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- June 11, 1984
- Vol. 21
- No. 23
The Search for John Belushi
Aiming for Another Best-Seller, Watergate's Bob Woodward Tracked the Manic Comedian Through the Drug World That Killed Him
That tense late-night encounter with Weis was one of more than 250 interviews that went into the reporting of Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi (Simon and Schuster, $17.95), Woodward's depressing, minutely detailed account of Belushi's losing struggle with drugs. "It's not a biography," says Woodward, "but Belushi is the thread in a portrait of show business culture in America during the '70s." Though Jack Nicholson, who smoked marijuana, was the only other Belushi acquaintance who actually used drugs in Woodward's presence, several other celebrities, including Carrie Fisher, Penny Marshall and Dan Aykroyd, spoke with him of their ventures into the netherworld of chemical highs. "The average person on the street suspects that show business is full of drugs," says Woodward, "but you never hear about the specifics until someone is arrested or dies. What this book does is put the names and the amounts of money on the record. Belushi's story is a tale of self-destruction. But the tapestry is one of easy availability. And cash is the key."
For Woodward, 41, the once obscure Washington Post reporter whose dogged exploration of the Watergate labyrinth helped make him and his colleague Carl Bernstein the journalistic heroes of that dismal affair, the chance to exhume the hidden life of a star offered a kind of respite from a career probing government. His two Watergate books, All the President's Men and The Final Days, had been followed by The Brethren, a gossipy demythologizing of the august Supreme Court. Recently he has been in command of the Post's elite investigative unit, known as the SWAT team. His summons to the alien world of show business came in the form of a phone call in July 1982 from Pamela Jacklin, the sister of Belushi's widow, Judy, and attorney for the actor's estate. Judy wanted to talk with Woodward, said her sister, concerning some of the unanswered questions about her husband's death.
When they met, in Judy's Greenwich Village house, Judy reminded Woodward that he, she and John had all grown up in Wheaton, Ill., outside Chicago. And Woodward, like Belushi, had learned early in life the pressures of instant fame and big money. "I didn't know Belushi," says Woodward, who was six years older than John, "and I knew nothing about drugs (although he had, prior to Watergate, smoked a few experimental joints). But here was somebody who was clearly haunted by the nature of his talent. And Judy had a realistic view of John. She wasn't looking for a laundered version of his life. Ultimately, what appealed to me in this story was the failure of success."
After an emotional three days with Judy at her summer home on Martha's Vineyard, where she read from her personal diaries, Woodward was hooked. Enlisting the aid of John Ward Anderson, 27, his research assistant at the Post, he embarked on a consuming 15-month search for who—or what—had killed John Belushi. Shuttling between New York, L.A. and Chicago, he spent $100,000 of his $600,000 advance tracking down anyone who might have a clue—actors, directors, club owners, drug dealers. For documentation, he pored over anything Belushi had left behind, including credit card receipts, appointment books and accountants' records. "It's an interview trail, then a paper trail," Woodward explains. "Eventually you bring them together and construct a chronology. By the end we had a dated file for each day, particularly the last 60 days before his death. By piecing together information from all our sources, we could tell what he was doing almost every moment."
The truth about Belushi, as Woodward tells it, is almost unrelentingly grim. The manic samurai of Saturday Night Live is depicted as a drug-crazed bundle of ambition and insecurity, toward the end desperately cruising the streets all night in a limo in search of just one more hit. "There's a risk in trying to capture a life you don't know much about," says Woodward. "The point is that all John's friends knew he was headed for disaster. But they felt helpless. So the book becomes an endless discussion of 'How do we save John?' That's the debate that intrigues me. What do you do about your friends who are going over the edge?" Woodward says he is distressed that Judy Jacklin is unhappy with his book; on the other hand, he is hardly contrite. "What is important," he says, "is that Judy is not alleging inaccuracy."
In seeking answers to the Belushi mystery, Woodward may have been setting out on a personal voyage as well. Superficially, the two achievers from the little Midwestern town could not have seemed less alike: the mercurial actor and outrageous comedian vs. the disciplined Pulitzer prize-winning journalist described by friends as "a control freak" and "an iceman." But Woodward and Belushi had something in common. Growing up in Wheaton, both won an eighth-grade medal for citizenship. Both went on to play football for the same high school coach, to marry their high school sweethearts—and to know success before they were 30. "There we were, both in the same place," says Woodward. "Inevitably there's a bit of digging back in your past, asking yourself some questions about values and anxieties coming out of the same town."
One old friend finds Woodward's fascination with Belushi not very surprising. "Bob is somewhat puritanical," he says, "and so he has always been intrigued by free spirits like Bernstein and Belushi. You sense in Bob a constant struggle to keep his darker side under control. So you can understand his fascination with what happens when you let the darker side loose. That leads to his obsession with exposing evils like corruption in government and the sins of the drug culture."
To an outsider, Woodward's boyhood might seem postcard perfect. The eldest of four children of a revered county judge, he grew up in a big house in the best part of town, earned mostly A's in school and was once elected president of his class. But Bob learned early in life, from sneaking a look in his father's files, that every family harbored some sort of secret. All through his teens he coped with his own hidden hurt: his parents' messy divorce when he was 12. "You protect yourself," Woodward says quietly. "You do your schoolwork, you have your friends, you have your activities. You don't have an emotional life."
