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Mark Whitaker's Bill Cosby bio explores contradictions

"Cosby: His Life and Times" by Mark Whitaker (Simon and Schuster, September 2014). Photo Credit: Simon and Schuster

COSBY: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker. Simon & Schuster, 532 pp., $29.99.

"Why is there air?" Bill Cosby asked in one of his most famous comedy routines and best-selling albums. "Who is Bill Cosby?" carries just about the same philosophical, ultimately unknowable weight.

Mark Whitaker's biography suggests that perhaps the most comprehensive answer is that Bill Cosby is a contradiction. He's a brilliant comedian with a serious, even angry, streak. He's a humanitarian and philanthropist who can also be something of a bully. He's a family man with a complicated romantic history. He's a civil rights pioneer who has become controversial for his outspoken views on black families and popular culture.

When he blazed onto the Greenwich Village nightclub scene in 1962, there had been no other like him. Throughout an extraordinary five-decade career, he has proved that singularity over and over again, whether as a groundbreaking television star, multimillion-dollar pitchman or candid social commentator.

Starting with Cosby's ancestral history, which includes a great-grandfather who was enslaved, Whitaker -- a former journalist with CNN, NBC News and Newsweek -- delves into the entertainer's childhood in North Philadelphia, where Cosby was reared mostly by his mother, Anna, and his paternal grandparents.

After serving in the Navy and while attending Temple University, Cosby, now 77, tried his hand at stand-up. Handsome, preppy, aflame with ambition, Cosby focused on universal themes and subjects, hilariously extruded through his own experience and talent for sound effects at the microphone. What's more, he vowed, he would work clean.

Within a couple of years, Cosby was cast alongside Robert Culp in "I Spy," the first TV drama to feature an African-American actor in a leading role.

Whitaker goes into meticulous detail regarding the comedian's career moves throughout the '70s and '80s, causing the book to read at times like a dutifully compiled resumé, albeit one featuring such breakthroughs as "Fat Albert," "The Electric Company" and, of course, "The Cosby Show."

The author retains a respectful distance when it comes to Cosby's private life, handling an extramarital affair, an estrangement from one of the couple's four daughters and the death of his only son, Ennis, in 1997, with forthrightness and tact.

The book is at its strongest when the author puts Cosby's comedy and commitment to education into a broad social and cultural context. That includes his infamous speech at Howard University, when he bemoaned what he called declining values and standards among blacks, and the "Cosby effect," whereby his portrayal of a black physician in "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s might have helped Americans visualize a black family in the White House in 2008.

This book is probably as intimate a portrait as Cosby would allow. Most valuably, it leaves no doubt as to why he has continued to matter.

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