In its issue of June 29, 1982, the excitable National Enquirer splashed a story across its front page about the confession of the “mystery woman” who had played a key role in the drug-related death of comedian John Belushi earlier that year. She was Cathy Smith. And although the audacious tabloid has never been known for its enthusiastic embrace of accuracy, a woman of mystery was exactly who Ms. Smith was.
A notorious, colourful footnote in pop culture history and the onetime muse and girlfriend of Gordon Lightfoot, Ms. Smith died on Aug. 18, at age 73. No official cause of death was given. The long-time resident of Maple Ridge, B.C., had been on oxygen and in failing health the past few years.
Ms. Smith had been with Mr. Belushi on March 5, 1982, the day he died of an accidental overdose of heroin and cocaine in bungalow No. 3 at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. She later told the National Enquirer that she had injected Mr. Belushi with the concoction known as a speedball. The confession led to her arrest for second-degree murder. A plea bargain reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter along with three drug offences, for which she served 15 months at the California Institution for Women in Chino, Calif.
After her release from prison, Ms. Smith kept a low profile and avoided the press. A woman of contradictions, she was hard to pin down. Though hard-eyed and no sufferer of fools, among her friends she was known as a caring person with an infectious spirit.
She was a capable backup singer who shared a songwriting credit on the Hoyt Axton song Flash of Fire, but was more known in the music world as an attractive background figure who walked in the shadows of the stars with whom she associated, including Levon Helm, the Rolling Stones, Mr. Axton and, most famously, Mr. Lightfoot.
She had an intense, tumultuous relationship with the iconic Canadian balladeer in the early 1970s. “Cathy was a great lady,” Mr. Lightfoot told The Globe and Mail this week. “Men were drawn to her, and she used to make me jealous. But I don’t have a bad thing to say about her.”
Others did. Interviewing her for No Contest, the 1986 documentary about her, the film’s host and co-producer Daniel Richler asked Ms. Smith about her past reputation as a “scary lady.” She replied, “I probably was.”
She supplied and used hard drugs. She lived the high life and the low life, with seemingly little interest in the in-between. Speaking in 1986, Mr. Richler said he saw Ms. Smith as a “very tender woman who has been destroyed by drugs and needs sympathetic attention.”
Ms. Smith lived the last decade or so of her life in an apartment building for senior citizens in Maple Ridge. She moved into the building after a fire destroyed a previous apartment of hers in the same city. She lost most of her possessions in the blaze, but still had a few mementos.
“She showed me a cheque for $25 from Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones,” said James Kennedy, who manages the seniors building. “She was a nice woman who never caused any trouble. I do know she wanted to tell her story.”
Catherine Evelyn Smith, born April 25, 1947, was an orphan adopted by Hector and Evelyn Smith in Burlington, Ont. She adored her mother, who suffered from clinical depression. Both parents were active with Alcoholics Anonymous. She had two siblings, Hugh and Bonnie, whom she leaves.
At 16, Cathy quit school. Her father suggested she try her hand at data processing, but she went in a different direction: rock ’n’ roll.
After hearing a band called the Hawks at the Grange tavern in Hamilton, she became smitten with the group’s smooth-talking, Southern-drawling American drummer Levon Helm. The Hawks would later become the Band, a pioneering roots-rock quintet featuring Helm and four Canadians.
By 17, Ms. Smith was pregnant. She claimed the father was Mr. Helm, but he never accepted responsibility for the child. She gave birth to daughter Tracey Lee and moved to Toronto. Ms. Smith initially intended to keep the baby, but later opted for adoption.
Among other jobs, she found employment as a waitress at the popular Toronto coffeehouse and music venue the Riverboat. “She was one of the most beautiful girls you’d ever want to meet,“ club owner Bernie Fiedler said. “We immediately hit it off, and I hired her.”
Sometime in the late 1960s, the chisel-cheeked brunette met the ascending singer-songwriter Mr. Lightfoot. He was married to his first wife, Brita, at the time and his initial romantic affair with Ms. Smith was brief.
By the spring of 1971, Ms. Smith was 24 when she bumped into Mr. Lightfoot in an elevator in the downtown apartment building where the songwriter, separated from his wife, lived in a funky 28th-floor bachelor pad decked out with an aquarium, velvet couches and deep pile rugs. The two reacquainted quickly and began a mercurial relationship that extended into the mid-1970s.
According to Lightfoot, a biography by Nicholas Jennings, the couple’s first date took place at Winston’s, a high-end establishment where they toasted the relationship and the recent success of his breakout single in the United States, If You Could Read My Mind, with a $300 bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild.
More often the pair dined at Harry’s, where the steaks were as rare as the interruptions at the quiet table in the back of the restaurant that was reserved for them. At nearby Maple Leaf Gardens, they regularly cheered on the hometown hockey team. After a post-game nightcap or five, they’d lurch home, “drunk and madly in love,” Ms. Smith wrote.
