Bill Cosby's Wife (in Real Life)

Posted: April 10, 1986

What does Camille Cosby have that the rest of us don't? Bill Cosby for a husband. And these days that seems to be a pretty wonderful thing to have.

Bill Cosby is, after all, the No. 1 husband and father on American television. Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, the character he plays on his hit sitcom, the "Cosby Show," is the charming kind of husband who can keep his wife in giggles with droll little comments that expose the frequent absurdities of family life. He is the wise, sensitive kind of father who can herd the family into the upstairs bathroom to attend the funeral of his youngest child's pet goldfish because he knows it's important for children to learn how to come to terms with loss. And he's the exuberant kind of lover who can get into bed with Clair Huxtable, his wife of many years, and still carry on like a bridegroom on his honeymoon.

Who wouldn't love to be married to such a man? But how closely do Huxtable and his marriage to Clair resemble the real man and the real marriage of Bill and Camille Cosby? Is the real family life with "Cos" as much fun as it appears to be on television? How much is Camille like Clair? And what kind of woman attracts and keeps a man like Cosby in the first place? Clearly, say friends, a woman who is as bright, intelligent and tough-minded as he is.

At 41, Camille still possesses the graceful beauty and subtle sensuality that captured the love of her husband more than 20 years ago, when he met her on a blind date in his native Philadelphia. He has described meeting Camille as being "struck by a thunderbolt of pure loveliness."

The shy Camille was a 19-year-old student majoring in psychology at the University of Maryland. Cosby, on the other hand, was a high school dropout who had earned his equivalency in the Navy three years earlier and who, at 26, was tending bar and starting to make a career of stand-up comedy. Camille is the daughter of an Army colonel and was raised in a solidly middle-class family. Cosby is the son of a Navy mess steward and a domestic worker; his family lived in Philadelphia's housing projects. Not exactly the best of odds, one would think. In fact, for many black women coming of age in the early '60s in America, marriage to a high school dropout who thought he could make a living being funny would have been considered the very worst of odds.

But Camille Hanks fell in love with William H. Cosby Jr. anyway, and on Jan. 25, 1964, they were married. Success and babies followed quickly.

Now that Cosby is 48, his star has never been more brilliant. As co- creator, co-executive producer, co-writer, executive consultant and star of the top-rated television series, the "Cosby Show," he has helped rescue NBC

from death in the ratings. His income is said to exceed $10 million annually. But perhaps Cosby's greatest achievement is that, in spite of being a huge celebrity, he has remained married to the same woman for 22 years and helped raise five children. And perhaps it is this stability in his private life that is the secret to his public success.

Camille is as intensely private as her husband is public; she rarely gives interviews. Yet, though she is a woman who insists on remaining in the background, she is also a woman very much in charge. She knows she is certainly more than just the wife of Bill Cosby, though of course to the public that's precisely who she is first.

"Camille has had to find her own tools to keep from being swallowed up by the image of a famous husband," says a family friend, "and one of them is the decision not to talk to the press. You can become a magnet for all sorts of people who think they can get to the husband through the wife." Said another friend recently, "Camille doesn't give a damn about that celebrity stuff. She would love Bill just as much if he were a teacher."

How much is Camille like Clair, her television counterpart? There are some significant similarities. Like Clair, Camille is the mother of four daughters (Erika, 21; Erinn, 19; Ensa, 13; Evin, 9) and one son (Ennis, 17). And it was her quiet beauty that Cosby said he was reminded of when he cast Phylicia Rashad (formerly Ayers-Allen) as his wife on his new show. But most significantly, the devotion and deep love Cliff exhibits for Clair is not only matched but surpassed by the real passion with which Cosby loves Camille.

