Billy Joel has spent a lot of his life in some sort of battle: against ex-wives, against alcohol, against bad managers and bankruptcy, and also against the critics who deemed him not cool enough for rock ’n’ roll. These days, despite his decades-long success in the music industry, the 71-year-old five-time Grammy-winning musician has always felt a sort of failure where it most counts: the love department.
“I see old folks walking down the street who look like they’ve been together 50 years, and there’s something very touching about it — that they’ve lasted so long,” Joel told his biographer Fred Schruers for the book “Billy Joel.” He used to wonder: How come I don’t have that? “I can dream about it, think about it, write music and lyrics and sing about it. I can even try to achieve it again, and often have.”
His three painful marriages — and the songs they inspired — are a testament to that.
In 2015, after three divorces, Joel decided to walk down the aisle again with his fourth wife, the former hedge fund manager Alexis Roderick. But despite the multiple heartbreaks, Joel managed to stay on good terms with each one of his ex-wives: Elizabeth Weber, Christie Brinkley, and Katie Lee. And that’s not to mention his flings and romances with models that he never tied the knot with.
The women in his life have all contributed in some way to his music; some more than others. For instance, we can thank Elizabeth Weber for the songs “Just the Way You Are,” “She’s Got a Way” and “She’s Always a Woman.” But Joel can also thank her for being his first wife and first major heartbreak…
Joel met his first wife, Elizabeth, in 1970, through his buddy and bandmate, Jon Small. Elizabeth was actually married to Small before that, and they even had a son together. But Joel was smitten. “She wasn’t like a lot of the other girls I knew at that time who had taken home and cooking classes,” Joel told Schruers.
To Joel, Elizabeth was intelligent and not scared to speak her mind, and more interestingly, she was seductive. “Almost like a European-type. Not a typical American girl.” And yes, their relationship started out as an affair. When Small found out, Elizabeth left them both and disappeared for weeks. That’s when Joel started to contemplate ending his life.
Joel was 21 years old, broke, with no friends and loveless. He was crashing at his mom’s house again, “which is abject failure” in his eyes. Soon after Elizabeth took off, Joel overdosed on a drug called Nembutal. He obviously survived the lapse and decided to call Small to apologize. Small was shocked to hear of the incident, and so he raced to Joel’s mom’s house in Hicksville.
He found Joel on the floor. “The next thing I remember, I woke up in the hospital and learned that they had pumped my stomach,” Joel recalled. That’s when he thought to myself, “Oh, great, I couldn’t even do this right.” For Joel, it was yet another failure.
A matter of weeks later, Joel tried again, but this time he drank furniture polish. A family member found him. Joel checked himself into a psych ward at a hospital and stayed for three weeks. It was then and there that the man had an epiphany. He realized that the people he was locked up with were never going to overcome their problems, whereas his were all self-made. “I can fix this, I thought.”
So he started writing again. Not much of a drug guy, he would self-medicate with booze and cigarettes. After back-and-forth woes with Elizabeth, the two got back together. She had a clever business sense, and so she agreed to manage him, in addition to becoming his first wife. As for Joel, it wasn’t the most intelligent decision…
In September 1973, the two got married. Joel’s songs “She’s Got a Way” and “She’s Always a Woman” happened to be inspired by Elizabeth, which may seem to listeners as something great and wonderful. But, many around the singer were concerned. They found Elizabeth very controlling, manipulative, plain rude and basically a lot more fascinated with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle than Joel himself.
The song “Just the Way You Are” was a song he wrote as a birthday gift to his wife. After he played it for her, she didn’t cry or hug him or take his hand and lead him up the bedroom. What she said was: “Do I get the publishing, too?” No, she wasn’t kidding.
As his wife, Elizabeth was entitled to 50 percent of her husband’s worth. And as his manager, she was also taking a cut of his earnings. With time, she brought her brother, Frank, along for the ride. Joel wasn’t so happy about it. His next record and hit single, “The Stranger,” were also inspired by Elizabeth. She may have been his muse, but the marriage didn’t last more than nine years.
In 1982, they filed for divorce. It wasn’t so mutual because Joel was hoping to reconcile. He told her he would buy her everything she wanted — a $4 million home on the Upper East Side or an Alfa Romeo. But after the divorce, he got into a motorcycle accident.
