Melissa Etheridge's Secret

The name of the father and the making of a new American family

Julie Cypher, Melissa Etheridge, David Crosby and Jan Crosby in Santa Monica, California, on September 28th, 2000. Credit: Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty

It was beginning to get ridiculous: The speculation ... the rumors ... the jokes. For three long years, Melissa Etheridge and her partner, filmmaker Julie Cypher, were asked the same question over and over: Who is the biological father of your two children? Once it was a tad amusing to the couple. Then, with the release of Etheridge's album Breakdown, her first in more than three years, the badgering intensified.

On a recent Late Show appearance, David Letterman had a go. "Now, I'm no geneticist, but in some regard there must have been Daddy somewhere," he said, leaning forward. "Who's Daddy?"

"Well, you were on the short list for a minute," Etheridge hedged.

Letterman pressed on. "Just tell me, who's Daddy? Who's Daddy?"

Etheridge threw up her hands in mock exasperation. "All right," she said, "it's Dan Quayle."

Rumors flew on the Internet. Was it Brad Pitt? He's a friend of theirs. Bruce Springsteen? Etheridge jumped onstage with him at a New Jersey show. Maybe he's the dad! How about Tom Hanks? Is it Tom Hanks?

Cut to a Time magazine interview. "Did Brad Pitt father your children?" columnist Joel Stein wanted to know. "It is a man, right?... And he's famous?" Yes, she said. "So it's Brad Pitt ... Come on, it's better if it's Brad Pitt. It's good for his career, for your career."

"We just got so tired of this secret," says Etheridge, who didn't even tell the rest of her family the father's name until the couple's first child, Bailey, was a year old. "It wears you out. And keeping this big secret goes against how we are choosing to live our lives: very openly." There was also the consideration that Bailey, now three, will attend school soon: "I didn't want my kids to ever be in a position where someone could come up to them and know something they don't."

"Because Bailey was starting to ask," adds Cypher. "And you know what else? It was becoming a joke, more than it should have been."

Thus, after much discussion, the two have decided to reveal the identity of their two children's biological father. It is a man whose name, it is safe to say, has never come up on a short list of candidates. As you can see, it is — of all people — David Crosby, founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash, a rock & roll bad boy with a four-decade-long career, a wife of twelve years and a thirty-five-year-old son.

Since this will require some time, let's settle in at the couple's spacious home in Los Angeles, a 1926 Tudor filled with sunlight, honey-colored wood and antiques. It is a very different home from the one that the pair lived in four years ago, with its careful display of antique match strikers and its Louvre-size collection of dog photos. Now, the effluvia of children are everywhere: half-drunk glasses of juice in plastic cups, Elmo in various permutations, milk and bananas on the grocery list. The match strikers have been relegated to a glass case. As for the dog photos, "Bruce Springsteen once gave me the best parenting advice," says Cypher. "He said, 'You know, all of a sudden, your dogs are just gonna be dogs.'"

Cypher and Etheridge give a tour of their abode, pointing out a black baby grand piano in the sitting room before moving on to the toy-strewn family room. "This is the room we live in," says Cypher. Against one wall is a row of seats from the community theater in Etheridge's hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas, that the establishment gave to her after she made a donation to help restore it. The two point out a Maori school desk they found in New Zealand. "We love, love, love to antique-shop," says Cypher.

Bailey races into the room. "Look at me!" she cries, hurling herself onto a beanbag chair. "I'm just a laughing frog!" One-year-old Beckett, meanwhile, is being fed by a nanny. The children, whose faces are sweet and apple cheeked, could be lifted out of a Victorian postcard. "Beckett looks just like David, doesn't he?" says Etheridge, looking on happily, a rock-chick mom in a blue corduroy jacket with silver studs. She produces Crosby's autobiography, which contains a baby photo from back in the day. The resemblance is eerie.

The pair continues the tour upstairs. "Here's the bedroom," says Etheridge. Sun streams onto the floral carpet, a pair of cats sleeps in a chair. "Look at this!" Etheridge says, grabbing a remote control. With a barely perceptible hum, the curtains whiz shut and the room darkens. "That's our favorite thing about the Four Seasons in New York."

They pass a home gym (with a chandelier) and head to Melissa's office. "Look what Julie gave me for my birthday," says Etheridge. "She took a lot of my T-shirts and made it into a quilt."

