When [Joanne] Carson released on DVD episodes of a short-lived 1950s weekly variety show called “The Johnny Carson Show,” she said, “The American public saw Johnny as a good and decent man, a little boy from the Midwest who never completely grew up, and I want them to know they were right.”
Baby Boomers grew up watching Johnny Carson and the previous generation embraced his scorpion humor. I miss Johnny Carson’s show along with Ed and Doc.
As the Bombastic Bushkin elucidates, Johnny Carson was a complicated person emotionally. Genial and gratuitously abrasive, generous and cold, Johnny Carson was conflicted. In sum, he died alone.
…Johnny changed during the divorce proceedings [third wife], and I don’t know if he entirely changed back. He was always capable of being a miserable prick. The nasty remark, the stony silence, the surprising indifference –– they had been part of his repertoire ever since I knew him, but they were interruptions in a generally more genial mood. Now these stormy moments came more frequently, and there was an overall harshness, an impatient intolerance that wasn’t there before….He became oddly imperious. For example, now that he resided in Malibu, he became determined to build a sea wall which involved heavy construction and required the acquisition of a permit from the Coastal Commission before work could commence. Johnny had my firm prepare the application, but before the commission could even review the application, he ordered his contractor to start work. He ended up being fined thousands of dollars for his lack of patience, and although was clearly in the wrong, he was angry at them.
Michael Hatten of Brentwood Communications managed to conceal two cameras in hollowed-out books, and within days we caught his dresser, a union guy who was responsible for taking care of Johnny’s wardrobe, pilfering the money. Johnny was very proud that he had solved the mystery, but he never fired the culprit. He like him too much as an employee. Instead, he sat him down and told him as long as he didn’t steal anymore, Johnny would give him another $300 to $400 per week. A complicated and strategic result: at once generous and lenient, but conflict averse. Johnny didn’t want to lose an excellent valet just because he was an untrustworthy thief. He was not about to change things that worked.
From all that Johnny told me, his mother ignored his needs and burdened him with guilt. She was indifferent and lacked emotion. She really did damage Johnny –– damage that manifested itself in adulthood in his difficulties with bonding, decision making, and depression. According to Truman Capote, who saw Johnny frequently when Capote and the Carsons were cotenants in the UN Plaza, Johnny once told him that his mother would throw herself on the floor and scream, “I bore you from these loins, and you do this to me! All that pain and this is what I get in return!”
While reading Mr. Bushkin’s book, I concluded Johnny must have been a Scorpio and perhaps had Saturn in Scorpio. Read the book yourself and you will find corroboration that astrology is the way it is. Mercury was also present in Scorpio, an emotional sign, when Johnny was born.
Scorpio Saturn fears emotional rejection and being inadequate. This fear may cause them to overcompensate in other areas. This fear may also be self-fulfilling. They are afraid of being taken advantage of. By examining their true motives, they may be able to overcome these fears and break the cycle through healing. Scorpio Saturn keeps their motivations hidden deeply. They may be from psychological, emotional or psychic causes. By revealing their motivations, they may master their issues.
Mercury in Scorpio is all about strategy. They are smart and work by instinct. While they may think they are helping in a constructive manner, their criticism may come across as negative instead. Don’t try to win an argument with Scorpio Mercury it is very hard to do. They have a need to win, intellectually and literally.
They are loyal to the bone, and will defend anyone they care about to their last breath. They are also good motivators. They are good at keeping secrets, especially their own. They are also good at digging out the secrets of others. They make excellent detectives, investigators or researchers. They love mystery and intrigue. Science is intriguing to them. Anything that challenges their brain will keep them occupied. Mercury in Scorpio likes to figure out what makes people tick.
They are not very tactful, and will often say what they are thinking. They can have a very sharp tongue. Stubborn and tenacious, Scorpio Mercury will hang onto a subject until they are satisfied. They have a very emotional approach that may prejudice them. This makes it difficult for them to be objective.
If they have no interest in a subject, they will do all they can to avoid it. This can be difficult in school and other times when some subjects must be addressed.
Bushkin himself lasted 18 years. In 1988, Carson fired him, accusing him of trying to steal Carson Productions, a multimillion-dollar company including The Tonight Show.
Bushkin does a terrible job of defending himself, writing a last chapter in the book so bogged down in legalese that it’s hard to know what really happened.
Most of the book, though, is a highly readable account of almost two decades in Johnny Carson’s life. Bushkin has written a fascinating tale about life in the fast lane with one of the most enigmatic figures of our time.
