A surprising posthumous chapter was added to the legacy of Richard Pryor’s infamously chaotic love life this week when Quincy Jones, and later his ex-wife Jennifer Lee, claimed that the late comic had affairs with men, including Marlon Brando.
Although his daughter Rain has since denied the allegation, slamming her stepmother as a “bottom feeder” for supporting Jones’s claims, there is no denying Pryor had a complicated relationship with sex and intimacy, subjects the comedian often addressed in his honest and deeply personal standup routines.
An unconventional childhood
Surrounded by sex from nearly the moment he was born, the comedian was raised in one of three prostitution houses run by his domineering grandmother. “It was not an ideal childhood,” he told the New Yorker in 1999.
His mother worked in one of the houses as a prostitute, and when the nuns at his Catholic grammar school discovered the nature of the family business, he was expelled. “I didn’t care so much for me, but it made my mother cry. She wasn’t very strong, but she tried,'” he said of the incident, adding with his famously dark humor, “At least she didn’t flush me down the toilet, like some.”
At the age of six, Pryor was sexually abused by a young man from the neighborhood. After he became famous, the man came to his trailer on a film set with his son and asked for his autograph. “I was seized by that old sense of fear,” he wrote in his autobiography Pryor Convictions. “The boy was about the same age I’d been when his father raped me … I couldn’t believe it. After preparing a lifetime for this moment, I suddenly had nothing to say.” Pryor wrote that he shook both their hands and “hoped the boy fared better.”
His chaotic first marriages
Although he sometimes dismissed the damage caused by his childhood traumas, his future relationships were often chaotic and short-lived. His first marriage to Patricia Price lasted from 1960-1961, and then from 1969 to 1978 he had three serious relationships, including two two-year marriages to Shelley Bonus and Deborah McGuire. He had two children during that time, Renée, daughter of his girlfriend Susan when Pryor was 17, and a son Richard with Price.
He also had affairs with various film stars like Pam Grier and Margot Kidder, and one with a drag queen he said looked like Josephine Baker. He described the affair in his autobiography, writing, “I discovered that she was actually a he. For some reason, I didn’t care … But after two weeks of being gay … I went back to life as a heterosexual.”
A wild descent
Pryor, who also struggled with drug and alcohol abuse throughout his life, “was repeatedly in trouble for beating up women,” according to the New Yorker. Before he had a career breakdown in 1968, he was snorting $100 of cocaine a day, had been arrested for assault and battery, sued for wife-beating and accused of stabbing a landlord with a fork and of beating a hotel clerk, PEOPLE reported.
In addition to the drug and alcohol abuse, his breakups and outbursts were often linked to his own insecurities. For instance, his relationship with Grier ended after, among other transgressions, she beat him twice in tennis.
“I love strong, smart woman, but I feel inadequate to them,” Pryor admitted to PEOPLE in 1978.
In September of 1977, he was invited to speak at a benefit at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to oppose Proposition Six, a Californian anti-gay initiative. During his set, he received big laughs from the audience describing the first time he performed oral sex on a man. But the crowd eventually turned on him after his repeated use of gay slurs, and Pryor ultimately walked off stage after inviting the audience to “kiss my happy, rich, black ass.”
One of his most surreal incidents took place the same year, not long after he married McGuire, when he chased his newlywed’s friends out of his house following a contentious New Year’s party. Pryor was booked for assault with a deadly weapon after firing off a number of rounds into one of McGuire’s friend’s empty cars, which was still sitting his driveway. (Much of the party had already fled from the home on foot).
“I don’t know why I do self-destructive things like that. I want to learn by my mistakes,” he told PEOPLE later that same year.
While both Pryor and McGuire still felt love towards one another, the blowup led to their divorce. “A lot of things were said in anger that will be hard to smooth over,” she told PEOPLE. “Richard just can’t argue. He waits until something gets under his skin so bad he blows up.”
An attempt to change
After the split, Pryor told PEOPLE, “For a long time I saw women as sexual objects, and I was always trying to keep from getting hurt. Then one day they would pack up and leave, taking something more with them than their clothes. They took my happiness.”
He added, “I’ve finally gotten to the stage where I am trying to understand women as friends — I’d rather rob a bank than mess with women the way I used to.”
His relationship to his children
Pryor never had close relationships with all of his children, but he told PEOPLE that after his split with McGuire they became the most important thing in his life. His daughter Renée, then 20, lived with him; Richard, then 15, lived back in Peoria, Illinois with his mother, and Elizabeth, then 10, and Rain, then 8, both lived in L.A. with their respective mothers. “Last summer I took them all to Europe. I’m not going to make that mistake again,” Pryor told PEOPLE. “There was just not enough Daddy to go around.”
Another wild marriage
He married his next wife, Jennifer Lee, in 1981, but they had first met years earlier in 1977 when she was hired to help redecorate his house. In her early 20s, she had moved to L.A. to become an actress, starred in several B movies and has since claimed to have had affairs with Warren Beatty and Roman Polanski.
When she first met Pryor, “He was blue—heartsick over a woman who was ‘running game’ on him,” she wrote in Spin magazine. “He was putting a major dent in a big bottle of vodka. You could feel the tears and smell the gardenias, even with hip, white-walled nasal passages.” Since that first meeting, she would be his “head bitch,” as she put it in an interview with the New Yorker.
According to the outlet, Pryor saw something of himself in Lee. “What no one gets,” she told the outlet, “is that one of the ways Richard became popular was through women falling in love with him — they saw themselves in him, in his not fitting in, the solitude of it all, and his willingness to be vulnerable as women are. And disenfranchised, of course, as women are.”
Still, the two fought often and Pryor’s abusive tactics continued. “The tragedy was that Jennifer could keep up with me,” he told the New Yorker. But their marriage only lasted a year, and by 1982 they were divorced.
He got himself sober in 1983 and began performing less. Then in 1986 he married again to Flynn Be-Laine, two years after she had given birth to his son Steven. They divorced in 1991, and after being diagnosed with degenerative multiple sclerosis, he called Lee for help in 1994.
“He said, ‘My life’s a mess. Will you help me out?’” Lee told the New Yorker. “I thought long and hard about it … I wasn’t sure it would last, because Richard loves to manipulate people and see them dance. But, see, he can’t do that anymore, because he finally bottomed. That’s the only reason Richard is allowing his life to be in any kind of order right now.”
So she moved back to L.A. to be with her ex-husband. “When I got there, he was in this ridiculous rental for, like, six thousand dollars a month,” she told the outlet. “Five bedrooms, seven bathrooms. Honey, it was classic. You couldn’t write it better.”
Lee helped Pryor downsize his living arrangements and took care of him as the disease took its toll. She married him again in 2001 and stayed by his side until his death in 2005.