It is a patchwork, says Cypher, of places they've been, "places where we've had too many cocktails."

Huey Lewis, says one square. "That was one of my first tours," says Etheridge. "I opened for them in Europe." She gazes at it. "I love this," she tells Cypher.

They head downstairs and plop down on a couch in the kitchen. The kids are off to take a nap, and the women are ready to tell their tale.

It all began in Hawaii, they say, where the two were vacationing. They dropped by to visit David Crosby and his missis, Jan, whom they had met a while back at a show. "We'd see them every now and then at a party, stuff like that," says Etheridge. As the group chatted, the subject of children came up, and Etheridge and Cypher mentioned their dilemma: Eggs they had. Sperm was another matter.

"And Jan said, 'What about David?'" says Etheridge. "It came from her, which was the best, most perfect way." They thought it over for a year before they made the call. "For one, he's musical, which means a lot to me, you know, and I admire his work," says Etheridge. "And he has his own life, has his own family."

A few questions:

What do the kids call you?
"I am Mama, Julie is Mamo," says Etheridge.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but how did the fertilization occur?
"It was artificial insemination, done privately," says Cypher.

"We did not use a turkey baster," adds Etheridge.

"No kitchen implements were involved," says Cypher.

It was decided that she should carry the babies because of Etheridge's work. "I was more the homebody, so to speak," Cypher says. "And I'm a health nut, a fanatic, so I was really good at making babies."

Are the Crosbys the kids' godparents?
"No, that would be our dearest friends," she says, pointing to a picture of a smiling man and woman. "Beckett's role model," she says, pointing to the man.

"For people who are worried about the male role model," says Etheridge. "So many people are worried about that male role model."

"Sometimes they have a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that this can work," says Cypher.

Some more questions.

How do your families and friends feel about this?
"Both of our families are so cool about it," says Etheridge.

"They're grandkids," says Cypher with a laugh. "They don't care how they get 'em — they just want 'em."

When the couple told Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, with whom they've socialized on both coasts for the past two years, "I thought it was fabulous," Capshaw says," after I said, 'Who's David Crosby?'" She laughs uproariously. "The name rang a bell! Oh, God. As they sat there with their expectant faces, right? I'm like, 'I know he was part of a big group that did well.'" She laughs again. "I was listening to Claudine Longet back then, let's be honest."

Does Crosby share parental duties?
"It's not a parental thing for David," says Etheridge. "David and Jan totally understood that we are the parents."

"So we see them every once in a while," says Cypher.

"Julie is adopted," says Etheridge. Coming from that place — wanting to know who her real parents were — she felt it was important that her children know where they came from.

"Four or five months ago, when she was two and a half, Bailey said, 'Do I have a daddy?' I said, 'Well, yes, you do.' Pause. 'Well, who is he?' I said, 'You know our friend David, with the funny mustache?' "Satisfied, Bailey moved on to the next subject. Relieved, so did Cypher.

Was there a concern about the father's well-known past, which includes prodigious drug use?
Cypher and Etheridge did their homework on this matter and were convinced there was no danger to their children. We asked our own expert, New York urologist Mark Stein, who says, "Sperm are made all the time, and they take three months to mature. So the sperm that's coming out today was made three months ago. If you change your lifestyle, it will take three months for the sperm to reflect it. Also, sperm are self-selecting, unlike eggs, so damaged sperm usually don't make it."

Why break the news here?
Etheridge and Cypher decided to come to Rolling Stone with their story after the two ran into editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner at VH1's Concert of the Century last October in Washington, D.C. "Julie was on a mission to tell everybody," says Etheridge. "She told Jann, and I made some sort of joke. I said, 'Oh, yeah, let it be known in Rolling Stone.' And I remember leaving there going, 'Huh. Well, that's an idea. It's musical, which is really cool, it's funky, and we could tell the story the way we wanted to, before the world — well, I don't know about the world but whoever is interested in it — picked up on it and did what they were going to do."

David Crosby sits serenely on the couch in Etheridge's den. Behind him, his four-year-old son, Django, plays with a pile of plastic balls. Crosby is an easygoing sort of parent. "Django, don't throw the balls at Beckett," he says mildly.

