Blessings and Burdens - After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye

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

Blessings and Burdens

We enjoyed the celebrity life. It was especially cool to meet Elliott Gould at an awards show. A huge Marvin fan, Elliott invited us to his home the following week. At the time he was married to Jennifer Bogart. Because Elliott was significantly older than Jennifer, I related to them as a couple and was eager to spend an evening with them. I dressed up for the occasion. Marvin put on a new brown sharkskin suit with matching brown shoes. He looked especially elegant. On the drive over, I was excited at the prospect of making new friends. But when we arrived at the Gould home, Marvin wouldn’t park the car.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t feel like socializing,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

My argument—that Elliott and Jennifer were expecting us—fell on deaf ears.

“Why are you doing this to me?” I asked. “Why are you disappointing me like this?”

Marvin didn’t respond. He turned the car around and we never saw Elliott and Jennifer—not that evening, not ever.

At other times, Marvin could be especially sensitive and generous.

“I think you should go shopping, dear,” Marvin said one day. “Buy something absolutely smashing. Buy whatever your heart desires. The sky’s the limit.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“A surprise to end all surprises.”

“Tell me, please,” I whined.

“And ruin the surprise? I think not. Hurry off to Beverly Hills and get something nice. Hurry your ass. The limo will be here at seven.”

Excitedly, I went off and returned a few hours later with what I considered a sensational outfit.

When I appeared before Marvin, he smiled approvingly.

“Just as I imagined,” he said. “You will be the princess at the ball.”

I was wearing a revealing two-piece halter dress, black satin heels, and pale pink glasses with rhinestone-covered frames.

“The princess is nothing without the prince,” I said. “And the prince is looking pretty hot himself.”

The prince was dressed in a black silk suit, an elegant white embroidered shirt, and patent-leather tuxedo shoes. He had splashed on Royall Lyme, his favorite fragrance.

Once inside the limousine, the prince remained secretive.

“You’re really killing me,” I said.

“Don’t die on me, dear. At least not until you see what the gods of good fortune have in store for you.”

The limo ride was long, fifteen miles down one freeway, fifteen miles down another. On the way, we shared a joint.

It was a hazy night. The smoke put us in an especially romantic frame of mind. I looked out the window and saw that we were approaching Long Beach Harbor. In the distance was the Queen Mary, the old luxury liner brought to port and turned into a hotel-museum. The limo pulled up to the entrance of the ship, all aglow with colorful lights. Music floated on air. Beautiful people milled about the decks. A great party was underway. My heart was racing.

Paparazzi were at the foot of the gangplank. Marvin and I stopped to pose for a few pictures.

“Who is the party for?” I asked.

“Shh … you’ll see …”

I felt like I was stepping inside a dream. The ship was beyond elegant: the woodwork, the chandeliers, the promenades, the people. There was Gregory Peck, there was Kirk Douglas, there was Sidney Poitier, there was Elizabeth Taylor. And walking down the main staircase was Michael Jackson together with Paul McCartney.

The two men moved directly to Marvin and me.

I’d known Michael and his brothers since high school. Michael gave me a hug.

“It’s so cool of you to invite us to your party, Paul,” Marvin said. “Jan has been dreaming of this moment for many, many years.”

Overwhelmed, I had no words except “So nice to meet you.”

“Marvin,” said Paul, “you have a lovely lady here.”

With that, he took my hand, gently kissed it, and, along with Michael, moved on to greet the other guests.

Back in Hidden Hills, Marvin wanted reassurance that he had, in fact, made me happy.

“What do you think?” he asked. “Wasn’t tonight a nice surprise?”

“Beautiful,” I said. “I’ve been dreaming of meeting Paul ever since I saw him at Dodger Stadium with the Beatles in 1966. How can I ever thank you?”

“By giving us another child,” Marvin said, before engaging me in passionate love.

Good news! Five months after giving birth to Nona, I discovered that I was pregnant again. These were the early months of 1975. I was now nineteen years old and had known Marvin for barely two years. I was elated. I was hopeful that the news would bring us closer together and bridge the gap that had opened when I became a mother and experienced bodily changes.