In the accident, Joel ultimately smashed up both his hands. While he was in the hospital, he was doped up on pain pills. He found himself contemplating what future he would have as a musician. Elizabeth came to visit him with a contract in hand. Joel remembers her asking him to sign over everything he had to her.
“I may have acted like an idiot a time or two, but I’m not a complete idiot,” Joel told his biographer. “That really killed it, right there and then.” Her own brother, Frank, sided with Joel in the divorce. But years later, Joel discovered that Frank drained nearly $30 million of his earnings. In 1989, Joel sued him for that amount, plus an extra $60 million in punitive damages.
Joel may have taken Frank Weber to court, but Frank outwitted him by filing for bankruptcy. In 1990, they settled out of court. Joel had clearly got involved with a family of sharks. For the first experience of marriage, this one would make anyone jaded and wary of future lovers. Falling in love with and marrying Elizabeth Weber was definitely the costliest relationship Joel ever had.
But while many people would be discouraged and give up on love and/or marriage forever, Billy Joel was nonetheless a hopeless romantic. The man just couldn’t give up on finding his soulmate. So the next time he got married, he hoped it would last. It didn’t… but at least he changed things up. This time, he went for a supermodel.
In 1983, a year after his split with Elizabeth Weber, the 33-year-old went to St. Bart’s for a vacation during the holidays. There, he found a piano bar and the Piano Man just started playing. After a few moments, to his amazement, he saw Elle Macpherson, then 19, and Christie Brinkley, then 28, standing at either side of him. Oh, and a then-undiscovered Whitney Houston was there, too.
Apparently, they were all competing for his attention, Brinkley told Schruers. She recalled: “Whitney says, ‘I can sing!’ Meanwhile, Elle’s draped herself on the piano like Michelle Pfeiffer [in The Fabulous Baker Boys].” As you can imagine, it was every man’s fantasy to have these women vying for him at one time, especially for the dreamer that Joel was.
Although three young and beautiful women were trying to gain his interest, Joel ultimately laid his eyes on Christie Brinkley. Can you blame him? Heck, she was a famous supermodel. So what he did was what he called “an album cover.” He tried to look like himself on an album cover. “I gave it every angle I could.”
“The music was the key to the introduction,” Joel told Rolling Stone. That’s when Christie sat down next to him and started singing, too. At the time, she was fresh out of a relationship with the race car driver and heir to Moët et Chandon, Olivier Chandon de Brailles. But soon after this incredible night, Chandon was killed in a car accident.
Hearing the news, Joel reached out to Brinkley, which started them on a friendly path. But their friendship turned romantic as they started dating soon after. But it might be important to mention here that when he connected with Brinkley, he was “going out with this girl Elle.” Yes, Elle Macpherson.
And reading like a man’s fantasy tale, Brinkley and Macpherson competed for Joel when they were back in New York. In those days, Joel was living in a penthouse apartment looking over Central Park. His building’s doorman, an aspiring actor, named Nick Turturro, liked to rank all the women Billy brought home. “Usually, he’d hold up eight, nine, 10 fingers,” Joel said. And Brinkley was the only one who got all 10 fingers, twice.
Joel recalled a certain night – the first night Joel brought Brinkley home with him. “I was trying to act cool, but somewhere inside me, that kid from Hicksville was going, ‘Yesssssss!’ ” But then, as the elevator door opened to his apartment, Elle Macpherson was standing there. A part of him thought, “Oh, God, no,” but another part of him was going, “Holy crap if my friends could see me now!”
Brinkley, however, was unruffled by the threat. She simply left, and Macpherson stayed. But the truth was that Joel was in love with Brinkley. During an appearance on Watch What Happens Live in 2018, Elle Macpherson gave some remarks about Joel’s biography.
In his biography, Joel claimed that Macpherson was waiting for him in his penthouse when he came home with Brinkley that night. But Macpherson remembers it a little differently. According to her, she was actually living with Joel at the time, and they were still together when he started dating Brinkley. Essentially, she “got ousted,” as she put it.
Either way, Joel and Brinkley became an item, and they got married in 1985 in the New York Harbor while on a 147-foot yacht. You know, as one typically does. It was also on their wedding night that they conceived their daughter, Alexa Ray. Ray is now 34 years old and is a singer, songwriter, and pianist.
Brinkley appeared as the love interest in Joel’s music video for the hit single “Uptown Girl.” So naturally, everyone just assumed the song was written about her. But the truth is that the song was actually about Joel’s fling with MacPherson. Originally, the song was called “Uptown Girls,” which was about his experience dating not only both supermodels but another woman who came before them.