"Bill Cosby worships the very ground his wife walks on," gushes a magazine editor who once interviewed Camille and her mother for a feature about the two women going back to school together. (Camille got a graduate degree from the University of Massachusetts a few years ago.) "I'm sure pillow talk with Camille has signed more contracts for Bill and created more characters for his show than anything else," says a family friend. "Camille is still a woman of stunning beauty and equal substance. The love between her and Bill is still there, and so is the passion."

Home for the Cosbys is actually four residences: a rambling, 265-acre farm estate in a small town outside Amherst, Mass., where the family spends most of its time; a town house on Manhattan's East Side; a house in California's Pacific Palisades; and a house outside Philadelphia. The Cosbys restored their 150-year-old, 16-room clapboard farmhouse in Massachusetts and furnished it with colonial antiques. When they relocated to New England from California, Camille explained why they moved back East. "I love it here because there aren't a lot of people driving by and bothering us. I never did get used to all the sightseers (when the family lived in Beverly Hills during Cosby's 'I Spy' days). Sudden success is very difficult to deal with."

It is at the Massachusetts home that the Cosbys do most of their entertaining with a small and intimate group of friends, among them Broadway actress Gloria Foster; her former husband, actor Clarence Williams III ("Mod Squad," "Purple Rain") and actor Al Freeman of ABC's "One Life to Live" and his wife Sevara. Camille, an accomplished amateur photographer, delights in capturing these gatherings on film.

Although Camille has never been a career woman like attorney Clair Huxtable, she is very much a working woman. Friends invariably refer to ''Camille's projects," which are as diverse as her duties as a board member for both the Reverend Jesse Jackson's PUSH For Excellence program (which works with high school students to get them committed to schoolwork) and the National Council of Negro Women.

In fact, Camille employs a personal business staff that shares a Santa Monica, Calif., office with her husband's staff, and she has her own public- relations agent. She is also very much involved in the business affairs of Cosby's own enterprises. "Camille runs the Cosby menage the way Lee Iacocca runs Chrysler," notes one family friend.

And, as you might suspect, Camille is also a terrific mother. Says Rashad, ''The Cosby children address adults as Mr. and Mrs., and they show respect for one another. They're very well-behaved, but it's not artificial. It reminds me of Southern gentility." Discussing her parenting philosophy, Camille says, "Our children are never excluded from anything. So they really like to talk to adults."

Camille, of course, has been listening to the nation's favorite adult ''kid," Bill Cosby, since she was a teenage bride. And, as every mother knows, dealing with a child of any age is never easy. Whereas Dr. Cliff Huxtable always manages to keep his wisdom and humor, Bill Cosby, the real man and husband, is much less laid-back. He has been said to be tough and demanding, a perfectionist who can at times seem impossible to work with. His children's names all begin with the letter E, he says, because it stands for excellence. How does Camille keep him centered and relaxed? "With a sensitive and gentle hand," says a friend. "She is the wind beneath his wings."

And while the trials and traumas of raising a family have obviously been the source of much of Cosby's comedy material, one gets the feeling that whatever marital tiffs he and Camille may have had, they will never be recycled in public. He is not the sort of man to make "Take my wife - please!" jokes. Nor is Camille the kind of woman who will ever become a Hollywood Wife, even though her husband's income is in the millions and the family owns a private jet and 15 cars as well as an impressive art collection.

But, ultimately, how well any celebrity wife survives fame and fortune depends largely on the celebrity she is married to and how much of a priority she is in his life.

Cosby is a man who has always made clear choices and given them public dignity. He made a choice from the very beginning to be a black comedian who does universal humor, just as he made a choice to marry a lovely girl named Camille 22 years ago and remain true to that union. He knows better than anyone the special kind of beauty a marriage that has endured brings to his life and his art. "My life is a very, very happy one," he says. "It's a happiness of being connected, of knowing that there is someone I can trust completely and that the one I trust is the one I love. I also know that the one she loves is definitely the one she can trust."

Who would expect less from a man like Bill Cosby and a woman like his wife? And who could ask for more - in marriage or in life?

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