After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)

The Beauty

I remember what all mothers remember about giving birth: the pain, exhilaration, fear, relief, joy—the whole extravagant mess of emotions that accompanies that miraculous moment.

It was September 4, 1974. Marvin was by my side. I saw in his eyes what could only be understood as disappointment. The infant was a girl.

When I went into labor, Marvin was so dear and sweet. We were at the house and I said, “It’s time!” The moment he heard the words he started freaking out. He went into the bathroom and got a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a pair of underwear. I started laughing trying to figure out his line of thinking, especially since they were a pair of his underwear and the toothpaste did not have a cap on it. By the time we got to the hospital, there was toothpaste all over his underwear, as he was holding it so tightly.

“Dear, just throw it away,” I told him laughing. I couldn’t believe it, but I was comforting him, even though I was about to give birth to our first child.

It was beautiful. Marvin never left my side for two days, which meant he missed a concert. Anna was waiting for him on the other end, in Detroit. That interrupted our blissful couple of days.

I spent the following days a worried mess. I was concerned that Marvin was with Anna, and I feared they were plotting to take my child. I was relieved to see his smiling face when he returned from Motown, greeting me and his baby daughter, Nona.

My words were, “I’m sorry.”

Marvin’s words were, “That’s all right, dear. She looks just like you. She’s just beautiful.”

Her name was Nona, and she was greatly loved by all. Marvin nicknamed her Pie.

Because Anna Gordy was raising Marvin III, Nona became the first grandchild to whom the Gays had access. Whatever reservations they may have had about me, they embraced Nona unconditionally. In the coming months, they—along with my mom, Barbara, and daddy Earl—would take turns holding and cuddling her.

Yet at the moment of her birth, I had pangs of remorse. I felt that I had disappointed Marvin.

“It’s crazy to be sorry about something that you have no control over,” Mom told me in the hospital room after Marvin had left. “When the sperm hits the egg, the result is up to God, not us.”

“I know that,” I said with tears running down my face. “I just wanted to make him happy.”

“He is happy. He’s deliriously happy. No one seeing this child could not be happy. She’s all sunshine and sugar. So cheer up, baby. Get it together. It’ll all be fine.”

In my mind, it wasn’t all fine. It turned out that two days after Nona’s birth, Marvin had a gig in Detroit. While he was still at the hospital with me and Nona, Anna was calling him. She was waiting for him in Detroit. Marvin explained that at this point they were merely friends. But because I was vulnerable—after all, I had just given birth—and insecure, I didn’t want Marvin to go. He went anyway. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether if I had given birth to a boy Marvin would have stayed by my side.

My fears about Anna were misplaced. Their romantic relationship had died years before. Three weeks after Nona’s birth, we all went on the road together. Marvin was thrilled with his baby daughter. Over and over again, he declared his undying devotion to his new family. He saw a chance to finally fulfill his dream—a loving woman, a loving child, simple domestic happiness. Yet while “simple happiness” was certainly something I longed for, it wasn’t actually what Marvin wanted. Because when happiness arrived, he went about planting the seeds for future misery.

He knew that his fathering a child with a young woman would antagonize Anna, who was unable to conceive a child of her own. The battle with Anna, begun in the sixties and still raging in the seventies, was far from over. Nona’s birth represented an escalation in the war.

I also witnessed Marvin insulating himself from sound advice. His accountants told him to put away part of his ever-increasing income to pay his ever-increasing back taxes. They formulated a generous budget for him and urged him to watch his impulsive spending. But I saw how he ignored them. He just wouldn’t deal with his tax issues. He wouldn’t stop buying whatever he wanted. He bought his mother a house in the LA area. He kept buying cars and all sorts of property. He threw all caution to the wind.

I didn’t have a clear picture of Marvin’s financial reality. But I did have firsthand knowledge of his unmanageability. A case in point was manager Stephen Hill. After the trip to Jamaica, his relationship with Marvin deteriorated. As a savvy businessman and astute student of human behavior, Hill was sure that he had Marvin’s number. With all his sophistication and sensitivity, he was certain that he could get Marvin to behave. For a while, Marvin allowed Hill his illusion. But when push came to shove, I saw how Marvin simply couldn’t be moved. He wouldn’t go back on tour. He wouldn’t go back in the studio. He wouldn’t meet with Motown officials to discuss his future. He wouldn’t seriously consider moves outside music—acting opportunities in television or movies—to widen his audience.

“I am in love with Jan,” I heard him tell Hill. “I am in love with my new life. Let me live life outside the madness of show business. Give me my peace.”

Like many a manager before him, Hill’s tenure with Marvin would eventually end in frustration.

With Nona beside us, Marvin and I grew closer.

“I want to be closer to you,” he said. “Close to our daughter. Close to everything and everyone important to your life.”

I was heartened to see Marvin cultivating relationships with both my daddy Earl and my father Slim. I saw it as another sign of his love for me.

