january / february 2007:
How I Met My Father
Richard Pryor's Jewish daughter recalls the day she finally got to meet her famous daddy.
By Rain Pryor | Photo by Seth Kushner
Editor's Note: Legendary comedian Richard Pryor had six children from seven wives. One of them was Rain Pryor, a product of his union with a Jewish woman named Shelley Bonis. Rain wears her biracial identity as a source of pride, joking that while growing up, she felt "proud, but guilty about it." Herself a performer, she has since created a one-woman show called Fried Chicken and Latkes.
Rain recently published her memoir called Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor about what it was like growing up the Jewish daughter of America's most famous black comic. Herewith, we're proud to present an excerpt of the book's first chapter.
Chapter One: Home at Last
It was one of those rare Los Angeles days when the ocean fog lifts early and the smog never appears. The baby blue sky sparkles, calm and cloudless, and you can see the sharp outlines of the houses clinging to the Hollywood Hills.
The year was 1973 — I was four years old — and my mother and I were in her battered Volvo, winding our way toward those hillside houses. I had no idea where we were going, and my mother wasn’t talking.
“Are you going to tell me now?” I said.
“Stop bugging me,” she said.
“I just want to know where we’re going,” I said.
My mother took a deep breath, gave me a dirty look, and exploded: “We’re going to meet your father, okay?! Happy now? We’re going to meet your motherf**king father.”
That was a lot to process for a four-year-old. The language didn’t bother me — I was used to it — but I was having trouble getting my mind around the fact that my father lived only a few miles from our own apartment. “My father lives here?” I asked. “In the same city?”
“Where the f**k did you think he lived? On the motherf**king moon?”
Frankly, that was a possibility. I had heard many stories about my father — most of them pretty unflattering — and I never imagined that some day I would become part of his life. He was a famous comedian, after all, and I’d been given to understand that comedy took precedence over fatherhood. What’s more, he happened to be a self-destructive, self-absorbed schmuck, and he wasn’t even remotely interested in me. That’s what my mother told me, anyway — that and worse. Whenever she talked about him, and she talked about him often, she would work herself into such a frenzy that she would turn red in the face. Her parents, my Jewish grandparents, also talked about him. They didn’t curse with quite as much vigor, and they didn’t turn red in the face, but they made no secret of their feelings for the crazy Black Prince who had ruined their daughter’s life (and, in many ways, their own).
“I’m going to meet my father?” I asked.
“Didn’t I just say that?”
“He lives in one of these nice houses?”
“That’s right. The son of a bitch lives in a f**king palace, and we live in a dump in the wrong part of Beverly Hills.”
“Why is it the wrong part of Beverly Hills?”
“Would you give me a goddamn break already?!”
I didn’t understand what she was so upset about. Earlier that afternoon, when we were in the house, preparing to leave, my mother had seemed excited, if a little nervous. She said we were going “somewhere special,” and told me to wash up and put on a nice dress and to try to look pretty. When I returned, fully dressed and looking awfully pretty (if I may say so myself), she was still in her jeans, topless, tearing through her closet for just the right thing to wear. I guess she wanted to look pretty, too, but nothing made her happy. I watched her try on one blouse after another, growing increasingly frustrated, until there was a veritable kaleidoscope of blouses piled on the bed. She had practically emptied the closet by this time, so she went back to the bed and sifted through the discards, hoping she had missed something. She tried the purple dashiki again, then the severe black knit sweater with the bell sleeves, but neither of those worked. Finally, she opted for my very favorite: a yellow and red Mexican peasant blouse with embroidered flowers. She buttoned it up, tied up her hair with a red silk scarf, and turned to look at herself in the mirror.
“Motherf**ker!” she said.
“What did you say, Mommy?”
“Nothing,” she snapped. “Let’s go.”
We went out into the street and moved toward her old, sad looking Volvo. She opened the rear door and motioned with her head. “Get in,” she said. I did as I was told, and as she strapped me into the backseat, I noticed that her hands were shaking. I wanted to ask her if something was wrong, but she didn’t seem like she was in the mood for questions, and I didn’t want to make her mad. I hated it when she got mad, and she got mad often. She shut my door, hard, then climbed behind the wheel, started the car, and pulled out into the street.
We rode in silence for a while, each of us alone with our thoughts. The Volvo chugged across Robertson Boulevard, took a right on Sunset, then a sharp left into the winding hills. When she finally told me that we were going to visit my father, I was more confused than ever. I couldn’t believe that my father actually lived in Los Angeles, way up in those lovely hills, just a few miles from our shabby little duplex. I couldn’t understand why we had never visited, or, conversely, why he’d never come to see me.
“Did he just move here?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “He’s always been here.”
“Do I look like him?”
“Stop with the f**king questions already!”
I looked out the window again. The houses were unlike any houses I’d ever seen — big rambling places nestled into canyons, only vaguely visible behind trees and walls and tall gates.
The Volvo kept climbing, negotiating one hairpin turn after another, and after what seemed an eternity we reached a gate at the top of the hill. We’d only gone a few miles, but I felt as if I were embarking on a very long voyage, indeed. Mom got out and rang the bell and a Hispanic man appeared a moment later. He opened the gate and waved us through. We made our way up the steep driveway and came to a gravel parking lot that was overflowing with shiny new cars.
