Ronnie Spector's Husband Recalls the Rock Icon Ahead of Revamped Memoir: 'You Can Go Through Hell and Survive'

An updated version of the Ronettes frontwoman's 1990 autobiography is due out May 3 with a foreword by Keith Richards and a postscript penned by Spector herself shortly before her death in January 2022

Ronnie Spector
Photo: Ruven Afanador

Few artists delivered on the thrilling promise of rock 'n' roll quite like Ronnie Spector. Star of the seminal '60s girl group the Ronettes, the cat-eyed siren defined an era and an attitude with her sky-high beehive, stylish pencil skirts, and soulful swagger. Her voice — a bewitching blend of tough and tender, capable of both volcanic power and schoolgirl vulnerability — made her a music legend. But her story made her something greater — a synonym for strength, endurance and the human spirit.

Spector died on Jan. 12 at the age of 78 following a private battle with cancer. Just weeks before, she'd completed the revisions to her 1990 autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness. The acclaimed memoir details her rise to fame with the immortal jukebox classic "Be My Baby," and also the abuse she suffered at the hands of her Svengali-turned-husband, Phil Spector. The intensely jealous producer kept her a virtual prisoner in their California mansion, subjecting her to years of psychological torment before she ultimately escaped, barefoot and nearly broke, in 1972. Frequently out of print since its initial publication, this new version of Be My Baby (due out May 3) will introduce Spector and her story to a new generation.

While many of the events occurred over half a century ago, the book remains frustratingly timely. "It's so of the moment with the MeToo movement," says Jonathan Greenfield, Spector's husband of nearly 40 years. "When it first came out in 1990, a lot of people said, 'Oh, she's just [Phil's] bitter ex-wife. She's just complaining.' But I think Ronnie's story is prescient. She was letting people know what was going on. She's become an inspirational figure because that story has resonated with so many people. I want to say with so many young females, but it's a universal story. There's a timeless quality to it — just like Ronnie."

Spector had been looking forward to promoting the book as a way of communing with fans and helping others find the will to escape abuse in their own lives. Greenfield recalled a phrase she often told audiences: "When you hear my voice, in a movie or on the radio, remember that you can go through hell and still survive."

Photo of Phil Spector
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Greenfield himself first encountered Spector on the stage. He attended one of her concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden while still a teenager in 1974. Though he couldn't have known it at the time, these shows were a declaration of independence for Spector, who had recently divorced Phil and was hard at work rebuilding her career after years in professional exile. For Greenfield, the attraction was instant. "Ronnie walked out onstage singing 'Walking in the Rain,' swaying back and forth to the rhythm," he remembers. "I was pretty convinced that when God created woman that it would look just like Ronnie did when I saw her that night at the Garden."

They would meet properly several years later in April 1978, when he was stage managing an off-Broadway theatrical production called The Neon Woman. The crowd that night included Debbie Harry and other denizens of the ultra-hip downtown Manhattan scene, but Greenfield only had eyes for Spector. Eventually, he found the courage to approach her with an unusual request. "I said, 'Do you mind if I hug you?' She sort of looked at me like, 'Give me a break.'" Her skepticism was understandable. Spector was used to men wanting something from her — a song, an autograph, a date — but never a hug. The ask left her charmed. "Ronnie let me give her a hug and when I hugged her, she squealed like a little mouse," he remembers. That was the first time I hugged her."

Seth Cohen PR. Spector in the mid-'70s, around the time Greenfield first saw her perform.

Spector returned to the show every night for a week in hopes of seeing Greenfield again. Intuitively, she knew she'd found her happy ending at last. "We did everything together for close to 42 years," says Greenfield. "There's a lot of little things about our relationship that just balanced each of us. It's sort of like two trees next to each other; throughout the years, they grow and the branches start to intertwine."