"Wheaton represented to Bob a classic American hypocrisy," says writer Scott Armstrong, Woodward's friend since they met in junior high. "He took from there the notion that the key to a meaningful life was to be forthright, so people would confide in you. Watergate confirmed his vision: If you persevere, you can dig out the ultimate secret."
In 1961 Woodward accepted a Navy ROTC scholarship to Yale. After graduation in 1965, he spent four restless years on and off ships, winding up at the Pentagon, where his duties included sensitive communications work with the Nixon White House. He and his longtime girlfriend, Kathleen Middlekauff, were married in 1966, divorced four years later. "Bob is severe in his relationships," she says. "His vulnerability is so hidden by his desire to be in control. People, and this includes wives, don't realize how important they are to him, and feel they can't hurt him. But they do."
The tale of how Woodward talked his way into a two-week Post tryout in 1970, then was banished to a suburban weekly to acquire more experience, is now part of journalistic legend. By 1971 he was back at the Post, and nine months later he was teamed with Bernstein, a more seasoned writer, to track down the details of the second-rate burglary that would topple a President. By 1974, when the impetus provided by their stories had helped drive Richard Nixon from office, Woodward and Bernstein turned out All the President's Men and soon saw Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing their roles in the Oscar-winning movie that followed.
Like Belushi, Woodward felt under immediate pressure to come up with a crowd-pleasing second act. His response, again with Bernstein, was The Final Days, another best-seller, which, like its predecessor, was criticized for its liberal reliance on anonymous sources. Undaunted, Woodward turned to a new collaborator, boyhood pal Scott Armstrong, and used the same formula in producing The Brethren. The three books made Woodward a millionaire, and when, in 1980, he was promoted to Post Metro editor, he seemed a shoo-in to succeed the powerful Ben Bradlee one day as executive editor.
But the path to the top was not smooth. In 1974 Woodward had taken a second wife, journalist Francie Barnard. Four years later the marriage broke up. Simultaneously, the ferocious drive and unyielding tenacity that had made Woodward a superb investigative reporter was serving him less well as a boss at the Post. His demands for "holy shit" stories did unearth a few local scandals, but reporters groaned about his grueling tryouts, and editors seethed when Woodward yanked copy out of their hands. Some staffers were appalled when he abruptly fired a young reporter facing an operation. "Woodward's not mean," maintains one former colleague. "He just didn't understand that when you cut people, they bleed."
The stage was set for Woodward's comeuppance when one of his young protégées, Janet Cooke, confessed that a sensational story she had written about an unidentified 8-year-old heroin addict was a hoax. The Pulitzer prize she had been awarded was returned, and Woodward retreated unhappily into himself. "He was crushed," says a colleague. "Everybody could see him through the glass walls of his office, slouched in his chair." Adds Post columnist Richard Cohen, "It was the first time Bob really felt the downside of fame. It was almost Greek theater, as if somebody were pulling the strings up there. Bob realized he was damaged." Woodward then called a meeting at his Georgetown house, standing for hours to answer the angry questions of his staff. "It was a gigantic screwup," he now says contritely. "And the moral embarrassment is much more profound. Nobody said, 'Screw the story. Let's find that kid.' That's the scar."
Woodward's study of Belushi's life on the brink has taught him much about human fallibility, intimates say, and has enabled him to come to terms with his old friend Bernstein's unhappy fall from grace. "He's made some mistakes, like I have," says Woodward of Bernstein's public troubles, which include an open affair with an ambassador's wife, a bitter divorce from writer Nora Ephron, an arrest for drunken driving and his recent departure from ABC News. Woodward won't discuss reports that he has counseled Bernstein to curb his excesses and that he has helped him straighten out his tangled finances. "Very simply," Woodward says firmly, "Carl is the best friend I have."
Whatever doubts Woodward may have entertained about his own career appear for the moment resolved. He refuses to brood over speculation that he has lost his chance to take over the Post. Instead he seems content with what he considers "an interesting perch" at the paper and a reported promise that he can write his own ticket there. Colleagues envy his close ties with political heavies, including Gary Hart and White House aide Richard Darman, and would relish his un-equaled freedom to travel anywhere on any story he chooses. A recent series on Middle East terrorism, and an exclusive report on unrest in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, demonstrated that the Watergate Wonder still has the touch. Declares Ben Bradlee, "Bob's no longer an accident. He's simply the best reporter I know."
Woodward long ago earned enough money to support the adventurous lifestyle one friend calls "Hemingway-as-journalist." Four years ago he learned to sail and bought a 45-foot ketch. He devotes his weekends to hosting friends on his boat, and each fall selects a topflight crew for a week-long sail to Bermuda or the Caribbean. He is described as a generous host who often entertains Post staffers at backyard pool parties in Georgetown and takes a Kennedyesque pleasure in tossing them in. Once a month he plays high-stakes poker with other Washington journalists, sometimes losing as much as $1,500 an evening. His quieter moments are shared with Post reporter Elsa Walsh, 26, a former roommate of Janet Cooke, who moved into his six-bedroom home early last year.
Woodward realizes that Wired will push him once more into the spotlight, but this time he knows what to expect. "It's an ongoing struggle," he says of his fencing match with success. "You just don't say, 'This is a final definition of me—I'm this good reporter.' Because maybe you're not. You're haunted by your inadequacy. My God, did I spell that name right? Did I push hard enough?" It is, perhaps, this hounding sense of the nearness of failure that makes spectacular casualties of the world's John Belushis, but habitual winners of cool hands like Bob Woodward.
November 23, 2015
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