Books: Robyn Crawford exposes the villains in Whitney Houston's transcendent, tragic life

“A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston” by Robyn Crawford.

“A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston” by Robyn Crawford. (Dutton, 336 pages, $28.)

In the crowded world of celebrity tell-alls, Robyn Crawford, Whitney Houston’s best friend and the vault-like repository of her secrets, is a rare big “get.”

Rumors that Houston was a lesbian, and Crawford her lover, followed the singer from the earliest days of her career. Tabloids used to use euphemisms like “longtime companion” and “gal pal” to describe them. In the ’80s and ’90s, when Houston was at her commercial peak, the idea of an African American mainstream star in a same-sex relationship was unthinkable.

Crawford hardly ever spoke about their relationship, and not at all about their romance, even after Houston’s death in 2012. Her plain-spoken, affectionate new memoir, “A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston,” confirms most of what tabloids had alleged and fans had already guessed: Crawford and Houston, who met as teenagers, were involved in a secret love affair that ended out of necessity as Houston’s star rose. They remained close, until Houston’s drug use and her turbulent marriage to R&B star Bobby Brown drove them apart.

Crawford was 19 and Houston nearly 17 when they met in the summer of 1980, when both women were camp counselors at a community center in East Orange, N.J. Crawford was a student athlete. Houston, nicknamed Nippy after a comic strip character, was a model and a standout in her church’s choir, with a voice so powerful one parishioner fainted upon hearing it. She was soft-spoken and avoided confrontation; Crawford soon took on the role of protector.

Their friendship quickly turned romantic, a fact they hid from everyone around them. They moved in together as soon as they could.

“We were everything to each other,” Crawford writes. “We weren’t falling in love. We just were. We had each other. We were one: That’s how it felt.”

Soon after signing her record deal, Houston gave Crawford a Bible and told her that their physical relationship was over. She feared public exposure and going to hell.

“ ‘If people find out, they’ll never leave us alone,’ ” she told Crawford. Though they were no longer romantically involved, they remained best friends. According to Crawford, “we had a bond that no one could penetrate. It would be our secret, and it would hold us together.”

The early years of Houston’s fame were an endless blur of touring and recording. As Houston became a crossover superstar, Crawford worked as her gatekeeper, scheduler and all-around aide-de-camp, the primary employee of Nippy Inc.

They began experimenting with drugs early in their friendship — Houston told Crawford that she started doing cocaine at 14 — but vowed to quit before Houston got famous. “Whitney would often say, ‘Cocaine can’t go where we’re going,’” recalls Crawford.

But it did. Things got so bad that Crawford held an intervention for herself. She also warned Houston’s mother Cissy, a famous singer in her own right and one of the book’s most indelible villains, about her daughter’s drug use.

In Crawford’s telling, which consistently rings true, she is a devoted friend and emotional bulwark for Houston, who found it difficult to stick up for herself. “Performing, Whitney was a lioness, but offstage she was quiet and rarely roared.” Family members took advantage of her, draining her finances and, according to Crawford, sometimes enabling her drug use; at one point, she says, Houston’s brother was her hookup.

Houston’s family members viewed Crawford as an opportunist and a threat. Cissy once slapped her across the face during an argument, she says, and there were rumors Houston’s father considered bankrolling a plot to have Crawford’s kneecaps broken.

Crawford’s book is a minor masterpiece of genteel score-settling, and it’s not only Houston’s relatives who come out badly. In Crawford’s telling, Houston’s ex-boyfriend Eddie Murphy seems to delight in humiliating her. Though he was reluctant to publicly acknowledge their relationship, he called her on her wedding day to try to talk her out of marrying Brown, sensible advice that even Crawford hadn’t dared give.

Brown is a malign presence throughout the book, a skulking, constantly aggrieved figure who abuses Houston physically and emotionally, and impregnates another woman during their courtship.

Everything “he put his hands on ended up in ruins,” Crawford writes, including Houston’s self-esteem.

Their blowups became legendary. Brown, who apparently had not known about his wife’s romantic relationship with Crawford until after they married, objected to her outsize influence in Houston’s life. Crawford writes that she once witnessed Brown spit in Houston’s face and worried what he was doing to her in private.

As Houston became harder to reach, trapped behind layers of hangers-on, isolated by fame, drugs and her abusive marriage, she and Crawford grew apart. It’s Brown who ultimately drove Crawford away. After a particularly bruising argument with the couple, she quit.

“I was no longer able to protect Nippy,” she recalls. “I had done all I could do, and for the first time I realized that I needed to save myself.”

Crawford was 40 when she left, having lived inside the Houston bubble for decades. She eventually married and adopted twins. She and Houston, who divorced Brown in 2007, had only sporadic contact until the singer’s death by accidental drowning in February 2012 (heart disease and cocaine use are cited as contributing factors).

Crawford worries that the scandal and tragedy of Houston’s last years can make it easy to forget the greatness of her life. “Yes, in the end it was tragic, but the dream and the rise were beautiful,” Crawford writes. “I owe it to my friend to share her story, my story. Our story. And I hope that in doing so, I can set us both free.”