Book review: Mark Whitaker’s ‘Who is Bill Cosby’

COSBY: His Life and Times. Mark Whitaker. Simon & Schuster. 532 pages. $29.99.
COSBY: His Life and Times. Mark Whitaker. Simon & Schuster. 532 pages. $29.99.

“Why Is There Air?” Bill Cosby asked in one of his most famous comedy routines and best-selling albums. Who is Bill Cosby? carries just about the same philosophical, ultimately unknowable weight. Cosby has always been a fascinating figure, as inscrutable as he is ubiquitous, as unreachable as he is trusted and loved.

Mark Whitaker’s biography suggests that perhaps the most comprehensive answer is that Cosby is a contradiction. He’s a brilliant comedian with a serious, even angry, streak. He’s a humanitarian and generous philanthropist who can also be something of a bully. He’s a family man with a complicated romantic history. He’s a civil rights pioneer who in recent years has become controversial for his outspoken views on black families and popular culture.

More than anything, as Whitaker makes clear, Cosby is utterly sui generis: When he blazed onto the Greenwich Village nightclub scene in 1962, there had been no other like him. Throughout an extraordinary five-decade career, he has proved that singularity over and over again, whether as a groundbreaking television star, multimillion-dollar pitchman or candid social commentator.

Starting with Cosby’s ancestral history, which includes a great-grandfather who was enslaved, Whitaker — a former journalist with CNN, NBC News and Newsweek — delves deeply into the entertainer’s childhood in North Philadelphia, where Cosby was raised mostly by his mother, Anna, and his paternal grandparents.

There, Cosby — a bright but not always academically motivated child — came under the tutelage of those he later called “abolitionists,” his term for white teachers and coaches who helped him “liberate his potential” throughout his youth and into adulthood.

Cosby, 77, has been around for so long that we can easily forget just how meteoric his early career was. After serving in the Navy and while attending Temple University, he tried his hand at stand-up comedy, first in Philadelphia and then, over a summer, at the famous Gaslight Cafe in New York, then a buzzing hive of creative ferment.

Handsome, preppy, aflame with ambition, Cosby soon decided he would not do the same brand of politically engaged comedy being popularized by Dick Gregory; rather, he would focus on universal themes and subjects, hilariously extruded through his own experience and talent for sound effects at the microphone. What’s more, he vowed, he would work clean.

Within a couple of years, Cosby was cast in the television series I Spy alongside Robert Culp, who emerges here as an unsung hero and all-around mensch in getting his “pard” added air time and rich storylines. (If Cosby was considered the Jackie Robinson of television, he noted once, then Culp was the Pee Wee Reese.) I Spy was the first television drama to feature an African American actor in a leading role; Cosby won three Emmys for his portrayal of a CIA agent-slash-“tennis bum,” but all along he shrewdly nurtured his stand-up and recording careers, which helped sustain him when television or movie projects went south or nowhere at all.

Whitaker goes into meticulous detail regarding the comedian’s career moves throughout the 1970s and ’80s, causing the book to read, at times, like a dutifully compiled résumé, albeit one featuring such breakthroughs as Fat Albert, The Electric Company and The Cosby Show. Although Whitaker interviewed his subject for the book, he doesn’t use many first-hand quotes, giving the narrative an arm’s-length quality that can sometimes make Cosby even more opaque.

The author retains the same respectful distance from Cosby’s private life, including the now-amusing skepticism of his future in-laws when the young comedian began visiting Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Maryland, to court a University of Maryland student named Camille Hanks. The author handles the most difficult periods in Cosby’s life — an extramarital affair, an estrangement from one of the couple’s four daughters and the death of his only son, Ennis, in 1997 — with similar forthrightness and tact.

As Cosby closes in on the past one or two decades, Whitaker’s detached perspective begins to pay off: The book is at its strongest when the author puts Cosby’s comedy and commitment to education (he earned his Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts) into a broad social and cultural context.

That includes his infamous “pound cake” speech at Howard University, when he bemoaned declining values and standards among blacks, and the “Cosby effect,” whereby his portrayal of a prosperous black physician and his family on The Cosby Show in the 1980s might have helped Americans of all races visualize a black family in the White House in 2008.

Considering how carefully Cosby has managed and maintained his own image, this book is probably as intimate a portrait as the subject himself would allow. Most valuably, it leaves no doubt as to why he has continued to matter.

Ann Hornaday reviewed this book for The Washington Post.