They married in 1983 and their life together blossomed. They soon welcomed sons Austin, 39, and Jason, 38. "Ronnie kept scrapbooks of the kids, because that was so important to her," Greenfield says. "I found this adorable picture of the two boys with their backpacks on, holding these red apples. I remember Ronnie said, 'You have to bring an apple to your teacher. It's the first day of school.' I told her, 'Honey, it's not really necessary to do that…' But she insisted on them bringing an apple for the teacher. She believed in that stuff. There was an innocence to her. She just believed in kindness." For Spector, her home life served as a crucial spiritual anchor. "I told the kids after Ronnie passed, 'You know all that beautiful outpouring of love for Mom? You both have so much to do with that, because you really completed her.' They gave her this balance that allowed her to elevate, creatively."

ronnie spector and family
courtesy Jonathan Greenfield

Not long after becoming a mother, she experienced a rebirth in her professional life. Spector's featured vocal spot on Eddie Money's 1986 hit "Take Me Home Tonight" sparked renewed interest in her life and music, leading to sold-out concerts and superstar collaborations with the likes of Joey Ramone, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — not to mention the Ronettes' (much belated) induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. She's since been hailed as a hero by multiple generations of front-women, from Madonna, Joan Jett and Susanna Hoffs to Amy Winehouse (who borrowed her famous beehive) and Elle King.

"Her image — which you see the influence of today — was just her. She didn't have a glam squad. She created her look with a can of Aqua Net and mascara," Greenfield recalls. "She created this thing called attitude, and she had it naturally. She was never, ever a poser."

For decades she's lived a dual life as Ronnie the Rock Star and a suburban mom in rural Connecticut, just down the road from her old friend Keith Richards — who penned the foreword for the updated version of Be My Baby. Sometimes these two worlds collided, and the effect was often surreal. Greenfield was amused when Spector ran errands with a full face of makeup and perfectly coiffed hair. "She would say, 'You know, these days no one wants autographs. Everybody wants a picture…'" The last thing she wanted was to disappoint her fans, who she handled with unerring warmth. Heads would inevitably turn at the local supermarket, burger joint, or (her favorite) Bed Bath & Beyond, as customers realized that the Queen of Rock was in their midst. But any attempts to address her reverently as "Ms. Spector" were laughed off. She always insisted on "Ronnie."

Ronnie Spector
Ronnie Spector in 2018. Jordi Vidal/Redferns

"She never thought she was anything special," says Greenfield. "She had been on the top and then she knew what it felt like when she couldn't get in at Studio 54 because she wasn't cool enough. Wherever she went, whether it was onstage or just to the ShopRite, she put a smile on every person she came in contact with. That's just what she did. I'm so convinced that she was put here to spread joy, love and kindness. She had this gift of making people feel really good."

Singing remained her favorite method of spreading that love and joy. In October she was due to record a duet with Margo Price. But this final song, titled "Fight to Make It," was never completed. "I still have the lyrics sitting on the music stand with Ronnie's notes on it," says Greenfield — a mute tribute to one of the 20th century's most evocative singers.

That Spector was able to enjoy her hard-won recognition brings to mind the notion of karma. Her spirit could have easily corroded due to her dark period with Phil, but instead she became a study in gratitude.

"She was in such a wonderful place," Greenfield says of their last few years. "She was so joyful. We'd go for a walk in the park and [it was like] she had found the secret to happiness. I was happy that I could be there with her and help her get to that point. She and I went through a lot together and she came out this incredible, inspirational person. I was so incredibly blessed to be a small part of letting her reclaim and rebuild her incredible life and share it with people."

Be My Baby a Memoir by Ronnie Spector
Henry Holt and Co.

She spent much of her last months revising the updated version of Be My Baby with original co-author Vince Waldron, complete with a new postscript. She signed off on the final changes two weeks before succumbing to cancer.

The memoir, which is being made into a feature film starring Zendaya, was just as important to Spector as her music. The songs may have showcased her voice, but the book explained how she found it. "She wanted to tell people, 'Never, never, never let somebody take control of your life,'" says Greenfield. "She wanted them to know you can go through hell and you can come out the other end. And you can come out strong."

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