From more than a generation, Americans rarely went to bed before watching Johnny Carson's monologue. His unprecedented run as host of NBC's venerable Tonight Show began long before the advent of time-shifting devices like Tivo or VCR's. If you missed Johnny, there was no hitting rewind. He used his monologue to lampoon newsmakers, from Popes to Presidents. Johnny often used his razor-sharp wit as a sword in his own personal battles, with his ex-wives and even NBC network executives. Yet, Johnny was self-effacing and had an everyman quality, combined with a peerless sense of comedic timing. He became a member of our extended family. But he was also an enigma. I never really began to separate the man from the persona until I read Henry Buskin's Johnny Carson (an Eamon Dolan book/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
For nearly 20 years, Bushkin was Carson's closest advisor, attorney, tennis partner and friend. This is a riveting firsthand account of Carson's Jekyll and Hyde mood swings, the drinking, the women, the wives and insecurities of the most powerful man on television. Carson was so powerful, Bushkin writes, that during the Iran hostage crisis, President Ronald Reagan personally called the host to apologize for the poor seats Carson's wife was given for the inauguration. The revelations in his book read like Mickey Spillane pulp fiction: A .38 packing Johnny, breaks and enters the alleged love nest of his second wife, claiming to have uncovered her affair with sportscaster Frank Gifford. There was the attempted extortion of $250,000 from the host, when a grenade and letter threatening Carson's wife were discovered at the front gate of their home, with Johnny personally making the cash drop before authorities nabbed the suspect. There was even a mob "hit" that was supposedly taken out against Carson when he flirted with the girlfriend of a reputed crime boss.
Those stories alone make for an entertaining and eye-opening read, but there is so much more to this tale. Bushkin paints a portrait of a troubled, unhappy and complex man who, despite unprecedented success, could never receive either validation or love from his own mother. He was beloved by millions and yet when his life ended, he was alone. This is not a tawdry tell-all but rather, an insightful and sobering character study of a tortured man and failed husband and father, as told through the eyes and experiences of one of his closest confidantes. Like many before him, including Johnny's four wives, Bushkin himself was eventually banished from the entertainer's life, brushed aside like an irritant and drawing the wrath of Johnny's dark side, never seen by the public.
Don't expect a Mommy Dearest. Buskin was a willing co-conspirator in many of Carson's escapades, and he takes responsibility for what he did and for what he writes. Bushkin told me that if could do it all over again, he would, with no regrets. Buskin ends his book calling it an "attempt to paint an accurate portrait of the most thrilling, fun, frustrating and mysterious relationship in my life -- a portrait of a man I loved." Bushkin's intimate recollections make me long more than ever for those late nights watching Johnny Carson, now that I see so much of what the camera never revealed.