Mr. Lightfoot, who divorced his wife in 1973, purchased a mansion in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood. Parties were had, hosted capably by Ms. Smith. “Cathy was great, but a tough cookie,” said Bernie Finkelstein, an occasional get-together guest who managed singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn and was a business partner with Mr. Fiedler. “We got along fine, though, and it was always pleasing to me when she had a big smile on her face when I came around. Because the opposite would be scary.”
The relationship between Mr. Lightfoot and Ms. Smith was beset by infidelities on both sides, with their arguments turning physical on at least one occasion.
In 1973 the couple retreated to a rented farmhouse north of Toronto where Mr. Lightfoot could write songs in peace (if one could call it that). One night, Ms. Smith went out to a concert with her girlfriends. Alone, jealous and with a suspicious mind, that night Mr. Lightfoot wrote one of his biggest hits, Sundown.
“I can see her lookin’ fast in her faded jeans,” the song went. “She’s a hard lovin’ woman, got me feelin’ mean.”
While Mr. Lightfoot’s career was heading up, his on-and-off relationship with Ms. Smith was breaking down. “We weren’t getting along,” said Mr. Lightfoot. “Our lives were going in opposite directions.”
In 1974, Ms. Smith contributed backing vocals to Murray McLauchlan’s song Do You Dream Of Being Somebody. Though Mr. Lightfoot and Mr. McLauchlan were friends, as working musicians they were competitors. Mr. Lightfoot saw Ms. Smith’s singing on Mr. McLauchlan’s recording as an act of betrayal.
After her final breakup with Mr. Lightfoot, the ambitious Ms. Smith split for California, perhaps with the words of Mr. McLauchlan’s song still ringing in her head: “Do you dream of being somebody, so the world will love you?”
In Los Angeles, the model Lesley St. Nicholas (a close friend from Toronto who married Steppenwolf bassist Nick St. Nicholas) set up Ms. Smith with a job as a personal assistant to lawyer Edward L. Masry, who was portrayed by Albert Finney in the 2000 Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich.
According to Ms. St. Nicholas, Ms. Smith, a highly intelligent high-school dropout, was “overqualified” to manage Mr. Masry’s affairs. “They hit it off right away, but ultimately he had to let her go,” Ms. St. Nicholas told The Globe. “He told her she wasn’t subservient enough.”
While in Los Angeles, Ms. Smith also worked for the Rolling Stones and dealt drugs – two gigs not mutually exclusive. “I was at the top as far as vicarious living went,” she wrote about her association with the world’s biggest rock band.
As for the drug peddling, she was small-time. “I never thought of her as a dealer, just well connected,” said Mr. Finkelstein, whose job co-managing Toronto singer-songwriter Dan Hill often took him to Los Angeles.
In California, Ms. Smith comfortably fell into a crowd that included, among others, Leonard Cohen, actor Seymour Cassel (who dubbed Ms. Smith “Butch” because of her husky voice) and Mr. Belushi.
Ms. Smith was with the bingeing, downward-spiralling actor-comedian for the last five days of his life. Visitors to his bungalow on the night he died included actor Robert De Niro and comedian Robin Williams. In her interview with the National Enquirer, Ms. Smith admitted injecting Mr. Belushi with a speedball dose before leaving the bungalow.
“I killed John Belushi,” she said. “I didn’t mean to, but I am responsible.”
Defenders of Ms. Smith, however, believe she kept the comedian alive in the last days. “She was caring and compassionate and a woman of heart and mind,” Ms. St. Nicholas said. “If I ever needed nursing or a shoulder, she was always there for me.”
For years the tragic episode haunted Ms. Smith, who felt that if she had stayed with the comedian for the whole night, things would have turned out differently. “That was her remorse, her self-persecution,” Ms. St. Nicholas said. “If she had any regrets in her life, that was it.”
Ms. Smith attempted to turn her life around in prison, where she taught computer skills to fellow inmates that included members of the Manson Family, a murdering hippie cult. “She got along with Patricia Krenwinkel ... but Susan Atkins freaked her out,” Ms. St. Nicholas said. “Cathy was very tough, and she had a tongue on her. Atkins, though, scared her.”
After her release from prison in March, 1988, Ms. Smith was deported to Canada. In Toronto she did volunteer work speaking to teenagers about the dangers of drugs. In Vancouver, in July, 1991, she was arrested with two grams of heroin in her purse, for which she received a $2,000 fine and a year’s probation. “She struggled at times,” Ms. St. Nicholas said. “There were slip-ups.”
In 2014, after not seeing Mr. Lightfoot for some 20 years, Ms. Smith attended a concert of his at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. As he sang his 1972 song Beautiful, Mr. Lightfoot glanced her way. “Our fingernails were embedded in each other’s forearms, trying not to sob,” said Ms. St. Nicholas, who sat with her friend in the front row. “I truly believe they were the love of each other’s life.”
That night Mr. Lightfoot also sang Rainy Day People, a poignant 1975 song about “high-stepping strutters who land in the gutters.” He had written it on a drizzling day, with Ms. Smith in mind: “Rainy day lovers don’t hide love inside, they just pass it on.”
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.