Henry Bushkin, in the biography ‘Johnny Carson,’ offers a rare look behind the camera at the talk-show legend we all thought we knew
By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer
on November 18, 2013 at 6:29 PM, updated November 18, 2013 at 7:21 PM
CLEVELAND, Ohio — In a recent New York Times essay, author Erica Jong recalled that when her novel “Fear of Flying” debuted in 1973, confusion about its subject made it difficult to promote. A spot on the “Tonight” show looked promising, but when Johnny Carson’s talent booker heard what “Flying” was about, she told the author, “Johnny isn’t interested in human relationships.”
“Johnny Carson” (HMH Publishing, 304 pp., $28), a new biography by Carson’s longtime lawyer Henry Bushkin, depicts the accuracy of that assessment – even if the booker didn’t mean it quite so literally.
Night after night, the debonair yet accessible “Tonight” host soothed us with his intelligent yet puckish charm and his finely honed monologue.
But when the camera’s red light went off, he had nothing left over for his wives, or even his buddies – and almost never saw his three sons. He’d come home from the studio and play his drums, alone, for hours.
Yes, you might pause to think here, “Carson’s lawyer wrote a biography?” – and wonder if this was his craven way of cashing in on a reclusive celebrity’s life. This is clearly not the case.
Not only is Bushkin a facile and psychologically insightful writer, but in the case of the emotionally elusive Carson, it weirdly enough makes sense. Only his lawyer – who also was his “fixer,” his business agent and the man whom Carson (to Bushkin’s amazement) called his best friend – would have spent enough unguarded time with Carson to observe the scenes no one else did.
Sure, he got a close-up view of Carson’s debauchery. Well, to our eyes, anyway – it was, after all, the martini-soaked swinging ’70s and ’80s, and a handsome celebrity was never without opportunities. Carson partook of more than his share – whether when he was briefly single, or even when he was happily married, dallying with scores of women, from Ann-Margret to Las Vegas showgirls and his wife’s girlfriends.
The famed host knew he was an exceptionally mean drunk – he told Mike Wallace so in a 1979 interview. But becoming a teetotaler didn’t mitigate his utter personal coldness. When his son, Rick, was hospitalized at New York’s Bellevue, Carson refused to visit him, sending Bushkin instead.
To be fair, there were bouts of generosity and thoughtfulness for friends who fell on hard times, and for some family members – especially his parents. But certainly, none of Carson’s four wives or two still-living sons (Rick died in a car accident) could have known this man as completely and thoroughly as Bushkin did for the 18 years their professional and personal relationship lasted.
One senses that Bushkin wrote this book as his way of trying to make sense of a relationship that enhanced his professional, and his personal, life for quite some time.
The book begins with the creepy caper that introduced Bushkin to Carson – a quasi-break-in at a Manhattan apartment that Carson’s second wife, Joanne, was secretly renting for an affair she was having with Frank Gifford. Carson, Bushkin says, was at first violently angry, then began weeping. That week, Carson made Bushkin, a newly minted attorney, his lawyer.
Soon, there were nights at Jilly’s, Frank Sinatra’s favorite saloon, among others. Carson married Joanna Holland, and they and the Bushkins moved to Los Angeles. The two couples vacationed together each summer, travelling to Wimbledon and the French Riviera for several weeks.
The toxicity that Carson brought to his relationships was something he replicated from his epically cold and withholding mother, whose approval he sought all of her life.
As Bushkin writes, “Nothing this extraordinary man could do impressed her, and she let him know that from his childhood onward. … He carried that pain, and spread it, all his life.”
No therapy for Johnny. And fame insulated him – as it does – against the consequences of bad behavior.
But dark as he was, Carson was a man who brought laughter and late-night comfort to millions for more than 30 years. It was as if all he had went into the “Tonight” show – an environment that he could, and did, masterfully control.
At the end, his eyes filled with tears when Bette Midler serenaded him with “One More For My Baby,” and that was more sentiment than most of those close to him ever saw.
This book is also a glamorous romp through the 1970s and 1980s – and Bushkin takes us there, to the tables in Vegas, courtside at Wimbledon and the occasional Hollywood parties, like the one at Henry Mancini’s where a group of A-list stars awaited Johnny’s arrival. His elusiveness made him fascinating even to other stars.
What Bushkin captures is something many of us have known while in the orbit of a charming, larger-than-life persona – a pervading sense of dread that we too will eventually be dropped, which we try to tamp down with the belief that it won’t happen to us. Then, just like that, it does.
But what a ride you get while it lasts – and Bushkin ably takes us along on his.
Theiss is a writer and critic in Westlake.
