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John Belushi: Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Wrong People

An investigation into the larger-than-life comedian’s final days

John Belushi, Saturday Night Live

John Belushi during the 'Weekend Update' ski, Saturday Night Live on November 4th, 1978

Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

The night before Cathy Evelyn Smith was seen across the country as the “Belushi Mystery Woman” on ABC’s 20/20, her attorney, Robert Sheahen, was standing in front of St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. He had a problem: While he had been upstairs in the maternity ward visiting his wife and their two-day-old baby, Sheahen said, his client had wandered off. But it was all right. She was alone, on foot and inebriated. She wouldn’t get far.

“She called me from a pay phone and said she was drinking in a bar in an alley behind the hospital,” the attorney explained, climbing into his car. “We’ll find her.”

We pulled off Santa Monica Boulevard and then made a hard right on Arizona into a neighborhood of stucco apartment buildings. Sheahen pointed to the first alley on the left: “Let’s try in there.”

The alley was a concrete driveway between the banks of apartment buildings. It was dark, lined with garages and garbage cans. Who the hell would look for a bar in a deserted alley in Santa Monica? I began to ask.

“That looks like her,” Sheahen said, pointing ahead. The headlights illuminated a pair of flabby thighs encased in white stretch pants tucked into high-heeled cowboy boots. Floating above was a woman’s broad, florid face coated with sweat-congealed makeup.

“You come to take me for a ride?” Cathy Evelyn Smith asked, grinning sloppily and pitching forward off the narrow shoulder of the man upon whom she had been leaning. He was about 50, with tattooed forearms and silver hair greased straight back from a scarred forehead. The man raised an open palm as if to say hello, then quickly released the woman and brought up his other hand in a gesture of surrender.

“I was just bringing her back,” the man said. “I didn’t touch her. I swear to God.”

“I have to go,” Smith told the man. “It’s been fun.”

Sheahen climbed out of the car and poured his client into the front seat, where she came to rest with her head against the dashboard. Cathy Smith turned and, peeking through a thatch of brittle, broken brown hair, leered suspiciously.

“Where the fuck am I?” she wanted to know. Her own question struck her as hilarious, and she doubled over with laughter.

The place she had just come out of, a white shed with painted windows, lacked not only a sign but even an obvious entrance. It was, to strain a euphemism, a private club.

“I saw these three black guys standing up here, smoking a joint, and I figured there had to be something going on. ‘Is it cocktail hour yet?’ I asked ’em. ‘Is it five o’clock yet?’ They told me it was quarter to five, but I said, ‘What the hell, startin’ early’s better than startin’ late.'”

It was quarter after seven now. “It’s been a very rough week for Cathy,” her attorney pointed out. “She’s understandably dejected and disconsolate.”

“I’m disconsolate as hell,” Smith said with a laugh so harsh it silenced everyone in the car.

We headed to a motel for the world premiere interview with the 34-year-old fugitive from the press.

Thirteen Days earlier, on the afternoon of March 5th, Cathy Evelyn Smith had appeared driving the wrong way into the one-way exit of the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Strip behind the wheel of John Belushi’s rented red Mercedes. It was an arrival that made national news, because at that moment, a hundred feet away, Belushi lay naked and dead on the floor of his $200-a-day bungalow. The police who had cordoned off the area were reflexively insisting it had been “death from natural causes.” But the phalanx of media ghouls massed behind the police line already suspected, correctly, that Belushi had died of a drug overdose. So when the unidentified woman in a blue and gray jogging suit was led away in handcuffs to a black and white patrol car, she was followed by dozens of TV and tabloid reporters looking for a break in the story.

The media was distracted for a while when Belushi’s widow, Judy Jacklin, told the Chicago Sun Times that her husband had been with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams on the night of his death. However, De Niro’s agent said the actor “absolutely was not in Belushi’s room” in the early morning hours of March 5th. Williams’ agent confirmed that Williams and Belushi were together the night before Belushi died, but said, “I really don’t know” if Williams later visited Belushi at the Chateau Marmont. Both De Niro and Williams were unavailable for comment.

