Open Mic

Johnny Carson, the Grinch, and 'Fear of Flying'

Chuck Ross Posted December 23, 2013 at 10:17 AM

It was 2 a.m. one night in 1970 and Johnny Carson, 45, was on the phone, clearly drunk, slurring his words. Carson was at the watering hole Sinatra had made famous -- Jilly’s in New York.

The person he called was a lawyer named Henry Bushkin, 27, whom Carson had known for all of 48 hours, and Carson wanted Bushkin to come to Jilly’s right away. The day before Bushkin had accompanied Carson and a few others as they broke into the Manhattan love nest that Carson had discovered was being kept by his then-wife, Joanne. She was his second wife, and during the break-in Carson had discovered evidence that Joanne had allegedly been having an affair with former football great Frank Gifford. (This was a year before Gifford would become even more famous by joining the announcer team on “Monday Night Football.")

Bushkin excused himself from his wife and dragged himself down to Jilly’s -- which was nearly empty at this early a.m. hour -- to meet Carson. As he arrived, Carson dismissed the person with whom he had been drinking, Ed McMahon. As Bushkin slid onto the barstool next to Carson, the late-night host said, “I’m not surprised Joanne did this to me. But it hurts. Hurts like hell.”

This account is from Bushkin’s book “Johnny Carson,” which was published several months ago by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.The day after this encounter that Bushkin writes about, he became Carson’s lawyer and one of his closest confidants for the next 18 years, until Carson fired him. And while this compelling page-turner is a no-brainer last minute stocking stuffer that you can purchase as an e-book, I must say I found it one of the more loathsome tell-alls I’ve read.

Here’s the rest of this 1970 incident, as told by Bushkin in the book:

“That [Carson] was devastated was obvious. ‘Maybe I drove her to it. I wasn’t the best husband in the world.’ He stared at the ceiling as though reflecting on the accuracy of this statement and then pounded the bar for emphasis when he apparently reached a judgement. ‘I shoulda been home more,’ he said with a drunk’s certainty. ‘Not running around.’“

A few moments later, Bushkin says, Carson “shifted on his stool. Anger rose in his voice. [Talking about his mother, Carson said] ‘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 fucked me up!’“

Several minutes later Carson lit another cigarette and, Bushkin recalls, spit out the following; “I can’t quit smoking and I get drunk every night and I chase all the pussy I can get. I’m shitty in the marriage department. Make sure you understand that.’“

And then, a few minutes after that, Bushkin writes, “From the front of the bar, the creak of the door opening and thrum of a passing car broke the silence of the room. We turned to see a woman enter. As she drew closer in the dim light, one could gradually see she was a young woman -- tall -- with long brunette hair -- and even longer legs, in a short skirt and thigh-high boots -- and nearly as famous as Johnny was.”

Bushkin -- who, frustratingly, never tells us who the woman was -- left, saying that Carson’s “trauma and misery” seemed to instantly vanish when she appeared.

For the next 240 pages or so, Bushkin mostly regales us with stories illustrating that the man who so many of us found to be the perfect late-night tonic to take the edge off our stressful days was, basically, a spoiled asshole.

Here’s what Bushkin writes about 200 pages into the book, at the conclusion of Carson’s 1985 divorce to his third wife, Joanna:

“Johnny changed during the divorce proceedings, and I don’t know if he ever entirely changed back. He was always capable of being a miserable prick. The nasty remark, the stony silence, the surprising indifference -- they had been part of his repertoire ever since I knew him, but they were usually interruptions in a generally more genial mood. Now these stormy moments came more frequently, and there was an overall harshness, an impatient tolerance, that wasn’t there before.” “He became oddly imperious.” And: “It even got to the point where it seemed he couldn’t recognize a joke.”

Heretofore, the most well-known article about Carson was a very long profile that was published in the Feb. 20, 1978, issue of the New Yorker by the English theater critic and essayist Kenneth Tynan. Though two years younger than Carson, Tynan died at age 57 of pulmonary emphysema, just two years after writing his Carson profile.

By the time Tynan talked to him, Carson said he had given up alcohol. But as much as Tynan tried to reveal the “inner” Carson, not too many of the characteristics Bushkin writes about are exposed in Tynan’s piece.

In one exchange, the late Hollywood super-agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar tells Tynan, “He doesn’t drink now. But I remember Johnny when he was a blackout drunk. A couple of drinks was all it took. He could get pretty hostile.”

