out . . . but you won't see me in a hospital anytime soon."

You will, however, see her strolling through the streets of Baltimore. She moved to Charm City two months ago, driving cross-country in her Toyota Prius, ostensibly to be closer to friends, but also to flee the city of her birth, Los Angeles, which was getting on her last nerve. Too much history, she says.

She'd never left home, save for a brief stint in New York when she was a baby, when her mom pursued a dancing career and her neighbor Miles Davis sometimes babysat, playing his horn until Rain drifted off to sleep. In L.A. she also left behind a home and a husband, separating after four years of marriage.

In Baltimore, where she has a spacious one-bedroom apartment, folks recognize her -- she's a dead ringer for her dad -- but somehow it never feels intrusive, Pryor says. For now, Baltimore feels right.

It has been an intense year: Her father died of complications from MS on Dec. 10, 2005, just as she was beginning to write her memoir (co-authored with Cathy Crimmins). Tensions ran high with Jennifer Lee, her father's fourth and seventh and final wife. In May, Rain Pryor's half sister Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor sued Lee in Los Angeles County Superior Court, charging Lee with elder abuse and fraud. Rain Pryor has not joined the suit but says she supports it. (Lee has denied the allegations.)

Grief sucked her in. "My dad had passed away and I was in such a fog," says Pryor. "The good memories brought pain. I wanted to call and go, 'Oh, remember -- ?' and read him parts of the book. That's what's most difficult." The memoir serves as a billet-doux, or love letter, to her father.

From the beginning there was nothing conventional about her life. Rain's mother, Shelley Bonis, was married to Richard Pryor for about two years before they divorced. The book describes her mother as a jive-talking dancer with a fondness for wearing Afro wigs -- it was the '60s -- and quoting Malcolm X. (It was her politically conscious mother, Pryor claims, who nudged Richard, then a mild-mannered, Cosbyesque comic, into exploring racially charged topics in his act.)

Pryor says she and her mother aren't speaking at the moment -- although Bonis previously helped her by supplying information for the book. (Bonis did not return a call requesting comment.)

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