Reopening Old Wounds: Changing the Public Perception of the Private Bill Cosby

Imagine you’re Bill Cosby.

You broke color lines, through racism to the most mainstream of success, consecutive Emmys and Grammys in the 1960s, starring in I-Spy and releasing hit stand-up album after hit stand-up album.

You built a reputation of being the ultimate father figure, first with an animated classic built on a kid named Fat Albert and friends with names like Mushmouth and Dumb Donald and Weird Harold. When that ended, you reached even greater heights as America’s Dad as Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

All of those years, you were flying young models and starlets across the country in your private jet to meet you in hotel rooms and backstage after your comedy gigs. You did what you willed with them, whether they wanted to or not. That last part is up for great debate — but not criminal legal action right now, thanks to statute of limitations on allegations of sexual assault and rape. You deny those allegations; or rather, you refuse to acknowledge them.

Last Friday, you told Florida Today before your gig in Melbourne: “I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos. People should fact check. People shouldn’t have to go through that and shouldn’t answer to innuendos.

A couple of weeks earlier, you chastised a young Associated Press reporter for even bringing it up. “We thought, by the way, because it was AP, that it wouldn’t be necessary to go over that question,” you said. “If you would tell your boss the reason why we didn’t say that up front is because we thought the AP had the integrity to not ask.”

You thought you didn’t have to acknowledge them any longer, having paid untold sums to settle the one criminal complaint against you a decade ago. You thought that settled the matter once and for all. Certainly there couldn’t be more than those 13 witnesses. Could there be? You probably didn’t keep count. You let others handle the dirty business.

But even before that lawsuit, several years before, you already had owned up to being unfaithful to your wife, Camille. When Autumn Jackson, a young woman born to another woman with whom you’d cheated, tried to extort money from you in hopes you feared you might be her father. You talked to CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather in 1997, less than a mile from where I’m typing this all in 2014 in Astoria.

This is recounted in the new biography on you by Mark Whitaker that you cooperated with, perhaps with the understanding that Whitaker wouldn’t broach the subject of all of those other women, all of those other allegations settled without judgment.

The same biography that Whitaker now apologizes for avoiding that subject.

And yet, it’s already there, between the lines, for anyone to read.

From Chapter 18, “Playboy of the West,” where Whitaker describes “the other self-indulgence that Cosby permitted himself while he was out with, one that would abruptly come back to haunt him in the summer of 1975.”

Though not as abruptly as it has come back to haunt in the fall of 2014.

But back in 1975, he was hoping to renew a dalliance with one of the women not named Camille Cosby, not his wife. Shawn Berkes, Cosby had acknowledged having “what he described as a ‘rendezvous'” in 1973, only to learn two years later, alone in Las Vegas for a month and looking for action, that Berkes had a baby girl now named Autumn. You would send her money, for “he didn’t want to risk a scandal that could jeopardize the life he was working so hard to build on the East Coast.”

Fast-forward back to 1997. A now-grown Autumn is trying to extort more money from you. And you’re looking to head off headlines by coming clean to Dan Rather and CBS News.

Were you her father? “There’s a possibility. I mean, if you said, ‘Did you make love to the woman?’ the answer is yes. ‘Are you the father?’ No, the father’s name (on the birth certificate), I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t call her and say, ‘Put that man’s name down.'”

Did you have any regrets? “What do I regret? It’s academic. I regret the thought, and then the execution, of the rendezvous.”

So why confess now, in 1997? Why not let your handlers handle it? “As an entertainer, I want to be known as a fellow who — not only was he honest, he took the hit himself. You’re not going to find me running around talking about: ‘How many entertainers do you know who…?’ or ‘You can’t go on the road without…’ Thats’s not it, man. It was my choice.”

When Rather asked you how you hoped Americans would react to you, and to your family in the wake of your son’s death, you kept repeating: “Dignity!”

Unlike the AP in 2014, CBS News chose not to air much of this January 1997 interview on 60 Minutes as advertised, scuttled either by internal politics or something else, perhaps thinking they’d already leaked enough. Then again, 1997 was not known for social media.

It was a time for mainstream media.

Your wife, Camille, chose to go public, too, with an op-ed in USA Today. “All personal negative issues between Bill and me were resolved years ago. We are a united couple. What happened twenty-three years ago is not important to me except for the current issue of extortion. What is very important to me is the apprehension of the person or persons who killed our son.”

In the papers, she then wrote about she was 19 when she married you, at 26: “We had to mature, we had to learn the definition of unselfish love, and we did…(but when we) committed to each other wholeheartedly years ago, our marriage became healthy and solid.”

You thought this chapter was behind you.

And then came Andrea Constand, who filed an actual lawsuit against you in 2005, with those dozen Jane Does willing to testify against you in a court of law. When one of those Jane Does went willingly to The National Enquirer to give voice to her story and reveal herself, you headed her off at that pass and gave your own story to the Enquirer. In court papers, you even testified “yes” when asked: “Did you ever think that if Beth Ferrier’s story was printed in The National Enquirer, that that would make the public believe that maybe Andrea was also telling the truth?”

Here’s what you told the Enquirer in exchange for killing Ferrier’s story: “I’m not saying what I did was wrong, but I apologize to my loving wife, who has stood by my side for all these years, for any pain I have caused her. These allegations have caused my family great emotional stress.”

You claimed then: “I am not going to give in to people who try to exploit me because of my celebrity status.” And yet, you added: “Looking back on it, I realize that words and actions can be misinterpreted by another person, and unless you’re a supreme being, you can’t predict what another individual will do.”

And so you settled that lawsuit. Or so you thought.

You thought that chapter was long behind you now, that conversation over.

On Nov. 17, 2014, you even had your lawyers and Constand’s lawyers draft a joint statement to remind us that you were not intending to discredit her allegations along with all of these new ones that keep resurfacing:

“Joint statement from Dolores Troiani, counsel to Andrea Constand, and John P. Schmitt, counsel to Bill Cosby.

The statement released by Mr. Cosby’s attorney over the weekend was not intended to refer in any way to Andrea Constand. As previously reported, differences between Mr. Cosby and Ms. Constand were resolved to the mutual satisfaction of Mr. Cosby and Ms. Constand years ago. Neither Mr. Cosby nor Ms. Constand intends to comment further on the matter.”

You thought you closed that chapter, ended that book.

Truth is, the book’s still being written about you. And you’re not the only author of your life story. None of us are, because we’re all in this life together.


Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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