Clues to a Scandal? Reading 1969 Bio of Bill Cosby Written for Children Elicits Double-Takes and Head Shakes
Cosby Show reruns. Jell-O Pudding Pops commercials. Comedy-album routines about "Spanish fly." There is almost no bit of Bill Cosby-related entertainment that hasn't triggered a re-assessment in the wake of his his serial-rape scandal. Something else to add to the list: Cosby biographies for children.
There have been a handful of these books written over the years with perfectly fine titles that now play as irony or worse: Bill Cosby: Coming at You, Bill Cosby: Family Man, Cool Cos: The Story of Bill Cosby.
Cool Cos, published in 1969 by Scholastic, is one of the earliest — if not the earliest — Cosby biography for any aged audience.
"Believe it not, that book sold a million copies," says its author, Joel H. Cohen, a veteran writer of biographies for children. "He was just beginning to make it big at this point... There was no hint of scandal."
And so the 126-page paperback tells Cosby's story as it was known at the dawn of the Brady Bunch era: a poor, practically fatherless boy and school dropout grows up to become a headlining comic and pioneering African American TV star.
It's inspirational. It's aspirational. And read through the prism of today, with the knowledge that some of Cosby's alleged assaults took place during its time frame, it reads like a breadcrumb trail of clues to something else entirely.
Page 15: Young Cosby learns how to get a cookie from his mother, Anna. "You know she'll say 'no' the first time you ask," he says, "but you know if you can get her to laugh you can get around her."
Page 20: It is noted that Cosby's Navy father, William Sr., was often away from home, and that young Bill, the eldest of three surviving brothers, was conscripted into babysitting, a duty he dealt with thusly: "I used to try to put them to sleep — give them a lot of cough medicine."
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Page 27: Cosby's sixth-grade teacher assesses her pupil's strengths: "You should either be an actor or a lawyer — you lie so good."
Page 33: Lacking money and the proper clothes, the teenaged Cosby doesn't date — instead, he and his friends rely on dimly lit situations to meet girls. "You could dress up any old way to go to a party 'cause they turn the lights out and they can't see your pants don't match," Cosby says.
When read back that passage today, Cohen says: "It's hard to know with any comedian. You don't know where the line between truth and comedy begin."
Page 38: Having joined the Navy himself, Cosby works as a physical therapist. In a session with a stroke victim, Cosby "more or less hypnotize[s]" his patient, something that leaves him "embarrassed and ashamed...[for] playing my little game there."
Page 55: While in college, Cosby develops a reputation as a ladies' man. Says Cosby "kiddingly," it is noted: "Cos is beautiful... All the women should have a chance to share Cos."
Page 57: Cosby takes a job as a bartender, where he presumably learns to mix drinks. (It is noted throughout that Cosby himself doesn't drink; that he maintains drinking is for people who need to relax, and that he considers himself fine as-is.)
Page 69: Up-and-coming comic Cosby meets college student Camille Hanks. "I'll take her and mold her," he "laugh[s]."
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While it is noted that future-wife Camille's parents are suspicious of Cosby, and try to thwart the budding romance, Cosby does his best to woo his prospective spouse. "I blew a lot of smoke around her," he says of Camille. "She couldn't see anything."
Page 70: In 1964, Cosby and Camille wed in Maryland, and then, owing to the groom's work schedule, swiftly depart for New York City. "Camille sat up in the middle of the night, and asked me where she was and what she was doing there," Cosby says.
Page 92: Cosby and his wife welcome their first child, a girl. Cosby, of whom it is said was hoping for a boy, tells well-wishers his daughter has "a big L on her forehead...[For] loser."
Pages 122-123: Cosby welcomes a writer — likely referring to Cohen, according to the author — into the entertainer's Beverly Hills home, and walks the writer past a pool table. In 2014, Carla Ferrigno will allege that Cosby "rush[ed] her... gripped her and kissed her" at his pool table in 1967, a year before the interview scene described in Cool Cos.
"Oh, wow. I didn't recall that," Cohen says of the passage in the biography.
Though the product of a more-innocent time — for the public, that is — Cool Cos is up front about the limitations of biography.
"It isn't the whole story," Cohen writes in his introduction. "Cosby, a performer with a public of millions, is essentially a private person."
Today, Cohen says it's been a long while since he's picked up his portrait of Cosby, circa 1969.
"I should take a look again," he says, "and see if I can see hints at things."