News & Politics

Marion Barry’s New Memoir Glosses Over Plenty

Mayor for Life attempts to polish his legacy while delving into salacious detail about his checkered career.

Pray for Marion Barry. He’s headed to New York Tuesday for the release of his autobiography, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr. Judging by the treatment he got Monday from the New York Post, the Manhattan scribes are going to feast on our former mayor.

“The cracked-out life of Marion Barry, the original Rob Ford,” the Post headline blared, referring to the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto.

Barry’s 336-page memoir is, as expected, a paean to himself. He paints himself as the heroic African-American leader battling the white power structure for the good of his people, rather than a promising politician brought low by his abundant human frailties, among them weaknesses for women, cocaine, and cognac. 

According to the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, Barry describes how, early in his career, he organized fellow black newspaper carriers at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis to demand the same perks as white carriers. He led students at LeMoyne-Owen College to protest a trustee who defended Memphis’s segregated bus system.

Barry congratulates himself for getting District teenagers off the streets in his summer jobs programs (whether they were paid or not). He describes how he elbowed aside white businessmen to force African Americans into city contracts, failing to mention that the same white businessmen financed his political campaigns.

The book, written with novelist Omar Tyree, glosses over the corruption that cropped up among Barry’s closest aides and his more recent problems with federal prosecutors for neglecting to pay taxes. 

Instead, says DeBonis, Barry provide intimate detail about how a young woman introduced him to cocaine. He describes how the white powder went “straight to my penis.”

“What happened next?” Barry writes, according to DeBonis. “I had sex with her.”

At the time, Barry was married to his long-suffering third wife, Effi.

The book’s combination of legacy polishing and salacious detail makes Barry’s step into literature a curious move. If, as Barry claims, he wants to get past the infamous 1990 drug bust at the Vista Hotel, why give headlines to the New York press?

In Dream City, which I wrote with Tom Sherwood on the birth of DC’s political system and Barry’s rise to power, my co-author and I covered some of the events Barry relates in his new book. I want to set the record straight on a few important facts from the time that Barry seems to avoid.

• Barry says federal investigators alerted reporters to the Vista Hotel, where Barry was videotaped smoking crack. Sherwood was first on the scene. Neither he nor his station, WRC Channel 4, had been tipped off before the bust.

• Barry says the city was helpless to combat the crack epidemic that engulfed DC in the late 1980s. In fact, he ignored cops who warned him the city was unprepared for the coming of crack. Rather than support the police, he starved their budgets, which left the District more vulnerable to the drug wars that brought homicides close to 500 a year. And he was addicted to the drug.

• The former mayor, who now serves as Ward 8 council member, continues to give the FBI credit—or blame—for investigating his drug use and setting up the sting at the Vista Hotel in 1990. It was two DC cops, Albert Arrington and Jim Pawlik, who ran the painstaking investigation that gathered evidence for the bust. They brought Rasheeda Moore, his former lover, to DC to lure him into the room and encourage him to smoke crack.

• Arrington was the first lawman to reach Barry in the hotel room. Like Barry, he’s the son of sharecroppers. Arrington doesn’t show up in Mayor for Life.