In 1986, the wife of one complicated legend gave a piece of advice to the wife of another complicated legend.
The advice giver was Jacqueline Jackson, whose husband is the civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. The advice getter was Camille Cosby, whose husband is the comedian Bill Cosby.
Mrs. Jackson told Mrs. Cosby she had “important things to say” and should share her thoughts with the world, Jackson’s daughter, Santita Jackson, told The Washington Post. Cosby, who was then in her early 40s and a mother of five, resisted. She preferred the background. She feared public speaking. It didn’t feel right.
But that piece of advice may have stuck with her, for the very next year, Cosby gave her first commencement address. The woman who had so often been a punch line as the prototypical roost-ruling mother sent off the graduating class at Howard University with a quip: “If men only knew how sexy they are when they are caring for a child.”
Her speech that spring day in the District set in motion the careful emergence of Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby, a woman who has straddled — sometimes uncomfortably — the role of public figure and the impulse to hold the world at arm’s length.
She earned a doctorate, produced a Broadway play, launched a major African American oral history project and wrote piercing commentaries about racism, but she seldom gave interviews and kept to a tight circle of elite friends. She drew a protective wall around her family life that could be summed up by the sign on the tall fence outside the Cosby home on hundreds of acres in rural Massachusetts: “If You Are Not Invited DO NOT Pass Through These Gates.”
Her competing instincts have been on display in the past month as more than two dozen women — many of whom allege that they were drugged by her husband — have accused Bill Cosby, now 77, of sexually assaulting them over the past five decades.
The cautious side of Camille Cosby was evident when she sat in awkward silence in an excruciating Associated Press news clip, a tight smile frozen on her face, as her husband tried to pressure a reporter not to broadcast an exchange about the assault allegations. A more combative version of her surfaces in a statement issued last week in which she sharply accuses the news media of failing to vet her husband’s accusers and draws a comparison with the flawed Rolling Stone magazine report about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.
“The man I met and fell in love with, and whom I continue to love, is the man you all knew through his work,” she said in the statement, which was released by her husband’s longtime publicist. “He is a kind man, a generous man, a funny man, and a wonderful husband, father and friend. He is the man you thought you knew.”
The statement tempers the reductive power of the AP video gone viral, which in a few moments of close-up uneasiness, can obscure her nuances. Interviews with friends and associates, as well as an examination of her writings, reveal her as a complex figure with, as Jacqueline Jackson diagnosed, much to say — poised and self-assured, yet wary.
With those she lets into her life, Cosby exudes warmth.
“She’s not all that,” said former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt, who moved in the same social circles as Camille Cosby as a teenager growing up in the District and has kept in periodic touch over the years. “She’s just easy. A salt-of-the-earth kind of person. She is comfortable in her own skin, not somebody who puts on airs. She is just a very centered person.”
Yet Cosby, 70, also has an edge and has periodically offered stinging assessments about American politics, race relations and religion. She feels strongly that many of America’s institutions have been shaped by racism and prejudice. And Cosby — who once told Oprah Winfrey that she is spiritual but does not belong to an organized religion — has argued that Christian imagery devalues African Americans by primarily depicting God as a white man.
Camille Cosby did not respond to interview requests.
The allegations against Bill Cosby — which the comedian has vehemently denied — have cratered his comeback, leading to delays or cancellations of live performances and broadcast projects. But the fallout has also affected his wife and their joint philanthropic work. Just last week, Spelman College suspended an endowed chair paid for, in part, by a $20 million donation they made in 1988.
It was called the William and Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Endowed Professorship.
A girl like Camille Olivia Hanks wasn’t supposed to meet a boy like Bill Cosby.
The eldest of four children, she was born into a rarefied 1940s, upper-middle-class world of debutantes and weekend horseback rides. She liked to think she was “organized,” but her siblings called her “bossy,” she would later write. Her parents were both college-educated — unusual for African American couples of that era. Guy Hanks, with degrees from Southern University and Fisk University, worked as a government research chemist; Catherine Hanks was a Howard University graduate.