If the “mystery woman” were booked on a drug charge, according to certain well-placed sources, the list of potential material witnesses would include an astonishing array of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), however, would reveal no other names besides Cathy Smith’s. And they declined to file any criminal charges against her. Police reluctantly confirmed that Smith had turned over a syringe and a spoon that she had taken from Belushi’s bungalow on the morning of his death. And “technically,” Smith’s “possession of drug paraphernalia was a crime,” conceded Russ Kuster, a detective in the Hollywood Division. “But we wouldn’t have even known about that stuff if she hadn’t told us,” Kuster added. “She cooperated fully.”

If Smith had provided Belushi with the drugs he used to overdose, or if she had helped put the needle in his arm, Kuster said, “There would have been grounds, technically, for a charge of manslaughter. But we have no evidence of that.”

Had the other people who were present during the early morning hours of Belushi’s overdose been questioned?

“Look,” Kuster said, “nobody, least of all someone famous, is gonna cop to a drug charge where there’s no real evidence.”

John Belushi’s death brought into focus some ugly political tensions in Los Angeles. The LAPD’s administration downtown, a willing recipient of the entertainment industry’s glorified buggery dating back to the era of Jack Webb’s Dragnet, was not talking. The department’s Hollywood Division, where the actual investigation had been conducted, has been the nervous object of official scrutiny involving charges that officers had burglarized stereo and video equipment stores, and that several Hollywood cops had had “sexual relationships” with a group of female Explorer Scouts. The Hollywood Division’s commander, Captain Jerry Feinberg, retired under pressure from Police Chief Daryl Gates four weeks after Belushi’s death. And Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi, from whose office the most accurate information about Belushi’s death emerged, was stifled by a threat of suspension from the County Board of Supervisors.

Thus, Cathy Evelyn Smith, upon her release, became the last hope for reporters who were still on the case. Smith became an instant media event — except for the slight problem that no one could find her.

The National Enquirer staked out the east Hollywood apartment on Bimini Place that Smith shared with a waiter. The Enquirer also offered Sheahen, her attorney, $20,000 for an exclusive story. Instead, the attorney arranged for Smith to flee to St. Louis, a city where she knew no one.

St. Louis was “the most boring place on earth,” Smith said, until two Associated Press reporters spotted her in the bar of a hotel where she was registered under her own name. The wire-service reporters demanded to know if she was the Cathy Smith, and she was pursued upstairs by overeager hotel security guards who ordered her to turn over her stash of cocaine and heroin (she didn’t have any). The next morning, she caught a plane back to L.A. while Sheahen arranged an interview with, in his words, “the most responsible publication available.”

“For the cost of a $30 motel room,” the attorney observed, “you’re getting what the Enquirer offered thousands for.”

The room that would be the setting for the interview was in a drab brown stucco motel on Santa Monica Boulevard that advertised a heated pool and silent air conditioning. The hospital had recommended the place. As we parked and climbed the stairs to Room 280, Sheahen told his client, “I recognize this place. I used to know a couple of guys who dealt Dilaudid out of here.”

A motel guest who saw me helping the photographer carry his four steel cases of equipment stopped me on the stairway. “You guys makin’ a movie in there?” he wanted to know. “You mind?” I asked. He shook his head and grinned. “Just keep the curtains open when you get to the good part.”

We drew the curtains, and Cathy Smith closed the door behind her. She would only come a few feet into the room. She sat on the silent air conditioner and demanded, “What the fuck you want from me? What is this?”

John Belushi, Cathy, John Belushi.

Her smile vanished. Smith lowered her head and submerged into sobbing that was painful to watch for all the wrong reasons.

“John Belushi,” she said. “Guy was the greatest guy I ever met. He elevated the slob to a Bel Air partygoer. His comedy put Richard Pryor to shame.”

It was either a prepared speech, or Cathy Smith has a lousy memory, because she repeated the same words, verbatim, at least five or six times during a 90-minute interview.

“He was very spirishual,” Smith said, “very spirishual.”

Belushi’s “spirishuality” was not among the things that attracted Smith to him when she first met the actor five years ago backstage at Saturday Night Live in New York. At that time, Smith was traveling with the Band, “looking out for one of the members’ health,” she said. “I’m not gonna say who.

