Judy Belushi knew something was terribly wrong the moment actor Dan Aykroyd stepped into her New York City apartment on the afternoon of March 5, 1982. “Has John been hurt?” she asked anxiously. “No, honey,” Aykroyd said, shaking his head in disbelief. “He’s dead.”
In one devastating instant, Judy Belushi, then 31, was transformed from celebrity wife to celebrity widow. For years her work as a book writer and illustrator took a backseat to the career of her high school sweetheart, a brilliant, troubled comedian who had risen to fame on Saturday Night Live and seemed destined for greater show business heights. Now she was left to cope with his death from a cocaine and heroin overdose in an L.A. hotel and a messy police investigation into his sordid final days.
But if John’s death robbed Judy of her most important emotional mooring, it also set her off on a belated voyage of self-discovery. Samurai Widow is her account of the last eight years—a time in which she tried to protect her husband’s memory from an onslaught of salacious publicity and also struggled to piece together a life of her own despite her grief, guilt and anger. This fall she will marry Victor Pisano, 43, a writer she met on Martha’s Vineyard in 1987. Says Belushi: “Falling in love with Victor was a big indicator that I was getting better.”
Another is that she has finally forgiven most of the people involved in John’s death and its aftermath. Though both Robert De Niro and Robin Williams saw Belushi the night he died, neither would help when she tried to piece together the events of that evening—and neither, she says, ever called with condolences. Yet Belushi claims she no longer feels animosity toward them, or even toward Cathy Smith, the woman who admitted injecting John with drugs that night. “I think Cathy Smith is sick,” she says. “So it’s a lot easier to forgive.”
One person Belushi still has trouble forgiving is Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, whom she encouraged to write a book about John—only to be horrified by the sensational tone of Wired. “It’s not like I feel angry every time I think about [Woodward],” she says, “but I don’t think [my forgiving] is quite complete, because when people say nasty things about him I can feel myself enjoying it.”
Belushi hopes Samurai Widow will counter Woodward’s portrayal of her husband as a frenetic talent, swinging wildly out of control. Despite the fact that she and her friends cooperated fully with Woodward, “the man in Wired is not the man I knew,” she said when the book appeared in 1984. Today she adds, “John was very explosive, bigger than life, a complicated person. You can talk to a number of people who would tell you wonderful stories about him. You can talk to people who would tell you night-mare stories. I just wanted to give a fair portrait.” Woodward denies that he accentuated the negative. “The book goes on for pages and pages of John being funny,” he says. “But what sticks in your mind are the more dramatic scenes.”
Judy’s book describes a sweeter, more thoughtful John Belushi, a man who liked to read and relax with friends. When they met, he was the handsome 17-year-old co-captain of the high school football team in suburban Wheaton, Ill., and Judy Jacklin, 15, was the homecoming queen. “He was leaning against a car,” she writes, “hands stuffed in his front pockets, thumbs out, James Dean-style, talking to some guys. He looked cool in blue jeans, V-necked sweater and button-down shirt.” That summer Belushi wrote Judy “dozens of sweet love letters” while he traveled in summer stock. They dated for 10 years and married in 1976.
In the early days of the marriage, drugs were commonplace in their circle of friends. But John’s growing problem with cocaine eventually became a divisive issue. Judy decided not to accompany him on that final trip to L.A. in part because “he was abusing cocaine again, and that interfered with everything in our life,” she writes. “We had everything going for us, and yet because of those damn drugs, everything just got out of control.”
Though she doesn’t really claim to understand this self-destructive impulse, Judy places some of the blame on John’s fame. “I think the entertainment business is very overwhelming and addictive of itself,” she says. “It seemed all so very important to John.” For that reason Los Angeles was a dangerous place for John to be on his own. “I knew he couldn’t handle himself in L.A.; he never could,” she writes. “The combination of having so many people’s attention and yet feeling lonely was confusing.”
So the other person Judy Belushi had to forgive was herself. “Guilt is very complicated,” she says. “Part of it is making yourself more important than you really are—thinking ‘I could have stopped this.’ As I began to realize I couldn’t do anything about it, I let go of the guilt.”
Now, she says, she can watch a Saturday Night Live rerun without tears. “Some people might think it’s a sign of respect to feel pain when you think of the dead,” she says. “But I think it’s a sign of respect to remember the joy they brought you.” Her mourning over, Judy is ready to quit being the former Mrs. John Belushi. “Victor and I have a chance to have a really good life,” she says. “I looked up the word ‘widow’ in the dictionary, and it defined it as a woman who has lost her husband and hasn’t remarried. In a few months I won’t be a widow anymore. That’s kind of nice.”
—Susan Reed, Dirk Mathison on Martha’s Vineyard