Canadian writer Bill Cosgrave witnessed the relationship of hippie era rock idol Jim Morrison and his girlfriend Mary from a front row seat. 50 years on, he still loves them madly…
Are you old enough to remember where you were when you heard that Jim Morrison, legendary frontman of The Doors, had been found dead in his Paris hotel room at age 27? If not, you surely associate other memories with the immortal singer/songwriter, like your first kiss to classic rock like Love her Madly or Light My Fire … or maybe you were part of a flash mob on Morrison’s grave at the Père Lachaise cemetery.
One way or another, Jim Morrison figures in your life in some memorable way, whatever generation you are. 2021 will see the 50th anniversary of his death but he still lives on the way only icons like Elvis Presley, John Lennon, or Janis Joplin do.
Enter Bill Cosgrave, an affable, laid-back, 73 year old Canadian. If you met him at a dinner party you’d notice him for his smarts, charm, and brilliant sense of humour but you would certainly not associate him with one of contemporary history’s most groundbreaking times, the Californian hippie era of the 1960s and 70s. And even less would you mentally peg him as one of Jim Morrison’s friends. But Bill’s youthful demeanor, the twinkle in his eyes, and a “forever young!” attitude betray that he has a story or three to tell. And that’s exactly what he has done. And what a story, too!
Flashback to the early 1960s: On a trip from Canada to Florida, Bill Cosgrave, all of 16 years old, meets the ethereally beautiful Mary Werbelow. He promptly falls in unrequited love with the gorgeous creature. She is not only several years his senior but also going steady with a certain Jim Morrison, an ingenious but troubled young man who is entirely unknown at this point but who would later come to write rock history.
Bill (pictured below), the smitten teenager, follows his dreamboat to crazy, wild, hippie Los Angeles where she engineers a close three-way friendship between him, herself, and her boyfriend Jim. And little did Bill suspect that he was about to live the adventures of his lifetime…
Fast forward several decades. In one of those many serendipitous coincidences that mark Bill Cosgrave’s life, he finds himself at a dinner party in Palm Springs, California. At some point he shares his story with his table neighbour, who tells him the same thing Bill must have heard a hundred times before, “Why don’t you write about this? It’s intriguing!”
That table neighbour is none other than David Swail, CEO of leading American publishing house McGraw-Hill. So, Bill obliges and captures his adventures in some 1,500 words. Feedback is prompt, and more than positive. Time goes on, a few pages here and there gradually turn into the manuscript for a book.
And one day, out of the blue, Mr. Swail calls Bill and puts him in touch with literary agent extraordinaire Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists… and things take their course from there. Love Her Madly – Jim Morrison, Mary, and Me, the book recounting the author’s times with his friends, is born. From Bill’s clandestine crossing of the Canadian-American border to homelessness on a Los Angeles beach and the formation of The Doors, we are in for a wild ride in the literary equivalent of a 1965 VW love and peace bus.
I’m leaving LA. We pledge to keep in touch; that the first one to make some money will contact the other. Jim’s bemused. I’ve made arrangements to rendezvous with two strangers for a ride across the country. Another of my weird, seat-of-my-pants adventures that makes Jim shake his head and smile. Mary hands me a ten dollar bill as I climb out of her VW Beetle. I’m almost broke, as always. Jim’s a little stoned, as always. And Mary — beautiful Mary — is practical and in charge. As always.
“I want this back one day, Billy Cosgrave,” she says. “I mean it.” My ride arrives. The three of us are tearing up. I hug my dear friends goodbye, tell them I love them, and hop into a car with strangers. Typical.
Two years later, Jim would be on the cover of major magazines, rocketing to fame as an international rock star and sex symbol. Four years later, television, newspapers, and radio would stun the world with news of his shocking death in a Paris hotel room. During our last conversation after a doors concert, Jim told me that Mary had gone to India. Mary — the girl Jim planned to marry; the girl I’d secretly loved — had disappeared. Years later, I would find her in circumstances I could never have imagined.
My last visit to her home was as strange as the first. Mysterious Mary had disappeared again. Along with her remarkable memories and her treasure box filled with Jim’s personal notes, letters, and memorabilia … she was gone.
