In 2007—seven years before she publicly came forward—I spoke with Joan Tarshis, a former Hollywood publicist who claimed that Bill Cosby raped her. After our talk—and, of course, much more research—I filed a version of the following story on my website Hollywood, Interrupted. It identified a number of women who claimed that Bill Cosby had raped them, including Andrea Constand, whose allegations led Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, prosecutors to charge Cosby criminally on Dec. 30, 2015.
In my interviews with several of the women back then, I found the tale they told disturbingly similar: All were young and impressionable, beautiful, and talented. Cosby had taken a keen interest in their careers, and had offered to mentor them or otherwise open the fabled doors to the glistening kingdom of show business, for which he was a principal emissary. All were given spiked drinks—or drugs misrepresented as medicine—and became incapacitated, the women charged. And all allegedly awoke with the unshakable sense that something wrong had occurred. People magazine even ran an article on the lawsuits that were settled with several of the women, but never followed up on it. And from my own experience, I can confirm that the story shook people to the core: Even more than Woody Allen, Bill Cosby was a beloved figure and civil-rights pioneer; hardened editors were horrified at the prospect of taking him down. I might as well have pitched a story about Martin Luther King Jr. philandering with white women. The story went nowhere.
It’s important to track the history of this story, and the media complicity that enabled it to remain untold for so long. Heroes always fall hard, but their suffering and anguish is nothing compared to that of their victims. — Mark Ebner
William Henry Cosby occupies a permanent place in the American pantheon. Like Jackie Robinson in baseball or Sidney Poitier in Hollywood films (with whom he partnered twice), Cosby was the first to successfully cross the color line in his field—initially nightclub comedy, and then network television—carrying the struggle for racial equality and civil rights literally into the nation’s living rooms. One of the most revered performers of the last half-century, his long-running series The Cosby Show and endearing commercials as a pitchman for Jell-O made him not only one of the wealthiest celebrities (he once considered buying NBC), but earned him unofficial status as America’s first father. (He is the author of a best-selling book titled simply Fatherhood.) This was only reinforced when his son Ennis, 27, was shot and killed in a senseless act that was quickly recast as a national tragedy.
Yet like many pathfinders, Cosby may possess an inexplicable and almost unfathomable darkness, one that has caused him to reportedly commit unspeakable atrocities in defiance of his public persona. Let’s enter that mirror world where the father we felt we knew can allegedly defile young women who looked up to him, without their approval, and often without their conscious awareness. Shall we, Dr. Huxtable?
Bill Cosby was born July 12, 1937, in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. He followed a stint in the Navy with a career in stand-up comedy, where his accessible, family-centered routines and affable nature proved a winning combination for white liberal audiences looking to assimilate black comedy into their monochromatic world. A series of folksy, astoundingly successful comedy albums led to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and then in 1965, I Spy, where he became the first black performer to be cast in a network television series or win an Emmy, paving the way for Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and an entire generation of comics. He followed that with several series, including an animated Saturday-morning show called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids which ran for eight seasons, ending in 1984. That same year, The Cosby Show began its eight-year run at the top of the ratings, establishing a comedy beachhead on NBC Thursday nights that has endured for two decades.
Cosby received a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and in later years, the father of five was presented with a Kennedy Center Award by President Bill Clinton. So great is his enduring appeal that in the ensuing national grief following his son’s murder in 1997, radio talk-show host Tammy Bruce could be fired for suggesting that the killing was not racially motivated, but possibly the result of the Cosby heir being in the wrong place at the wrong time in an expensive, carjack-able vehicle.
Cracks in the Wall
Two days after Ennis Cosby’s death, 22-year-old Autumn Jackson and a male companion were arrested in Los Angeles after allegedly flying there to extort $24 million from the elder Cosby in exchange for not revealing that he was her father, following an extramarital affair with her mother, Shawn Upshaw, in the mid-’70s. In the ensuing trial, Cosby admitted to the affair and to having paid Upshaw $100,000 over the intervening decades and set up a trust fund in her name, but denied he was Jackson’s father. She refused to take a paternity test, and was eventually convicted of extortion and sentenced to 22 months in prison.
