Richard Pryor’s Widow on What to Expect From His Diaries, Including His ‘Bisexual Experiences’

Richard Pryor. Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

“Quincy started pouring the tea,” Jennifer Pryor, Richard Pryor’s widow, said over the phone, “and I had to take that teakettle away from him.” The last 24 hours has brought the news, thanks to an interview with Quincy Jones on Vulture, that Richard once hooked up with Marlon Brando, something Jennifer was happy to confirm. Now, she promises that there are plenty more stories where that came from. “Instead of putting labels on it, Richard just saw himself as a sexualized creature, who wasn’t afraid of exploration and experimentation,” she said. “And in the ’70s, of course, we were all doing it.”

Most of Pryor’s hookups with men, Jennifer said, were one-off encounters — often with men who were considered straight — and that’s likely what happened with him and Brando. “Knowing Richard, it was a one-off thing,” she said, suggesting they probably fooled around after a night dancing, hanging out, and doing drugs. Jennifer said that back in the day, she just looked at it as “boys being boys.” “Richard and I had threesomes,” she added. “Not with any men, because he said he’d get jealous.”

Jennifer, who was married to Richard twice, from 1981 to 1982 and from 2001 until his death in 2005, is publishing his diaries through Rare Bird Books this October. They’ll offer a rare look inside Pryor’s private life and his thoughts on sexuality. The issue comes up in some of his earlier comedy material and in his memoir, Pryor Convictions, which he co-wrote with Tom Gold and is being republished this March by Rare Bird (the publisher will also release a collection of his set lists with his accompanying notes next spring). But in the diaries, the comedian goes into far more detail about his personal life. “He really discusses his bisexuality in a very nuanced and profound way,” Jennifer said. “I should say his bisexual experiences. He didn’t consider himself bisexual, but he was very open about his sexuality and never put a label on it.”

A lot of that experimentation, Jennifer pointed out, took place in the 1970s, before AIDS, and when “the coke was still good, and the quaaludes were abundant, and there was a feeling that you’re just allowed.” Richard was a pioneer in that revolution, to an extent. In his early material, Richard discussed gay rights “and was way ahead of his time,” Jennifer added, but he definitely “had bad moments.” Infamously, at a gay-rights fundraiser at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977, he turned against the audience and called them “faggots.” “Richard, obviously, was conflicted,” she said. “But it didn’t negate his openness. In the midst of all that, he still didn’t deny his sexuality and his bisexual experiences.”

Richard started writing the diaries after his infamous suicide attempt, in which he tried to light himself on fire. The comedian started with a series of diary entries — he was dyslexic and often spelled words out phonetically — in an attempt to write his own book, but because of his dyslexia, he eventually worked with a co-author on his memoir instead. “People love [the memoir], but for those of us who know better, you get a more sanitized version,” Jennifer said. In the diaries, on the other hand, “you can see his mind thinking and hear his mind thinking. You feel as if you’re really there with him.”

To that end, Jennifer plans to publish Richard’s memoirs in their original form, preserving his spellings and self-revisions. “That was the reason why I never published this sooner, because nobody understood,” she said. Agents approached her with deals and suggested heavily editing the text, which was not what she wanted. “I’m like, ‘Okay, you don’t get it, motherfucker!’” she said. “With Richard, it has to be authentic or we shouldn’t bother. That’s all it can be.”

Richard Pryor’s Widow Addresses His ‘Bisexual Experiences’