This week, we’re thrilled to hear from Bill Cosgrave, author of Love Her Madly, a lyrical and moving account of the days before legendary rock band The Doors became a worldwide phenomenon—the days before the shy, quiet Jim Morrison, who hadn’t ever been heard to hum a tune, became a wildly successful frontman and an international sex symbol whose death at the age of twenty-seven in a Paris bathroom sent millions into mourning.
It’s also the story of a feisty young Canadian who did his very best to suck the marrow out of life. Cosgrave tells how, after being kicked out of college, he managed to sneak across the Canada/US border hidden in bales of hay in the back of a pickup, responding to an invitation from his friend, Mary Werbelow, to stay with her in Los Angeles. Though madly (and secretly) in love with the ethereal Mary, Cosgrave met, and quickly bonded with, her soulmate and fiancé, Jim Morrison. Long, languid days at the beach alternated with some surprising adventures as Cosgrave explored the city, almost succeeding in crashing the Academy Awards, meeting a group of friendly transvestites, getting caught up in the Watts Riots and “rescued” by some men driving a stolen car, and more. The very title of the book suggests the exuberance of the mid-Sixties in California, when everyone was young, and everything seemed possible—days of free love, cheap grass, palm trees, and the endless ocean under cloudless skies.
But all this was to change. Jim and Mary break up, Cosgrave returns to Canada and a saner life, and later learns of Morrison’s death and Mary’s mysterious disappearance. His search for her would lead to a heartbreaking discovery.
If this sounds like a helluva story to you, we totally agree. So, when Kristine Morris filed her starred review of Love Her Madly for the July/August issue of Foreword, we made a quick appeal to the good people at Dundurn for their help in setting up a reviewer-author interview.
Kristine, make your music.
You’ve really captured the spirit of the mid-Sixties in California, and shared things about Jim Morrison that I’m sure not many people know. Please tell our readers about your background as a writer and what compelled you to write this book. It feels as though the words just flowed, something not easy to attain. Did you find the writing easy? How were you affected by reliving those times and events as you wrote?
My background as a writer is that I have no background, other than personal letters or executive communications which I wrote over the years, and lots of reading. Happenstance has played a major role in my life—being in the right place at the right time. One day, I got a last-minute invitation from a dear friend to join him and his corporate clients for a week of golf in Palm Springs. At our first dinner, I happened to sit beside a very engaging man, David Swail, and we started chatting. At some point, we got on to my story about Jim and Mary, and he was fascinated. He asked, “Why don’t you write about this? It’s intriguing!”
Happenstance again—David was the CEO of McGraw-Hill! So, just for the hell of it, I wrote about 1500 words and sent the pages to him a few months later. His response was very flattering, and he encouraged me to write more—so I did. The more I wrote, the more I remembered, and the more I enjoyed it. It was fun! Every once in a while, I would send him another several pages, and he continued to encourage me.
Writing opened the door and delivered me back to those amazing experiences. It made me deliriously happy and seriously sad. Sometimes I’d be laughing out loud at the keyboard, and at other times, I’d have tears rolling down my cheeks. It’s such a bittersweet story. Some years later, I had a finished manuscript. One day, out of the blue, David called and put me in touch with a dynamic literary agent, Hilary McMahon, with Westwood Creative Artists. I sent her the manuscript, and within a few weeks she sent me a contract. She has been amazing to work with!
I also happen to be married to an amazing writer. Julie has provided invaluable advice and input. She’s been a columnist, newspaper editor, magazine contributor, and has a literary novel, a compelling mystery, and a young adult story under her belt. She’s the exceptional writer in our family!
What was there about you that allowed you to leave everything behind in Canada and sneak across the border to visit your friend, Mary Werbelow, in Los Angeles?
I grew up with an extroverted, fun-loving, people-loving, Auntie Mame-type of mother (her nickname was Bubbles). There was an endless parade of characters at our house, and I saw that there was way more fun and adventure to life than I’d ever find between the four walls of a classroom. I loved meeting people, and couldn’t wait to meet the next one. I was a mature and confident young man who didn’t like conformity and had no trust in authority figures. I wanted adventure and had no fear. At the age of fifteen, I sold Christmas cards and made enough money to fly to Florida and stay with family friends. Everything there enthralled me—the palm trees, the ocean, the kids. I decided to stay, and finished high school there.