Cosby generated controversy again in 2000, while speaking at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., at a dinner sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense Education Fund and Howard University. Cosby chose the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended segregation in public schools to deliver a rambling, unfocused speech that vilified “lower-class blacks” for their failure to honor the unspoken social contract of civil rights, and called into question their parenting skills. Middle-class blacks and black institutions were outraged.
As the years went on, the bombshells kept coming—seemingly bigger with each blast. That included an allegation from 2000, when 20-year-old actress La’Chele Covington, who had performed a bit part on his TV series, claimed Cosby had fondled her breasts and exposed himself to her in his Manhattan home. No charges were ever filed in that incident.
Andrea Constand, then a 31-year-old former University of Arizona basketball star and athletic department executive at Temple University in Philadelphia, Cosby’s alma mater, came forward to allege that after a dinner party in January 2004, Cosby drugged her in his Philadelphia mansion, touched her breasts, put her hand on his genitals and that she awoke with her clothing in disarray and the sense that she had been violated. Her father told reporters that Constand, who has returned to her native Canada, had been good friends with Cosby, which is why it took her a full year to work up the courage to report the incident to authorities. Although no criminal charges were filed against Cosby originally, the comedian settled a lawsuit filed against him by the Canadian woman, seeking compensation from Cosby for “mental anguish,” “post-traumatic stress disorder” and the “loss of enjoyment of life’s pleasures.” The terms of the settlement, of course, are confidential. Constand’s lawyer, Dolores Troiani, issued a statement that confirmed the two parties “have resolved their differences and, therefore, the litigation has been dismissed.” But that wasn’t the only related lawsuit his wallet vanquished.
On Aug. 28, 2007, Hollywood, Interrupted broke the news that Cosby had reportedly settled and paid big bucks to avoid fallout from a 2006 lawsuit filed against his attorney, Martin Singer, and a tabloid newspaper by accuser Andrea Constand. In her complaint, Constand alleged that she had been libeled, defamed, and her privacy had been invaded by Cosby, et al. (See complaint here.) After that story appeared, mainstream news interest was scant, with corporate media apparently lacking the stomach to slaughter one of America’s sacred cows. (In fact, a wire service editor told me personally, “We don’t want to libel Mr. Cosby.”) But even more disturbing is Bill Cosby’s longtime, uneasy relationship with the tabloids.
Back when Cosby’s son Ennis was murdered, an American tabloid offered a $100,000 reward that successfully led to the apprehension and conviction of the murderer. That victory for the tab became a bargaining chip in all future dealings with the superstar. In 2005, the tabloid was set to publish an exposé on Cosby, featuring allegations from new self-described Cosby victims. A woman calling herself “Barbara” (later identified as former Hollywood publicist Joan Tarshis) claimed that in 1969, after a meeting on the set of a television show, Cosby slipped her a mickey and forced her into oral copulation, after which he tossed her ten bucks for cab fare. (It was Tarshis who gave the comedian the memorable epithet “Jell-O Man.”) She agreed to meet with tabloid editors in New York City and take a lie detector test to back up her claims. The tabloid realized that they had a bombshell story on their hands, but the exposé was mysteriously killed when Cosby agreed to a clandestine interview with an editor staged in a hotel room in Houston.
What resulted from that meeting was a garden-variety cover story in which the tabloid’s prize was getting Cosby to thank the paper for helping to nail his son’s killer, in between veiled intimations of shakedowns and how his accusers (specifically Andrea Constand) just wanted his money. Not surprisingly, the issue was a loser at the newsstand.