They lived in Norbeck, a small community perched among woods and riding trails 10 miles outside the District in an area that is now Silver Spring, Md.; a neighbor kept a bull calf.
Norbeck had been founded by free blacks shortly before the Civil War. It felt like “a Norman Rockwell painting,” recalled Camille’s friend and neighbor, Owen Mathieu, the boy who taught her how to ride a horse.
The Hankses sent their daughter to Catholic schools in the District: St. Cyprian’s, where she was taught by an order of African American nuns, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. And later, according to schoolmates, she attended St. Cecilia’s Academy, which was racially integrated in an era when many African Americans attended segregated schools.
In 1960, Mathieu recalled, he and Camille took part in one of the signal events of civil-rights-era Washington: the protests at racially segregated Glen Echo Amusement Park, which would be integrated the next year. During the protests, Mathieu said, members of the American Nazi Party yelled racial epithets at them.
“We all were fairly shaken by it,” Mathieu recalled.
On the social circuit, Camille was “a presence,” a young woman who drew attention without seeming to try, said Pratt, the former D.C. mayor.
“She was just really beautiful and smart and poised,” said Lynn French, who grew up in the District, and hung out in the same social circle. “You know how you grow up and you say, ‘I want to be like her’ — that’s how I felt about Camille.”
Young African Americans from well-to-do families flocked to all-black social clubs, Pratt said. Camille was presented to D.C. society as a debutante in 1961 at the prestigious Bachelor-Benedict Club.
Camille’s fellow debutantes and their escorts were young people who were expected to be somebodies. So, a few years later, it was a shock for Camille’s acquaintances to learn that she was dating — a comedian.
Bill Cosby was seven years older than Camille and met her while in Washington for a comedy gig at a small Georgetown club. He had grown up in a poor section of Philadelphia that no one would have compared to a Norman Rockwell painting. His mother was a maid, and his father an alcoholic. Cosby had dropped out of college to pursue a comedy career.
“He received his romantic initiation in a city where hip adolescent males aimed to ‘score,’ for their pleasure, of course, but also to gather ego-boosting macho points,” Alvin F. Poussaint, a Harvard professor and consultant to “The Cosby Show,” wrote in the introduction to Cosby’s 1989 book “Love and Marriage.” “Cosby notes that his early quest for ‘love’ was beset by chaos because of his preoccupation with female anatomy.”
Camille had dreamed of being a teacher, but she dropped out of the University of Maryland at 19 to marry Cosby. Her parents were not pleased.
Father Carl Dianda, who would perform the wedding service at a Catholic church in Olney, Md., recalled in an interview with The Post how Cosby charmed him: He brought a comedy record to one of their premarital counseling sessions.
The couple moved to New York. But not for long. Cosby’s career was about to take off.
They were headed to Hollywood.
Camille Cosby arrived in California as a striking young beauty with a dazzling smile and a keen sense for fashion. People compared her to Lena Horne. Yet, she was ill-suited for the role of Hollywood spouse.
She likes to think of herself as “real,” she has said. Hollywood didn’t seem real. It seemed like a place for preening and pretending.
Her husband soared to international celebrity as the first African American to star in a dramatic television series, appearing alongside the white actor Robert Culp in the hit show “I Spy,” which debuted in 1965. They had more money than they could have imagined.
While Camille Cosby was having babies, her husband was womanizing and becoming a regular at the Playboy Mansion, according to a recent biography by former Newsweek managing editor Mark Whitaker. (The couple’s five children — Erika, Erinn, Ennis, Evin and Ensa — all had names beginning with the letter “E”; Cosby has said it stands for “excellence.”) “Decades later, she would confess to the pain that her husband’s ‘selfish’ behavior caused her in their L.A. years, as he indulged his roving eye,” Whitaker wrote.
Those years are given a more sinister profile by Cosby’s recent accusers. In the past few weeks, four women have alleged that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them in the mid- or late 1960s.