–excerpt from ”Love her Madly“ with kind permission of Dundurn Press
Engagingly written, Love her Madly is one of those books you feel compelled to devour in one sitting. Bill Cosgrave’s dry sense of humour is laugh-out-loud funny but immensely empathetic at the same time. He describes those magical times of a psychedelic hippie California with a vivacity that catapults you straight onto Venice Beach of the late 1960s.
The author’s talent to bring a situation to life in all its colourful details pulls you into the events as if you were there. You become friends with the rising superstar Jim Morrison – a man of otherworldly intelligence and sensitivity. You fall under the spell of the delicate and surreally beautiful Mary just like Bill did. And you stand watch as he crashes the Academy Awards in Hollywood…For the length of this book you share the writer’s joys, suffer together through the hard times, and chant peacenik hymns alongside him. You simply become part of the story and one of its protagonists. Time has stood still, you are only just at the brink of adulthood, you have no care in the world, and Venice Beach is yours.
And there is something else that Bill’s book does, unintentionally and long overdue. Without lifting the veil too much on the notoriously discrete Mary’s privacy, it elevates the woman who in most Jim Morrison biographies is relegated to a mere footnote to her true role in the singer’s life: she was more than just his fiancée, she was also an influential, inspiring muse. Some of the most famous Doors songs like This Is the End, Moonlight Drive, and The Crystal Ship were written by Jim for his lady love.
To some readers, Bill Cosgrave’s tales may sound tall, even more so as there is little photographic evidence to support the events. “We were simply too broke to buy a camera, and it’s really a shame not having any memorabilia from those times”, the author says with more than just a tinge of regret in his voice. Nevertheless, these are the real-life adventures of a young man who dared to break free, to eschew convention, and to grab life by the horns… and this audacity leads him to serendipitous encounters with extraordinary people. He seems to have the Midas touch, turning opportunities into a success. Every now and then, the invisible hand of reality pulls him back down to Earth with a loud thump… but no matter how many times or how hard he crashes, he gets up right away, dusts himself off, and goes right back to Cosgraving.
We wanted to find out more about this author who heeded his calling to write only in retirement. But Canada is vast, where to look for him? We unearth him in the small and picturesque town of Kelowna, British Columbia, a five hour drive east of Vancouver, where he lives with his wife Julie. But if you expect Bill to look like an aging hippie, you’ll be disappointed. With his nice home, and his sensible appearance from his glasses and hair style right down to his clothing, he blends seamlessly into his affluent gated community – a far cry from the wild days of his youth. Curious about this transformation, we start our probe.
Bill, paint us a picture of who you are and where you come from
I was born in Toronto into a nice and respectable middle-class family of four kids. Our Mom was a real character, always laughing, singing, and clowning around, as well as being a pioneer. She was the first female liquor salesperson in Canada! Her nickname was Bubbles, so you can imagine what influence she had on us. Our home was always open to anyone, and there were always lots of interesting visitors who showed us a world beyond the four walls of our classrooms.
I remember most vividly that when I was young, I read a lot, whatever came in sight – from the proverbial back of the cereal box to books and magazines. I guess I was a precocious child with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and that would later prove to come in handy. I was also extremely fearless and curious, and just couldn’t wait for the next adventure to live or the next new person to meet. Maybe that played a role in stumbling across the most fascinating people throughout my life, or maybe I am just more blessed than others.
When I was 15, I started selling Christmas cards to save money for a trip to Florida. And that’s how I wound up in the town of Clearwater, where I met Mary, and how I got to Los Angeles not long after that… and life would never be the same again, as told in the book.
After your crazy years in L.A., how did you go back to a “normal” life?
I may have been quite the anti-establishmentarianist but the solid roots that my earlier family life had planted always kept me grounded. I also had the great good fortune to find a mentor, John Burrows, who after the youthful follies of my Californian phase took me under his wings and guided me along the straight and narrow. Thanks to him, I finally wound my way back to a well-adjusted middle-class existence and adult life back home in Canada, even though to this day I still abhor anything that exploits people, including abuse of power and rapacious corporations.
