Joseph Brooks was originally a writer of jingles who later won an Oscar and Grammy award for his 1977 Debby Boone hit, “You Light Up My Life.” But on Sunday afternoon, his life ended in ignominy when his body was discovered in his Upper East Side apartment, after he apparently suffocated himself. A suicide note was found near the body, according to an account published on the New York Daily News’ website.
In 2009, Brooks was indicted for sexually assaulting 11 women, and the numbers climbed from there, the charges amended as additional women came forward. Then, in the summer of 2010, his son, Nicholas, was arrested in the murder of a swimwear designer named Sylvie Cachay, who was found dead at the once-trendy Soho House in the Meatpacking District.
How did things go so horribly wrong?
In 1977, Brooks hit the big time, directing the film in which his Debby Boone title-song was featured. The song was a smash but the movie was not and subsequent attempts in the director’s chair were also unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, co-workers of Brooks went on to describe a man whose attitude eclipsed his talent, who was not the genius he believed himself to be. In an article in New York magazine published in the wake of his son’s arrest, Stephen Nathan, one of You Light Up My Life's actors, described the elder Brooks as an “egomaniac” who “didn’t know what he was doing.”
“Joe was focused on what he’d like to do, and what other people wanted didn’t matter much to him.”
“Joe was focused on what he’d like to do, and what other people wanted didn’t matter much to him,” Robert Lifton, a producer who worked with Brooks, added.
For his next film, about a songwriter trying to break into Hollywood, Brooks cast himself, although he had a debilitating stutter.
Meanwhile, he fathered two children with a former Playboy model and was accused of subjecting both to emotional abuse, according to the account in New York.
Having tasted great success only fleetingly no doubt played a role in Brooks’ demise. But hubris also may have contributed.
In 2005, Brooks masterminded a Broadway show called In My Life—also about a songwriter, with a strange resemblance to its creator. Advance word was so bad that people began suggesting it was the real-life Springtime for Hitler, the show within the The Producers that was created expressly for the purpose of defrauding investors. In My Life closed within weeks.
Around this time, Brooks’ drinking and consumption of cocaine spiraled out of control, according to numerous sources. He also began ordering escorts from Kristin Davis, a madam who later was convicted of running a prostitution ring for clients like Eliot Spitzer. Davis tells The Daily Beast she sent “over a hundred” girls to Brooks between 2005 and 2007.
From the beginning, Davis says, Brooks was a problematic client. He wanted the girls younger and younger, she says, and he could be “very” mean to them. “I would ban him and then he would come back and beg, he would apologize for his bad behavior, and say ‘it will never happen again.’ I’d give him another chance and he’d be OK for two or three appointments and then it would go bad,” Davis says.
They were too old, he’d complain. They weren’t skinny enough. He didn’t like their attitude.
It didn’t make things easier for Davis, she says, that Brooks also had a penchant for role play. According to Davis as well as another escort, Brooks enjoyed a creepy casting-couch game in which he played a movie director and the escort played the part of an aspiring actress.
One night in November 2007, things between Brooks and Davis’ firm ended with a bang. “He was threatening, rude, and scary,” says Keely, a young woman sent to Brooks’ Upper East Side townhouse on appointment.
As she remembers it, Brooks pressured her to drink wine, but wouldn’t allow her to watch him pour it, which “creeped” her out, leading her to believe perhaps he’d spiked it with something. When Keely told him she didn’t want the wine, he became angry, she says. Then, she says, he refused to pay her before moving things to the bedroom, a breach of standard operating procedure with women from Davis’ harem.
According to Keely, she told Brooks she wanted to leave, and went to find her cellphone, at which point he pulled it out of her hand and threw it in the closet. After he nearly sexually assaulted her, Keely says, she ran from the apartment and called Davis, who then banned him permanently from using her escorts.
Two years later, Davis and Keely were less than stunned to find out that Brooks had been arrested for taking out classified ads on Craigslist and other websites looking for actresses, whom he allegedly attempted to ply with alcohol and then assaulted during “auditions.”
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” says Keely, who has since gone into another line of work.
To pull together $1.5 million, the amount required for bail, Brooks turned to a friend who later sued him when the money was not returned. He also got hit with a suit from an investor in his Broadway show.
Presumably faced with mounting debt and legal obligations, Brooks filed a lawsuit against a 23-year-old married woman he’d briefly been engaged to. Brooks claimed the woman conned him, failing to tell him that she was married; and he demanded that she return $1 million he’d previously given her, as well as a $60,000 ring and $70,000 Mercedes he bought her. An out-of-court settlement believed to be favorable to the former fiancée was reached after her lawyers produced emails showing that Brooks had clearly known she was married and gave her divorce advice prior to proposing to her.
At some point, Brooks also may have had a stroke, but prosecutor Maxine Rosenthal long claimed this was a sympathy ploy, and said he was frequently seen after his surgery without his walker.
Then came the horrible news about his son, Nicholas, with whom Brooks had had a tempestuous relationship. On December 9, Nicholas’ girlfriend was found strangled in a bathtub inside a hotel room—discovered by hotel workers after water began leaking through the floor into the room below.
According to New York magazine, Brooks never went to visit his son at the prison on Rikers Island, but he did pay for a lawyer—the same one who was representing him. “My father is a bully and very scary and very intimidating,” his daughter, Amanda, told the magazine, all but blaming him for whatever may have happened with her brother. Nicholas, she told the magazine, “was dealt such an unfair hand and was tortured his whole life by [Joe].”
Now he is gone, and it's hard to find anyone who's really sad about it. As Kristin Davis puts it, "I can't say he had any redeeming qualities at all."
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.