“I didn’t pay that much attention to John Belushi then,” Smith said. “I was somebody tryin’ to make my own mark.”

The mark Smith hoped to make was through her career as a “songwriter and screenwriter.” She declined to name any titles. “I’m not gonna write a fuckin’ thing,” she said, with one of her raw laughs. “I’m not gonna write until it pays me to write.”

One thing for sure, Cathy Evelyn Smith has gathered a lot of material. In her hometown of Toronto, she was a well-known local scene maker since her early teens. She was “absolutely beautiful, one of the ladies who had everything a man always wanted but was afraid to confront,” recalled Bernie Fiedler, who owned the Riverboat, a Toronto folk club during the Sixties. Cathy had a relationship with Ian Tyson of Ian and Sylvia. She spent four years as the live-in lady of Gordon Lightfoot, who described her later as the one woman who had really hurt him. When the relationship was broken up by Cathy’s affair with Brian Good of the Good Brothers, Lightfoot wrote the song “Sundown” about it.

She later married, divorced and “had a kid,” Smith said. In 1978, she left the complications she had created for herself in Toronto and migrated to Los Angeles, attempting, at the age of 30, to graduate from folk-music groupie to the more dangerous world of rock & roll.

A man who knew her during her first few months in Los Angeles remembered her as a woman who seemed disinterested in “intimate relationships with men.”

“People like that make it sound like I never fucked anybody since Gordon Lightfoot,” Smith said. “Hardly true, I tell ya, hardly true. I’ve lived with everybody.”

Smith made a real run at success in the music industry, scoring a job as a backup singer with Hoyt Axton’s road company. Axton would issue only the following statement, through his mother, Mary: “Cathy Smith sang backup with my band. Together we cowrote the song ‘Flash of Fire.’ I dated her a few times and she seemed like a very nice girl.”

Others who knew Cathy Smith in 1978 recalled that she possessed a sweet voice and an exceptionally pretty face. But the next four years were very long ones.

“I got tired of riding a bus, a 42-foot-long bus, going back and forth from Kansas City to L.A.,” Smith said. “I didn’t know where I was.” When she realized “all the money was in writing,” Smith got off the bus for good in Los Angeles. Writing, though, was not where Cathy Smith found success.

“I hear I’m not John Lennon,” she said. “Of course I’m not. I’m not John Belushi, either. I’m not any of those people.”

Those people, though, gave Smith the light of their reflected glow. In L.A., she connected with “my all-time heroes,” the Rolling Stones. She spent eight months with them, much of it in the Getty Mansion they were renting up on Forest Knoll Drive in the Hollywood Hills. Her recollection of that time was somewhat garbled.

“I was working for them. I was looking after Ronnie Wood’s car, pending his divorce. They were on the road.”

The Stones eventually threw her out for “mouthing off to Mick and Keith,” Smith said. “They asked me to leave; that’s basically true. The thing was, they couldn’t stand somebody who told the truth. That was basically the reason for getting rid of me. They all wanted to hide in the back bedroom. I said, ‘Ronnie, you’re gonna have to work on saying no.’ I’m sorry, but that’s his basic problem.”

It was while she was with the Stones that Smith became involved seriously with heroin, contend several people who say they did business with her during that time. She discovered, according to some old but not very fond acquaintances, that she received both better pay and more respect for her heroin connections than she did for her songwriting. A few people finger her as a dealer, but others say she was simply a go-between, transportation. Musicians and entertainers would contact her or send her out from their homes to make a purchase of a specific amount of a particular drug. It was a period of her life, Smith said, when she was making as much as $50,000 a month. How? “Very carefully,” she said.

“Her own personal consumption erased her profit margin,” contends a customer who says he did business with Smith. Late in 1980, she lost her Jeep, then her apartment. She was out of business and broke. Yet, when asked about allegations that she dealt drugs, Smith said, “I’ve never done anything like that and I never will.”

