July 27, 2012
Janis Winehouse Collins (left) and me at her house after her son's wedding last November.
Seven years ago this month, my cousin Amy died. I'm marking the occasion by reposting this on my new website and blog.
I was in the parking lot outside Publix loading groceries into my car a year ago this July when my cell phone rang. It was a London number and, as I feared, it was news my family had been dreading. My cousin Amy Winehouse was dead.
Her body was discovered a few hours earlier and my cousin, Barry, wanted to give me time to absorb the news before it hit the media. I raced to my house and turned on the television to find images of Amy’s grief -stricken fans on every channel. I was stunned.
I’ve known Amy since she was a little girl and it was hard enough to conceive of her death at 27.What seemed inconceivable was that her passing had become such a momentous media event.
The first time Amy stayed with my family in Boca Raton, she was ten, a chubby child with pale English skin and a mop of deep brown curls who loved curling up on her mother, Janis's, lap and teasing her brother Alex.. I never saw her happier than during that visit, when our families explored Disney World. No matter how late we returned from the Magic Kingdom, she and her cousins (Alex was too grown up) would jump in the pool and splash into the night. She was joyful and free, answering “Polo” to my sons’ “Marco.”
A few years later, during a family visit to England, Amy’s mother, Janis, told us Amy – then 13 – had been selected for a small role in an opera. We were proud but didn’t read any special meaning into it.
One of my favorite memories of Amy is with a guitar on her lap, perched on a luggage cart as a bellhop rolled her into the hotel where our family was staying for my son's b'nai mitzvah. It was the first time her American family had any hint of Amy’s talent. Arriving a few days early, Amy—then 14—stayed at our home and spent her time strumming my son’s guitar and jotting down songs. She took the guitar to the club, where she continued playing – annoying her adult cousins no end.
The Saturday night after the reception, though, our patience paid off. Against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, she and my nephew charmed us with spiritual music. It was a remarkable end to a memorable day.
The last time I saw Amy, she was 19 and the chubby, stubborn child I remembered had blossomed into a svelte young woman with sparkling black eyes and a long mane of curly hair. She had just cut her first demo in Miami and spent $100 – a lot for a taxi – to reach my house in Boca Raton. We’d been on the phone all week trying to figure out when we could get together and she showed up at midnight with her manager. She could’ve afforded a hotel room, but loved staying with family.
The next day, we went shopping at Town Center Mall, where Amy assured me the stripped dress I'd been checking out for three weeks didn't make me look fat. Then she shocked me by buying two sexy teddies at Victoria's Secret. As the mother of sons a year younger than Amy, I had a hard time coming to terms with the idea that my little cousin would be wearing such skimpy clothing in front of a man.
Driving Amy back to Miami that afternoon, her manager told me Amy was going to be a huge star. I smiled and nodded but couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.
Of course, that was before I heard Amy sing. The following winter, when Janis brought Amy’s demo to Boca Raton, I was amazed. The voice ringing out of our speakers sounded like a mature African-American jazz artist, not the little girl who, only a few years earlier, insisted on sitting on her mother’s lap and yelling “Mummy, I love you” at every opportunity.
But it was. And in what seemed like no time, she made the covers of The London Times Sunday Magazine, Rolling Stone, and People Magazine.
As far as we knew, she was still the same Amy. At one of her first appearances in New York, she invited my son and his girlfriend backstage and insisted on making them sandwiches and showing off her boyfriend, Blake Fielder-Civil. She also insisted Blake take a picture of her and her cousin.
When Amy’s life began falling apart—shortly after her marriage to Fielder-Civil—we all felt sick, realizing how bad her drug habit had become. Then lurid photos began appearing of Amy drunk and in the street half naked, and it was hard to believe that was the girl we loved. When I learned of her death, it was as if a stranger – a famous character who resembled someone I knew – had passed.
Janis and Amy’s father, Mitchell, surely had a sense of how famous Amy had become. So did family members her age, who were more aware of her role in the music scene. But I don’t think those of us who are of her parents’ generation realized the impact Amy had until after her death.
When I called Janis’ house to offer condolences after the funeral, I was surprised by how stunned everyone was by the celebrities who attended. It was almost as if Amy’s friendships with famous people verified her own fame – affirming that she wasn’t just our Amy, but an Amy who belonged to a broader world.
Losing a child – any child – is a horrible, unnatural tragedy. And most parents are helped by the knowledge that their child’s life had meaning. I know Amy’s fame helped her family deal with her death. Although the media circus was overwhelming, the fans and friends who came to Amy’s home to lay wreaths and leave stuffed toys were a great comfort.
I’m saddened and sickened by the loss of Amy. But I, too, find solace that her memory will live on through her remarkable compositions, that sultry voice, and the family and fans she loved.