‘Johnny Carson,’ by Henry Bushkin
By CARYN JAMES
Published: December 6, 2013
The day after he was hired by Johnny Carson, an obscure young lawyer named Henry Bushkin tagged along with him and some thugs in the night as they broke into an apartment searching for proof of Carson’s wife’s infidelity. They found plenty, as Bushkin tells it, and Carson leaned against a wall and wept, revealing the .38 he was carrying in case things went wrong. That was in 1970, when Carson had already settled into his role as superstar host of “The Tonight Show.” Over the next 18 years, Bushkin was his lawyer, fixer, friend and liege, “like all those guys on ‘Entourage,’ except there was only me.”
His gossipy, self-aggrandizing memoir is a breezy read, but adds little to our picture of Carson beyond some lurid, unverified stories. Did NBC really cut a deal with the Mafia to cover an Italian-American rally on the news in exchange for calling off a hit on Carson, who had pursued the wrong wiseguy’s girlfriend? Did Bushkin once find him at the Beverly Hills Hotel with a woman who “had always seemed to be a close friend” of Carson’s own wife?
Otherwise, Bushkin simply ramps up the image that has become familiar, especially since Carson’s death, in 2005: brilliant comic, cold human being. The cheap but probably accurate psychology says that Carson’s emotionally icy mother left him unable to sustain any of his four marriages or show affection to his three sons.
Then there was the Hollywood-size ego, which Bushkin seems strangely baffled by, even while displaying an outsize ego of his own. Recalling life at his boss’s side — traveling with him luxuriously to Wimbledon and Las Vegas, negotiating contracts that made Carson Midas-rich — Bushkin says without a hint of humor that he was Thomas à Becket to Carson’s Henry II. Yet, a few lines later he expects us to believe he remained “a kid from the Bronx” at heart. This naïve pose deprives the book of some badly needed context.
Bushkin sounds shocked at the fiasco surrounding Carson’s role as host of a live show for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Joanna Carson, wife No. 3, was incensed because Ed McMahon’s wife got better seats, which caused Carson to become furious with Bushkin. Things got worse when a conciliatory invitation for the Carsons to visit the White House turned out to be a group tour, not a private audience with the president. None of this imperiousness should surprise anyone who has spent half a minute around show-business success.
Bushkin was touched and astonished when Carson, in a New Yorker profile by the critic Kenneth Tynan, called him his best friend. Apparently even now it hasn’t occurred to him that a famous person — especially one as savvy and guarded as Carson — might not be blurting out the whole truth to an interviewer. At least Bushkin was shrewd enough to see the end coming, and was more hurt than surprised when Carson cut him off. By his own account, he had gone behind Carson’s back on a business deal. No need to go into his dull, self-justifying details here except to say that after being fired he never saw Carson again.
Carson’s influence on pop culture remains powerful. Jimmy Fallon, who is set to take over “The Tonight Show” in February, wasn’t born when Carson began as host in 1962. Yet even on his current show Fallon is tethered to the prototype that Carson perfected and network television still uses: a gently topical monologue, followed by interviews at the desk. Neither of those elements plays to Fallon’s strength — his brilliant “Saturday Night Live”-style sketches — but the Carson template has become a late-night straitjacket.
That legacy doesn’t seem to interest Bushkin. In his heady days as an insider, he regularly popped up in Carson’s monologues with the nickname “Bombastic Bushkin.” Now we know why.
Caryn James writes the James on Screens film and television blog for Indiewire, and is the author of the novels “Glorie” and “What Caroline Knew.”
Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin
August 19, 1991 Vol. 36 No. 6
Behind the Laughter
By Marjorie Rosen
Numbed by Grief, Johnny Carson Reveals a Long-Hidden Side
THESE HAVE NOT BEEN THE MOST HAPPY several weeks now,” said Johnny Carson on returning to The Tonight Show July 17. His absence of more than a month was supposed to have been just another vacation, one in which he could ponder his looming retirement—a decision he’d announced on May 23. But swiftly the hiatus had turned into a nightmare. First, on June 21, Rick, the second of his three sons, a 39-year-old photographer, was killed in a freak accident when his Nissan Pathfinder rolled down a ravine in Cayucos, Calif. A mere 11 days later, close friend Michael Landon succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 54. Now Carson was back at his familiar desk, but as his longtime announcer Ed McMahon reported, “Johnny is still in shock.” And the unaccustomedly awkward opening monologue confirmed it. For perhaps the first time ever, Carson’s pain was visible. In a mere month the 65-year-old host seemed to have aged a decade.