Marvin was equally elated, convinced that this time God would give him a son. He saw this as a great blessing.

At approximately the same time that Marvin and I learned of my pregnancy, Anna Gordy Gaye could no longer stand the embarrassment of her husband not only living with a teenage girl, but having children with her as well. She filed for divorce.

I understood. What woman wouldn’t?

Marvin had publicly humiliated Anna. Their disagreements, which had been relatively tame in the past few months, suddenly exploded into full-out warfare.

I saw that warfare excited Marvin, even as Anna’s legal procedures threatened his financial viability. While he was spending money recklessly, she was looking to wreck his monetary stability. She demanded heavy monthly payments for herself and their son. Beyond that, there were back payments due on repairs to the home owned by Marvin and Anna, not to mention legal and accounting fees.

Marvin’s response—to throw the legal papers in the trash—alarmed me. I urged him to face the reality of what was happening.

“I can’t deal with this stuff now,” he said.

“Eventually you’ll have to,” said his lawyer. “Eventually you’ll need to respond.”

“You can respond now. Tell her that over the years she’s gotten enough. Tell her to go to her brother. Berry has more money than God. Let him take care of her.”

“I’m not sure you want to get Motown entangled in all this.”

“When has Motown ever not been entangled? They’re entangled in every part of my life.”

Yet I did see how Motown and Berry diligently tried to separate Marvin the artist from Marvin the husband of Anna. Motown revered Marvin the artist. Moreover, Motown had a large investment in him and wanted nothing more than additional Marvin Gaye music.

But I was just beginning to understand that Marvin the man—the man who dreamt of playing for the Detroit Lions and becoming a professional boxer—had to prove his manhood. If cornered, he’d come out fighting. He perceived Anna’s legal actions as threats. He saw them as tests of his strength. He told me that he had no choice but to take her on and prove his personal power.

It was clear to me that Anna’s resources were greater than Marvin’s. But that fact didn’t make Marvin more cautious; it made him bolder. He actually liked assuming the role of the underdog—David versus Goliath. That heightened the drama. He was ready, even eager, to go to war.

Marvin would not yield to a single one of Anna’s demands. Nor would he yield to Motown, which was imploring him to start recording new material. It made me think of the name of his first hit back in the sixties—“Stubborn Kind of Fellow.”

Meanwhile, as I watched Marvin do battle with Anna and Motown, another precious life grew inside me. And on various nights I saw him leave his bitterness about his marriage and lose himself in a rare species of heavenly music that had nothing to do with any of the current vogue, the sounds of early disco that were beginning to flood the airwaves.

Because he didn’t love to dance, dance music was last on Marvin’s wish list of recordings. First on the list were the standards, the classic love songs from past eras, the deep-blue ballads that address love lost, love found, love remembered. I saw how these tear-stained melodies and heartbreaking messages spoke to his heart, just as they spoke to mine. They had nothing to do with commerce. They were not hit singles geared to current tastes. They were timeless, the sort of songs sung by the singers Marvin held in the highest regard: Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. In short, this was the material that, ever since initiating his professional career, he had longed to interpret.

“I can’t sing these songs at the Motown studio,” he told me. “Word will get back to Berry. Berry will have a fit. He’ll start demanding that I churn out hits. No, I’m not going to record at Motown. I need a place of my own.”

That place turned out to be a customized recording studio contained in a small single-story building on Sunset Boulevard that, together with the house in Hidden Hills, became a central focal point for Marvin and me for the next several years. The location was both logical and alluring. It was logical because it was a piece of prime real estate in the middle of Hollywood. It was alluring because it was situated on that portion of the Strip populated by prostitutes. The illicit sex trade that Marvin found so enticing operated right next door at the Copper Penny, a coffee shop where the working ladies liked to congregate.

Inside, the Marvin Gaye Recording Studio was all Marvin. He chose the colors; he designed the decor. It was cooler than cool: dark wood, soft lighting, plush carpet, an upstairs loft apartment with a waterbed and Jacuzzi. It was a musical cocoon, a heavenly hideaway in the midst of Hollywood’s hellhole sex trade. I saw how the studio symbolized every one of Marvin’s baffling paradoxes. It was in the world, yet not of the world. Its purpose was to free his art from earthly distractions, even as it positioned him closer to those distractions than ever before.

