Journalist and author Mark Whitaker's new book about one of the world's most recognized comedians, Cosby: His Life and Times, isn't quite an authorized biography. For one, he didn't get cooperation from Bill Cosby until he was halfway done with the book. And when he started to talk to Cosby, he recalled what Tony Orlando said: "His mind works in a completely different way. He thinks in descriptions," Whitaker says. "You spend most of your time on Earth and in his presence, you're on Planet Cosby."
Whitaker had prepared for a trip to Planet Cosby for quite some time. He was the first African American leader of Newsweek, and he held leadership roles at NBC and CNN before he began exclusively writing books. Long before that, he became a fan of Cosby at 9 years old when he got a copy of the 1966 comedy album Wonderfulness.
Whitaker says settling in Norton, Massachusetts after his parents divorced—his mother taught French at Wheaton College—made him feel isolated and alone. Cosby's humor served as solace. "He brought both laughter into my life at a sad time and a black man to admire in the absence of my father," Whitaker says. Whitaker stayed up past his bedtime to watch I Spy, the groundbreaking interracial cop show that helped launch Cosby's television career. When The Cosby Show began airing in 1984, its debut coincided with Whitaker marrying his girlfriend. The show gave both husband and wife a "sense of a happy family life," he says, since they had both come from somewhat troubled families.
Cosby also intrigued Whitaker, a journalist who loves a good story. "His personal arc really interested me—being the first crossover comedian, the first black advertising pitch man, not only having the great success of the Cosby show, but also rescuing NBC and the sitcom format," Whitaker says.
People know Cosby for his Jell-O commercials, as the country's most beloved television dad, and as a sharp critic of the black underclass. Whitaker was also curious about the other stories that made up the life of a kid who grew up in a Philadelphia housing project with a mother who was a domestic and then became one of the richest men in America.
So Whitaker decided after the 2011 publication of his well-received memoir, My Long Trip Home, that the Cosby biography would be his next project. The only problem was that Cosby didn't want to help him. Whitaker forged ahead, interviewing as many people who would talk to him without Cosby's permission, digging through television archives and researching avidly. "As a journalist, sometimes you write the B-matter before you write the lead," Whitaker says. He had been in touch with Cosby's lawyer, and kept in touch, "just so they wouldn't think I was sneaking around."
Then, a funny thing happened in 2012. In the fall, Whitaker started getting emails from Cosby, or Mr. C, as those close to him call him. The day Whitaker wrote a memo to the CNN staff announcing his resignation, his assistant ran excitedly into his office to say that Bill Cosby was on the phone. “Cosby says, ‘Congratulations. When I write my routines, I do what I call loading the boat. And I'm going to help you load the boat.’ “
The result is a book that is as endearing, charming and story-driven as much of Bill Cosby's oeuvre. Cosby: His Life and Times is a comprehensive and thoughtful look at one of the most influential entertainers of our times. Whitaker skillfully applies his journalistic talents to craft a narrative that carefully foreshadows Cosby's success, tenderly captures his love for Camille and appropriately contextualizes the tragic 1997 death of their son, Ennis Cosby.
Even Cosby fans will find surprises in the biography. Cosby began his career, for instance, attempting racial humor a la Dick Gregory, but "ultimately he thought he could do more helping people see their similarities instead of their differences," Whitaker says. Cliff Huxtable, The Cosby Show patriarch, would have been a limousine driver if Camille hadn't talked Bill out of it. The Cosbys own the largest collection of black art in the world, along with a couple of show dogs, but they almost lost everything when a production company failed horribly.
Like all stories, and definitive biographies, the flaws of Cosby's life surface too, including an affair that produced a child and his castigation of impoverished blacks. If a detail couldn't be substantiated, Whitaker left it out.
Cosby has vision problems now, so Whitaker is not sure if he's read it or if someone read it to him. But the verdict from Mr. C's team was, "We think it's great."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Washington, D.C.