Mom got out and I didn’t wait for her to come and get me. I unbuckled my seatbelt, opened the door, and stepped out onto the gravel. I was standing near the edge of the property, next to a steep drop. I felt a little dizzy from the ride, and the view of the neighboring canyons was so overwhelmingly magnificent that I found myself holding my breath.
My mother walked around the front of the car and took my hand.
“My head feels twirly,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Mine, too. The air’s thinner up here.”
“What does that mean?”
“Never mind,” she said. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“I already goddamn told you,” she said. “You’re going to meet your father.”
She led me toward the house and through the front door, which was wide open, and once again she seemed a little nervous. Still, she walked inside like she owned the place, and I followed.
It was quite a place. The walls were hung with gorgeous African paintings and African fabrics, and there were wooden statues, primitive sculptures, and ancient masks in every nook and cranny. The floors were carpeted with zebra skins and tiger rugs, and the sofas were low to the ground and covered with textured pillows. The place felt open and inviting, and clearly everything had been chosen with great care, but there was something a little tacky about the opulence. I didn’t know it then, of course, but in some ways my father had re-created the whorehouses of his youth.
“What are you gawking at?” my mother snapped.
“Nothin’. All this pretty stuff.”
“Oh yeah,” she said, oozing sarcasm. “The man is proud of his Dark Continent roots, but he’s about as black as Bill Cosby.”
The house was oddly empty, but we heard voices outside, along with the sound of laughter, and we followed them out to the pool. There was a party in full swing. My mother hesitated for a moment, took a deep breath, then marched onward with false self-confidence. A woman in a lounge chair saw us and watched us approach. She was wearing a skimpy bikini, a then-fashionable Twiggy haircut, and smoking a cigarette. She took a long drag and studied us appraisingly until we reached her side. “Well, well, well,” she said, smiling. “You must be Shelley and Rain. Richard is expecting you. I’m Maxine. It’s wonderful to meet you.” She turned her attention to me. “You’re cute as a button,” she said. “I have a daughter, Elizabeth. I’m sure you’re going to like each other. You want to meet her?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“You probably want to meet your daddy first, though,” she said, then turned and pointed at a skinny man, sitting on an outdoor divan, surrounded by half a dozen people. He was gesturing with both hands, his motions large and fluid. “You see that handsome man right over there?” Maxine said. “The one holding court? Well, that’s your daddy.”
I looked at him, then up at my mother. She was staring at Richard, and I didn’t see much love in her eyes.
“Go on,” Maxine said. “He’s waiting to meet you. Been talking about it all day.”
My mother took me by the hand and we approached, and I could see she was really nervous all of a sudden. That made me a little nervous, too, but as we drew closer my nervousness was replaced by astonishment. Looking at that man was like looking into a mirror. We had the same face — lean, with a sharp, long jawline — and the same dark, penetrating eyes. We even had the same long-fingered hands.
Suddenly, he noticed us. He stopped talking and rested his hands on his knees. “Well, sh*t,” he said. “Can it be? Can it really be?”
I looked up at my mother, towering above me, blond and blue-eyed, then back at my father. His hair was a mass of thick, tight curls, and it seemed to glisten in the afternoon light. It looked a little like a halo, and suddenly I felt happy and confident. That was my daddy. I was home at last, back in the Enchanted Castle, where I belonged.
“Hello, Richard,” my mother said with icy detachment.
“Hello, Shelley,” he said, but he didn’t look at her. He was looking straight at me, only at me — his little princess. “Well, sh*t,” he said. “Ain’t you somethin’?” He turned and addressed his entourage. “She looks just like me, doesn’t she? Ain’t denying this one’s mine!”
“Hey, people,” he said, raising his voice and addressing the entire party. “This is another one of my kids, Rain. Say hi, baby. Now don’t be shy, girl — you’re a Pryor. Pryors are lots of things, but shy ain’t one of them.”
I was terrified, but I squeaked out a weak hello.
“Man, you’re even prettier than me!” he said. Everyone laughed again, right on cue, and when the laughter died down he motioned for me to come closer. I was a little scared of him, but I was also fascinated, so I went. “Are you really my daddy?” I asked in a small voice.
“Hell yeah!” he said, laughing. “I’m your daddy, all right. Now come on over here and give yo’ daddy some sugar. Don’t be afraid, baby. I made you.”
He reached for me, and suddenly I was in his lap. He kissed my cheek and laughed his big laugh. “Man, ain’t you a wonder?! Ain’t this girl a wonder? Little Rain Pryor! A regular little look-alike princess! What do you say, people? This is my very own sweet-ass little girl. Ain’t she something?!”
He held me tight and kissed me again and I felt like crying, but I’d have been crying with happiness. I was home. I was sitting on my daddy’s lap. I had a daddy, just like other little girls, and he was real and he was nice and he was kind to me and he smelled awful good.
Little Rain was home at last.
Excerpted with permission from Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor by Rain Pryor. Published November 2006, Regan Books.
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