Whitney Houston’s Longtime Confidante Breaks Her Silence


Credit...via Robyn Crawford

My Life With Whitney Houston
By Robyn Crawford
Read by the author

In the last two years, two documentaries about Whitney Houston’s life have been released, with dueling provenances. In 2017 came “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” by the dogged muckraker Nick Broomfield; last year, it was followed by the family-sanctioned “Whitney.”

Surprisingly, the films agreed on several things: Houston was an uncommon vocal genius, perhaps without professional peer; Houston’s career hit a precipitous decline during her marriage to Bobby Brown; Houston was in constant battle with her drug addiction. The tragic arc of Houston’s life — she died in 2012, at the age of 48, of an accidental drowning complicated by heart disease and cocaine use — isn’t much up for debate, or denial.

But both films concede there’s something that they don’t yet, or possibly can’t ever, know: the full depth of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, her longtime friend and executive assistant turned creative director. One of the people who knew Houston the best, Crawford is a cipher in both documentaries, appearing in old footage but never sitting for an interview.

Her reticence in fact dates back more than three decades, to the beginning of Houston’s supernova ascent to pop megastardom, when the singer was often asked in interviews about her relationship with Crawford, and whether it was romantic.

Those rumors dogged Houston throughout her career — she denied being gay — and made Crawford feel most comfortable away from her friend’s spotlight. “A Song for You,” Crawford’s first memoir, arrives more than seven years after Houston’s death, the public tugs of war over the responsibility for Houston’s death long since dissipated. Crawford, who recorded the audiobook version herself, waited for everyone else to stop speaking before taking the mic.

She confirms, for the first time publicly, her romantic history with Houston, which began when they were teenagers and lasted a short period of time, ending around the time Houston signed her first record contract at age 19. “We were friends. We were lovers. We were everything to each other,” Crawford says, her voice level, unbothered, not dishy at all. “We weren’t falling in love. We just were.”

As Houston was becoming famous, she deputized Crawford to essentially run interference and be a steadying ballast — to keep her company, deal with the record label, generally absorb the logistical burdens of fame. They also frequently did drugs together, which Crawford writes about with some regret, but also evenhandedly: What Houston wanted, Houston got.

Image“Whitney would often say, ‘Cocaine can’t go where we’re going,’” Crawford remembers. And yet there it went.
“Whitney would often say, ‘Cocaine can’t go where we’re going,’” Crawford remembers. And yet there it went.Credit...

Crawford was a confidante of Houston’s for more than two decades, and her instincts are not to sensationalize. “She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her,” she wrote in a 2012 obituary for Houston in Esquire.

Those instincts end up rendering Houston slightly flat in this memoir, which portrays the singer as blindingly talented and incapacitatingly troubled, but not terribly complex. As a retrospective of Houston’s career, it’s spotty, lingering on the earliest days and speeding through the peaks.

Many of the most pointed moments in the audiobook tell of things that are done to Houston, not things that Houston does herself. The stories about Houston’s mother, Cissy, are far more vivid and telling. Cissy “never helped Whitney get ready for school”; she was informed of her teenage daughter’s drug use but turned a blind eye; and, in one confrontation while Crawford was in Houston’s employ, she slapped Crawford for leaving Houston alone.

That same day, Crawford says, Houston also slapped Crawford for spending the day with another woman, a rare indication of Houston’s possessiveness (and perhaps of things left prudently undisclosed).

As a narrator, Crawford is patient and deliberate, and almost completely without judgment. That Crawford has maintained such equanimity is admirable, especially given how scrutinized she was by the tabloids. She recalls one National Enquirer story that suggested Houston’s father and manager, John, wanted Crawford’s kneecaps broken.

She still has a glimmer of New Jersey in her voice, compressing Newark into “Nawrk,” and her tone hovers between loving and knowing, with only flecks of exasperation. The only moment in the whole audiobook in which her voice breaks is when she recalls her mother’s AIDS diagnosis. Indeed the most harrowing sections of this memoir are the deep dives into Crawford’s own family’s trauma — her abusive father, her older brother’s losing battle with AIDS.

By comparison, some of the passages about Houston feel almost perfunctory, retreads of widely known struggles. Crawford had an up-close window onto Houston’s drug use, which Crawford says predated their friendship. They also promised each other they would leave it behind. “Whitney would often say, ‘Cocaine can’t go where we’re going,’” Crawford remembers. And yet there it went, as durable a companion as Crawford, and ultimately more so.

By the time Crawford escapes from Houston’s orbit in 2000, she suspects physical abuse in Houston’s marriage to Brown, has found burned spoons in Houston’s house, has attempted to get Houston into rehab. In the end, Houston’s demons are stronger, and Crawford leaves.

That allows her to return to her own life, which, free of Houston’s gravitational pull, is anchorless. Crawford finds it challenging to steady herself professionally and personally, but eventually finds love and starts a family. Although she “made a conscious decision to … not get sucked back into Whitney World,” Houston nonetheless lingers in the distance, scuttling a job opportunity, leaving voice mail messages with no return number. Crawford remains calm throughout; though their relationship was profound, she doesn’t let on how painful its demise might have been. Best not to share too much — a bodyguard until the end, and beyond.