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

Return to the Maze

There was the beautifully peaceful Marvin, the Marvin who spent endless hours in the studio with his music, honing his harmonies and constructing melodies and countermelodies of astounding grace.

This was the Marvin that I held closest to my heart—the Marvin who voiced the deepest emotions and transformed pain into beauty.

This was the Marvin who, even in realizing an extravagantly erotic work like I Want You, was able to ascend beyond the flesh into the realm of the mystical.

There was also the Marvin who was determined to clean up his act and stop smoking Camels and Marlboros. He’d renounce pot and coke and swear never to eat meat again. He’d turn over a new leaf by going on a super-strict health routine for a month and expect everyone to follow. Everyone did. We wanted to please him. We also wanted to get healthy ourselves. Suddenly it was all about organic food, long hikes, bike rides, basketball games, and strenuous jogs. But then someone would offer him a joint, he’d accept, and we’d all be back at square one.

One of his cleanest periods came after Muhammad Ali invited us to his home in Hancock Park. At the time he was married to Veronica Porsche, with whom I’d gone to high school. Marvin and Ali played basketball and became great friends. It was only a few weeks later that Marvin was asked, along with Sammy Davis and Richard Pryor, to face Ali in the ring as part of a charity event. Of course it was a lark, but Marvin didn’t take it that way. He went into training and dreamed of actually knocking down the champ! He bought all the professional gear, hired a trainer, and went to work. At the event itself, he entered the arena with a full entourage and even had it filmed. Sammy and Richard never took it seriously and, once in the ring, ran from the champ. The audience howled. But when Marvin got into the ring, he actually began to box. It didn’t take more than a minute for Ali to knock him to the ground. Because Ali loved him, he didn’t hurt him. But Marvin was nonetheless humiliated. When it came to sporting feats, Marvin had delusions of grandeur.

The footnote to this story happened at a Motown picnic where Ali and Marvin ran a hundred yard dash. Marvin beat him—and saw that as something of a consolation prize to what had happened in the ring.

Marvin had other friendships that he found satisfying. Ray Charles had us up to his home in Baldwin Hills and was a kind and attentive host. He and Marvin admired each other enormously. Ike Turner has us down to his Bolic Sound Studios in Inglewood where he charmed us with funny stories and carried around his coke supply in a suitcase. Needless to say, we got blasted. Same goes for Redd Foxx, who invited us to his home in Studio City and kept us both high and in stitches. Natalie Cole, then married to Marvin Yancy, adored my Marvin and hosted us on several occasions.

We spent a wonderful evening with Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, in Las Vegas where Marvin and I stayed in the Elvis Suite at the Hilton. And in Chicago, Jesse Jackson had us over to his house where he and Marvin enjoyed a highly competitive game of basketball.

Every once in a while Marvin liked to break loose and go out on the town to have some fun.

After his performance at Radio City in New York, he and I were invited by Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall to join them at Studio 54, the hottest disco on the planet. During the show itself, I stood next to Mick in the wings. Mick watched Marvin reverently.

Studio 54 was a trip. Cutting through the long line of eager souls begging for admittance, we were whisked inside and escorted up to the balcony, where everyone was openly snorting coke. When we learned that the star attraction of the night was Sylvester, Marvin led me down to the dressing room so we could say hello. Both Marvin and I adored Sylvester. We saw him as the greatest of all the disco artists. He was a beautiful man. It was fascinating to see how he and Marvin were attracted to each other. Yet I wouldn’t call the attraction sexual. Sylvester had a freedom that Marvin admired, and Marvin had a sophistication that Sylvester found alluring. They chatted like old friends. Their common link was Harvey Fuqua, the man who had discovered Marvin and produced Sylvester. The mood was altered when Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren showed up, two outsize personalities who sucked all the air out of the room. Marvin and I wished Sylvester well and went back upstairs, where we watched his fabulous show. With flashbulbs popping, I was certain our picture would wind up in Rolling Stone—and it did.

During that same New York trip, we met Andy Warhol, who spoke as though he worshipped Marvin. He gushed how he just had to paint Marvin’s portrait, and Marvin agreed, but never followed up. Typical Marvin.

One time he did follow up. We had hung out with Argentinian jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri and his Italian wife, Michelle, in their Manhattan apartment. During the evening Gato kept praising Marvin’s writing and asked whether he’d compose something for him. Marvin agreed to do it and did. A few weeks later he wrote “Latin Reaction,” one of his best instrumental efforts.

