The huge town house in Manhattan’s West Village sits uncomfortably still and empty, like a stage darkened after a memorably incandescent performance. An air of finality hangs over the cavernous, sparsely furnished rooms, futilely awaiting some raucous voice or bellowing fit of laughter to fill the eerie silence. In the dining room they shared for three years, Judith Jacklin, 32, John Belushi’s widow, leafs through an album of snapshots from an Oriental vacation they took in 1981. Fragile, birdlike, she smiles at photos showing a robust, healthy-looking Belushi floating in a longboat down a Bangkok canal and frolicking in the lush rice paddies of Bali. “There’s a certain comfort, as well as sadness, in the things that were ours,” says Judy, pushing her long brown hair out of her eyes. “A good part of losing someone, I think, is being lost in the past.”
Jacklin’s memories have provided solace, and she has needed it. Alternately, she has been burdened by grief, paralyzed by depression and guilt, and infuriated by press and police investigations into her husband’s drug-related death. But as the anniversary of Belushi’s death (March 5) approaches, Jacklin has finally broken her silence and begun to look toward the future. This week Saturday Night Live will air a five-minute tribute to her late husband, designed and produced by Jacklin and entitled West Heaven. The tape consists of a montage of candid photos of Belushi over 15 years, accompanied by a melancholy ballad composed and sung by close friend Rhonda Coullet (backed up by several members of David Letterman’s Late Night band). For Jacklin, the sweet and tender West Heaven is a necessary response to what she views as the distorted popular image of the anarchic samurai comic she knew and loved since their high school days in Wheaton, Ill. (they married on New Year’s Eve, 1976 when she was 25 and he 27). “John led a very private life,” Jacklin explains. “When he died, John’s friends were very hurt and couldn’t talk about him. What emerged in the press was a combination of hearsay from people who kind of knew him, plus his film characters. He came across as a slob. I can’t combat those things. All I can do is present a little bit of John as I saw him.”
But as Jacklin admits, the warm, fun-loving husband, son and pal of West Heaven was also an insecure man-child who agonized often about his weight and, from his early days on Saturday Night Live, sought relief from his anxieties in ravenous use of cocaine. That habit was worsened by the entertainment milieu in which Belushi worked, where he was constantly surrounded by drug-proffering admirers. “You’d be on an elevator and suddenly someone would say, ‘You want a hit of coke?’ ” remembers Judy. “That was one of John’s biggest problems. Eventually we employed people to step between him and those people. It was John’s idea.”
Belushi’s drug problems flared up and down throughout 1980-81, according to Jacklin, herself a regular cocaine user until late in John’s Saturday Night career. “When he stopped for a while, it gave me a superficial feeling of well-being,” she recalls. “I didn’t see that the problems went much deeper.” That Belushi’s drug use had escalated dramatically while he worked with Don Novello on Noble Rot in Hollywood in early 1982 became painfully clear to Jacklin when John returned to New York the week before he died. “It was coke and confusion,” she recalls of the visit. When word came from Paramount that the Noble Rot rewrite had been turned down, John became very explosive and angry. He just said, “I’m going back! I have to go back.” The following Thursday afternoon Belushi called her from Los Angeles. “There was an edge of being pissed off at Paramount,” she recalls. “He said, ‘They want me to do this script, The Joy of Sex, and in the first scene they think I’m going to wear a diaper!’ He said he was sorry about the week he’d been home, and then he said he loved me.” Those were the last words Jacklin ever heard him speak. The next day Belushi’s best friend, Dan Aykroyd, arrived at her home to tell her that her husband had been found dead at the Hotel Chateau Marmont of undetermined causes.
“When anyone dies, for whatever reasons, the people involved have lots of guilt,” says Jacklin. “And mine, of course, was that I didn’t talk to him before he went, or didn’t go with him. But you can’t second-guess these things. John was very intense when he was working on something, and I had the feeling I wouldn’t be able to talk to him, so I didn’t really try.”
