It probably took Walt Disney executives about 4 milliseconds to decide to remove Bill Cosby’s statue from the Hollywood Studios theme park near Orlando after a judge unsealed a 2005 deposition that all but dispelled lingering doubts about the comedian’s alleged predatory behavior. Cosby admitted that he obtained Quaaludes with the intention of giving them to women with whom he wanted to have sex.
Some might look at Disney’s fast action — or at similar ones in the past, such as Penn State’s decision to remove Joe Paterno’s statue after a report revealed the coach’s role in the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal — and wonder why Ben’s Chili Bowl has not moved faster to distance itself from the disgraced comedian. Some had wondered that even before the most recent bombshell dropped.
I wish I could provide clear answers to this, but the Ali family, which owns the budding half-smoke empire, does not want to discuss its relationship with Cosby. What I can provide is some perspective.
For nearly a decade, I have covered the comings-and-goings at Ben’s and have spoken to family members countless times. They’re a tight-knit and sometimes tight-lipped bunch, with their approach to business being a generally cautious one. The family debated for years whether it should expand the business beyond the iconic U Street NW greasy spoon, which has withstood everything Washington could throw at it, whether it was riots or recessions.
As Nizam Ali told me in 2009, the decision for years to stand pat with only its U Street diner was often framed as a family issue:
“The Chili Bowl has been all about family, and we want to keep our family intact,” said Nizam, the son of founders Ben and Virginia Ali. “So if I’m running around selling franchises and my brother’s running and going to the openings and checking the quality, then we’re both divorced. . . . You know what I mean? So what’s more important? The running around and opening thousands of stores or making sure that your home life is happy and all that stuff? That’s kind of more important to us.”
Why does this matter? Because the surviving Ali family members — Ben Ali died in 2009 — all consider Cosby part of the family. The man has frequented the Chili Bowl since the 1950s, when he served in the Navy and was stationed nearby. Cosby told the Washington Times in 2009 that he had brought the former Camille Hanks, then a University of Maryland freshman, to Ben’s on their sixth date and had proposed to her there. Cosby clearly had formed a tight bond with the joint, long before he became a stand-up comedian, America’s Dad, an alleged serial rapist.
It was a bond that Cosby never relinquished, no matter high how his star rose and no matter how much Ben’s struggled. In 1985, when “The Cosby Show” was entering a new ratings season that it would dominate, the star of the show held a news conference at Ben’s, a stage that appeared to have nothing to do with a benefit appearance in Washington that September. He merely used his lofty perch to shine a light on a favorite restaurant, and it had the desired effect. For the first time in its history, Ben’s was on the national radar.
The line between business and friendship had always been blurred with Cosby and the Ali family. The star has never invested and has no ownership in Ben’s, family members have told me, and the family has never paid Cosby for his appearances at ribbon-cuttings, anniversaries and the like. Perhaps more to the point, I’ve heard this expressed by family members over the years: Cosby stood by them and helped them during their darkest hours. Theirs is a relationship not based on a business contract, with its need for legal obligations and remedies, but on a friendship that dates back more than 50 years.
Their relationship also has taken them far from the Formica tables at Ben’s. Cosby invited Ben and Virginia to one of his daughter’s weddings, and the comedian attended Virginia’s 80th birthday party in 2013. Cosby’s appearance at the 2014 ribbon-cutting in Arlington — for the first stand-alone Ben’s location away from U Street — was an occasion for the comedian to crack about how he’ll haunt the place even after his time on Earth ends.
“I want my body buried not far” in Arlington National Cemetery, Cosby joked, “so my ghost can get up, make the trip here instead of flying all the way over to U Street.”
Their bond, in other words, is one that even death will not break.
But perhaps rape allegations will. On a sweltering Wednesday morning, as the Ali family opened its fourth full-time location on historic H Street NE, Cosby was nowhere to be found. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was there. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) was there. Radio legend Donnie Simpson was there. Former mayor Anthony A. Williams was there. Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal was there. But no Cosby. Even inside the new location, Cosby has taken a diminished role, relegated to a single framed photo, a face in the crowd on the restaurant’s timeline.
The core group of six Ali family members, along with a handful of trusted advisers, make all of the decisions for the Ben’s chain. Consensus, though, does not come easy to any group of six. My sense is that the mixed messages about Cosby you receive at the new Ben’s is a sign of the mixed feelings that the Ali family has. I sense that they all agree on the horror of Cosby’s alleged crimes, but I also sense that some want to stand by their friend in his darkest hour.
Our moral compass may prefer to see things in black and white, but the Ali family seems to embrace the murky shades of gray in between. After all, they have known Cosby as a saint for longer than they’ve known him as a monster. Some have argued that the family could just remove his images from public spaces while maintaining a private relationship with him away from the limelight. But I’m not sure what such a move would say about the family’s fine-tuned sense of morality: Would they whitewash their history and jettison a family friend to ensure the health of the business?
I’ve heard that the Ali family may ask the public its opinion on the matter and make a final decision accordingly. I suspect we already know the answer to that, particularly now that the 2005 deposition has come to light. What’s more interesting to me, though, is what the Ali family thinks.