ESSENCE MAGAZINE PUBLISHER Ed Lewis won’t soon forget the heartbreaking scene he encountered when he arrived at the Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse of Bill and Camille Cosby at 11:30 on the morning of Jan. 16. In “a state of shock” himself, he says, he had received a phone call just an hour earlier from California Rep. Maxine Waters telling him that the Cosbys’ only son, Ennis, had been murdered the previous night on an isolated road off the San Diego freeway. When the LAPD asked Waters, an old friend of Cosby’s, for the comedian’s phone number, she had refused, believing that it would be better if Cosby heard the news from their mutual friend Lewis.
But the publisher was too late. The LAPD had reached Cosby at the studio where his CBS series is taped and had delivered the sad message as best they could. Inside the house, Cosby’s wife of 32 years, Camille, too distraught to greet Lewis, remained secluded in her bedroom, “stunned and crying,” he says. She was joined in her grief by a handful of household employees who wept as they went about their chores. Lewis left after about an hour, with Cosby not yet back from the set. But later that day the two men talked on the phone. “Bill was just saying, ‘I just can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,’ ” says Lewis. ” ‘This could not have happened.’ ”
Cosby’s disbelief is shared by a country he has entertained and—as a towering symbol of fatherhood—enlightened for decades. His bestselling books on being a family man—Love and Marriage, Fatherhood and Childhood—were breezy guides that millions turned to for their insight and humor. But it was as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, on the landmark ’80s sitcom The Cosby Show, that Cosby sealed his reputation as the consummate dad. The semiautobiographical comedy about a loving and decidedly functional couple raising four girls and one impish son immediately struck a chord—and became the No. 1 show in America. In his 1992 book The Last Great Ride, former NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff recalls that Cosby insisted that the series stress what the comic called “the universality of experience.” According to Tartikoff, Cosby would often say, “I want people, when they watch this show, to say, ‘Hey, how did they get those microphones and cameras into my house?’ ”
Last week many microphones and cameras remained poised outside Cosby’s Manhattan home as the police worked away and the crime remained a labyrinth of unanswered questions. “It’s a complete whodunit right now,” says an LAPD detective on the case. A man whom authorities had detained on Jan. 20 as a possible witness was released after several hours of apparently fruitless questioning. Nor had police firmly established a motive. What they do know is that, on Jan. 16, sometime around 1 a.m., as Ennis (on holiday break from his doctoral studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City) was heading north on the 405 freeway to visit a woman friend, he got a flat in the front left tire of a $130,000 green Mercedes 600SL convertible registered to his father’s company. He pulled off the freeway and stopped on a pitch-black stretch of road called Skirball Center Drive, just off the exit ramp. Using his cell phone he called his woman friend, whom news reports say he met the previous weekend at a party. The woman, whom police have asked the media not to identify, arrived minutes later, parking her black Jaguar next to his car so that her headlights could aid him as he changed the flat. As Ennis finished fixing the tire, she reportedly told police, a man holding a gun suddenly tapped on her window and threatened to kill her. Terrified, she said she sped away but returned minutes later, at 1:28 a.m., to find Ennis lying in a pool of blood with a single bullet in his head.
Described by police as “traumatized,” the female witness was at first unable to supply a useful description of the assailant. It wasn’t until Jan. 18, two days after the slaying, that a composite sketch of the alleged perpetrator, a white man between 25 and 32 years old in a light-colored knit cap, was released.
What hurts those who knew Ennis best is the seeming senselessness of the slaying. “[Ennis] was a friend to everyone that he’d met and would refer to people as such,” said his boarding school classmate and best friend, Phil Caputo, an L.A. attorney, on Larry King Live. “He’d say, ‘Hello Friend.’ ” Indeed, the greeting has become part of Ennis’s legacy. On Jan. 19, the day their son was buried in a private ceremony attended by 16 family members and friends, including the Cosby daughters—Erika, 31, Erinn, 30, Ensa, 23, and Evin, 20—at their 265-acre farm in Shelburne, Mass., the Cosbys placed a sign on the front lawn saying; “Hello Friend.”
In fact, until his murder, the only serious foe Ennis ever encountered was dyslexia. For years the disorder went undiagnosed and led to low grades, an especially sensitive problem in a household ruled by two parents with Ph.D.s in education (Bill, 59, received his from the University of Massachusetts in 1976; Camille, 52, earned hers in 1992 from the same school). “I’d see him work so hard,” Cosby told Family Circle in 1993, “and then his grades wouldn’t reflect the effort.” Throughout junior high and high school, Ennis barely got by, a situation that his father dealt with in his work: The character of Cosby’s former TV son, Theo Huxtable, the affable but ever-struggling student on The Cosby Show, was based on Ennis. In private, Bill Cosby seemed intent on expanding Ennis’s mind. During the mid-’80s, Cosby’s valet Cameron Cooper was enlisted to take Ennis on regular trips to theaters and museums. “Mr. Cosby had a plan,” says Cooper, who has worked with Cosby for 25 years. “Every evening he had things Ennis should do. Some nights were reading, some nights were listening to jazz.”