He shakes his head. "Fatherhood is the wildest ride I have ever been on," he says. "And that's saying something." The fifty-eight-year-old singer-songwriter, whose voice provides the crystalline finish to Crosby, Stills and Nash's harmonies, looks almost regal now, with snow-white hair down to his shoulders, twinkling eyes and that mustache. His wife, Jan, ten years younger, with long blond hair and an expression of seen-it-all tranquility, sits beside him.

"I fell in love with Jan at first sight," Crosby recalls as the two hold hands. "She gave me this smile, and I just went kerflonk. " Last year they celebrated the twelfth anniversary of their marriage, as well as a few other significant dates. "December 10th is our sobriety birthday," Crosby says. "We just turned fourteen." They also celebrated the birthday of his liver (November 18th, if you're sending a card), a transplant that saved his life five years ago.

Patriarch Crosby now heads up a clan that includes Django, 4; a granddaughter, who is two months; a daughter, who is 24; and a son, now 35, whom Crosby knew nothing about until 1994. Add Bailey and Beckett to the mix and you've got a very late-Nineties kind of clan.

Crosby didn't hesitate when his wife offered him up as a donor. "Melissa and Julie are good people," he says. "Nice set of values, they're funnier than shit, and they've got courage. All rare stuff. You could see that they were in love with each other. And they said something like, 'When you start talking about egg donors or adoption, or sperm donors, somebody very often goes, "Oh, lesbians. Wait a minute. Let me back up." And they start to get weird.'"

Crosby was also happy to oblige so that, true to his roots, he could effect social change. "You've got two powerful women, immensely bright, immensely capable, with every resource at their command — and it was as hard as it was for them," says Crosby. "Then imagine lonely, frustrated people out there in the world with no resources, no one to help them, afraid to lose their job if they even admit they're gay, let alone that they want to have a gay family. Maybe it's a good thing for a lot of straight families to see that this is not something strange."

He smiles. "I think everyone will understand, except maybe the Christian Coalition and the far right wing. But, I mean, I always wanted to be on the Nixon enemies list and I missed it. So if I piss off these people, it's fine with me." He and Jan cackle at the thought.

This month, Crosby will join up with his old band mates and Neil Young for a much-anticipated tour in support of their new album, Looking Forward. Shortly after his liver transplant five years ago, Crosby had an even more significant reunion — with his son James Raymond, who was given up for adoption in 1964. Raymond turned out to be a talented musician, and father and son joined forces in a band that toured and recorded under the name CPR. "This is some of the best stuff I've ever done," says Crosby. "Now I want to try very hard to be a good human being, for a lot of reasons. He motions toward Bailey. "If, you know, in due time, at a distance, they're proud of who their genetic dad is, that's great."

The Crosbys were not present for the birth of Bailey. "Melissa and Julie have to have their own lives," says Jan. "It was a gift being given — nothing attached." Not that Crosby isn't a proud, well, bio-papa. "You know how an artist's art is a window into their soul?" he says. "Well, people's kids are a window into theirs." He glances at the kids. "Look at 'em! Are they happy? Healthy? Do they live in a great home?" He throws up his hands. "I rest my fuckin' case," he huffs.

At the heart of the household, in more ways than one, is Julie Cypher. She is the consummate family organizer, a constant blur of motion as she answers three phones at once, cuts up fruit for the kids and arranges the evening's social plans. Trim and muscular ("I'm ten pounds thinner than I was before I got pregnant!" she says cheerfully) with dark, shiny hair and full, pillowy lips, Cypher is an understated knockout, a mix of sporty (avid snowboarder and a third-degree brown belt in karate) and spiritual (she's teaching Bailey to meditate). She and Etheridge are an appealing study in contrasts: Cypher's voice is high and silvery; Etheridge's, as everyone knows, is smoky and low. Cypher is the more outgoing of the two, with an effervescent laugh and a habit of grabbing your hand to make a point.

Although Cypher is one-half of a famous power couple, there is little that is known about her beyond the basics: She's thirty-five, she's a filmmaker, she once was the wife of Lou Diamond Phillips. "I'm more than just the Golden Uterus, you know," she says, raising an eyebrow.

Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Cypher was raised primarily in Oklahoma and Texas. A "stubborn, strong-willed" child, she decided in the ninth grade that she would try out for the football team. "They passed Title Nine in Texas, which meant that they could no longer separate boys and girls in sports," she recalls. "I told the coach I wanted to try out and he said, 'No way.' I said, 'Yes way, it's the law.'" They compromised: Cypher was an athletic trainer for the next four years. "I started out collecting balls at the end of practice, then graduated into butter-flying split chins and taping ankles. It was such a great experience, because I got to talk to the guys and relate to them in an atmosphere that most of the other girls didn't. That had a big influence on me in terms of how I deal with people." All through high school, she had the same boyfriend, with whom she is still close.

Cypher next headed for the University of Texas at Austin to get a degree in television and film. During her sophomore year, she was working as a grip on an indie film. "I noticed that there was this guy at the craft-services table who could toss grapes, like, two stories up in the air and catch them with his mouth. I was so impressed." She laughs. "Later on I realized he was the actor playing the rapist in the movie. He was such a good actor that when we broke for lunch, no one would sit with him. I sat with him because I felt sorry for him." It was Lou Diamond Phillips.

The two dated for a few years, broke up and then reconnected in Los Angeles. In 1987 they decided to marry, somewhat impulsively, on the set of a movie that they were making together. "The first assistant director was a justice of the peace," Cypher says. "The wrap party was our reception, and the press tour for La Bamba was our honeymoon." Cypher laughs. "But we were happy, because we were poor as church mice and flying on somebody else's dime."

In 1988, Cypher met Etheridge on the set of her first video. "She had really nice eyes," Cypher recalls. "And she was really warm, and there was just an immediate connection." She laughs. "The gender part was really confusing for a bit .... Then hilarity ensued."

A year later, Cypher's marriage, strained by the pressures of Phillips' fleeting fame, ended and the friendship with Melissa blossomed into a relationship that has lasted eleven years.

Once again Cypher finds herself in an alliance with a person who is famous, which makes her slightly uncomfortable. "I've learned how to deal with it, but I really don't like it," she says haltingly. "Given my druthers, I would be so anonymous. I'm split over my responsibility to the community and my desire for a private life." She considers for a moment. "We did the cover of Newsweek when we got pregnant, because it meant something to the community. And that helps me deal with this public thing, because I see the good that it's doing. I am incredibly proud of Melissa — she has such a gift, and it does so much for people."

Cypher, who has written a few scripts, is producing a long-awaited Janis Joplin movie. "I want to make good films so that people leave the theater with hope," she says of her life's ambition. "That's it in a nutshell. And I want to raise children who are well-prepared to deal with this world and who want to make it a better place as much as I do. I want to walk this earth in my lifetime and leave a positive wake." She pauses. "For example, I'm a scrupulous recycler."

Little Missy Etheridge Knew that someday she would be famous. She wrote her first song at ten and kept a copy of it.

"When we were in high school," says her childhood friend Cara Bray, "she had a gig at the Marriott Hotel, and she ran into Conway Twitty. She told him she was going to be huge, just like him." Bray laughs in wonder. "To be so sure of what you wanted at that point and then to have the brass to tell this total stranger that!"

Etheridge, who always had a guitar on hand, used to lead singalongs with her friends. "She had a lot of melancholy, sad, lonely-girl kind of songs," says Bray. "We all cried."

Young Etheridge's musical taste ran to Carole King's Tapestry and her sister's Humble Pie records, as well as her parents' Crosby, Stills and Nash records. In high school she took a music class with the only-in-the-Seventies title of "The Singing Poets." "All we did was study the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills and Nash," she says.

Melissa Etheridge, 38, is not completely at ease talking about herself and has always left it to her music to better explain matters of the heart. On her new album, Breakdown, Etheridge sings of her love for Cypher ("Sleep," "My Lover"), but the music also has undercurrents of anxiety, jealousy and doubt. "Just because you have kids doesn't mean all of your issues go away," Etheridge says. "Julie and I fight like anybody. You know, there's no such thing as happily ever after. It's work. And the album comes from that."

Cypher says she is startled on occasion to hear their personal history recast in one of Etheridge's songs. "We'll have a little spat and Melissa will store it in this part of her brain," she says, "and weeks or months or years later, it'll come out as this song." She laughs. "And I'll be like, 'Wait a minute, I thought we resolved that. I'm the bad guy?' I get a bum rap all around."

