“Sex at my age has become exhausting,” Bill Cosby lamented in 1987, upon turning 50. This was one year after he allegedly assaulted 18-year-old Barbara Bowman in a Reno hotel room, and two decades into what appears to be a hidden life now broken wide open with accusations of drugging, rape and harassment from dozens of women.
But in his book “Time Flies,” published at the height of Cosbydom, America’s favorite father told us he wasn’t that into sex anymore.
“Just as I no longer can go one-on-one in basketball the way I once did, I also lack the stamina to go one-on-one in bed the way I did in my salad days,” Cosby wrote. But it was all right, he assured fans. “I am actually in tune with the times, for recent surveys have revealed that most women would rather cuddle than have sex, and I am the Clark Gable of cuddlers.”
In the mid-to-late 1980s, Cosby authored three best-selling books: “Fatherhood,” “Time Flies” and “Love and Marriage.” Together, they’re a PG-13 telling of Cosby’s life, brimming with adorable anecdotes and Huxtable-safe punch lines. There is no mention of Cosby’s wild years living in Los Angeles, away from family and restraint; no Playboy Mansion parties with his pal Hef; no estrangement from his second-eldest daughter; not even memories of his years in the Navy. And certainly no affairs, no briefcases packed with pills, no cash payments for women claiming he was the father of their children.
Yet even this heavily sanitized Cosby is revealing. This story purports to be his own life, in his own words, a tale coming “not from Heathcliff but Bill,” he emphasizes. And lurking among the laugh lines and life lessons is an intensely vain man, fixated on sex; a man for whom women can stir violence or desire; a man seeking to appease his wife while remaining aware of his darker appetites. It would be too much to say that these pages foreshadow the accusations before Cosby today — they don’t. But they don’t really contradict them, either.
Yes, the books are still funny. But reading them now, they’re mostly creepy.
As a boy, Cosby liked to hurt little girls, because they deserved it.
“If a girl wandered on to a football field where I was playing,” he writes of his sports-obsessed childhood, “I might make knocking her down part of my fly pattern, for a girl was only an honorary human being; and if my roller skating assumed a certain grand sweep, a girl or two might hit the cement, not an unfitting position for such a lesser part of humanity.”
Cosby makes no apology for this violence. Girls were a “kind of dopey enemy,” he explains, and boys like him simply “practiced the violence that was so essential to their becoming men.”
That violence ended when puberty started. “In the lineup at school,” Cosby recalls, “I now saw girls as if for the first time: Objects of derision had become objects of desire.” (Objects either way, of course.) But aside from games of Spin the Bottle, Post Office or Seven Minutes in Heaven, young Cosby’s first chance at anything approximating real sex came on a Saturday in north Philly, at the home of one of his earliest girlfriends:
My heart began to pound, for I really loved this girl and thought of her as considerably more than just a package of j-o-n-e-s. Nervously, I went inside, she closed the door, and I didn’t move too far from it. And then she did the loveliest thing: she pulled up her dress.
There it was, in all its glandular grandeur. Had I ever seen one of those things before, I probably would have seized this moment to run right out the door; but this was a new sight for me and a deeply fascinating one, like Grant’s Tomb or the Grand Canyon.
So that’s it, I thought as she held up her dress. There it is. One way to get pregnant just has to be playing around with that.
Uncertainly, I moved toward her, trying to follow my heart and not my hormones, and then I pulled down her dress to show that I came in peace and we merely rubbed against each other awhile.
Bill Cosby, sexual gentleman.
In his early teens, dancing allows Cosby to explore the female body. “You enveloped the girl, hoping that she would fit neatly in the contours of your body, and then you slowly rocked her as if you were putting a baby to sleep,” he explains. “It was a trip to the moon if the girl gave you both a little pelvis and a little knee . . . in what was called The Grind.”
Cosby rocks with Ruth and her lovely braid (“to me it was an under-appreciated erogenous zone,” he recalls), but she always keeps a few inches of space between them. Not so the eager Millie, who straddles him with both legs and “pressed me as if she were making wine.”
Ruth would make a good wife, the 13-year-old Cosby decides, but oh, that Millie! “I had stumbled upon one of life’s ancient dilemmas,” he writes, one it seems he would have trouble resolving. “Did I want a home and a family or fifty years of good pressing?”
Cosby usually paints himself as an innocent, knowing less — and doing less — than his friends and classmates. “Although the boys had breezily talked about getting to second and third base with girls,” he says, “I doubted that . . . I’d be able to make more than a foul pop-up.” By 15 or 16, he became bolder. At high school parties, Cosby writes, “sometimes I managed to lure one of them outside to sit with me in a car for a little kissing and rubbing.” Not all of the girls enjoyed it, he admits, in a passage that could be innocuous but ends up unnerving: “Most of the other girls I managed to lure away from the crowd just sat there like statues, hoping that this moment would pass and they could get on with their lives.”
That was about it. At 19, he still feels that the “peak of erotica” is Kim Novak on a movie screen. Despite his efforts to impress — “In my twenties, I gallantly paid the check for every woman I took to dinners” — he still gets nowhere. “A man who dreamed of nookie, I couldn’t even get knuckle,” he complains.