Then, in the show’s final moments, Carson broke with years of deliberate silence about his family to present a touching tribute to his son. “He was an exuberant young man, fun to be around…. He tried so darn hard to please,” he said simply, his voice choking with emotion. He then closed the show with a series of Rick’s recent landscape photos.
“I think it took a lot of courage for Johnny to do that,” McMahon observes. “He’s such a private man, and his loss was so great.”
For Carson, Rick’s eulogy also meant revealing to approximately 12 million viewers a piece of his inner self—the sentimental side that even his close friends are rarely, if ever, permitted to glimpse. And, perhaps even worse, it meant stirring up unpleasant personal business for public consumption. Carson’s first wife, Jody, married to him from 1949 to 1963, was conspicuously absent from their son’s funeral; according to her lawyer Raoul Felder, she hadn’t been informed of Rick’s death until after his burial. “Johnny tried to notify her,” insists second wife Joanne, whose own nine-year marriage to him ended in 1972, and who remains in contact with her ex. “But Jody moves around a lot and doesn’t always tell anyone where she is.” Typically, the inscrutable Carson has remained silent on the matter. As his buddy Burt Reynolds says, “This is not a man who wears his feelings on his sleeve.”
Yet these days, as he has begun to sprinkle his opening monologues with wry references to his retirement (scheduled for next May 22), Johnny is definitely revealing more of himself on-camera than ever before. Nevertheless, America’s late-night pal is not exactly an open book. In fact, while Carson may be the man who has logged more hours in our bedrooms than many a lover, off-camera he has always been obsessed with avoiding the limelight. He gives few interviews and rarely attends even the A-list dinner parties. Despite the glare from coverage of his four marriages, three messy divorces and past troubles with alcohol (including a 1982 arrest for drunken driving), he lives deeper in the shadows than perhaps any other contemporary celebrity.
Friends describe him as generous, loyal but, above all, “private.” Yet others are less forgiving of the reclusive Carson nature. “He’s a totally isolated person, very dour,” says one. “If he’s at a party and feels comfortable, he’ll be very introverted. And if he’s not at ease, he’ll be doing card tricks. Like most comedians, he’s funny onstage. Offstage he’s very unhappy.”
“On the show, I’m in control,” Carson has said. “Socially, I’m not.”
Talk show host Dick Cavett, a fellow Nebraskan, onetime Tonight writer, and friend, sees Johnny’s remoteness differently: “I think he makes his small talk on TV, and to do it elsewhere is probably painful.”
For the late critic Kenneth Tynan, Carson’s manner was “impeccably diplomatic. Even so, you get the impression that you are addressing an elaborately wired security system.”
And very few penetrate the barriers. Two of Carson’s four wives make the case that he has had a spotty relationship with sons Chris, 40, a onetime golf pro in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Cory, 37, a sometime guitarist in Los Angeles; and of course Rick. “Why is that [the warmth he shows on stage]—which everybody in the nation loves and gets—not there for…his children?” third wife Joanna Carson has remarked about Johnny’s sparse attention to his family. And according to the boys’ mother, Jody, 64, Johnny not only had a drinking problem, but “he wasn’t around that much. He was always working.”
“Rick was brought up in boarding schools, and he was almost too nice,” says one of Rick’s friends. “He was very sensitive and had a hard time.”
While Johnny was concerned for his son, “His policy was mostly hands-off,” explains another buddy of Rick’s. “But Johnny was rooting for him. In fact, Rick called in late spring, very excited. For the first time Johnny had invited him over to play tennis. Imagine! And Johnny’s had a court for at least 20 years. I’m glad Ricky had that wish answered before he died.”
Johnny’s second wife, Joanne, 59, an actress who, after their divorce, earned a Ph.D. in nutrition, defends his offhand brand of parenting. “He loves his kids deeply, and he was especially close to Ricky. And Ricky adored his father,” she insists. As for Johnny himself, “I found him to be a very caring, sensitive, empathetic individual. You have to understand, he is shy, he has had a midwestern upbringing. It’s not his style to let it all hang out.”
Carson grew up in Norfolk, Nebr., the middle of three children born to the late Homer (Kit) Carson, a power-company manager, and his wife, Ruth, a housewife who died in 1985. The Carsons were a frugal and reserved lot. “Nobody in our family ever says what they really think or feel to anyone else,” his younger brother Dick, director of Wheel of Fortune, has observed.
However stingy with his emotions he may be in private, Johnny’s generosity toward other performers is legendary. He has not only given two generations of stand-up comics—from Robert Klein to Roseanne Barr—their starts by repeatedly inviting them to perform on his show, but as a straight man to funny guests, he’s a dream. “He could tell when you’d hit comic gold,” Mel Brooks has said, “and he’d help you mine it.”