With the children, too, Cypher takes the "bad-guy" role. "Melissa's the sucker," she says. "She tries to step up to the plate and say no, but I guess I say no easier." The two display a natural kind of shorthand in the presence of their kids. Few words are spoken. "We're intuitive about our mothering," she says.

Their friend Capshaw agrees. "Their parenting has this beautiful seamless-ness to it," she says. "As one child sort of goes into a little distress and is in one mother's arms, the other mother scoops in and grabs the one that's not in distress, and there's just kind of this ... dance that's very nurturing, very much a team thing. When two women are in the room with a bunch of children, there is little that needs to be said."

When Etheridge was on tour this fall, the home team came along for the first time. "For me it was about packing and unpacking, and making sure there was rice milk and diapers in every place we were," says Cypher. "In the morning, Melissa would sleep in, so the kids and I would get up and play quietly, and then we'd all go to the gig. Bailey and Beckett would put in their little earplugs for sound check. Beckett's a total music head. Without even being able to talk, he'd be pointing frantically at the stage. I'm so scared that we're raising musicians." Then, after sound check and before the show, the kids were let loose to play in the venue. "Gigs are fun places to explore with kids," Cypher points out. "A big, huge room with thousands of seats and aisles to run up and down."

Onstage, Etheridge would give her usual three-hour powerhouse performance. "Then her job's over and her life begins," says Cypher. "She comes offstage, shakes it off and says, 'What time do the babies go to sleep? How is everybody? Did they eat supper?'"

"It was a lot of work with the kids," Cypher adds. "I loved it when it was just the two of us. We'd sleep late, go find a local antiques shop. But now it's about keeping the family together, and that's why we did it."

Scenes from a power couple's Hollywood life: As the daylight wanes, it is happy chaos inside. The phone rings; it's Steven and Kate, who want tickets to Etheridge's show the following evening. Gwynnie has also called: Could they please come to the premiere of The Talented Mr. Ripley tonight?

"I get so caught up in my life and the race that I'm running," Etheridge frets. "Sometimes I get lost in it." She was reminded of the insularity of fame recently in a chance meeting with some fans. There is an intensely emotional song called "Scarecrow" on Breakdown, about Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming teenager who was murdered last year. "His friends came to my show in Denver last week," she says, her voice catching. "They wanted to tell me how much my music meant to them and to Matthew. They were so like the kids I hung out in Kansas with." Etheridge sent them a box of T-shirts and hats and met them after the show. When they told her how much her music and her gifts meant to them, "well, I just lost it," she says, swallowing hard. "Sometimes I forget that what I do has effect."

Etheridge has recently widened her professional horizons. She directed her latest video, "Angels Would Fall," and she is the host of a show on Lifetime called Beyond Chance, with inspirational real-life stories. "I narrate it — I love to narrate," Etheridge enthuses. "And it has nothing to do with music, and I love it."

As she's talking, Bailey runs over for a hug and a kiss. "You know, I don't have all the answers about child-rearing," she says. "We're starting our third year of it. I don't know. I'm just going day by day. I'm just loving my children, providing a safe environment and self-esteem so they can grow up and have fruitful lives. That's all I know."

Bailey climbs into her lap. "I know I'm gonna make mistakes," she says. "There are going to be people that think this is wrong, by telling. But I learned a long time ago that not everyone is ever going to agree with you."

Etheridge surveys the kids as they pile couch pillows on the floor. "I know that because of the procreation of our species, that it was man and woman, and that's the way it was all built," she says, picking up Beckett, who has since toppled over. "But two loving parents — that's all a kid needs. Two men, two women, a man and a woman, whatever. It's amazing what loving parents can do."

Cypher and Etheridge are hopeful that when their children grow up, they will not be made to feel different. "Society's growing by leaps and bounds," says Cypher, "in both the gay thing and also having children without the traditional mother and father role. There are single women going to sperm banks, lesbians going to sperm banks, gay guys going to surrogates."

"I should show you a great picture," says Cypher, disappearing into the den to grab an album. "Look at this," she says, producing a photo of a smiling group of people. "There's David," she says, pointing. "His son, his other son, his daughter-in-law ... his granddaughter ... his daughter."

"And there's my mother," says Etheridge.

On the back of the photo, Cypher has written this inscription: "Twenty-first-century family."