John Ponse, a battered and white-haired Polo Lounge waiter of Dutch-Indonesian descent, offered her a place to stay. Ponse had met Smith about two years earlier at the bar in Dan Tana’s, where she arrived, he said, “like a breath of fresh air.” He gave Cathy a partitioned-off section of the living room, where she laid a mattress on the floor, covered it with a blue India print spread and made a home that lasted 18 months. Above her dresser was a line drawing of a rock star emerging from a limousine, given to her, Ponse said, by “a high roller with $10 in his pocket.”

Ponse, who saw Smith through an entirely different set of lenses than most of the men whose lives she passed through, says he felt only sympathy for her. “She’s a wonderful human being,” Ponse said. “They call her a groupie. How many groupies will mop the floors or water the plants or feed the cats? She did all that. She bought the groceries. She was very fastidious and very generous. She will give you her last cigarette. There is no one I would rather call with a problem at four o’clock in the morning than Cathy.

“All those people who were there that night when Belushi died — they all disappeared. They left only Cathy to hold the bag. But she stands up, she gives no names. All those other people, famous people, hiding. I say they are assholes.”

Not long after she moved in with Ponse, Cathy Smith was arrested by the California Highway Patrol in West Los Angeles for possession of heroin and for driving under the influence of the drug. A Canadian citizen whose resident status is a subject her attorney called “off-limits,” Smith filed documents at the Beverly Hills Courthouse listing her parents at an address in Rochester, New York. In fact, the address she gave does belong to a man named Smith, an attorney who does, in fact, have a daughter named Cathy — but she’s 13-years-old.

Questioned about this remarkably convenient inaccuracy, Smith quoted a long passage from Bob Dylan’s song “Idiot Wind,” which ends with the phrase, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Sheahen got Smith off on the heroin bust with no more than probation and the requirement that she attend “drug-education classes” at the Do It Now Foundation in Hollywood.

During the next year, Smith’s life cycled downward as she acquired a reputation as an obnoxious drunk. She was banished from a couple of Hollywood bars, including Dan Tana’s, where the maitre d’ exiled her for loud and bothersome behavior. Even John Ponse admits Smith was “drunk a lot” and “out a lot” during the last year. She was out all the time during the first week of March 1982. She returned to the apartment on Bimini Place just once, to use the phone. John Belushi was with her.

They seemed to be very friendly,” Ponse recalled. “Belushi looked perfectly all right to me then.” But Belushi wasn’t all right. During the five days he spent with Cathy Smith, he injected cocaine and speedballs — cocaine mixed with heroin. According to the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, there were half a dozen needle marks on each arm. There were no track marks, which would have indicated long-term use.

Belushi was said by friends to have been frightened by needles, unable to use one on himself. Did Smith shoot him up? “What the fuck you trying to do to me?” she asked.

It was John Belushi who sought her out, Smith said, five days before his death. “He wanted me to take care of him.” Sheahen described his client’s relationship with Belushi as “strictly professional.”

Belushi’s nonstop binge was set off, he confided to both friends and strangers, by Paramount’s rejection of a draft of a screenplay he had written with Don Novello (a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci). It was a comedy called Noble Rot, and Belushi was outraged when the studio turned it down.

“He couldn’t believe they wouldn’t take his screenplay,” Smith said, “but that they wanted him to do this movie about a little boy born into a porno family, a family making porno flicks.”

That film, inaccurately summarized, was to be a comedy that borrowed — for a price, of course — the title of Alex Comfort’s book The Joy of Sex. According to Belushi’s manager, Bernie Brillstem, Paramount had agreed at a meeting on the afternoon before Belushi’s death to make Noble Rot sometime in 1983, after a script revision by Novello.

“He was unhappy that Paramount didn’t jump up and down over the script,” said Brillstein. “John was a very definite guy. He wanted immediate approval.”

The studio assuaged Belushi’s ego, however, by offering him enormous sums of money to do it their way — somewhere between $10 million and $12 million for four pictures over the next two years, according to Brillstein.

“His best line,” Brillstein said, “when I would tell him the prices he was getting for his next movie was, ‘Well, a man’s gotta live.’

“But he was very embarrassed about the amount of money. He couldn’t believe it.”