But if the public Carson seems giving, affable and easy to read, the private man remains a puzzle. Even with his estimated fortune of more than $100 million, colleagues describe him as someone of simple tastes: He has a spartan dressing room, eats plain NBC commissary food and drives his own car, a white Corvette. On the other hand, his $8.9 million, 12,000-square-foot Point Dume home is lavish, and his art collection (including paintings by David Hockney) elaborate. He has three hobbies—drumming, astronomy and tennis. Like clockwork, he travels to Wimbledon every June (even following son Rick’s death) and the U.S. Open in New York City every September. Otherwise, he pretty much keeps to the familiar boundaries of home and his small circle of friendly advisers like producer Freddie deCordova and former NBC executive Dave Tebet. Genuinely shy, he has said that he avoids parties because “I get embarrassed by attention and adulation. I don’t know how to react to them in private.” But occasionally he and fourth wife Alexis Mass, 41, invite guests like Cavett, astronomer Carl Sagan and actor Sidney Poitier to dinner. Or they’ll enjoy a meal—linguine in clam sauce for him, stuffed peppers for her—at Monroe’s, a local Malibu beach restaurant.
Over the years Johnny has surprised many allies by abruptly severing relations with them—manager Al Bruno, who made Carson a star but, once fired (for the alleged crime of booking him into a nightclub with a poor sound system), was deserted by other clients as well and eventually retired to a farm in upstate New York; producer Art Stark, who set The Tonight Show on its smooth course but, once fired, was relegated to producing such shows as The Junior Miss Pageant and died in 1982; attorney and closest buddy Henry Bushkin, who after a few sour business deals, including a failed attempt to take over the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, was permanently banished from the kingdom; and, of course, onetime Tonight heiress apparent Joan Rivers. Rivers herself describes two very different Johnnys. One was the nurturing mentor. “He believed in me more than I believed in me,” she says.
Yet the other Johnny, the one who she says didn’t even offer condolences in 1987 when her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide, seems petty and vindictive. On first starting her ill-fated late-night talk show for Fox Broadcasting in 1986, Rivers says, “You’d be surprised at the number of good friends who didn’t come on because they were scared”—afraid they’d never get on Tonight again.
Fear often crops up as a factor in the Carson equation—fear among Johnny’s colleagues that if they misstep, as Bruno and Stark were perceived to have done, they’ll be stricken from his life. And fear among his wives of his explosive temper. “John was violent, he drank. He was abusive both physically and emotionally,” says Jody. She recalls that when she asked for a separation, Johnny tore up their living room, then “started beating me all over my chest.”
The late writer Truman Capote, a UN Plaza neighbor and close pal of second wife Joanne, once recalled, “He was mean as hell to her. He’d get drunk and start beating her, and she would take refuge in my apartment.” Yet today Joanne denies it all. “As for talk about Johnny’s violence, I never saw any. He wasn’t difficult to live with at all,” she claims.
Still, he stormed through three marriages, piling up infidelities (singer Jill Corey was one), bouts with booze and an alimony tab estimated at $88,000 annually, but not including the $20-odd million in cash and property that third wife Joanna walked away with. Moreover, according to one reputable observer, his marriage to Mass, a former secretary who reportedly met him while strolling by his Malibu beach house in a bikini, is also rumored to be “wobbly.” But others claim that Carson has mellowed over the years, that these days he rarely drinks and doesn’t smoke. And pal Reynolds paints a different marital picture. “I see them as very happy. She thinks he’s very funny,” he says. “It helps when your wife thinks you’re funny.”
Reynolds regards Johnny as a thoughtful friend. A few years ago when he was ill with temporomandibular-joint disorder and battling unfounded AIDS rumors, “I heard from him every week,” he explains. “He’d say, ‘Get up and get out.’ He made the effort to call. Nobody else did.”
“People seems to have bought the image of Johnny as a cold, heartless man,” observes Cavett. “Or maybe this is a convenient mask for him because it keeps people away. But he’s very easily moved. I’ve always liked him. And I liked working for him. It will be odd to have him off the scene.”
How will Carson himself adjust? “He’ll miss doing what he does best,” predicts Burt Reynolds. “How many tennis matches can you play? I have a feeling that in a year or so he’ll want to do something. He’s full of surprises.”
True, as Carson’s tribute to his son revealed. After all, the man is difficult to second-guess. “Nobody knows Johnny. The only time he comes alive is on camera,” Truman Capote once remarked. Or as a former friend suggests, if he had to write an epitaph it would be: “I wonder who Johnny is?”