He leaned against his attorneys for support, an ailing old man who had come to court to answer for the shooting of his eldest son. For Marvin Gay Sr., 70, life had grown as dark as the glasses he now wore to shield his eyes. Last April the former House of God minister had ended a violent row—and a stormy 44-year relationship—with Marvin Jr., when he pumped two .38-caliber bullets into the popular singer’s shoulder and chest. Having pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter, the elder Gay had come before Superior Court Judge Gordon Ringer on Nov. 2, and in a voice soft and halting asked for permission to speak. “I’m sorry,” he said of his son’s shooting. “I wish he could step through this door right now. I loved him.”
Though some in the crowded courtroom expected the severest sentence—a possible 13 years in prison—Judge Ringer cited a probation report that had declared Gay suffered from senility, heart trouble and a recently removed brain tumor “that had affected his behavior.” Moreover, there was evidence indicating that Marvin Jr. had been using cocaine and had beaten his father shortly before the shooting. With the concurrence of the prosecuting attorney, Ringer sentenced Gay (whose wife Alberta filed for divorce in June) to a suspended six-year term and five years probation. “It was pointless to impose a fine,” the judge said later. “The man is destitute. I thought to give him some community service to do, but that was pointless too. He’s not quite a basket case, but close.”
Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, which will be published next year, is an account of the late singer’s turbulent life, loves and music. The book was begun in 1979 by David Ritz, a biographer and novelist. The following excerpt focuses on Gaye’s youth and early troubles with his father.
There was tragedy in my younger life,” Mrs. Alberta Gay told me. “My father, for instance, was a violent man who once shot my mother. Mama survived, but the fear still lives inside me. My father died in a hospital for the insane. When I met my husband, I had just come to Washington, D.C. from Rocky Mount, N.C. I knew nothing about the city and city life. Mr. Gay and Mr. Rawlings, both young preachers, courted me. I believe they both wanted to marry me. Mr. Gay seemed more powerful. Only later on did I learn about the awful violence of the family. There were stories of shootings—Gays against Gays.
“My husband never wanted Marvin, who was the second of our four children. He was born two years after our daughter Jeanne. My husband never liked him. He used to say that he didn’t think he was really his child. I told him that was nonsense. He Knew Marvin was his. But for some reason he didn’t love Marvin and, what’s worse, he didn’t want me to love Marvin either. Marvin wasn’t very old before he understood that.”
Beatrice Carson, a distant cousin of Alberta Gay’s from Nashville, N.C., came to live in the Gay apartment in 1946 and stayed for five years. By then, the Gays’ other children had been born—Frankie, three years after Marvin, and Zeola, six years after.
“When I arrived, it hurt me to see what was happening. Little Marvin would wet his bed and his father would beat him unmercifully. It seemed that man had it in for the child. He frightened him to death.”
“It wasn’t simply that my father beat me,” Marvin confessed one night in 1982, “though that was bad enough. By the time I was 12, there wasn’t an inch of my body that hadn’t been bruised and beaten by him. But Father did something far worse. You see, he understood that if you’re interested in inflicting pain, prolonging the process adds to the excitement. He’d say, ‘Boy, you’re going to get a whipping.’ Then he’d tell me to take off my clothes and send me to the bedroom I shared with Frankie. Frankie was smarter; he placated him. But I felt I had to challenge Father, and he repaid me with the belt. It wouldn’t have been so awful if he had hit me right away. But he’d make me wait an hour or even more, all the while jangling his belt buckle loud enough so I could hear. When he finally struck me, I knew that something inside him was enjoying the whole thing.”
“All four of us had bed-wetting problems,” Jeanne Gay told me with a candor reminiscent of Marvin’s. “That should tell you something about the nervousness and fear that existed in the household. Father hit us all and demanded that we be naked for the whippings. Then he’d get his strap or switch and beat us till he saw welts on our skin. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he saw those welts. In his mind that meant we’d learned our lesson.
“Once when I was 11, I wet my bed. I made the bed up anyway, hoping not to be discovered. When I got home from school and saw that father had put the mattress on the porch to dry, I was petrified. He told me to get undressed and wait for him. I was filled with shame and embarrassment because my body had already started to bud. Luckily, Mother interceded and stopped him. That was one of the rare times she was able to do so.
“Marvin was never so lucky. He constantly provoked Father. He’d disappear on Saturday mornings when it was time to go to church. He’d use Father’s hairbrush, not bother to clean it and leave it in a place where he knew he’d be caught. He’d wander off after school and come home late. All these things Marvin did over and over again, knowing he’d be beaten, almost asking to be beaten. From the time he was 7 until he became a teenager, Marvin’s life at home consisted of a series of brutal whippings.”
“Living with Father was something like living with a king,” Marvin observed, “a very peculiar, changeable, cruel and all-powerful king. You were supposed to tiptoe around his moods. You were supposed to do anything to win his favor. I never did. Even though winning his love was the ultimate goal of my childhood, I defied him. I hated his attitude. I thought I could win his love through singing, so I sang my heart out.