Whatever, Belushi’s blend of disbelief, disappointment, embarrassment, gratitude, glee and celebrity confusion expressed itself in a manic energy, fueled during the last week of his life by an incredible consumption of cocaine, tooting it and running it in an alternating, almost nonstop, cycle.

“L.A. was always bad,” Judy Jacklin would say later. Belushi was saying the same thing. He had to get out of Los Angeles, Belushi told a young musician and cab driver named Billy Kopecky, whom he met at the counter of the Beverly Hills Cafe and invited out to his rented Mercedes to do a few lines of coke. He should be in El Salvador, where there were important things happening, Belushi told Kopecky. There was nothing important happening in Los Angeles. As he and Kopecky sat in the car, snorting cocaine off the lid of the glove compartment, Belushi complained about so-called friends he had once helped but who were now stabbing him in the back.

“He seemed to me like someone who thought the only way he could be accepted by the rock & roll crowd was by doing drugs,” said Kopecky.

About all of the city Belushi saw during his last week was the Sunset Strip district. It’s a party scene, and in public, Belushi played the party boy, bouncing around from a black-walled rock club called the Central to the red and glittery Roxy, to the neighboring Rainbow Bar and Grill, to the strip’s flashiest dive, Carlos ‘n Charlie’s, to the Improvisation on Melrose, to Dan Tana’s on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Belushi was cranked up on cocaine nearly all of the time and, during the last few days, had been cutting the coke with scrapings from a gram of pure heroin that he bought for $1000. “He would try anything he could find,” said Smith.

Belushi’s bungalow at the Chateau Marmont became the central staging area for early morning activities after the clubs on the strip closed at 2 a.m. The only sleep he got during his last week, Belushi told a stranger in the Beverly Hills Hotel, came when he sneaked away from his $200-a-day bungalow to rent a cheap motel room.

On the night before his death, Belushi showed up at the Rainbow complaining that he was sick to his stomach from the greasy food he had just eaten. Rainbow manager Mark Weber gave him some soup to settle his stomach, then Belushi ingested a little cocaine to stir it up again. At a little after 9 p.m., with Cathy Smith in tow, he headed over to the Roxy’s private club, On the Rox, an impenetrably exclusive establishment favored by people as diverse as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jack Nicholson, one of the club’s founding fathers.

When Belushi walked back across the parking lot to the Rainbow an hour later, he was accompanied by Robert De Niro. Belushi left De Niro alone on the dance floor and climbed into the DJ’s booth to see his friend Leroy Jones, a former backup singer for the Tubes. Belushi sat in the booth for a while, suggesting songs and complaining that he was tired. “His pace had accelerated triple-fold the last week,” Jones said. “He told me that night, ‘I’m not a millionaire. Things are getting too heavy.'”

Belushi rejoined De Niro at a little past midnight, said Jones. Before he left, Belushi autographed the cover of a magazine on which he appeared. The inscription read: LEROY, I’LL BE BACK. DON’T FUCK UP. YOUR FRIEND, JOHN BELUSHI. “He didn’t even say goodbye,” Jones remembered.

Belushi went back across the parking lot again to On the Rox, where the walls are adorned with the original sketches of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jim Morrison and the Doors and others from the coffee-table book Rock Dreams. Belushi picked up a guitar and began to play riffs for people at their tables. He stopped momentarily at a table of born-again Christians, including singer Johnny Rivers and Todd Fisher, actress Carrie’s brother. “John was already sort of high, but he wasn’t falling around,” said Fisher. “He was controlled enough to walk around and hold a conversation. It looked like he hadn’t been sleeping, but that’s how he always was.”

Belushi wasn’t interested in Jesus freak dialogues, so he ducked away from the Christian contingent and hid in the club’s kitchen. Rivers followed Belushi into the kitchen, and they sang a couple of songs together. After Rivers returned to his friends, Belushi poked his head out the door and asked the bartender, “Are they still there?” The bartender nodded, and Belushi waited in the kitchen until Rivers and his party left, just before 2 a.m.