In the end, the title was made singular, and by the time the making of the video rolled around, he was already dating Brinkley. Joel expressed his insecurities about dating a much younger (as well as taller) woman on the brink of superstardom whom he believed would eventually leave him. He wrote: “And So It Goes” for MacPherson.
Fun fact: Joel recalls somebody taking a photo of him and MacPherson walking down a beach at Coney Island. “Elle was so tall that I looked like Bubbles the Chimp next to her, and I realized this was just not going to work.”
Joel’s next album, “An Innocent Man,” was like a love letter to his new wife. His single “This Is the Time” was written for Brinkley, and it’s a song that involves a couple reminiscing about their best days together. Joel was on a new path of love, but he was dealing with his own financial crises.
The Piano Man was still suffering a major financial setback from his legal battle with Frank Weber. It meant that he had to tour nonstop to regain his income, and as a result, his marriage suffered. The boiling point came in 1993. After a concert at Nassau Coliseum, Joel decided to stay at a hotel nearby rather than drive 90 minutes home.
Supposedly, that’s when Brinkley was told by a band member of Joel’s that he was having an affair. Just so you know, Joel denies the accusation. By the end of that year, both Joel and Brinkley knew that the marriage was over. And with the end of his second marriage came the end of the road when it came to making new albums.
“Christie likes to joke that the end of the marriage… spelled the end of my songwriting career,” Joel revealed. At least, he thinks it’s a joke. By 1994, Joel and Brinkley split up. Theirs, too, lasted nine years. According to people who know them, the divorce was the result of many factors and not just the alleged affair.
There were other factors involved, like Brinkley’s desire to move to the west coast, as well as her frustrations with Joel’s all-encompassing touring schedule. Brinkley made a statement regarding the matter: “Just because people can express themselves through their art doesn’t mean they are great communicators in person.”
The woman has a point. But regardless of their failed marriage, the two were quite an item. And Joel had her back when Brinkley faced criticism when critics labeled the supermodel as stupid and boring. “What bothers me is… people fall back on the stereotype of her as being a dumb blonde, which she definitely is not,” Joel claimed in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Then again, Joel was still pretty caught up in appearances. After all, the man was dating supermodels. In the same interview with Rolling Stone, he fully admitted that he wanted people to look at Brinkley while they were out together. You know, the trophy wife kind of thing. At first, he thought she was going to be a snob. But she proved to be a lot more than just a pretty face.
There was one point when, in an attempt to dodge the media and paparazzi, Joel and Brinkley would book hotel rooms under the names “Rocky” and “Sandy Shore.” Oddly enough, they thought such bogus names wouldn’t raise any red flags.
Let’s enjoy a few words from Brinkley, who told Sports Illustrated in 1989: “When you start to get famous, you need a backyard, a place where you can get away from it all. I told Joe one day that the second-worst thing I could think of would be to be famous and poor because then you couldn’t escape to some island.”
It’s a good thing, Rocky, and Sandy Shore were wealthy AND famous. After their divorce, Brinkley married Richard Taubman. The marriage was short, but they had a son together. Her next husband was Peter Cook. The two wed in 1996 and welcomed a daughter. By 2008, they split up.
Speaking of splitting up… after Brinkley, Joel moved on to another woman in his love saga…
Even during his marriage to Brinkley, in the early 2000s, Joel was suffering from depression again and drinking heavily. At one point, he was touring with Elton John, and one night he had a meltdown onstage at the Garden. Apparently, he was randomly shouting out famous battle sites, like “Bunker Hill! Antietam!” Later on, in 2011, Elton John even publicly scolded Joel for his drinking.
In fact, their relationship has never really recovered from it. But anyways, between 2002 and 2004, Joel managed to get into not one, but three car accidents on Long Island. One involved crashing into a house. He later blamed the “bad street lighting,” “local wildlife,” and his poorly made Citroën and Porsche 9/11. Nevertheless, he knew he needed to check into rehab. But as he said, “The fact is, I like to drink… Sometimes too much.”
Joel found a light at the end of the tunnel when he met a college girl from Ohio named Katie Lee. He picked her up in the Peninsula Hotel’s lobby. They hit it off quickly, and right after graduating, she moved into Joel’s $4 million loft in Tribeca. By 2004, they were married. Let me just mention the age gap: Joel was 55, and Lee was 23.
