BOOK REVIEW: Book offers juicy peek inside Johnny Carson's life

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSOctober 20, 2013 

  • 'JOHNNY CARSON'

    by Henry Bushkin; Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($28)

Hell hath no fury like a lawyer scorned.

"You must never, ever repeat a word from last night," Johnny Carson told Henry Bushkin after sobering up from a barstool confessional. Bushkin gave a lawyerly assurance to "The Tonight Show" host, saying in part, "I would lose my license if during your lifetime I repeated it to a soul."

Maybe Carson's head hurt too much to catch that little caveat. Had he noticed the words "in your lifetime," the entertainer might not have been so keen on hiring a 27-year-old lawyer who likely would outlive him and might one day reveal his personal and professional blemishes.

Is Bushkin's writing about his famously private client an act of betrayal tinged with revenge? Carson did fire him after nearly two decades of devoted service.

Putting that matter aside, few books like "Johnny Carson" have been more engrossing. It's not just a look at a celebrity's life from the view of a hanger-on. Bushkin's memoir is also a well-written corporate tale that reveals the tough business of staying America's favorite late-night host, full of stories of money, sex and skullduggery, peppered with plenty of laughs.

Bushkin began handling Carson's affairs in 1970. Carson needed additional legal advice on how to execute a pre-emptive strike on his second wife (there would be two more). Bushkin writes that he proved himself by joining Carson, who was armed with a .38-caliber handgun, and a few others in a raid on the love nest shared by Mrs. Carson and athlete turned sportscaster Frank Gifford. Packing heat didn't protect Carson's emotions: He wept when he realized that he was indeed losing another wife.

In Bushkin's telling, Carson was too trusting of managers and other financial advisers, making him an easy victim of bad deals. He had other weaknesses, too. Mrs. Carson 3.0 was willing to sign a prenuptial agreement designed to protect Carson's fortune. But he balked at the last minute, saying it was a terrible way to start a marriage. "This romantic gesture," his lawyer says, "would cost Johnny $35 million."

Bushkin's memoir adds shading and detail to the portrait of Carson already established. The master of the talk-show medium was often uncomfortable with individuals. In the right mood, he could be witty, generous and fun to be around - and, in a flash, turn cruel and cold. Late-night TV's naughty Midwesterner was also a roving husband, unpredictable when drunk, a four-pack-a-day smoker prone to obscenity-laden rants. When he drove a car he usually carried a handgun for protection, the book says.

Carson fired Bushkin over a business matter, the lawyer says, and litigation ensued. All these years later Bushkin seems torn between reveling in their friendship and taking an opportunity to get even. He tries to absolve himself of wielding a literary dagger by imagining that Carson, who he says was suspicious of flattery and sentimentality, would have been happy with this book because it's accurate.

Imagine instead that self-serving statement in the hands of one of Carson's late-night characters, Carnac the Magnificent. The envelope he tears open might well reveal this answer: "Fat chance."

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service