For Jacklin, the nightmare was just beginning. “It was very confusing at first,” she says. “First I was told he died shooting heroin, which was pretty much of a shock. It was certainly not something unbelievable, but just sort of strange. We asked for the coroner’s report, and immediately started hearing things about tracks up and down his legs and around his stomach. He’d been home the week before that, and I just didn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense that in one week he could have done that much. Sure enough, the coroner’s report showed that wasn’t true. Then we tried to get answers out of the L.A. police, but they were very rude. One of them said, ‘Well, what do you want, lady? The guy was a junkie.’ ”
Jacklin remembers the first few weeks as “sort of dreamlike. I just kept moving, mostly between Martha’s Vineyard and New York. My family was very strong and helpful, as were friends like James Taylor and Kathryn Walker, who had been the girlfriend of Doug Kenney [the National Lampoon editor and a creator of Animal House who died in 1980].” Tragedy struck again four months after John’s death: Liz Forrester, the fiancée of Judy’s older brother, Rob, died in a rafting accident in Colorado. “I couldn’t believe Rob had to go through what I was going through,” she says.
Jacklin has often pondered the reasons for Belushi’s disintegration in Los Angeles—and who, if anyone, is to blame. “I feel now that everything came down on him that week,” she says. “He was emotionally upset, he was overweight, and he was doing drugs.” She also admitted that John hated being alone. “I could blame Cathy Smith [a Hollywood groupie and drug supplier who claimed she gave Belushi the fatal injection of heroin and cocaine] for what happened, but it wasn’t her fault. There were plenty of other people besides Smith out there who realized, ‘Here’s a guy with money who wants drugs. I can get it and keep it coming.’ It would just take him over. He wouldn’t realize how fast things would escalate. And he was also probably reluctant to hang out with his friends at that point because he was afraid of the negative reaction he might get.” Jacklin believes John was on the verge of a breakthrough when he died. “He wanted to get away from drugs,” she insists. “I feel he was making a turn in his life. He had a lot of good things ahead of him. But it just stopped where it stopped.”
Jacklin is seeking to restore a semblance of normality to her shattered world. At her request, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, unknown to Jacklin but also schooled in Wheaton, has begun to probe the circumstances surrounding Belushi’s death. She believes his discoveries (which Jacklin will not comment on) have helped prod an L.A. grand jury to open an investigation. With the reported $2 million she received from her husband’s life insurance, Jacklin has established a John Belushi Memorial Fund and made donations to several charities, including a Martha’s Vineyard community center, the Little Brothers of the Poor in Chicago and a South Dakota Indian reservation—all special interests of Belushi’s. In addition to putting together West Heaven, she has signed a contract with Doubleday to write a book about her first year of widowhood, and is collaborating with friend Anne Beatts on a sequel to Titters, a 1976 humor anthology for which Judy, a graphic artist, did the art design. A full-time career is a new experience for Jacklin. “John supported my talent and gave me encouragement,” she explains, “but when it came down to my doing something, he felt it took attention away from him. John needed that in a childlike way. Faced with the choice, I went with marriage. I’m glad I did.”
Jacklin is planning to sell her town house on Morton Street and move to a smaller home in a few weeks. “It’s a busier street, better for someone living alone,” she explains. But her social life is picking up again. “There’s a period of time after your partner dies when you’re not interested in sex,” she says. “For me, that was seven or eight months. At first you feel guilty about being alive.” Now, however, she is seeing someone regularly (she won’t identify him), “and the thing that’s positive about it is that it means an acceptance of John’s death.” She knows that the intensity of her years with John may never be duplicated. “It was adventurous, exciting and emotionally up and down, but it also had a peacefulness I’ll probably never have again.” Still, she is buoyed by the belief that ultimately it will be John’s life—as a comic and an actor—that people will remember. “I don’t feel John’s presence in the afterlife sense,” says Jacklin. “But I believe quite strongly that his energy has gone on.”