Cosby doesn’t mind oversharing about his sexual awakening — his first wet dream merits two full pages in “Love and Marriage” — but he doesn’t specify the first time he actually had sex. Instead, he acknowledges only that he “wandered in the sexual wilderness for awhile” until meeting Camille Hanks, whom Cosby married when she was 19 and he was 26. He isn’t forthcoming about sex within their marriage, either, except in the kind of romantically comedic arguments that could have transpired in a certain Brooklyn brownstone:
It is poignant to see me night after night trying to recapture the sweetness of our first easy gymnastics in bed, to see me night after night trying to slip my leg over her only to hear, “I was wondering something: Do I happen to look like a pack mule to you? Is my next birthday present going to be a saddle?”
Indeed, most of the disagreements he describes with Camille usually read like sketches, such as the time Bill is relegated to sleeping on the floor until he sweet-talks his way back into bed. (“Camille?” “Yes, sailor?” “You just going to leave me down here?” “I don’t vacuum till Tuesday.”) Such marital fights are richly rewarding, Cosby confides, because “often the combat leads to a peace conference that is sexually delicious.”
In the three books, I found but one instance of unfunny and unexplained strife between them. Cosby says he recalls only six times in their marriage when they left home without the kids, but adds, “seven times if you count the night Camille walked out on me and I went after her without bothering to get a sitter.”
Was that when Camille learned of her husband’s affair with Shawn Berkes, a secretary he met at an L.A. nightclub and who later told Cosby he was the father of her child? In an interview with Oprah Winfrey years later, Camille may have obliquely referred to this infidelity when she said that her marriage had endured some “selfish” behavior but that she and Bill were committed to each other.
When he married Camille, Cosby writes, “my instinct was to break the rules of marriage and be honest with her about everything.” It is an instinct he appears to have resisted. Throughout the books, he reiterates his devotion to Camille, like a man trying hard to convince his wife — or himself — that everything is fine. “I want to be married until we forget each other’s names,” he vows. “She is still as feminine as a woman can be,” he coos. And then this: “I would never dream of leaving you for a [younger] woman . . . a woman who wanted me to party past the ten o’clock news.”
When Cosby describes their 25th wedding anniversary dinner, his words seem to mix nostalgia with pain, as though he’s considering other paths the marriage could have taken:
There were tears in our eyes now, the kind that came whenever we were laughing in sync at some merry memory, the kind that helped to counteract divorce. At that giddy moment, I knew that the heart of marriage is memories; and if the two of you happen to have the same ones and can savor your reruns, then your marriage is a gift from the gods.
At 50, Cosby found his first gray pubic hair, and he was not happy. “I had always liked to wear my hair black,” he explains, “and I felt depressed, for gray did not seem to add any distinction to my crotch.” As a boy, he loved to gaze down and confirm that “crowning it all, sat the pubic hair, rich and dark,” but now he could no longer bear to look. “As more of this lower gray appears,” Cosby writes, “I have begun wondering: would I be too vain if I started using Grecian Formula in a place that only my wife and my doctor ever see?”
The answer to that, of course, is yes. But vanity is never missing in Cosby’s tales. During his days at Temple University, where he competed in football and track, “I was physically such a splendid thing that one of my pastimes was pausing nude before mirrors — always in my own house, of course — to admire the 195 pounds of Super Cos.” (Good thing it was in his own house; otherwise that might have been weird.)
But Super Cos eventually went the way of Fat Albert. “As I helplessly watched my body turn from a temple to a storefront church,” Cosby writes, “I was filled with frustration and disgust.” He indulged in small protests, like continuing to buy Jockey shorts in his old size, then cutting slits in the sides to accommodate his girth.
“At my age,” Cosby concludes after a humbling day on the UCLA track, “the hardest thing to do is accept what you are and not torture yourself with visions of what you used to be. What you are is a jackass if you think you can come even close to catching up to your old self.”
He doesn’t forget that old self, though. And when his daughters begin to grow up, Cosby writes in “Fatherhood,” he worries that they may encounter new versions of it:
The happiness of these four daughters has been of supreme importance to me, but the problem is that this happiness may depend on their avoiding the kind of person their father was in his drugstore days. . . . Every time a young man comes to my house for one of my daughters, I have wanted to take them aside and say:
“You’re not like me, are you? If you are, then I know what you want and I hope you have the same terrible luck. . . . And one more thing: I may have to kill you, but it will be nothing personal.”
When one of his daughters turns 13, she has a screaming match with Camille about whether she can go to the mall to see some boys. Cosby sides with his wife, because any father “knows exactly what those boys at the mall have in their depraved little minds because he once owned such a depraved little mind himself,” he explains. “In fact, if he thinks enough about the plans that he used to have for young girls, the father . . . might even run over to the mall and have a few of those boys arrested.”
If you want to get strange or even hostile looks, try reading Bill Cosby’s books on the bus or train on your way to work. They are hardback reminders of the accusations against him, of years of not knowing or of not wanting to know. And his smiling face on the covers now just looks smug.
But reading them now doesn’t just make you feel guilty or angry or cringey. These books are also sad. Television viewers may have willingly conflated Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby — the name of the show didn’t help — and these books feel like Cosby’s effort to do the same. It must have been strange writing them, an exercise in denial aimed at furthering a collective delusion.
Maybe it became his delusion, too. “Since self-deception is the heart of falling in love,” Cosby writes, “perhaps the best sex education for a boy is not studying drawings of reproductive systems, but simply remembering to lie to himself.”
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