Whitaker notes that Bill Cosby’s wild lifestyle among L.A.’s fast set prompted, at least in part, the couple’s decision in 1971 to move to Massachusetts. They bought a classic 1800s New England Colonial farmhouse outside Shelburne Falls, a village tucked into a picturesque valley along a churning section of the Deerfield River, about two hours west of Boston. Even today it retains the charm of small-town America, with a working soda fountain at the local drug store and a 108-year-old bowling alley.
Though the Cosbys are seldom seen in town, Camille Cosby has lent her prestige to land preservation issues, including buying land that was under threat of development.
“We have great respect for what she’s done,” said Carolyn Engle, a neighbor. “It’s his money, but I think it’s Camille who has protected the land here.”
Moving east wasn’t a panacea for the Cosby marriage. Bill Cosby has acknowledged an affair in the mid-1970s with a woman named Shawn Berkes, who would later claim, but never definitively prove, that the comedian was the father of her daughter. Camille Cosby has told Winfrey that she was aware of the affair.
Also, four women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault in the first four years after the move when he was splitting time between the coasts.
It wasn’t until about four years after the move that the Cosby marriage jelled, according to the time frame outlined by Camille Cosby in her interview with Winfrey in 2000. That was “when we knew that we really wanted to be with each other, that we didn’t want to live without each other,” Camille Cosby said. “We really spent time talking about what marriage means.”
Camille Cosby had dropped out of college for her husband; she had moved to a city she didn’t love for her husband. In the early years of her marriage she had yet to find her voice — but she was looking for it.
“I don’t think that I thought I was smart,” she told Winfrey. “I knew I was a good mother, but I didn’t think that I was smart in terms of having something to say if Bill and I were seated with a group of people who were busy doing their different things. I always said, ‘My husband is the public person. He is the one who has something to say.’ ”
When she traveled to Mississippi in 1979 to research rural homes of African Americans as part of her studies, she asked to be introduced only as “a friend from Massachusetts,” recalled Patty Crosby, who ran an arts organization in Port Gibson, Miss. “She made it very clear she was here as her own person, not as Bill Cosby’s wife.”
Crosby took her on a driving tour and she ended up meeting some of the region’s talented quilters; but there was no fanfare. “The women didn’t know, even after she left, who she was,” Crosby said.
She maintained a low-profile until the mid-1980s. Following the advice of Jesse Jackson’s wife, she began to speak publicly, delivering commencement addresses at Howard and at Spelman, where the Cosbys’ 1988 donation of $20 million was lauded as the largest ever made by African Americans to a historically black college.
It’s in these years that her political philosophy comes into focus. At Spelman, she accused then-President George H.W. Bush of not doing enough for historically black colleges, according to an account of the speech in Jet magazine.
And, though her husband’s affair with Berkes had yet to be revealed publicly, she made remarks about relationships that seemed personal.
“Making wrongs right starts with admission and correction by the wrongdoer,” she said, according to the Jet article. “Forgiving can’t be easy, and forgetting can be even harder. But there’s getting in forgetting and there’s giving in forgiving.”
The secrets of Bill Cosby’s past would not lie hidden forever. A decade later, Camille Cosby would be pushed into publicly addressing her husband’s infidelity.
And she would have to do so at the worst moment of her life.
On Jan. 16, 1997, the couple’s son, Ennis, who was 27 years old, was shot to death in a botched robbery after pulling over because of a flat tire on a Los Angeles freeway. His killer boasted, “I shot a nigger.”
Camille Cosby can be more unvarnished than her husband when she talks about race. And she argued in a USA Today column that “America taught our son’s killer to hate African-Americans.” In the same piece, she said that “racism and prejudice are omnipresent and eternalized in America’s institutions.” She lamented that “God and most Christian holy people artistically have been recreated in images of whiteness. This shrewd propaganda undeniably lessen the worthiness of most of the Earth’s people.”
As the family was grieving Ennis’s death, a separate drama was playing out. Two days after the killing, authorities arrested Autumn Jackson, who was 22 at the time and claimed to be the love child of Berkes and Bill Cosby. She would later be sentenced to prison for attempting to extort millions in return for her silence.