Attorney Tamara Green, 58, a former fashion model and ex-wife of The Wild Bunch screenwriter Walon Green, claims the comedian drugged and forced himself on her over 40 years ago. In response to comments by the Philadelphia district attorney that she perceived as indicating the charges against Cosby were in doubt, Green announced that she had the names of three other women who would testify to almost identical stories of being drugged and assaulted. Green also claimed a young woman by the name of Page Young was so distraught over a similar sexual assault by Cosby that she was driven to suicide by a fatal drug overdose.
“Do I want everybody to know that he [Cosby] had his dirty paws all over me? No,” Green told the Philadelphia Daily News. But the attorney decided to come forward with her sordid story in defense of Cosby’s Canadian accuser. Green says that it is her “civic duty and moral obligation” to come forward so that the Canadian woman would not be intimidated by the Cosby legal camp, nor would she be alone should her charges make it to the Philadelphia courtroom.
Green claims that while she was a model doing cosmetics and Coca-Cola commercials in the early ’70s, Cosby employed her to help him open a private Los Angeles nightclub. Suffering from flu symptoms one day, she decided to call in sick. Cosby invited her to lunch at the club that day. “Maybe you’ll feel better,” Green says he told her. When she arrived at the club, she reports that Cosby offered her some pills that she says he told her were the cold medicine Contac. Ten minutes after taking the pills, she reports that she “was really stoned, I mean, smashed.” Cosby then offered to drive her home; when they got to her apartment, she alleges that he attacked her by attempting to take off her clothes.
“I started fighting him and he’s kissing on me, peeling off my clothes,” she said.
After Green started screaming and threatened to throw a lamp through her window to get someone’s attention, she says Cosby finally let her go. As a final indignity, Green alleges that he dropped two $100 bills on her end table and left.
“That infuriated me,” she said.
Shawn Upshaw, the mother of Cosby’s discredited “love child,” Autumn Jackson, also told the National Enquirer, “I was put in the same position with Bill.”
When Upshaw was visiting Cosby at his Beverly Hills rented mansion in the ’70s, she claims that he slipped debilitating drugs into a drink he prepared for her. She then claims that the drink “looked strange” to her and she didn’t want to drink it, but Cosby insisted she finish it. She immediately started feeling out of sorts. “I knew definitely that I had been heavily drugged,” she says.
Although it was the last thing she remembered of the evening, Upshaw claims that Cosby put her to bed, and she awoke the next morning “knowing I’d had sex during my sleep.”
In my reporting, I fielded reports from numerous women (including Joan Tarshis) with similar stories to tell. An airline attendant claims that Cosby flew her and her aspiring actor-brother to Las Vegas and put them up in a luxury suite, promising to share his professional contacts with them. The weekend, she claims, quickly devolved into a wash of booze and drugs, and the stewardess says she had to repeatedly fend off Cosby’s inappropriate and aggressive sexual advances. Now, thanks to the public tribunal of Facebook, a decades-old story that the media consciously turned a blind eye to has gathered renewed momentum. In 2014 proto-supermodel Janice Dickinson adding her name to the afflicted—a charge she made in her 2002 autobiography No Lifeguard on Duty, but now claims she was forced to remove when Cosby’s legal team pressured publisher HarperCollins. (Cosby’s lawyers, both then and now, refused to comment further.)
As is equally clear from his shambolic talk-show appearances and his extemporaneous attempts at social commentary in a public forum, Bill Cosby has long existed in a bubble. You don’t create movies like Leonard, Part 6, a catastrophically conceived 1987 James Bond parody in which the comedian at one point rides an ostrich, and not be dangerously out of touch with the world around you, or protected behind layers of hierarchy and protocol. With this much darker turn into pathology and alleged predation, it appears that for the entire 45 years of his public life, Cosby has been, in Shawn Upshaw’s words, “an incurable womanizer,” adulterer, and accused serial rapist—alleged actions in which his media champions were complicit. Moreover, the duration and degree of these incidents suggest a parallel history, one that once revealed in all its explosive detail, may render what we now know so far merely the tip of the iceberg.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated thoroughout.