In a recent book, as in so many others, Johnny Carson is depicted as an uncomfortably cold and withdrawn human being. I beg to differ. My experience, which I first wrote about in Memoir of an Independent Woman; An Unconventional Life Well Lived, found him to be anything but.
In 1963 I was named Director of Broadcast Promotion for Playboy Magazine. I immediately sent out handwritten notes announcing my new association to every broadcaster I could think of with invitations to lunch, cocktails, dinners, shows or the midnight jazz buffet at the New York Playboy Club. I had no idea the first response would prove so rewarding.
"This is Johnny Carson," said the voice on the phone. "I'm here with my brother and if you're free, we'd like to come by and have dinner with you tonight." Right! Johnny Carson wanted to have dinner with me at the Playboy Club. Johnny Carson was such a celebrity he certainly didn't need an invite from me to visit the Club; all he had to do was show up. Someone was putting me on and my annoyance was about to shine through when he said his brother wanted to speak to me. I had known his brother, Dick, when he was director of Merv Griffin's TV show and helped convince him, as a favor to me, to interview Betty Friedan when I was promoting The Feminine Mystique. He had recently joined Johnny at Tonight and I recognized his voice immediately. Of course it was all right if he and Johnny came over for dinner. It couldn't have been more all right!
They asked for no special treatment. They didn't even want the VIP room. Before they arrived, I had a meeting with the night manager and Playboy Bunny who would serve our table. Johnny's affection for the young ladies and alcoholic spirits was well known. I reminded her once again that under no circumstance was she to divulge her last name or phone number and insisted she pass the message on to all the Bunnies on the floor. I suggested to the manager that he cover our table carefully. No autograph seekers unless Johnny specifically agreed (which he graciously did after he had finished his meal.) If I had to leave the table, I asked the manager to please keep him company and when Johnny had to go to the men's room, I suggested he not be far behind. Johnny should never be left alone; the temptations for both him and certain of the Bunnies was too risky. Should a liaison occur and become public knowledge, it could create a press backlash that could cause us damage.
His brother Dick departed early which left just the two of us. I was concerned about what we might find to talk about but quickly discovered I had no reason to be. Johnny turned out to find my experiences at Grossinger's as fascinating as I found his tales as a mischievous youth/budding magician in small town Nebraska to be. It was no surprise that the Bunnies had never been as attentive as they were that evening. "Is everything all right Ms. Grossinger? "May I offer your guest another drink?" Johnny never said "no." Not surprisingly, he became more flirtatious with them as the evening wore on. Then it became a challenge. He was convinced he could get any Bunny he wanted to give him her phone number. Knowing this was not an impossibility I told him, which was not exactly true but might have been, that my job was on the line. As midnight approached and we had both downed an ample number of beverages, I suggested we call it a night. I had already witnessed a Bunny standing outside the men's room waiting for him (the manager wasn't paying attention.) I didn't want to take any chances. Kai Winding, the great jazz trombonist and Playboy's musical director, was preparing to go on. Of course, Johnny couldn't miss that. 1 a.m., 2 a.m., I remember what happened next as if it were happening now. I've had my fill of coffee. Johnny is semi-sloshed. The Club is clearing out. The Bunnies don't care if they get caught cozying up to him. The manager has disappeared. Johnny is enjoying every minute. Nothing good can come from it. Johnny has a terrific idea! He will summon his chauffeur who will take me home to Greenwich Village, then return to pick him up and take him to his apartment on the East Side. In a pig's eye! I counter with my terrific idea. He will call his driver who will take the two of us in his car, drop him off first, and then take me home. By then the Playboy Club will be closed, our game of "never let Johnny Carson out of my sight" will be over. He can hardly stand on his feet. He gives up reluctantly. I breathe a sigh of relief.
The next morning a dozen roses appeared at my office with a card. "To my charming baby sitter. It was a smashing evening. We'll do it again sometime! Your friend, Johnny." And he turned out to genuinely be "my friend, Johnny." First he wrote a letter to Hugh Hefner declaring what an asset I was to Playboy. Six years later, after Hefner had me fired, he wrote to my next employer and said, "you better be good to Tania because if not, you'll have to answer to me!" Johnny Carson, the uncaring loner who only came alive when he was in front of a camera? I was privileged to know better.