Through a series of fortuitous circumstances – did I mention I was one of the luckiest people on Earth? – I started a travel company, something I quite loved doing. Who wouldn’t enjoy being paid to travel? One day, my job took me to Hawai’i, and there I met Julie, the true love of my life. She has been my adored partner in love, marriage, travel, and “crime” for 42 years now, and we have two wonderful daughters, Hilary and Whitney, who today both happen to live in L.A. So interestingly enough, the City of Angels that so decisively shaped my youth, still figures in my life to this day, and I go there as often as possible.
How come you found literary fame at this point in your life?
As I said, my life has been a chain of happenstance. I was incredibly fortunate to often have been at the right place at the right time, with someone along the way who believed in me and saw enough potential in me to trust me with tasks outside my limited expertise. So I guess it was just another one of those serendipitous events. I had never written before. But someone heard and liked the story I had to tell, and encouraged me to put pen to paper, and here we are…
What do you think would have become of Jim Morrison, had he lived?
Hard to say. He was painfully shy, incredibly kind, and supremely intelligent. If you recited one line of Nietzsche’s philosophical writings, he could instantly tell you it was from this or that text, on page so and so. He was a genius in many ways.
But like so many other progressive artists driven by some kind of inner enlightenment only known to them he had his demons and became a member of the tragic “27 Club” like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Brian Jones, etc. – all those exceptionally talented musicians who died at that precise age.
Jim’s alcohol addiction got the better of him. Had he been able to clean up his act and lived on, I could well see him as a literature or philosophy lecturer today, or maybe he’d make movies. It’s a tremendous loss that he didn’t.
And what happened to Mary? Did you ever see her again?
The short answer is, yes, I tracked her down and saw her again many years later. But it was a bittersweet reunion, and the book tells the long and winding story that led there.
Have you ever visited Jim Morrison’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery?
No, not yet. I understand it is one of the top tourist attractions in Paris though, with rave parties held on his grave. He would have enjoyed that quite a bit.
What’s next in store for Love Her Madly?
After the Covid-related delayed launch, the book can now be ordered online, and I understand the first copies are actually already being shipped. I am really excited that it will be presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2020. We also just signed a deal with a major publisher in Russia. And without disclosing any details, it appears there is also an interest in a musical and theatrical adaptation of it.
So, yes, I am surprised, stunned, excited, and happy all at the same time that my story has received such positive responses, let alone it going places internationally. In fact, one of the comments I received was that although my book is about Jim Morrison and Mary Werbelow, it made me shine. That was an incredibly touching thing to hear. I am so grateful to my publishing company Dundurn Press and my agent Hilary McMahon who are all doing a really fantastic job to share my story with the world.
Do you have a message beyond the entertaining memoirs?
I am truly thankful for so much good luck and great fortune – things could have panned out quite differently in many situations. But I also was never afraid of the unknown, I always wanted to live life to the fullest, then and now. I seized the moment and grabbed opportunities as they came along. So, my message is simple: don’t allow yourself to be crippled by fears – just go for it! Follow the beat of your own drum. Question and challenge authority. Live your life without worrying about what others think – remember it’s no one else’s but yours. If you follow your dreams and work hard to make them happen, if you are authentic, open-minded, honest, kind, and true to your instincts, it will work out.
Accurately described by its publishing house as “a riveting memoir that works its magic like a slow-acting drug, revealing the story of Jim Morrison’s first love, a long-lost friendship, and the man who existed before the Doors”, we have but one complaint: we wish the book had been three times longer. It’s a story that appeals to everyone: baby boomers relive the heady Flower Power days, and younger generations will see that the same people they often disparagingly call “old geezers” were actually not so different from themselves in their teens and twenties.
Love Her Madly, which has already received overwhelmingly positive comments, can be ordered from leading online sellers or through your friendly neighbourhood bookstore now.
and there are things unknown
and in between are The Doors.”― Jim Morrison
Photo of young Bill Cosgrave courtesy Bill Cosgrave, photo of Bill today by Whitney Campeau;
Photo of Mary Werbelow courtesy Bill Cosgrave;
Photo of Venice Beach sign by Whitney Campeau
Book cover courtesy of Dundurn Press