“The church women, oh, how they loved it when I sang. They’d hug me and smother me in their huge breasts. I liked the way that felt—being able to please them with my voice, reaching to God, feeling their satisfaction. I realized my voice was a gift of God and had to be used to praise Him. Sometimes I wondered, though, whether Father was jealous of my voice. At gospel meetings, for example, when I pleased all the women, he’d look at me like I’d done something very bad. He hated it when my singing won more praise than his sermons.
“I could always please my mother by singing. I could never please him, and if it wasn’t for Mother, who was always there to console me and praise my singing, I think I would have been one of those child suicide cases you read about in the papers.”
Marvin lived in fear of becoming like his father, of taking on Father’s characteristics. “My father,” Marvin told me in 1982, “likes to wear women’s clothing. As you know, that doesn’t mean he’s homosexual. In fact, my father was always known as a ladies’ man. He simply likes to dress up. What he does in private, I really don’t know—nor do I care to know. There have been periods when his hair was very long and curled under, and when he seemed quite adamant on showing the world the girlish side of himself. That may have been to further embarrass me. I find the situation all the more difficult because, to tell you the truth, I have the same fascination with women’s clothes. In my case that has nothing to do with any attraction for men. Sexually, men don’t interest me. But seeing myself as a woman is something that intrigues me. It’s also something I fear. I indulge myself only at the most discreet and intimate moments. Afterward, I bear the guilt and shame for weeks.
Did he believe that his father was homosexual?
“I don’t know. I didn’t want to know. I just drove the thought out of my mind.”
I asked Mrs. Gay the same question about her husband. “I’m not certain. It’s true that he liked soft clothing. Soft things of all kinds attracted him. He liked to wear my panties, my shoes, my gowns, even my nylon hose. Marvin would see him like that sometimes.”
Thomas “Beans” Bowles was featured as a reed soloist—baritone and flute—on many of the early Motown hits. He was also road manager for the early Motown Revues and a man—14 years older than Marvin—in whom the young singer often confided.
“Marvin was a troubled boy from the first day I met him,” Bowles told me. “He was a beautiful human being beneath all his complexes, but believe me, he had lots of complexes. The biggest was about his name. That was the root of the whole thing.”
Beans was referring, of course, to “Gaye.” Marvin was burdened with a continuing crisis in self-identity. He didn’t want to be what he was—the son of a sexually ambiguous man. He didn’t want to be a Gay. Yet adding the “e,” as he did about the age of 21, didn’t solve the problem. “All someone has to do with my name,” Gaye said, “is put an ‘is’ in front of it. Is Marvin Gaye?’ Man, I can’t tell you how many guys have asked me that.”
Confusion about manhood would become a great theme in Marvin Gaye’s life. He was also frustrated by his father’s chronic unemployment and convinced he inherited what he considered his father’s streak of laziness.
“I worked for the postal department,” Mr. Gay Sr. told me in 1979, “as well as the Air Force and Western Union. But a back injury laid me off early. And I left Western Union because I absolutely refused to work on Saturday, the Sabbath.”
According to Beatrice Carson, it was Mrs. Gay who supported the family: “Babe [as she called Mrs. Alberta Gay] and I both worked as domestics. We’d cook or take care of kids; we’d mop and clean and do whatever was needed. During the winters we’d stand on the corner when it was 15 degrees with freezing sleet and snow coming down while we waited for the bus to take us to Maryland or Virginia. I never did know Mr. Gay to work.”
“I remember Mr. Gay telling me of a job he had held for a very short time,” said Bishop Solomon, a minister in Washington, D.C. who was a colleague of Mr. Gay’s. “He said he worked as a chauffeur for the government. I never will forget the reason he gave for leaving. He told me he had very tender feet.”
“By the time I was ready to start high school,” Marvin said, “things between me and Father turned from bad to worse. I’d reached physical maturity. Even though I’d grown taller and stronger than Father, he was still beating me. I wanted to strike back, but where I came from, even to raise your hand to your father was an invitation for him to kill you. Father became stricter, demanding that I conform to his ridiculous curfew rules. If I came home a minute late, it was like I’d defied all Ten Commandments. The more demanding Father became, the more rebellious I grew.”
In early 1959 19-year-old Marvin left home and headed to Chicago with the newly formed group, Harvey and the Moonglows.
“I can’t say whether it was more difficult saying goodbye to Mother or Father. I didn’t want Mother to think I was deserting her. I promised her I never would. I told her that I was doing this for her. She believed me, and she told me that she knew I’d make it. I wanted to tell Father that I wished never to see him again. I wanted to forget everything he’d done to me as a child, but that wasn’t possible. We just looked at each other. I think we were both afraid of what we might say. Father and I had special ways of hurting each other. If I could have spoken my heart, I’d have said, ‘Please love me.’ But I didn’t say a word, and neither did he. We both realized that this was it. I was going out on my own, and there was nothing in hell he could do about it.”