For days at a time Marvin was locked up in the studio, where he worked with his trusted and skillful engineer Art Stewart, a wonderful man whose calm personality, good humor, and brotherly devotion helped Marvin in every possible way.

Marvin lost himself in the sounds of these standards. When I was invited to hear the music haunting Marvin’s mind, I was mesmerized. The orchestrations were lush and enormous: violins, cello, oboes, flutes, harps.

I observed how Marvin sat as he sang, his mouth practically touching the microphone. He sang effortlessly. His eyes were closed. Even singing songs with well-known lyrics, he improvised new lyrics of his own, making the story completely personal.

“I’m singing these songs about you,” he told me. “You are the subject of every song.”

I was both pleased and confused.

“They weren’t written about me,” I said. “They were written by other men for other women.”

“I’m rewriting them for you.”

“But why?”

“Because that’s what love demands. Tell Jan the story of how it all began,” Marvin urged Art.

“In the late sixties,” said Art, “Marv hired an orchestrator, a brilliant musician named Bobby Scott, to write arrangements for a suite of songs like ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ and ‘Why Did I Choose You.’ Every one is a classic. Bobby rose to the occasion. His orchestrations are great. Sinatra would kill for these charts. So Marvin immediately went into the studio and began singing over the arrangements. His vocals were good, but not great. This was before What’s Going On, before he knew how to overdub his own voice and accompany himself. He sang the songs straight. He sang the songs honestly, but in one voice and one voice only. I believe he sang them with the intention of revising his career as a pop singer—as opposed to a rhythm-and-blues singer.”

“I hate those original vocals,” said Marvin.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they’re immature and superficial. This material required a knowledge of love—I’m talking about romantic love—and that’s something I had never really known. You can’t fake this material. These songs demand everything you’ve ever felt about love. I simply hadn’t felt enough. And then I met you.”

My heart began to race. His words suddenly erased all our problems.

“These are your songs,” he said. “And now I can sing them.”

He sang them not for an hour or two or three, but all night long, and the next night, and the night after. He sang these songs—building new harmonies, merging his many voices, sweetening the lyrics, augmenting the melodies—utilizing every essential tool available to him as not only a former doo-wopper but a musician who, like Miles Davis, understood the improvisatory genius of jazz.

“He’s already sung these songs a hundred times,” Art told me. “And never the same way twice.”

“I’m trying to understand what they’re about,” added Marvin. “I’m searching for the meaning. If you stay here next to me while I sing, I can feel the meaning come into focus. Will you stay?”

“I will.”

“Then roll the tape, Art, and let me sing.”

The sessions went on and on. It was as though they happened outside of time. Marvin adhered to no schedule. He had no plans to release them.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Motown wants singles,” said Marvin. “Motown wants hits. And I want love.”

“Your fans will love these songs.”

“Motown will say they are not current. Motown will moan and groan about how I tried to do this before. Motown will remind me that it didn’t work then and won’t work now. I don’t need to hear that from Motown. I don’t need to play these songs for Motown. I just need to birth these songs the way you will soon be birthing our baby boy.”

A month before I gave birth, Marvin told me he was flying to the East Coast.

“What’s the trip about?” I asked.

“A secret mission.”

Two days later, his purpose was revealed. Newspapers across the country carried a formal photo of Marvin, elegantly attired in custom-tailored suit and tie, sitting next to Shirley Temple Black, former child star and US ambassador to Ghana, and United Nations secretary general Kurt Waldheim.

“Did I look distinguished?” Marvin asked me.


“The UN wants me to spearhead a campaign underscoring the plight of the poor in Africa.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“They say that because of the respect I command the world over, I can make a difference. I can bring awareness where awareness is sorely needed.”

“I’m proud of you, dear.”

“But there’s only one problem.”

“What is it?”

“They see me as a responsible and decent human being.”

“Why is that a problem?”

