By Ed Garea
Johnny Carson By Henry Bushkin. Illustrated. 294 pages. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. $28.
A little over eight years since his death in 2005, Johnny Carson appears to be having a comeback of sorts. TCM has been running his interview segments hosted by Conan O’Brien, and now former BFF Henry Bushkin has released a memoir of his time with Carson.
We fans have always wanted to know the real Carson, if there was one. Johnny was an enigma; here was man who seemingly had no private life. His triumphs – and more importantly, his foibles – were spread over the tabloids for all to see. And Carson went with the flow, for he could always count on his adoring public. I remember when it was reported in the press that Johnny’s third wife Joanna made some outrageous financial demands in their divorce action. After everything was settled, Joanna came up with an apropos observation: she said it was a “no-win situation” because Johnny could always retreat to his public for his side of things, and no matter what, his public always sided with him. And Johnny did just that. On the night following her financial demands we were all waiting for Johnny’s monologue to get his take on things. And we weren’t disappointed. He opened with: “I just saw my cat’s lawyer. It seems he wants $2,500 a week to keep himself in Tender Vittles.” With that he was on a roll. He ended the monologue with this gem: “When I was growing up my idol was Jack Benny. Now it’s Henry the Eighth.” It was no wonder we wanted to know more about the man we so gladly invited into out living rooms (and our bedrooms) late every night.
However, those looking for answers to the enigma of Johnny Carson will find few, if any, answers in the self-aggrandizing memoir written by Bushkin. Gossipy stories, yes, lots of them, but real insights? Nary a one. According to Bushkin, he was Johnny’s “lawyer, counselor, partner, employee, business adviser, earpiece, mouthpiece, enforcer, running buddy, tennis pal, drinking and dining companion, and foil; and all this on Page 1. Henry was all those, and seemingly more, as he never tires of telling us. For if we didn’t get it the first time he gladly repeats his duties on Page 55, and later again on Page 82, where he is Johnny’s “Swiss Army Knife of a companion, attorney, manager, agent, henchman, crony, tennis pal, and corkscrew all in one.” What I got out of his oft-repeated self-description was that Bushkin was a sort of Prufrock, albeit without the intelligence. In the end, though, Henry found himself cast aside when King Johnny discovered Henry’s duplicity concerning a business deal.
Like millions of others that followed Carson night after night, I always believed that “Bombastic Bushkin,” the inept financial adviser referred to in Johnny’s monologues, was a figment of Carson’s imagination, like his “doctor,” Thumbs Hendelman. But no, the world and I later discovered there was a real Bombastic Bushkin and his name was Henry. We, of course, discovered this fact when the news that Carson had canned Henry hit the newswires. Now, with Johnny safely dead, Bushkin has come forth from the shadows to tell his side of the story, as it were; of his relationship with The King of Late Night, a relationship that followed the patterns of Carson’s other human relationships: rocky and stormy.
Knowing that memoirs such as this needs a big opening, Bushkin begins his story in the year 1979 at the home of Henry and Ginny Mancini, who are throwing a party to which Bushkin’s employer was specifically invited and promised to attend. But here it was, an hour later, and Ginny Mancini was badgering Bushkin as to Johnny’s whereabouts. Bushkin himself found it odd that Carson, who in the past was the epitome of punctuality, would be so late. Time continued to pass. No Johnny. The party itself wasn’t short on celebrities; Bushkin could look around and spot the likes of Roger Moore, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Tony Curtis munching canapés and washing them down with expensive hooch. But the subject on everyone’s minds and lips was “Where’s Johnny?” They asked Ginny Mancini repeatedly about when, or whether, Carson would show up.
It seemed an eternity to Bushkin, waiting for Johnny to make his entrance; being virtually ignored by the celebrity-studded crowd, except when those who knew him approached to ask where he could be. And all Bushkin could answer was that he didn’t know, though he had his suspicions: Johnny had recently split from third-wife Joanna and was living in a rented house. The split was distressing for Johnny, but Bushkin knew Johnny had been back home since early that morning reconciling with Joanna. It was Johnny who insisted Bushkin accompany him to the party, where Johnny would surprise everyone by arriving arm-in-arm with his newly-reconciled wife: “Great, I thought to myself. He wants me there in case there’s a mess that needs cleaning up.” After almost nine years, Bushkin fully understood his role vis-à-vis Carson. At last the Carsons arrived in a Rolls-Royce and immediately became the focus of the party: the women fussed and cooed over Joanna while the men stared admiringly at Johnny’s new blue cashmere jacket, backpatting and handshaking with him. The rest of the night saw Bushkin observing his employer to see everything was under control. When the Carsons went to leave, Johnny told Bushkin to come over the next day for a game of tennis. There was business to discuss, that of Carson refusing to sign a new contract with NBC unless the pot was sweetened considerably. Being Carson’s lawyer meant forever bring on call, for no other clients were allowed to matter in his world.