She was only four years older than his daughter, Alexa. After a period of time at Betty Ford, Katie Lee, an aspiring culinary star, encouraged her husband to get back out on the road. And so, he started touring again. But just a few months into their marriage, Joel was in rehab yet again.
While touring with Elton John in 2008, Joel kept seeing photos of Katie at premieres and gallery openings. There was one photo in particular – of her dancing a little too closely with another man. “Those photos looked bad,” Lee admitted to biographer Schruers. However, she denied ever having an affair.
As the marriage was unraveling before his eyes, Joel still had hope. But when he told her that he wanted to go to a therapist, and she started talking about furniture, “I realized, ‘It’s not going to happen. We’re over’”. By 2009, they were already divorced. It would be another year or so until he met his current wife. Who knows, maybe fourth time’s a charm…
The Piano Man got married a fourth time on July 4, 2015, at their annual party, and surprised all their guests by having a surprise wedding. They wed at Joel’s Centre Island estate in Long Island, where Governor Andrew Cuomo officiated the ceremony. By the time they tied the knot, they were already expecting their first child together.
Joel is now a father of three. Other than Alexa, Joel and Roderick have two daughters: Remy Anne and Della Rose.
After three divorces, Joel’s relationships may have been costly (on more than one level), but the singer was able to turn his heartache into some pretty big hits. In his biography, Joel reveals the inspiration for some of his most famous songs…
So, “Piano Man” is definitely up there with his biggest hits. In 1972, Joel went to LA in an attempt to remove himself from a shady management deal. He was told to go off the grid for a while. He wound up at The Executive Room on Wilshire Boulevard playing the piano. And as a way to dull his misery, he imagined himself as Steve Martin or Bill Murray on “SNL,” playing the part of a sort of lounge lizard.
Joel even performed under the name Bill Martin. In fact, the “Bill” in the song is him. And there really was a bartender named John. Tipping customers would often ask him: “What are you doing here?” They just knew this guy was too talented for that room.
Joel was living in LA for three years before he was simply done with it. He recalled a day when he took a trip upstate and was amazed by the Hudson Valley’s “full-foliage glory.” He was with his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, and they rented a house near West Point. As soon as he finished touring, he got on a Greyhound bus and stared out the window.
“On that ride, I started writing the song,” he revealed. “I was so glad to be back home, feeling, ‘This is where I belong.’” It was on that bus, on his way back home, that he proudly found himself in a New York state of mind.
Joel said that this song was musically inspired by the 16-minute B-side parody of “Abbey Road.” It’s Joel’s most densely narrated and detailed song. The prom king and queen, the marriage, and the divorce – all told in seven minutes and 37 seconds. “I wanted to explore the eternal question about the anointed kids we all knew. Whatever happened to them? If you peak too early, if you’re the hot lick in high school, it’s a good bet you’re gonna bomb out pretty early.”
He told the biographer that he had an idea about a couple that meets after a long time. “Okay, a bottle of red, a bottle of white.” He said, “That’s it: they’re in their old Italian restaurant.” Gradually, it all came together.
Joel says that he always writes the melody first, and then the lyrics come along. For this song, he thought of writing a song about Levittown, where he grew up. But he hit a wall. What was there to write about Levittown? He joked, saying: “That the candy store was understocked?” And then he thought about Allentown, and its working-class Pennsylvanians destroyed by Vietnam and Reaganomics.
“I empathize with people who have difficulty finding work or staying in a job,” Joel said to Schruers. “I remember what it feels like to do a meaningless hard day’s work for a low wage.”
Joel had many interviews with Fred Schruers, but his original book deal was canceled at the last minute…
In 2011, Joel first announced that he was going to release an autobiography that he wrote with Fred Schruers, called The Book of Joel: A Memoir. But in March 2011, Joel decided against publishing it and officially canceled his deal with the publisher HarperCollins. According to Rolling Stone, “HarperCollins acquired the book project for $3 million in 2008.”
And according to Billboard, “the book was billed as an ’emotional ride’ that would detail the music legend’s failed marriage to Christie Brinkley, as well as his battles with substance abuse.” Joel himself explained: “It took working on writing a book to make me realize that I’m not all that interested in talking about the past, and that the best expression of my life and its ups and downs has been and remains my music.”