The stars former assistant opens up about a 20-year relationship that weathered addiction, fame and secrecy
The story told by Robyn Crawford in the pages of A Song For You, an account of her decades-long relationship with Whitney Houston is tender, moving and painful to read, the history of a friendship that is also a love story. More acutely, it is the story of two women who, for the entirety of Houstons life, concealed the sexual origins of that relationship, amid intense and often prurient speculation. Meanwhile, Crawford was harangued, marginalised, and allegedly threatened with violence by the singers family. I found comfort in my silence, says Crawford, whose decision to write the book was in part a rebuke to the tabloidisation of her friends legacy. But its the silence that lingers. Reading her book, one gets the chilling sense not only of how alien things were in the very recent past, but of a story that shouldnt be repeated in the future.
To break any silence is difficult never mind one enforced over decades, at the risk of huge commercial damage to a brand as valuable as Houstons. Even seven years after the singers death, Crawford clearly continues to struggle. In her publishers New York office, the 55-year-old is softly spoken and elegant, choosing her words with the care of someone still half stuck in the mindset of shielding her friend.
Crawford and Houston were teenagers when they met at a community centre in East Orange, New Jersey, the singer the younger by three years. There was an instant connection, Crawford says. She was a basketball star, home from college; Houston was still in high school. And we clicked, she says. She told me she was a singer and that she went to Mount St Dominic Academy, and I told her I was playing basketball and in college. We were two friends it wasnt like we met at a club. It was something that happened in the flow of a friendship.
By something that happened, Crawford is referring to the years immediately after meeting when the two women were sexually involved. If she is coy about this, its with good reason. The warping effect of denial isnt easily shrugged off and there is an overwhelming sense, both in the book and in person, of someone running a gamut of internal barriers. Both Houston and Crawford had been raised in God-fearing households, at a time when, she says, you were either this, or you were that. Officially, they were just friends, but even privately they resisted acknowledging what was really going on. We never talked labels, like lesbian and gay, Crawford writes. We just lived our lives, and I hoped it could go on that way for ever.
The friendship would, in fact, last two decades, but the sexual relationship was short-lived. In 1980, when they met, it was already clear Houston was heading for stardom: her cousin, Dionne Warwick, was a veteran star; her mother, Cissy, a successful backing singer; and Whitney had caught the eye of record executives in New York. It was also clear that her relationship with Crawford was going to be a problem. At the age of 19, Houston signed her first contract with Arista Records president Clive Davis. In an extraordinary scene in the book, she then went to Crawfords house, handed her a Bible and told her they had to quit having sex, because it would make our journey even more difficult. She also told Crawford that, if they found out because her career was taking off theyd use it against us.