Marvin liked the hot spots. Back in LA, we’d sometimes cruise over to Beverly Hills and lunch at the Daisy, a happening bistro. Once, looking across the room, Marvin spotted a woman he described as gorgeous enough to stop traffic.

“I can’t think of her name,” he said.

“I can. That’s Candice Bergen.”

When I kept sneaking glances, Marvin accused me of having sexual designs on her. He was wrong. I was simply bowled over by her beauty.

During that same lunch we noticed Ryan O’Neal. In this instance, it was Marvin who seemed obsessed. He couldn’t stop staring. I didn’t see it as physical attraction, but merely fascination. O’Neal was an incredibly handsome movie star.

I told Marvin, “If I can see that you’re not sexualizing Ryan—just admiring him—than I hope you can see that I wasn’t sexualizing Candice. Beauty is captivating.”

“It’s certainly is,” said Marvin. “And it seems as though your beauty has captivated Ryan. He’s coming over to say hello.”

He arrived at our table and shook hands with Marvin, who introduced him to me. I was thrilled. The thrill took a different turn, though, when O’Neal stood behind my chair and pressed himself against my neck, which was covered over by my long, wild hair. He made his move with great subtlety, but there was no mistaking the feel of his penis against my neck. As he spoke with Marvin, he kept pressing ever so slightly. I had a funny smile on my face. I didn’t know what to say or do. So I did nothing. When he left, I didn’t share the experience with Marvin. I was afraid it would only lead to a fight.

On another evening, Marvin and I were dining at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. We were about to leave when Bud Cort, the actor who had played Harold in Harold and Maude, ran up to our table and told Marvin how he adored him. He said he had a friend who he wanted us to meet. The friend, who was waiting outside for his car, was the great Groucho Marx. We all exchanged numbers but, as with nearly every chance meeting with Marvin, there was no follow-through.

As free spirits, we lived in Marvin’s studio with Nona and Frankie. Where we went, most of the time our children went with us. When Marvin and I needed alone time, we would call on loving family members to care for the children.

In 1975–76, Marvin was working on his I Want You album. The studio was bursting with incredible music and the energy was at times surreal. We also designated 6553 Sunset, the studio, our home, as party central. When there was a birthday, anniversary, listening session or really any occasion to celebrate it usually happened there. Our parties were legendary, for those who worked at the studio and for those who visited and wanted to hang out. They wanted to be near Marvin, to be inspired, to get high, to have fun, and to create music. Real music.

With the living quarters upstairs and with a closet here or a bathroom there, there was always someplace for the kids to hide—and sometimes the adults. It provided us, and those that we knew, a second home. The windows upstairs had two-way glass that allowed us to look down from our bedroom and see who came and went. It always made for interesting conversation. We knew who was hitting on who, who had the drugs, when to hide if there was someone we didn’t want to see, and when to go down and greet any new arrivals.

Once people got there, they didn’t want to leave, especially if we were having one of our celebrations. We would go all out, having food, drinks, drugs, celebrities, music, music, and more music.

I threw a party for Marvin in 1977. It was one of the best parties ever. Muhammad Ali; Cecil Franklin, Aretha’s son; superagent Phil Casey; superproducer Leon Ware and his wife Carol; Don Cornelius; Richard Pryor; Jetphotographer Ike Sutton, who became a dear friend; Jayne Kennedy; Smokey Robinson; Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson; Azizi Johari; Denise Nicholas; and many other stars came to enjoy a great party. At this particular party, we let the kids hang out for a little while, even though they were only two and three. Marvin had finished “I Want You,” and his massive hit “Got to Give It Up,” which we played whenever we wanted to get people moving. Before the party really got going, Nona insisted on showing off her dance moves to anyone who would watch. “Got to Give It Up” was playing and she went to work! She jumped and bumped, hooped and hollered, went into a spin at one point and fell on her bottom. Never missing a beat, she spun around on the floor, jumped up, making the fall a part of her dance. She was pleased with her performance. We laughed, clapped, and cheered for her. Being a big ham, she wanted to do it all over again, but it was time for her to head to bed. My mother arrived to pick Nona up and take her to her house to get some sleep.

