It all started in May. Wired: The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi, by Bob Woodward, was officially published on June 4th, 1984, two years after the comedian died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin. Judy Jacklin Belushi, and the friends who circle around her like satellites, had received advance copies of the book, and the entire situation was a mess from the start. There had been such a sense of expectation about — not only had John Belushi’s widow initiated the project, but she had also read her diaries to Woodward and persuaded her friends to talk— even the famous ones, like Dan Aykroyd and John Landis. She had, above all else, hoped for a sympathetic biography. Instead, she got 432 pages of cold facts, the majority of them drug related and ugly. “The man in Wired is not the man I knew,” Jacklin said. And with that began the controversy.
She had already had misgivings. “There were innumerable problems with Bob getting the manuscript to me,” Jacklin said later. “It was, ‘Oh, your sister is supposed to send you a copy…. No, it was Federal Expressed to you.’ That went on for two weeks.” Yet when she finally did receive Wired, she didn’t read it immediately — she was working on another project Two days later, Jacklin read a part of the book (“It’s very long, you know”), and although she had been warned by her sister, Pam Jacklin, who had been involved with Wired from its inception, to expect the worst, Judy was “hopeful for the rest of the book. It didn’t seem terribly negative. But two days later, I read more. By then, it was pretty disturbing.”
It wasn’t a fair portrait of John, she said. There was no joy in the book, no balance. “I loved John because he was warm,” Jacklin said. “He was a very likable person. He had a terrific presence, and Woodward missed all that.” Wired, Jacklin claimed, was only about drugs and madness, and it wasn’t even accurate. “People claim it’s all facts,” she said. “It’s not all facts. It’s a bunch of people’s opinions and memories put forth as facts. And when someone like Bob Woodward, who everyone thinks of as an ace reporter, uses these people as expert sources, it becomes very frightening. He’ll quote someone like, say, Carrie Fisher, who was on the Blues Brothers set maybe ten days, saying, ‘Well, it looked like he was doing four grams a day.’ Well, we’re talking about my life here. I was there. He may have it that way in his notes, but it’s wrong.”
In the beginning of June, Jacklin put forth her arguments in People magazine, and later on the Today Show and Good Morning America. She often sounded confused, but her friends were less conflicted.
“Trash,” proclaimed Dan Aykroyd in the June 7th Philadelphia Inquirer, while on the road to promote Ghostbusters. “Exploitation, pulp trash…. I think to delve into that sordid, tragic story in the way [Woodward] did was unforgivable. None of us knew what he was really up to…. Initially, I was against doing a book of any kind. But it was Bob Woodward, you know, and I thought, hey, this might actually turn out to be a class act.”
“The man is a ghoul,” claimed Jack Nicholson later in Interview magazine, “and an exploiter of emotionally disturbed widows…. Here’s a guy who has a reputation, right? I’ve obviously seen this kind of work before — it’s the lowest… This guy is actually finished. I believe that.”
The hue and cry was heard even from celebrities not in the book (Taxi‘s Tony Danza: “What I didn’t like about the Bob Woodward book is that it didn’t show what a great guy John was”) and those who were only marginal characters (comedian Richard Belzer: “He betrayed Judy’s trust; she went to him because he’s so respected, so John’s life would not be sensationalized, and now that’s what happened”).
Shortly after Aykroyd’s interview in Philadelphia, he stopped talking to print journalists. He refused an interview with People, reportedly complaining that the magazine had portrayed Jacklin as a “whining, hysterical widow,” even though her byline had appeared on the story. Aykroyd clearly wanted out of the picture and stayed away from Wired in subsequent TV interviews.
In the meantime, Bob Woodward was busily expressing shock and surprise over what could now be officially termed the Wired Controversy. By early June, he was out promoting the book, which had been excerpted in Playboy and serialized in about fifty newspapers (including, of course, the Washington Post, Woodward’s mother ship). Wired was receiving mostly negative reviews — the New York Times book-review section attacked Woodward’s “magnifying-glass-on-credit-card-receipt approach” as extremely ineffectual; Kirkus Reviews called Wired a “pointless docudrama”; and Time slashed away, claiming, “The entire book is basically an exercise in casting: get the country’s star investigative reporter to tackle ‘the unanswered questions’ about the grubby death of America’s favorite counterculture comedian…. But Wired, so full of details, is so short on insight that Belushi never becomes any larger or more understandable than a gifted guy who pigged out on success.” The slagging only fueled the ruckus — and increased sales. Wired, it appeared, had a powerful allure. After an original print run of 175,000 copies, Simon and Schuster, Wired‘s publisher, rushed another 100,000 into print.