From August 1981 to October 1982, actress-writer-songwriter Jennifer Lee, now 36, was married to comedian Richard Pryor. They had met in 1977, when Pryor hired Lee as his assistant and interior designer. It was her first marriage, his fourth. Before marrying Pryor, now 45, Lee lived with him for two years. She was with him on June 9, 1980, the day he set himself on fire in the house they shared in Northridge, Calif. Lee, who now lives in New York City, is writing a memoir called Cropseyville (the name of her hometown in Upstate New York). She recently went to see Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, Pryor’s semiautobiographical film, which he co-wrote, directed and stars in. Lee was moved to express her views of the film in a talk with Senior Writer John Stark.
Well, Richard, you blew it. I went to see Jo Jo Dancer at a movie theater in Times Square. I went looking for the truth, the real skinny. Well, guess what? It wasn’t there. Funny, but for someone so dedicated to finding the truth, you couldn’t bring yourself to tell it. The only honest scene I saw was that you came clean about the fire—so stoned on booze and cocaine that you tried to end your life by pouring 151-proof rum all over your clothes and torching yourself with a lighter. So much for the stories about the butane lighter blowing up while you were freebasing. As you told me, suicide was the only way out of your drug addiction. But for the most part I watched you try to slide out of the terrible things you did to yourself and the people around you. How sad. After all, it was you who was obsessed by the truth, be it onstage or in your private life. You wouldn’t let producers, lawyers, friends or family pollute you with anything less than the truth. You were ruthless that way. You had no sacred cows. That’s why I fell in love with you, why I hung in through the wonder and madness. So, Richard, what gives?
Did you get scared? Or tired? Was the truth too painful? Let’s face it. Jo Jo Dancer is a vacuous film. You know it. I know it. And the critics—boy, do they know it! Okay, you showed us the whorehouse where you grew up, but not the whorehouse of your memory. In the film you make that whorehouse look like summer camp instead of the house of horror you so often described to me. You told me you watched your father and the pimps beat up the prostitutes, as if they owned them and had the right to hit them. You told me it was that macho myth that made you think beating up women was the way to be a big, strong man. I know, I have the bruises and the hospital records to prove it. I honestly believed that our love would be the panacea for those demons. Isn’t it funny that in the movie you never hit one of your wives, even when one asked you to? Such a gentleman. You punched the wall instead. Come off it, Richard.
You may have tried running from the whorehouse, but your family followed you to Hollywood. They held you hostage to the past and made you pay ransom for your success. My, what a loving grandmother Carmen McRae makes in the film! In reality your late grandmother, your father’s mother, was domineering and controlling. She was always coming to stay with us and taking charge of the house, as if it were her brothel. She hated me. Remember her nickname for me? It was Bigfoot Mother——. I’ll never forget the time that she decided to punish me after I told her to mind her own business. She ordered one of our maids into our bedroom with a two-by-four, which she cracked over my knees as I was sitting up in bed. Thank God you came to my rescue, Richard. I couldn’t get the maid’s hands free from my throat. In the film your mother fades out of the plot. Why is that, babe? You told me that when your parents’ relationship ended, your mother wanted to return to her family farm in Springfield, Ill. She wanted to take you with her. You told me your grandmother took your mother to court to get custody of you and won. Now there, Richard, would have been a scene for the film—the judge asking you to choose between your mother and grandmother. And you, out of fear, chose your grandmother.
You often confided in me how much you loved your mother, even though you had rejected her. But you didn’t tell us that in Jo Jo Dancer. How could you not have put in the part—it was before she died in 1969—when she came to New York to see you get your big break on the Ed Sullivan Show? You hadn’t seen her in years. You said you took her to Saks and bought her a dress and a handbag. You said you were so happy seeing your mother in the audience beaming with pride.
You see, Richard, you left out the emotional parts, the parts that would have helped illuminate your path to self-destruction.
There are four wives in Jo Jo Dancer. Yep, you got that number right. But how dare you make us the bad guys! Truth is, if we committed an unloving act, it was because you drove us to it. Don’t forget, your nickname for me was “white honky bitch.” I just love how you portray yourself as a faithful husband—except for one brief confession of indiscretion to Debbie Allen, who plays wife No. 3.I believed you when you said you’d be faithful to me. I guess I didn’t realize that to you marriage did not exclude other women. But I did get my revenge once, even though you came at me with a lamp. Remember the time, after having collected all the phone numbers of other women you left on the bedside table, I called them all? Pretending to be your secretary, I invited them to a party you were supposedly giving at a nearby hotel. I then sent you there on false pretenses. Surprise!
Sorry, Richard, the film glosses over your addiction to alcohol and free-base. I didn’t see one scene that came close to the hell we went through. When I first moved in with you, the cocaine use was periodic. But I had to move out two years later, shortly after, the freebasing pipe moved in. Do you still remember the song I wrote, called Your Woman Is Freebase? That once beautiful estate we shared, the one I decorated, became a crack house for drug users. As the drugs became more prominent, so too your mood swings, acts of violence and paranoid behavior—like the time you tore the bedroom door off its hinges trying to get to me. I was terrified all the time, so terrified that I moved to an apartment in Beverly Hills. But that didn’t stop you from harassing and threatening me. How, in your altered state, you made Stir Crazy in 1980, I’ll never know. You certainly didn’t endear yourself to anyone on that set!
I admit, Richard, I was no angel myself, abusing myself with cocaine, liquor, Quaaludes and Valium. But thank God for Alcoholics Anonymous. I also found out there that I was not to blame for your drug addiction, even though you had manipulated me into thinking I was. I learned too that you were headed for disaster. I tried to warn you and your family, but your fame and money made anything you did all right.
In the film you have your last wife calling you on the phone shortly before you set yourself on fire to see if you’re all right. Truth is, I was with you that day. I told you I wanted to go home to my family in Cropseyville. You told me that you were “going away too.” You insisted I leave the house. I went to my apartment and called Jim Brown, who’d been trying to get you hospitalized. But it was too late. You were already running down the street in flames. In the film Jo Jo gets drug-free after the fire. For a while I tried to convince myself that you had too. I guess that’s why I married you 17 months later. I thought you had learned your lesson about drugs and that I could help you become the passionate, creatively charged person you were when we first met. Sounds corny, but my addiction was you. After sobriety, Alanon showed me how not to be dependent on another person. Richard, the truth is you continued to do drugs for three years after the accident. Unlike Jo Jo, you didn’t see the light, even though you told Barbara Walters and PEOPLE [June 29, 1981 issue] you were clean.
All through the movie you keep saying, “You’re not bad, Jo Jo.” No, Richard, you’re not bad. It’s just that so much of the time the bad part of you won. Truth is, you are a tender and sensitive man. That’s why I loved you and a part of me will always love you. Your life is an inspiration. You made it against impossible odds. Had you told the truth as you used to do, I believe the public and critics would have embraced Jo Jo Dancer. You’d have had the comeback you deserve. Listen to your white honky bitch, Richard: Ya gotta walk it like you talk it or you’ll lose that beat.