The first time I took Marvin to Earl’s house was memorable. I hadn’t prepared him. I didn’t say much about the man who had essentially raised me—only that he was cool. Marvin had no idea how cool. Earl had that dangerous street edge that Marvin found so alluring, not to mention the most potent cocaine in the city. Marvin had his whisper-quiet, lighthearted banter; Earl had his salty, kicked-back Texas drawl. The ladies adored Earl. In no time, he and Marvin were thick as thieves. Watching these men get high together—the two men I loved most in the world—brought me great satisfaction, especially since it was a mellow smile-and-laugh high, a high that bonded them. Each played his role beautifully—Earl the respected and confident gangster, Marvin the artist of sophisticated funk. Earl’s hipness added to my credentials and, in my mind, made Marvin value me more.

Slim Gaillard was hip in a different way. When word came round that his little girl, whom he had ignored for most of her life, had hooked up with Marvin Gaye, Slim came running. One night he showed up at the studio when I was watching Marvin finish up a few overdubs. Slim’s entrance was spectacular—dark glasses, crumpled hat, crumpled suit, socks around his ankles, scruffy shoes, and a Grizzly Adams beard.

He gave me a big bear hug before telling Marvin, “Hey man, you stole the prettiest flower from my garden. You robbed me, brother, robbed me blind. You do realize that you’re the luckiest cat this side of bebop heaven, don’t you?”

Marvin loved great characters, and Slim was one of the greatest. He regaled Marvin with stories of playing Central Avenue in LA and Minton’s in Manhattan. Hanging with Bird. Scatting behind Dizzy. Laughing it up with Lady Day. Hanging at the track with Nat King Cole. Tracking musical changes with Miles and Monk. Clowning with Sinatra. There was no one Slim didn’t know. There was nothing he hadn’t done. His self-celebration was made palatable by the word pictures he painted: Blowing the blues on the beaches of Havana with Chano Pozo banging the bongos behind him. Slipping into the jazz cellars of Paris while the city’s slickest musicians studied his licks and tricks.

“I’ve written some four hundred songs,” Slim would say, “and had another four hundred stolen by the coldest cats from Nome, Alaska, to Pensacola, Florida.”

Slim wouldn’t shut up, but Marvin didn’t mind. Neither did I. Marvin was seeing that, as a child of both Earl and Slim, I was the daughter of two very different street aristocrats, one more impressive than the other.

After the blessed birth of Nona, Marvin even extended his charm to my mom. When she came to visit Nona, he was welcoming and warm.

Later that night, though, he discovered me crying inconsolably. He took me in his arms and asked what was wrong. I hesitated to tell him. I myself didn’t understand my reaction to the news conveyed by a childhood friend and confirmed by Mom.

“What is it, dear?”

“Mama Ruth.”

Over these past months, Marvin had heard my horror stories, just as little by little he’d told me the horror stories from his own childhood.

“What about that awful woman?”

“She’s dying.”

Marvin closed his eyes. Several seconds of silence passed before he took my hand and asked me, “You want to see her, don’t you?”

“How did you know that?”

“I can just feel it.”

“Do you think it’s stupid to want to say good-bye to someone who did what she did to me?”

“No, dear. I think it’s good. It’s closure. There are times when closure is necessary. If you want to see her, I’ll go with you.”

“I want to take Nona. I want to show Ruth that, despite everything, I have a beautiful man and a beautiful child.”

“We’ll take Nona. We’ll let you say whatever you need to say to this woman.”

“But why am I feeling that I need to see her?”

“She was a huge part of your life. Good or bad, in many ways she was your mother. Your relationship with her is incredibly deep. It’s a good thing to see her, Jan. It really is.”

During the ride to the nursing home in Pasadena, I was an emotional mess. I was certain I was doing the wrong thing by bringing Marvin and Nona; but I was still uncertain why I was doing it at all. I felt shaky and frightened.

“Let’s turn around and go home,” I told Marvin when we had practically arrived.

“You need to follow your instincts. You need to see this through, dear.”

My fear mounted as Marvin parked the car, as I removed Pie from her baby seat and took her in my arms, as the three of us walked down a hallway in a nursing home reeking of musty carpeting.

We came to the room and knocked. A frail voice said, “Come in.”

Marvin held my hand tightly as the door slowly opened. Inside, on a single bed, was a slight sparrowlike woman who, with some effort, looked up at me. It was Ruth. Her eyes were still sharp. It took her a few seconds to focus. When she did, her thin lips broke into an uneven smile.

“My baby,” she said in a voice that was barely audible. “My golden girl. My Janis. I’ve been waiting for you. I knew you’d come.”

I thought I’d know what to say. I had even rehearsed the lines: You hurt me; you tortured me; you fucked up my childhood; you vicious horrible bitch; I just came for the satisfaction of watching you die.

But these were not the words that came out of my mouth. I had no words, only tears streaming from my eyes.

“Show her Nona,” Marvin finally said. “Show her Pie.”

I walked closer to the bed to give Ruth a better look at our baby.

“Beautiful child,” was all Ruth could say. “Beautiful mother. You know that I loved you. I loved all my children.”

I still couldn’t respond. All I could do was stand there with my baby in my arms.

Again Marvin spoke for me.

“Jan wanted to come and tell you good-bye,” he said.

“Oh, where is she going?” asked Ruth.

Marvin hesitated to answer.

I finally had the words—You’re going to a place where you can no longer hurt anyone—but the words remained unspoken.