Perhaps it was Bushkin’s naiveté that led to his becoming involved with Carson. Here he was, a Bronx born, Vanderbilt Law educated youngster working for a small entertainment law firm in Manhattan when the call came through that none other than Johnny Carson needed a lawyer. It was 1970: Johnny was firmly settled into his role as the host of “The Tonight Show” and NBC’s Late Night Earnings Superstar, his show was most profitable on the NBC docket and would remain so for many years to come.
His friend, Arthur Kassel, a security expert/private eye/crime photographer/police groupie, had recommended Bushkin to Carson. Arthur explained that Carson was weathering a rough patch in his marriage and could use good legal advice. When Bushkin protested that Carson could have any high-priced matrimonial lawyer in the city, Kassel retorted that Carson doesn’t trust lawyers, but agreed to meet with Bushkin based on Arthur’s recommendation. Bushkin dutifully presented himself at Carson’s office for an interview, which to Bushkin was akin to being the last guest for the night on The Tonight Show. During the interview the item Johnny was most interested in was Bushkin’s tenure on the Vanderbilt tennis team, telling the young attorney that if he were hired, Carson would expect him to play tennis with him occasionally. Bushkin left the office feeling despondent; that he didn’t get the job and confided so to Arthur. But Kassel, who sat in on the interview, told him the exact opposite: that Johnny liked him very much and would be calling.
And Johnny called the next day, personally inviting Henry to meet him that evening at his apartment. With Johnny was his next-door neighbor, Sonny Werblin, an ex-agent for Lew Wasserman and MCA and former owner of the New York Jets. After an uncomfortable lull filled with small talk, Werblin got down to business, telling Bushkin, in front of Carson, to watch his step: “Johnny’s mood can go from up to down in milliseconds. The situation about to be discussed would be dangerous if word got out. Keep a tight lip.” After another silent period marked again only by small talk, Carson got to the heart of the matter, telling young Bushkin that he had reason to believe his second wife, Joanne, was cheating on him. And he also had a good idea of with whom she was cheating. Carson wanted Bushkin to accompany him and Arthur and some other guys when they break into Joanne’s apartment and gather the evidence. Though Bushkin professed to be appalled at first, Carson soothed him by explaining that Henry was along in case something happened. Even though everything was planned, there was always the possibility that things might go wrong and a lawyer is a handy person to have around. Bushkin said he proved his worth a few minutes later when he outlined a legal loophole that would protect the group in case something did happen.
The next evening, Johnny and his accomplices entered Joanne’s building and bribed the building manager to let them in. Once inside Joanne’s love nest, they were quickly able to gather the incriminating evidence. It was then Bushkin saw Carson lean against the wall and begin to weep. His raincoat had opened and Bushkin saw that Johnny was carrying a .38-caliber revolver in a holster on his hip. On the return to Johnny’s apartment, not a word was said. Carson thanked everyone and said he was tired and wanted to be alone.
If Bushkin thought that perhaps he had seen the last of Johnny, he couldn‘t have been more wrong. The next evening he was awakened from a sound sleep at two a.m. by an obviously sloshed Carson. Johnny said he was sitting in Jilly’s, a saloon famous for catering to celebrities, with Ed McMahon and needed Bushkin to come right away. Henry managed to catch a cab and arrived about an hour later to find Johnny nursing a drink, totally in his cups, bemoaning his marital situation with a certainty that only a drunk could have. Ed popped out of the men’s room and Johnny dismissed him for the night. It dawned on Bushkin that he was to take Ed’s place as the sounding board. Johnny ran the gamut of his troubles, from his failure as a husband to his failure as a father to what he saw as the root cause of his failures at marriage, his mother “She’s the toughest son of a bitch of them all. There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she f***ed me up . . . If a doctor opened my chest right now, he couldn’t find a heart or any goddamn thing. Just a lot of misery. My mother made sure of that. She deprived us all of any real goddamn warmth. My dad, Homer, should get the f***ing Medal of Honor for endurance.” But then, according to Bushkin, the storm passed as quickly as it came, and Johnny saw a hot brunette enter the room. Henry was dismissed as Carson left with the woman.
The next morning, Carson called to ask what they talked about the night before. Bushkin was the soul of discretion, so much so that Carson invited him over to his place to begin the paperwork for divorce proceedings. If the past two nights were some sort of bizarre test, Bushkin passed with flying colors and became Carson’s attorney and everything that went with it, a position he would hold for the next two decades.
