Diana Ross was the first woman I wanted to be like. I was 10 years old, and she—hips swinging, hair flipped—was among the first black women on television. When I was in my twenties, the wise Dr. Maya Angelou brought clarity to my life's lessons. In my thirties, I named Camille Cosby my "Sheba"—a woman who, like the Sheba in Nikki Giovanni's poem ["Poem for Flora"], inspires imitation.
The sitting room in Camille Cosby's Manhattan town house is a picture book of her life: beloved paintings—some of her husband, Bill, and their now deceased son, Ennis—in a stunning art collection; fresh-cut flowers, one of Camille's favorite things; and Shaker furniture that Bill surprised her with one year. You half expect her home to be familiar, because after years of hearing America's favorite father say "my wife, Camille," you must know who she is. And maybe you know a lot: She raised four daughters in addition to her son. She is business manager to Bill, whom she met on a blind date nearly 40 years ago and married when she was just 19; a philanthropist, who in 1988, with her husband, gave Spelman College $20 million, the largest gift ever given to a black school; and a producer, who brought us the Broadway hit and movie Having Our Say , the story of two century-old black women.
When Camille enters her sitting room, we embrace. She wears her 56 years as if she created age. Her silver-gray hair, which she has grown out from her close-cropped style, frames her face perfectly. Nothing about her-comportment would tell you that just over three years ago, on January 16, her only son, 27-year-old Ennis William Cosby, was murdered on a desolate road near a Los Angeles freeway. Or that in the brouhaha surrounding Ennis's death, she and her husband became embroiled in an extortion case in which 22-year-old Autumn Jackson claimed to be Bill's daughter.
In my more than 25 years on the air, I have interviewed hundreds of women, but today, in my first interview ever without a camera, I feel nervous. Cameras represent comfort for me; the immediacy of a live interview evokes the kind of energy that fills space. On a Saturday afternoon at the Cosbys' town-house, I sit with just a tiny tape recorder, prepared to experience the essence of Camille—as serene and comely as always, but inside, a changed woman.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Camille Cosby
Note: This interview appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.