Marvin’s eyes narrowed. He allowed a few seconds of silence to pass before uttering words that chilled me to the bone.

“It’s a problem,” he said, “because it’s a lie.”

On November 16, 1975, our son was born. A great blessing for all. His name was Frankie Christian Gaye. His first name was in honor of Marvin’s brother and his middle name in honor of my brother Mark’s middle name. We called him Bubby.

Circumstances surrounding the birth were dramatic. Marvin was due to fly out to a gig in Denver. At the hospital, his manager Stephen Hill kept looking at his watch and urging Marvin to leave. But he wouldn’t budge.

“Let the promoter sue me,” he said. “I don’t care.”

The night of the fourteenth, as we approached midnight, everyone in the room—Marvin and his whole family—was urging me to have the baby so his birthday would be the same as his namesake Frankie’s. Unfortunately, I couldn’t comply. Our son was born the next day. It was a breech birth during which our precious newborn broke his arm: it had to be taped to his body.

Like a fool, I was feeling guilty about everything—guilty that Marvin had to miss his gig (and was eventually sued for a ton of money); guilty that I couldn’t deliver on Marvin’s brother’s birthday; guilty that the breech birth caused harm to my son. Of course I knew that none of it was my fault. That was my rational mind. But my irrational mind, which so often ruled the day, kept burdening me with the blame.

And yet joy prevailed. Marvin and I had another beautiful baby! Unfortunately, joy was short-lived. Like so many women, I was hit by a serious case of the postpartum blues.

So much was happening at once. Marvin’s former family with Anna was falling apart as his new family with me was coming together—at least for now.

On any given day, documents and demands arrived from Anna’s lawyers. Marvin was required to attend a series of court hearings concerning spousal and child support. He refused. His lawyers kept warning about dire consequences, but Marvin was adamant. Anna responded by refusing him visitation with their son, Marvin III. The animosity between Anna and Marvin intensified.

“She’s going for my money,” Marvin told me. “She’s using my child to hurt me. But what she really wants is me. She wants me back. And that will never happen.”

Another battle was the political fury over the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer who many thought had been wrongly imprisoned for murder. Bob Dylan had written a song about the injustice. Marvin identified with Hurricane and, like Dylan, was convinced that the fighter was the victim of racism.

In an act of solidarity, Marvin shaved his head.

“When the press wants to know why I’ve done this,” he told me, “I’ll tell them that my head is clean shaven to let the world know that the case against Hurricane is dirty.”

Bald as a cue ball and dressed in white from head to toe, Marvin appeared at a charity event for Reverend Cecil Williams’s Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, barely making it to the stage on time.

I was back in Hidden Hills, dealing with depression. Because this particular form of blues had hit me before, this time was a little easier. But I was still down. More than ever, I felt unable to help Marvin sort out his problems. And when it came to my problems, I was still fixated on my body. I was still a teenager, worried about whether, after this second birth, Marvin would find me less appealing.

When I thought about my own largely unspoken dreams—to sing or dance, to have some role in show business—I understood that, given Marvin’s supreme self-preoccupation, those dreams would be given little consideration. In this relationship there was room for only one career. A large part of me accepted that. Yet a smaller part of me clung to the hope that Marvin would one day help those dreams.

At the same time, watching Marvin’s dramatic dismissal of Anna from his life, I worried that the same fate might befall me. In order to avoid that fate, I had to be understanding, put his needs before my own, and make sure I slimmed down so he’d still find me sexy.

If he was happy with me, he’d protect me from his family who had moved from Washington to LA. He’d seen that they were cold to me—his mother was disapproving and his father, who had also decided to relocate to the West Coast, was creepy.

Marvin would provide me with the warmth and security that I so badly needed. He’d make our new family—me, Nona, and Bubby—his first priority. He’d see that this time he had a chance to achieve what he had always wanted: peace in his heart, peace in his mind, peace at home.

He’d realize that either romance grows or withers. And he’d decide to do all he could to make our love grow.

He’d stand up against the negative forces.

He’d protect me; he’d protect our children.

He’d do what was right.

He’d make sure that we all lived happily ever after.