The arrest publicly exposed a wound the Cosbys had dealt with privately. As she has done this month following the flood of sexual assault allegations, Camille Cosby issued a statement defending her husband and her marriage.
“All old personal negative issues between Bill and me were resolved years ago,” she said at the time. “We are a united couple.”
Her response to the controversy also bears another similarity to the present day: She blasted the media. Back then, she singled out three tabloids, saying they falsely depicted her “as being out of control; emotionally and psychologically unstable and ‘on the verge of a nervous breakdown.’ ”
This month, as more of her husband’s accusers have come forward, she again scolded the media, saying the accusers were being given “a pass.”
“There appears to be no vetting of my husband’s accusers before stories are published or aired. An accusation is published, and immediately goes viral.
“We all followed the story of the article in the ‘Rolling Stone’ concerning allegations of rape at the University of Virginia. The story was heart-breaking, but ultimately appears to be proved to be untrue. Many in the media were quick to link that story to stories about my husband — until that story unwound.
“None of us will ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim. But the question should be asked — who is the victim?”
If not for the swirl of accusations against her husband, the final months of 2014 might have been a glittering and unambiguous triumph for Camille Cosby.
The exhibition of African American art that she and her husband collected over half-a-century of marriage was opening at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The works came from the couple’s collection, but the exhibit was her inspiration. Among the items on display is a quilt sewn in her murdered son’s honor from pieces of his clothes she sent to the women she had met so long ago in Mississippi.
In the days before the Nov. 9 debut, Camille Cosby did something she has done only sparingly: She sat for an interview. In just a few moments captured by an AP camera, this woman who has sought to “self-define” as more than the wife of a famous man, left an indelible impression on a public that hardly knows her.
And she did it by saying nothing.
Not a word.
Not a sound.
The mystery that is Camille Cosby — and in a larger sense, the Cosby marriage — grew in those key moments as her husband was gingerly queried about “the claims” being made against him, and then brusquely tried to scuttle any mention of his non-response. She became, at once, an object of empathy and an enigma; another in a long line of wives placed in uncomfortable proximity to a husband entangled in a sex scandal.
“I’ve seen that video a few times of her sitting next to him and my heart just broke for her,” said Mary Alice Smith, an actress who performed in a Broadway play produced by Camille Cosby in the mid-1990s. “I can’t even imagine what this is like for her and for the whole family.”
Until the statement Camille Cosby issued last week, the AP news clip stood as her sole and cryptic testimony about the controversy consuming her family.
As she listens with a rigid smile, she spins a ring on her left hand with the middle finger of her right hand. At times, she seems to be complicit in — or at least in agreement with — her husband’s effort to pressure the AP not to air his refusal to comment. She nods as he berates Brett Zongker, an AP arts reporter.
“I think that if you want to consider yourself to be serious that it will not appear anywhere,” Bill Cosby says.
“And we thought, by the way, that it would not be necessary to go over that question,” Bill says.
“We thought that AP had the integrity,” Bill says as Camille nods again, “to not ask.”
Camille nods one more time.
The effort to intimidate the reporter got a boost from an off-camera figure whose identity has previously not been reported. After Cosby asks Zongker “what value” airing his refusal would have, a voice can be heard saying, “I don’t think it has any value either.” That voice belongs to the Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson, Linda St. Thomas — who holds great sway over reporters’ access to Smithsonian officials.
St. Thomas said she does “not speak for Mr. Cosby” and that her comment about “no value” referred to “continuing an interview that consisted of repeating ‘no comment’ over and over. I was not making a judgment about what is and is not news.”
On the wall behind the Cosbys during the interview, a poignant oil painting from 1894 titled “The Thankful Poor” hangs. It cost $287,000 in 1981.
It was a Christmas gift — from Camille to Bill.
Karen Heller, Peggy McGlone, Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis in Washington, and Geoff Edgers in Shelburne Falls, Mass., contributed to this report.