When I was eighteen, studying at Loyola College in Montreal, I had repeated clashes with the Dean of Residence, who detested my non-conformity and kicked me out. So, when Mary wrote and described the excitement of LA in the mid-Sixties, I couldn’t wait to get there, especially as she’d invited me to stay with her. I took a train and then hitchhiked from Toronto to Los Angeles. Freedom! Excitement! No control freak Dean! I was young, carefree, happy, and optimistic.
How deeply were you affected by the zeitgeist of the times in Canada, and later in the US? Did you experience any culture shock when you first arrived in the States?
I was enthralled with the anti-establishment counterculture, and would wander up and down Yorkville, Toronto’s Haight-Ashbury, to be with the hip and the hippies. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and others would be playing in the bohemian coffee houses. The hippie philosophy of peace and love, combined with the rejection of authoritarian white male patriarchy, was central to my evolving beliefs. The protest songs and the anti-establishment rock-and-roll songs all resonated with me. When I was finishing high school in Florida, I had classmates being drafted into the Vietnam War, and I saw their fear and resentment. One classmate actually shot himself in the foot with his father’s revolver so he would be exempt from the draft.
When I first arrived in LA, I thought I’d arrived in the promised land. Thousands and thousands of young people were dropping out and flooding into California. Everyone was open and sharing and welcoming. Young people were taking command. Free expression, free love, cheap grass! So, no culture shock—more of a resounding “YES!”
What did you hope might come of your reunion with Mary? How did the fact of her being in a relationship with Jim affect your love for her? Were you really OK with a platonic relationship?
Mary was so beautiful and captivating and smart. No one who met her could ever forget her; she was a dream girl. But she was three-plus years older, loved Jim, and they were to be married, so there was no way that we could be anything other than friends. I loved being around her, in her orbit. She was a good, kind, caring, fun, generous friend. When she invited me to stay with her in LA, I went with my eyes wide open. I was totally OK with our platonic relationship, because there was no other option. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t find her unbearably desirable.
After the events in the book transpired, and I found Mary again after many years, she acknowledged that she’d known I loved her, though I’d kept it a secret.
You became close to Jim Morrison, whom your book describes as a brilliant, kind, and painfully shy young man. What was there about him that you liked and admired? What did the two of you share?
From his warm smile when we were first introduced, he was welcoming, kind, and open. He was courteous, respectful, and very polite. We clicked, and quickly bonded. I think that he was particularly open to me because Mary and I were friends. Human behavior fascinated him, and I think he got a kick out of this confident, adventurous eighteen-year-old guy who ended up on his girlfriend’s sofa looking for adventure, open to everything and everyone.
Jim was extremely curious, and wanted to know everything. He was fascinated with death and what happens afterward, and he could discuss anything—philosophy, nature, the universe, human behavior, the color of a blouse. But he could also be quiet, and not speak at all for long intervals. He tended to keep things compartmentalized, and though he was shattered when he and Mary broke up, he rarely talked about it. When Jim spoke about his family, he’d focus on his authoritarian, military father’s strict discipline, which he disliked.
The book relates your surprise that Jim became the frontman and co-founder of a band called The Doors, as no one had ever even heard him hum a tune! How do you think Jim managed to transform from the man you knew, adopt a whole new persona, and turn to a life on the stage?
I can only speculate. Was it the copious amounts of LSD that flung open tightly-sealed doors, exposing him to mind-blowing insights into himself and the world? Or excessive drinking that enabled him to completely abandon his inhibitions? All humans are traumatized to greater or lesser degrees. Was this his way of dealing with his trauma? Or did he simply open to and share his musical and writing gifts which took off like a rocket as soon as he had a platform to express himself? I think most of us feel inhibited, knowing we have a “wild side” that we’re reluctant to reveal or act upon. Jim had the vehicle to let it all out, and he did.
The group turned out to be a huge success. Why do you think The Doors’ music had such appeal?