These three stories set the tone for the rest of the book, which becomes a gossipy, self-aggrandizing memoir of a bromance gone horribly wrong. It’s fun reading, almost as if one is eavesdropping at the clubhouse, but it adds practically nothing to the knowledge of Carson that we’ve already picked up before from other, more reliable sources. Anyone who has read through the plethora of material that appeared even before his death, knew Carson to be a complex mass of contradictions; a man who seemed so accessible in his role as host of The Tonight Show, whose quick wit and charm made for many memorable moments over the years supplemented by his oft times razor sharp monologues. But when the red light of the camera turned off, so did Carson. His preferred method for unwinding after a show was to retreat to a room in his home and play his drums alone for hours on end. In private, he was even more mercurial: gracious, witty, generous one moment; curt, aloof and nasty the next moment. As Bushkin puts it: “Never have I met a man possessed of a greater number of social gifts – intelligence, looks, manners, style, humor – and never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships.” There was no room in his innermost life for a wife or children; when his son, Rick, was hospitalized at New York’s Bellevue, Carson declined to pay him a visit, citing a media circus that would break out if he did visit, and sending Bushkin in his place.
Bushkin’s idea of insight into Carson’s personality is to tell lurid, unsubstantiated stories of his exploits. One story is credited to Bushkin’s one-time girlfriend, actress Joyce DeWitt, about how Jilly Rizzo, the owner of Jilly’s, told her about the time Carson was putting the moves on a hot blonde only to find not only was she not unattached, but that her boyfriend was a major underworld figure. He and several large associates removed Johnny from his bar stool and threw him down a flight of stairs, and, if not for Jilly’s intervention, Johnny would have received an even bigger beating to follow. Carson reacted to this social faux pas by holing up in his apartment and missing three shows. To set things right, NBC Network supposedly cut a deal with mobster Joseph Colombo to cover a rally by his Italian-American Civil Rights League on Columbus Day, 1970.
While all these stories make for fun reading, there is a rationale behind each and every one. In Bushkin’s world, there are two Johnnys: There is Good Johnny and Bad Johnny. Good Johnny was caring and giving, especially as concerned Bushkin – giving him down payments for homes and loans, taking him on vacation with him to Vegas, Wimbledon, and the rest of Europe. And, of course, taking Bushkin’s legal and financial advice, by which Carson made out pretty well. Bad Johnny, on the other hand, drank heavily and was nasty when drunk, was a compulsive cheater on all four of his wives, did not take Bushkin’s advice and sign a pre-nup with third wife Joanna, was emotionally cold, tried to steal at least one of Henry’s girlfriends, and worst of all, become financially contented, allowing side businesses such as his clothing line, to wither and die. According to Henry, Carson never really liked the business side of things. He just liked making money, and when he had enough money, that was that. Worst of all, in Henry’s view, was Carson’s indifference to his own company, Carson Productions. Like his other projects, he was initially enthused when it was starting up, but now he was bored by it all and wanted to sell. He set the price at a figure Bushkin thought unrealistic, so Bushkin did some negotiating of his own with the Tribune Company and when the news of this was leaked to Carson, he fired Bushkin, accusing him of trying to sell his company out from under him. They negotiated a handshake settlement – and Henry never saw Johnny again.
The following financial battle saw Bushkin sued for malpractice and held liable for Carson’s failed business deals. It took him, he said, four years of litigation to clear his name, which peaked in a lengthy trial in which the jury agreed with him and awarded him $17 million. Who was right? It’s hard to say, since we have only Bushkin’s view of what transpired between the two, suffice to say that Bushkin goes on an extended whine about how much time he devoted to his most important client in the past (And relentlessly reminding us that he thought they were friends. Johnny once joking referred to Henry as his consigliere during the day when The Godfather was all over the pop culture of the day.), throwing tennis games to keep him happy, being at his beck and call 24 hours a day, etc. He also retreats into another running theme throughout the book: that Johnny’s cold behavior was a result of having a cold, distant mother who he could never please. That Carson’s life was spent trying to gain recognition and love from a mother who was not prepared to give him any. Dimebook Freud, to be sure, but it does seem to resonate in some of Carson’s behavior, especially towards his wives and sons.
I would have liked insights on Johnny’s wives and sons, his relationships with Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen, both of whom are conspicuous by their absence. How about more on his relationship with Joan Rivers? Most of all I would have liked to have some real insights into Johnny himself, other than some pop psychology blaming his mother. Instead we are treated to what is really an autobiography by Bushkin, in which Johnny is the main supporting character. It seems that Johnny wasn’t the only one in their relationship with the Hollywood-sized ego.