Donny Hathaway was hospitalized in both New York and Chicago for paranoid schizophrenia. “He was 26 when it really came down upon him,” she said. He was released and given a heavy medication regimen, 14 pills a day. “I’d get the pills ready for him and sit them on the counter,” she said. “He was probably figuring out a way not to take them.”
Donny Hathaway didn’t release any music for five years. “He just kind of dropped out of existence,” Howard said. But in 1978, he hit No. 2 on the pop charts with “The Closer I Get to You,” a comeback duet with Flack. They started working on another album together in New York, but were hindered by Hathaway’s mental-health issues. “Donny kept leaving the studio and going to the bathroom,” Howard said. When they found him on the floor of the bathroom, sobbing, saying that someone had tried to kill him, they stopped the sessions.
That evening — Jan. 13, 1979 — Hathaway, Howard and the manager David Franklin retreated to Flack’s home. “She cooked dinner for us, a Jamaican dish with spoonbread and rice and fish,” Howard said. “Donny drew a picture of a gun on some music manuscript paper and asked me, ‘What if somebody came up to you and said “Bang!”?’ I took it away and X-ed the gun out, trying to keep him calm.”
Howard and Hathaway went to the Essex House, the hotel where they were staying, and retired to their separate rooms. Hathaway slid the plate glass out of his window, neatly laid it under a table, and, still wearing his overcoat, fell to his death from the 15th floor. It was ruled a suicide, although his widow always believed it was an accident; she didn’t think he meant to harm himself, but knew that his mental illness often made him careless. “I wasn’t really surprised,” she said. “I knew he was a sick person. He didn’t really need to be working at that point anyway. I had expressed that to his partners, but people don’t care.”
Forty years after her father’s death, Lalah Hathaway said: “Grief is a process. Art is a process. Me stepping into that light and allowing him to come through is all a process. It may sound cheesy, but it’s an esoteric spiritual journey.”
She connects particularly deeply with “A Song for You,” written by Leon Russell but performed by Donny Hathaway as a hymn of heartbreak. Sometimes she performs it a cappella so she can feel more deeply connected to her father.