It was a once-in-a-lifetime band. They were extraordinary musicians who came up with a creative, unique blend of blues, hard rock, jazz, and acid rock with terrific lyrics sung by a spellbinding singer. They were the first American band to accumulate eight consecutive gold albums. And they’ve stood the test of time, with global LP sales of over 130 million, plus hundreds of millions of downloads on YouTube and Spotify.
Is there a story, or some special meaning, behind the name chosen for the band?
The name comes from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception. Huxley’s title came from a line in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
What was leaving LA and returning to Canada like for you? Do you think it was the best decision for you at the time?
I left Jim, Mary, and LA reluctantly, but it was an economic necessity. Jim and I were both broke. I’d quit my job at the LA Times when I saw how it exploited poor people, and then couldn’t get a legitimate job. In retrospect, I’m amazed that I didn’t return to LA when Jim became famous. He had wanted me to do the band’s travel arrangements. I would have had a job and been able to be with him again in much different circumstances. And I would have been able to see Mary again. All those temptations…
But—happenstance again! I met an amazing, successful, accomplished man who ended up changing my life. After leaving LA, I went to Calgary and met John Burrows. He saw something in me and became my mentor. He hired me, encouraged and guided me, and gave me increasing responsibilities. And I thrived. He counseled me not to return to LA and what would have been a crazy, drug-infused, rock-and-roll life. Best decision I ever made. Had I gone back, I certainly wouldn’t be alive today.
Looking back at those days in LA, do you have any insight into the cause of Jim Morrison’s death in that Paris apartment? He was only twenty-seven. Might it have been due to an accidental overdose?
The official French version is that Jim died of a heart attack. But there are many theories for how he ended up dead in that apartment’s bathtub. One theory is that he mistook his then-girlfriend’s heroin for cocaine, and that the heroin killed him. Jim’s pursuit of the dark side, and his excesses may have killed him, but I have not seen any suggestions that he intentionally took his life.
Your memoir shares some magical, almost miraculous synchronicities that you experienced while in Los Angeles—successfully (almost) crashing the Academy Awards; being “rescued” by men in a stolen car during the Watts Riots; and later in life, the way this book came to be. Have synchronicities or magical events continued to appear in your life?
Here’s one: When I left Toronto at fifteen, I also left my great friend Garfield Smith. We had been buddies since grade school. Every time I returned to Toronto, I tried to locate him, but without success. I managed to crash a private event at an embassy in Paris, and accepted a glass of champagne from the server. The room was jammed and noisy. A trio was playing. Above the cacophony, I heard a distinctive laugh, and thought, “Impossible!” And there he was! We were reunited after fifteen years. We lost touch again until I traced him twenty-five years later. He now lives in Venice, California, five blocks from where my grandchildren go to school.
Beyond the story of Jim, Mary, and your relationship with them before their breakup and the fame of The Doors, what do you hope readers will most enjoy and remember about your book? What do you hope they will come to know and understand about you and those days in the Sixties?
I hadn’t considered that readers might want to know and understand me. I was a happy-go-lucky young man who wanted to take as big a bite as possible out of life. I seized the moment and leapt at opportunities. One message is to cast away your fears and just do it. Fear can be crippling. Whatever it is, don’t hesitate if it feels right. Don’t worry about what others think—it’s your life, not theirs. It sounds corny, but follow your dreams and work diligently to achieve them. Be authentic. Trust your instincts. Definitely take the road less traveled. Question authority. Be open, be positive, be loving. Empathy, compassion, and kindness are huge, and critical. Most people are wonderful—embrace them.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?
I hope readers will be fully engaged, and at the end, say, “I’m glad I read this. What a hell of a story!”
Can we hope for another book?
I’ve been writing down ideas ranging from the superiority of women and the destructive nature of male behavior, to addressing the issue of “appearance” and the multi-billion-dollar industries that thrive on it. Just imagine some freak event that causes global blindness. No more “beauty” industry, no more visually enticing advertisements, no more judging each other by our appearance or what we own, but by who we are. These are just some random notes that may lead to a novel. I enjoyed writing Love Her Madly. I know that a novel would be a much different, more arduous challenge.