A headline on the cover of The National Enquirer in June 1982 became the defining element of Cathy Smith’s life.
“‘I Killed John Belushi,’” it read, alongside a large photograph of Belushi, the boisterous comedian. Below the picture another headline added, “World Exclusive — Mystery Woman Confesses.”
The headline and accompanying article were the catalyst that ultimately landed Smith in jail.
Before the Enquirer article, the circumstances surrounding Belushi’s death the previous March, at 33, had remained murky, and it was labeled simply an accidental drug overdose.
Belushi, a star of “Saturday Night Live” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) whose heavy drug use was later documented in Bob Woodward’s book “Wired,” went on a dayslong drug binge in a bungalow of the Chateau Marmont Hotel in West Hollywood with Smith, who had been a fringe figure on the music scenes in Toronto and then Los Angeles.
Smith would admit to injecting Belushi with a combination of heroin and cocaine, or speedball, during her interview with The Enquirer, for which she was paid $15,000. The article resulted in a renewed investigation and, in 1983, her indictment by a grand jury in Los Angeles County on one count of second-degree murder and 13 counts of administering a dangerous drug.
Smith, one of pop culture’s most notorious footnotes, died Aug. 16 in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. She was 73.
The British Columbia Coroners Service confirmed her death but said it had not yet determined a cause. The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported that Smith had been in failing health for several years.
Before Belushi’s death, Smith occasionally sang backup on records and traveled in the hard-partying orbit of groups like the Band and the Rolling Stones. The Globe and Mail once described her as a “rock ’n’ roll courtesan to the likes of Levon Helm, Gordon Lightfoot, Keith Richards et al.”
At 17 she had a child she said was fathered by Helm, drummer for the Band and other groups, whom she gave up for adoption. (Helm, who died in 2012, did not acknowledge paternity.) In the 1970s she spent almost four years in a volatile relationship with Lightfoot, the Canadian singer-songwriter.
“It was one of those relationships you get a feeling of danger comes into the picture,” he said in “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,” a recent documentary by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni.
Catherine Evelyn Smith was born on April 25, 1947, in Burlington, Ontario, on the western end of Lake Ontario. She dropped out of school at 16 and found her way to the Yorkville section of Toronto, which was then a magnet for bohemian musicians and literary figures. Quoted in a 1982 article in Rolling Stone, Bernie Fiedler, owner of a folk club called the Riverboat Coffee House, described her as “absolutely beautiful, one of the ladies who had everything a man always wanted but was afraid to confront.”
Lightfoot took up with her in the early 1970s. It was a tempestuous relationship. His song “Sundown,” a 1974 hit about a dark sort of possessiveness (“I can see her lookin’ fast in her faded jeans/She’s a hard-loving woman, got me feelin’ mean”), was inspired by her.
In 1978 Smith left Toronto for Los Angeles “to graduate from folk-music groupie to the more dangerous world of rock & roll,” as Rolling Stone put it. She sang backup for Hoyt Axton for a time, and also hung out with Keith Richards and other members of the Rolling Stones. And she began using hard drugs, and sometimes providing them.
The Enquirer said she was known as “Cathy Silverbag” because she carried a metallic purse with dope — or “poison,” as the judge who sentenced her in 1986 after she pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and three drug counts called it. The judge, David A. Horowitz of Los Angeles Superior Court, said Belushi’s own recklessness did not absolve her.
Smith was paroled after serving 15 months of a three-year sentence and deported back to Canada.