Stevie Wonder showed up that night and we gave him a tour by describing this and that. We took him up to our living area. Stevie knew acoustics so well, with his heightened senses, that he stood in the middle of the room and said, “Wow! I’m digging the surround sound.” He instinctively knew that the room was round. I was amazed by his perceptibility.

Even Slim ended up working at the studio for a while. He would primarily hang with my brother Mark and Marvin’s brother Frankie, who took care of our day to day. It was nice having family around. There was a lot of laughter, pranks, and good times. One of my favorite occasions was Marvin wearing his pyramid hat. He said it made him smarter and made it easier to create music. It looked ridiculous but he swore by it.

“Don’t touch Daddy’s pyramid,” he would tell the kids.

Of course that made them want to not only touch it but throw it about, bend it, and put it on each other’s heads.

The studio was next door to a health food store where we were always finding interesting items like the pyramid hat or biofeedback machines. Marvin was way ahead of the times when it came to natural health and metaphysical concepts. He taught me a lot about vitamins, or “mins” as he called them, and herbs for every ailment. He read Back to Eden and bought numerous copies to give away as gifts, convinced that he knew how to live forever.

He would also read Edgar Cayce to me. Marvin scared the shit out of me with stories about Cayce, Virginia Beach, and how we should all move there to survive the end of the world—one of his favorite topics. The more I cried out in fear, the more he laid it on. Then he would do his best to make me laugh. It didn’t always work, though. He was incredibly hip and smart, open-minded, and forward thinking.

Jane Fonda was another star drawn to Marvin. One day she came bouncing into his Sunset Boulevard studio looking like a little girl in a candy store. I was there when he played her some of his new music. Afterward, she talked of plans to start up an aerobics center. Would he be interested in investing? He was. I was afraid, of course, that his interest had more to do with Jane than with her aerobics. The two had engaged in super-intense eye contact.

A week or so later, Jane invited Marvin to see the space that she had rented on Robertson Boulevard. He decided to take me along. The center was impressive—gleaming wood floors, expansive mirrors, bars along the walls. Marvin thanked the assistant who showed us around and then asked when Jane would be arriving.

“I’m afraid she won’t be,” the assistant said.

I wondered whether that was because she had been told that I was there. In any event, I was relieved. Marvin didn’t invest. I’m not sure he ever saw Jane again.

But he did see Dyan Cannon, famous for rooting on the LA Lakers from her floor seat at the Forum. When friends told me of the rumor that Marvin had been hanging out with Dyan at the Forum Club, I grew alarmed and confronted him.

“We both love the game of basketball,” he said. “That’s all there is to it.”

“But why am I learning about this through friends? Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing her?”

“I’m not ‘seeing her,’ as you put it. I’m just hanging out with her—and only once in a great while. It’s an innocent thing.”

“And not an affair?”

“A friendship, yes. A love affair, no.”

When it came to Marvin and other women, I was always on guard, especially as he escalated his divorce war with Anna. As those wars threatened his emotional and financial well-being, Marvin became more vulnerable. He refused to retreat or listen to reason. He also grew more hostile. When he faced the prospect of losing all his material possessions, he responded with, “Après moi, le déluge”—“After me, the flood”—the foreboding words allegedly ascribed to Louis XV. Marvin saw himself as a king about to lose his empire. But rather than alarm him, the prospect of ruin excited him.

He was further excited by the notion that I might be unfaithful. It took me a long time to understand why. Why would a man who had declared his love to me with the most romantic words—and the most romantic music—want to see that love tarnished and broken?

Why design drama that would lead to heartbreak? Why ask for chaos and confusion?

I was deeply confused when Frankie Beverly drove to the ranch in Round Mountain to meet with Marvin about an upcoming tour and, once again, Marvin forced me into a situation calculated to both tantalize and traumatize.

Just as Marvin went out of his way to avoid sex for the weeks preceding Frankie’s first trip, he repeated the pattern with the second trip. He did this to play on my insecurities.

When Frankie arrived, I was filled with uncertainty about my attractiveness. I was ashamed of my post-baby body. Marvin used my insecurity to further upset me.

What seemed unreasonable, though, was when Marvin told me that he had reserved two rooms at a nearby motel in Redding—one for Frankie and one for me.

“Why in the world would you do that?” I asked.

“I want you to be comfortable, dear,” he said. “I’ve got work to do.”

I argued that it was a weird arrangement. I saw it as a setup.

“I need to be alone,” was all Marvin kept saying.

