'Johnny Carson': Turmoil amid brilliance

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My first question in a KDKA radio interview with Henry Bushkin, Johnny Carson's former friend and business manager, was: "Did you consider naming the book 'Weird, Wild Stuff?' "

"I did as a matter of fact, but it was the publisher's call and he decided on 'Johnny Carson,'" Mr. Bushkin said. A simple title for a fascinating book about a complex man. It was a matter of luck that Mr. Bushkin met Carson. A junior partner in a not particularly prestigious New York law firm, Mr. Bushkin was a friend of a friend of Carson's. His law partners snickered when he told them he was going to meet the much-celebrated host of "The Tonight Show," and advised him not to be disappointed if Carson wasn't interested in retaining his services.

By Henry Bushkin.
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($28).

Carson went with his gut. He instinctively trusted Mr. Bushkin, a relationship that served Carson well for 18 years. No one would accuse Carson of having a golden gut, having previously selected a series of managers who fleeced him for big bucks. Mr. Bushkin credits himself with putting things right, in the process making tons of money for the King of Late Night.

Mr. Bushkin's very first duty was to accompany Carson and friends to break into a secret apartment kept by Carson's second wife, Joanne, where she was supposedly rendezvousing with football star and broadcaster Frank Gifford. The first and only time Mr. Bushkin saw Carson cry was when he found evidence of the affair.

And yet Carson was a serial adulterer who insisted Mr. Bushkin accompany him to Las Vegas when he performed stand-up comedy, and mentored Mr. Bushkin in the art of adultery, which he says cost him his marriage. What happened there stayed there, until now.

Some of my favorite Carson quotes (he was married four times) on marriage: "Half of all marriages end in divorce. And the other half are unhappy." "It's a proven fact that married men live longer than single guys. It's also a proven fact that married men are more willing to die."

Johnny Carson was a hard-drinking womanizer with ice water in his veins, but was also capable of moments of generosity. Carson cut off relationships instantly if you got on his bad side -- as would eventually happen to the author.

Early on Carson was emphatically candid with Mr. Bushkin, who was paid not only to be his business manager and key adviser, but constant companion. For years they played tennis daily, and often Mr. Bushkin let him win, to keep the gravy train rolling.

"I can't quit smoking and I get drunk every night and I chase all the [women] I can get," uttered the brutally honest talk host. There are plenty of star stories -- a meeting with Elvis, parties with every major showbiz star you could name, the Reagan inaugural with Frank and Dean. Dean was so drunk Carson wouldn't let him perform and the Chairman of the Board signed off.

Carson hated mingling with pols and blamed Mr. Bushkin for not getting him out of the gig, but Frank Sinatra insisted it was a personal favor, and one did not turn down the Chairman. In 1970 there was a Mob contract out on Carson for hitting on a mobster's girlfriend, no pun intended. The contract was removed when NBC News agreed to cover the Italian Unity Day rally in New York's Columbus Circle.

Carson had an extremely strained relationship with his mother, which may be putting it delicately. "The wicked witch is dead," he told Mr. Bushkin upon hearing of her demise. She apparently refused to be impressed with Carson's immense success and all its trappings, and refused to compliment anyone about anything. "My marriages failed because she [screwed] me up," he said.

The amazing part for me is the level of turmoil constantly in Carson's life, contrasted with the sheer brilliance of his performance on most nights. Dana Carvey's imitation of Carson's cliches was hilarious, but for his time, Johnny Carson was the standard bearer. Merv Griffin and Joey Bishop weren't even in the ballpark.

Carson's fourth and last wife was from Pittsburgh, but even they were estranged in the end. And in the end, writes Mr. Bushkin, Johnny Carson died alone.

"He was witty and endlessly fun to be around," Mr. Bushkin writes. "He could also be the nastiest son of a bitch on Earth."

John McIntire is a radio and TV talk host and comedian in Pittsburgh (johnmcintire@comcast.net).

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