But the young man’s grades didn’t improve. It wasn’t until 1988, after Ennis entered Atlanta’s Morehouse College, that a friend suggested he be tested for dyslexia. After it was diagnosed, Ennis enrolled at Landmark College in Putney, Vt., the only college in the country exclusively for students with learning disabilities. After a summer of intense academic training, Ennis returned to Morehouse, where his grade point average vaulted from a 2.3 to higher than a 3.5, putting him on the dean’s list. “The happiest day of my life,” Ennis once wrote, “occurred when I found out I was dyslexic. I believe that life is finding solutions, and the worst feeling to me is confusion.”
Liberated and inspired, the born-again scholar became determined to help others with similar learning problems. “When he connected with learning,” recalls Carolyn Olivier, associate director of professional development at Landmark College, “the joy just became a glow that never left him.” It also transformed him into a leader. In 1992, in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict when riots erupted in downtown Atlanta and threatened to spread to Morehouse, Ennis helped quell the unrest. “Ennis kept his head and got some people to calm down,” says college buddy Clarence Jasper. “He told them, ‘Demonstrate, but don’t be crazy. We’re here to go to school,’ and they listened. He had a presence.”
But never an attitude. Ennis ducked the spotlight and often fibbed about his background to avoid special treatment. “Ennis never played the celebrity card,” recalls Joel Hardy, one of Ennis’s Morehouse buddies. “You’d never know he was the son of Bill Cosby.” Adds Caesar Mitchell, another college friend: “You’d never know he was worth damn near a billion dollars. He was a regular guy.” (In 1995, Bill Cosby was reportedly worth $325 million.)
To his father, though, he was something special. “Here was a kid who struggled, and Bill admired that,” says Charlayne Hunter-Gault, national correspondent on PBS’s The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and a close family friend. “A kid with resources like that could easily have not tried and still been okay in terms of his ability to live and be comfortable.”
Following graduation from Morehouse in 1992, Ennis earned a master’s degree in education at Columbia. At commencement exercises in 1995, his father had a front-row seat. “Bill was beaming and overjoyed,” remembers Barry Rosen, a spokesman for Teachers College. “The entire family was with him.”
Ennis then enrolled in the college’s Ph.D. program and at the time of his death was about three years away from becoming the next doctor in the house. Between 1993 and 1995, as part of his doctoral work, he tutored dyslexic and learning-disabled kids in New York City. “He taught me never to give up,” says Walter Stephen Douglas III, 16, one of Ennis’s students. “We met two times a week for an hour. It was the best time of my life. Before I met him I felt college would be too hard, but he taught me that if he could overcome the same problem I had, I could go to college too.” Shattered by the death of his friend, with whom he was scheduled to meet last week, Douglas says, “He just went away, and a part of me went with him.”
Ennis’s death has no doubt diminished his family as well. “He was Bill’s only son, so he was kind of the prince to his father,” says Rev. Jesse Jackson, another family friend. “It is in a moment like this that I think of Martin Luther King. He too was a graduate of Morehouse College. We all lost a dreamer when Dr. King was shot, and Bill Cosby, who had dreams for all his children, just saw some of them shot down with the death of Ennis.”
Nevertheless, Jackson has encouraged the Cosbys to forge ahead and “keep Ennis’s dream alive.” Only days after the homicide the family announced they were launching a Los Angeles-based charitable organization for the early detection and treatment of dyslexia to be called the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation. On a more immediate basis, Cosby has sought to comfort the family of Corie Williams, a 17-year-old Los Angeles girl who was randomly shot and killed while riding on a local bus. Cosby spoke with Corie’s mother, Loretta Davis, and the two had a heartfelt conversation.
The theme for Cosby during this mourning period has been, he has said, “maintaining dignity.” It hasn’t always been easy. Compounding Cosby’s nightmare was last week’s allegation by a Southern California woman named Autumn Jackson, 22, that she is his illegitimate daughter. Jackson and an accomplice, Jose Medina, 51, reportedly demanded $40 million from Cosby, saying they would tell their story to the tabloids if the money wasn’t forthcoming. They were arrested by the FBI in New York City and charged with extortion. Cosby, who denies being Jackson’s father, says he has paid some of her educational expenses—assistance, he adds, that he has given to a number of other students.
Moving on, obviously, will take some time. Five years after her daughter Allison Vladimir died at age 33 from an accidental drug overdose, inner peace still eludes talk show host Sally Jessy Raphaël. “I’m not capable of happiness,” she says. “It died when my child died.” Others believe it is possible to eventually cope. “I know what a setback this is for a family to lose a son like that,” says former Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, whose daughter Valerie was murdered in 1966 at age 21. “We just didn’t try to figure out why this happened. You just have to trust in the Lord and know you can adjust.”
Cosby’s plan for the moment is to throw himself into work; he was expected to be back on the set Jan. 27. “When Bill Cosby had the tailwind at his back,” says Rev. Jackson, “doing no wrong in records, movies and television, you didn’t think it possible that he could be Job. But [now] he and his family are facing a sudden storm. How they will handle it is really the ultimate way one’s character and strength are measured.”
LYNDON STAMBLER and LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles, EDWARD BARNES, LIZ MCNEIL, MARIA SPEIDEL and CYNTHIA WANG in New York City, ANDREW MARTON and MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington and JILL JORDAN SIEDER in Atlanta