A few hours later, Frankie and I were checking in to the motel when we discovered that Marvin had arranged for us to have adjoining rooms.

Not an hour passed before Frankie knocked on my door.

“Can I come in?”

I hesitated. I was aware of his desire for me. And I couldn’t deny that I also desired him. I wanted to be desired. I wanted to feel that, despite Marvin’s recent rejections, I was a woman men found sexy. Frankie was a sexy man. Our relationship had been flirtatious from the start. At the same time, I had no intention of sleeping with him.

“Sure,” I said matter-of-factly. “Hold on.” I unlocked the adjoining door.

Frankie was standing there, all smiles.

“D-d-d-do you want to smoke a joint?” he asked.

“I was just rolling one. Come in.”

“Well, this is w-w-w-weird that we’re neighbors. But I’m glad you’re next door.”

“Me too,” I said.

We both tried to play off our awkwardness.

There were two beds. He sat on one. I sat on the other.

Before we could do any talking, though, there was loud banging on the door. It was Marvin telling me to open up.

My heart started pounding as Frankie dropped to his hands and knees and crawled back to his room. Marvin’s knock got louder.

With Frankie back in his room, I opened the door to let Marvin in. He looked around suspiciously.

“I smell weed,” he said.

“Of course you do. I just smoked a joint.”

“Where’s Frankie?”

“In his room, I guess.”

I tried to lighten the mood and act like Marvin was the crazy one. He finally relaxed and stayed for an hour or two. When he left and went back to the ranch, he took Frankie with him. I was relieved to see them both go.

Less than a month later, Marvin invited Frankie and Maze to open for him in Atlantic City. As usual, Marvin dreaded the event. His performance anxiety had reached new heights. To beat back the fears, he got high and was nearly two hours late to the venue.

Finally, we got into the limo. The driver sped along the highway while Marvin insisted that I twist him yet another joint. Something didn’t feel right. I sensed imminent danger.

“Hurry, my man,” Marvin urged the driver. “Do whatever you have to do—but get us there in ten minutes.”

“We’re a half hour away, sir,” said the driver.

“Not if you throw caution to the wind,” said Marvin. “I’ll pay the speeding ticket. Just press on. Hit it, man, hit it hard!”

In response, the driver went crazy, as if being chased. He floored the pedal and started speeding at what felt like a hundred miles an hour, swerving from lane to lane and barely avoiding one collision after another. We were scared to death. I was certain that Marvin and I would both be killed. I tried to tell the driver to slow down, but fear blocked my words.

And then it happened.

The limo crashed head-on into a telephone pole.

I was thrown into the front seat. As I was carried out of the car, I moved in and out of consciousness. Marvin, unhurt, was by my side.

“You have to stay alive, baby,” Marvin was saying. “You can’t go. You can’t leave me. I want to marry you. I want you to be my wife. Do you hear me? Please, Jan, please say yes. Please marry me.”

The timing of this, still another proposal from Marvin, was definitely strange. It came when I was suffering a concussion. At the same time, I was happy to hear the words. I was happy to accept his proposal. And then, hearing the siren of the arriving ambulance, I passed out.

When I awoke, I was back at the hotel. Marvin was still by my side.

“You’re here, dear,” he said. “You’re safe. You survived. Our love can survive anything. God was watching over us. You said you loved me. You said you’ll marry me. Say it again.”

I said it again before falling back into unconsciousness.

When I awoke a few hours later, Marvin was holding my hand. He gazed deep into my eyes and said, “I knew God wouldn’t take you from me. I knew he couldn’t be that cruel.”

Later that night I learned that the driver had been killed on impact. The news broke my heart. I thought about this tragic loss of life and his grieving family.

“It could have easily been you,” said Marvin. “Or me. We were spared. God spared us.”

The concert was canceled. Frankie Beverly never got to open for Marvin Gaye.

Repeating his proposal to me over and over again, Marvin concentrated on making me happy. It was now Marvin who wanted me for himself, Marvin who insisted that I come with him on his tour of England. He insisted that I be with him every minute of every day; I must vow never to leave him; I must believe him when he said that—despite all the delays and legal complications—he will have his divorce from Anna; he will create comfort and bliss; he will be sweet; he will be true; he will honor and safeguard me; he will love and protect our precious children; he will make our life heaven on earth.

He will.

He will.

He swears he will.