Like millions of other Americans, I enjoyed watching “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” during the 30 years Carson hosted the late-night TV staple.
I was often curious about the private life of the impossibly suave and seemingly imperturbable man who did such a wonderful job as host and comedian night after night. But Carson apparently was a rather unhappy and mean-spirited individual who spent all his free time drinking, smoking and chasing women, at least according to Henry Bushkin, author of “Johnny Carson” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
To be fair, Bushkin’s book is not really a biography of Carson – a more accurate title would be “Carson and Me.” There is precious little information on Carson’s early family life in Nebraska, apart from a description of his mother as a heartless, impossible-to-please woman.
The author, who spent most of the 1970s and 1980s as Carson’s lawyer, confidante, tennis partner and general all-around fixer, provides plenty of behind-the-scenes snapshots of the man behind the public figure, but most are descriptions of the things Carson and Bushkin did together.
I felt a certain guilty pleasure while reading “Johnny Carson.” There are details of the parties Carson threw and attended with his many rich and famous friends, most of whom were his drinking buddies. He maintained a friendship with Frank Sinatra, though Sinatra might have been the only man who intimidated Carson.
The book fully chronicles Carson’s many failings as husband and father. After all, he was married four times, cheated remorselessly on all of his wives and spent no time with any of the three sons he had with his first wife, Joan.
Bushkin was certainly a good lawyer and friend to Carson. He negotiated numerous contracts for the Carson show; the rental and purchase of various properties, homes and businesses; and the shows Carson performed in Las Vegas for years. But along the way, it is clear that Bushkin lost some of his morals through his association with the entertainer. Bushkin’s womanizing eventually led to his own divorce.
Carson ultimately fired Bushkin, like he did so many other of his employees, in a cold and casual manner, the apparent victim of unsupported rumors.
What was Carson really like? According to Bushkin, he was “an incredibly complex man: one moment gracious, funny and generous; and curt, aloof and hard-hearted in the next.”
“Johnny Carson” left me feeling rather sad: both for Bushkin, who lost his way while attached to a rich, demanding man, and for Carson, who died alone and seemingly adrift from his family.
Bushkin’s tome should make an entertaining read for book clubs that enjoy nonfiction and biographies, though a thorough biography of Carson, one of America’s most beloved hosts and entertainers, remains to be written.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.