So on that score, Lazar seemed to be right on. And Lazar added that Carson had an “extreme ego,” which also seems to be true. But then, Tynan writes, “‘I’ll tell you something else about him,’ [Lazar] says, with italicized wonder. ‘He’s celibate.’ He means ‘chaste.’ ‘In his position, he could have all the girls he wants. It wouldn’t be difficult. But he never cheats.’“

This, according to Bushkin, could not be further from the truth. Reading Bushkin one gets the feeling that Carson, especially in the 1970s, was the king of the zipless fuck, though Bushkin never actually uses the term. The zipless fuck was a cultural phenomenon defined by Erica Jong in her 1973 bestseller “Fear of Flying.” Wrote Jong: “It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover.” “Another condition for the zipless fuck was brevity,” Jong added.

Carson’s most notorious playground, according to Bushkin, was Las Vegas, from 1972-1980. For some of that time, Carson spent “up to ten weeks a year” performing in Vegas, not because he needed the money, but because he liked to. Bushkin writes about Carson in Vegas: “He liked hanging with the guys. He liked the excitement of new women.“ Except for a period of a few months, during this entire time Carson was married. But as Bushkin pointed out, “There weren’t a lot of limits on a headliner in Vegas, but there was one rule: No wives or girlfriends in the hotel or casino.”

Bushkin recounts this Vegas hook-up from early 1980 at Caesar’s Palace, where Carson was playing at the time. Carson had met two fans from Nebraska, whom Bushkin described as “very good-looking girls.”

Bushkin himself, no longer with his wife, was with a friend, Susan. Susan, Bushkin and the “Cornhusker girls” had dinner with Carson. The three women got drunk. Bushkin wasn’t feeling well and went back to his hotel room to take some medicine for a bad headache before returning to the group. He writes that upon his return, “To my surprise, the three girls were skinny-dipping in the rooftop swimming pool, while Johnny, wearing nothing but an apron, served them wine from a silver platter. ‘Ze white is a 1968 Chassagne-Montracher,’ he said, in a cheesy accent plucked from the Mightly Carson Art Players, “and ze rhedd is a 1966 Petrus. …’

“‘Come on Henry,’ Johnny shouted. ‘Take off your clothes! Join the fun!’

“Well, I did take off my clothes and I did try to join in, but something in the bacchanalian nature of the moment brought my headache back. Unable to enjoy myself, I had to leave. No one else did, not even Susan, the girl I’d brought with me, although I assumed she’d follow me back to our room soon enough.”

She didn’t, and Bushkin says the next morning he felt “humiliated,” “resentful” and “really pissed.”

Elsewhere in the book Bushkin writes about a year earlier, in 1979: “My many years as Carson’s one-man entourage had taken its toll on my family life. Many of the heady, heedless pleasures that come to kings as a matter of course also fell in my lap. I have enjoyed many adventures in Vegas and on the road that did nothing to reinforce marital bonds. Unlike Joanna [Carson], Judy [Bushkin, Henry’s wife] did mind the other women, and as a consequence, Judy and I split up that summer.”

What an a-hole. Is this guy for real? “Heedless pleasures that come to kings as a matter of course also fell into my lap” is his excuse for repeatedly cheating on his wife?? And he is shocked and surprised that his wife “did mind the other women”!!

And there’s something distasteful that the author of this unflattering tell-all is Carson’s former lawyer, whom Carson made a very rich man. One big difference between this tell-all and another tell-all written by Frank Sinatra's valet that I recommended earlier this year, is that the one about Sinatra is not full of the mean-spiritedness that marks Bushkin's book. What a grinch.

Ultimately, having been fired by Carson -- the details of which are too long to get into here -- Bushkin says at the end of his book, “When Carson died, just like the character Diana in ‘A Chorus Line,’ I thought I ought to be feeling something, but nothing emerged. The news media deluged me with calls, no doubt thinking that I would be a Vesuvius of memories, insights and emotions, but I refused them all. I couldn’t work up any noble sentiments about the man, and I did not want to look like I was taking a cheap shot.”

Finally, some honesty. On the second to last page of the book. Why Bushkin decided, eight years after Carson’death, to finally take that cheap shot by writing this book -- besides the financial rewards -- is an unanswered question. The irony is that Carson had told New Yorker reporter Tynan back in 1977 that Bushkin was “probably my best friend.” If you haven’t read Tynan’s portrait of Carson, I highly recommend you do.

The most memorable part of Tynan’s article is these comments he got from the late movie writer-director Billy Wilder: “‘By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale’ -- circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope. ‘What’s more’ -- and here Wilder leaned forward, tapping my knee for emphasis -- ‘he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.’“

Bushkin addresses this fact, that on air, Carson was nearly always pitch perfect. “But for the rest of the time when he had to be Johnny Carson,” Bushkin writes, “he accomplished that by making his world smaller, or simpler, or harder to reach.”

That may be true. But it’s also true that in the 17 years between the time Carson fired his lawyer and Carson’s death, Carson never conducted any interviews or wrote any articles or books telling us what a small person is one Henry Bushkin.