Downstairs in the parking lot, Belushi scored his third package of cocaine that night, according to Smith. Mario Maglieri, owner of the Roxy and the Rainbow, saw Belushi standing in the parking lot with De Niro and Robin Williams as the clubs were closing at 2 a.m. Belushi was too drunk to drive, so Smith ferried him back to the Chateau Marmont in his Mercedes. According to Smith, De Niro and Williams showed up a short time later with friends — “all very big-name people,” according to Smith — and stayed until about 3:30 a.m.

“Someone took one of the packages of several kinds of drugs,” Smith said. “John was real pissed.”

Belushi had reserves enough to carry on, though. Alone with Smith, he continued to run speedballs, toot coke and pour wine from a case of bottles he had ordered. Then, at about 6 a.m., he began to complain of hot and cold flashes. At 6:30, he took a shower, and at 8:00 he climbed naked into bed, falling into a shallow sleep wracked by convulsive shivers and loud wheezing.

At 9:30 a.m., Smith, who said she was writing letters in the other room, was so disturbed by Belushi’s breathing that she woke him to ask if he was all right. She said she made him drink a glass of water and asked if he needed anything else.

“Just don’t leave me alone,” were Belushi’s last words.

Smith waited until a little after 10 a.m., when Belushi was either sleeping or unconscious or dead — she “really didn’t know” — and then she left him alone.

“I had business of my own to attend to,” she explained. She said she removed a syringe and a spoon from the scene before she left. Belushi’s “physical trainer,” William “Superfoot” Wallace, a former karate-kick champion, discovered the body at a little past noon. About two hours later, Smith returned at the wheel of the red Mercedes and “drove into a fuckin’ dragnet.”

“Actually, I think I might have done the best thing I could possibly do by returning,” she said. “You want to know the truth, if I hadn’t showed up, I really would’ve been in deep shit. Jesus Christ,” she said, a laugh gurgling up, “can you imagine, taking off with the guy’s car when he’s dead and not showing up again?”

The fact that she came back did little to exonerate Cathy Smith in the eyes of those who had been close to Belushi.

“The woman had a needle in her possession. John did not,” said Brillstein. “I don’t understand why someone hasn’t investigated the actual causes of his death.

“I don’t believe John could have given himself those shots. I know for a fact he had a fear of needles. Joel Briskin [an agent] and I took him to the doctor to have his knee drained, and we had to hold him down when they put the needle in.” It was impossible, however, to investigate the “actual causes” of Belushi’s death, Brillstein agreed. Except for Cathy Smith, the people who had been with Belushi that night were all hiding behind the same answer: “No comment.”

“One of them did send me some things I had given to John,” said Brillstein of De Niro and Williams. “He said he wanted to talk in three or four weeks.

“I know for a fact that neither one of them has contacted John’s wife, Judy,” Brillstein added. “So neither she nor I know the true story.”

The conclusion, at least, of that true story was available from the office of the Los Angeles County Coroner, which attributed Belushi’s death to “acute cocaine and heroin intoxication.”

There were enough drugs in his body to kill even a healthy man, the examining pathologist said, and Belushi was far from healthy. The autopsy report listed 11 abnormalities at the time of death, including, “pulmonary congestion with distended lungs,” a swollen brain, a swollen heart with “aorta atherosclerosis,” an enlarged liver and obesity.

At death, John Belushi was five-feet-eight inches tall and weighed 222 pounds. The medical examiner reported: “The body was first examined at 16:37 hours on the 5th of March, 1982. At that time, the body was nude and lying on the floor of a bedroom on its back, with the arms spread out sideways with a ninety-degree angle at the shoulders.”

After interviews with Cathy Smith, the coroner and the police placed the time of Belushi’s death somewhere between 10:15 a.m. and 12:45 p.m.

Cathy Smith, though, wasn’t so certain in the motel room in Santa Monica: “In reality, I’m the only person in the world who was there, perhaps, when he died. I’m not quite sure when he died.

“I know I’m the last person who saw him alive. I know what he did for the last 24 hours. It was just the Hollywood scene, really, nothing out of the ordinary.”

In This Article: Coverwall, John Belushi

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