Henry Bushkin’s ‘Johnny Carson’

His master’s voice

Johnny Carson’s lawyer, Henry Bushkin, has just published a memoir about the late talk show host. What next? Will Carson’s limo driver write a book as well? Will his barber pen his own “tell all”?

A cautionary tale about work/life balance.

Of course, Bushkin wasn’t just Carson’s attorney. He also served as Carson’s “agent, personal manager, business manager, public relations agent, messenger, enforcer, tennis partner and drinking and dining companion.” Bushkin jokingly refers to himself as Carson’s “entourage.” And Carson called Bushkin “my best friend.”

Which makes Bushkin uniquely qualified to write a book that reveals the dark side of this sunny celebrity.

His wife’s infidelity

The two first meet when Bushkin, a young lawyer, is recruited to accompany Carson and some cronies as they illegally gain entrance to the love nest of Carson’s second wife, seeking evidence of infidelity. They find plenty. Johnny's wife, it appears, is enjoying an affair with the legendary pro football player Frank Gifford. 

Carson’s response? He breaks down and cries like a baby.

But later that evening, a drunken Carson confides to Bushkin, “Maybe I drove her to it. I wasn’t the best husband in the world… I get drunk every night and I chase all the pussy I can get. I’m shitty in the marriage department.”

This moment of self-analysis is right on the money. Carson excelled at his job. But as a husband and father? He bombed. Repeatedly.

Work/life balance

Bushkin may have set out to write a sizzling celebrity memoir. But this little book also serves as a cautionary tale about achieving work/life balance. As the motivational speaker Zig Ziegler (author of Success For Dummies) once put it: “You can’t truly be considered successful in your business life if your home life is in shambles.”

Carson’s home life was usually in shambles. For the next two decades, it fell to Bushkin to clean up after his client had messed up, both personally and professionally.

From Bushkin we learn a lot about Carson. He smoked four packs a day. He loved to work. Domestic life bored him. He was unfaithful, often, and with little remorse, to all of his wives. (Several were, in turn, unfaithful to him.)

In the supermarket line

But he remained the marrying type. (The romantic gesture of refusing to require his third wife to sign a pre-nup ended up costing Carson $35 million.)

He amassed a fortune, but money meant little to him. He was a generous tipper. He voted Republican. He never owned an overcoat. (“There was always a car and driver.”) But at the supermarket, he stood in line with everyone else.  

Once Carson and Bushkin were in the checkout line at Food King. The customer in front of them caught a glimpse of Johnny.

“Oh my God!” she gasped. “What are you doing here?”

Johnny shrugged. “I needed peanut butter.”

Blaming Mom

Bushkin calls this charming and charismatic entertainer the most interesting man he’s ever known. But Johnny remained aloof. Nobody, including his so-called “best friend,“ ever really got close. And when a business deal went sour, Johnny cut Bushkin loose, swiftly and permanently.

Why was Carson’s personal life such a train wreck? Bushkin blames Johnny’s mother, a woman he describes as “cold-hearted” and “impossible to please.” (When Carson gifted her with a luxury cruise around the world, she didn‘t bother to thank him.)

“Nothing this extraordinary man could do impressed her, and she let him know that,” Bushkin writes. “Johnny Carson enjoyed the adulation of millions, but his mother could not love him. He carried that pain, and spread it, all his life.” 

For all of his professional success, Bushkin concludes, Carson wasn’t a happy man. America loved him, but he died alone.

“Work/life balance” is an issue that routinely dogs successful women rather than successful men. Sure, you’re the CEO of a multinational corporation. But how’s your marriage? Are you there for your kids, or are they being raised by the nanny? What this book suggests is that  “work/life balance” is also an issue for über-successful guys.

Not to mention their lawyers.

Partner in sin

Bushkin’s association with Carson makes him wealthy and influential. But the lawyer, who begins the book as a loving husband and father, quickly realizes that the price of this particular gig is that Johnny’s needs must always come first. When Carson summoned him— not just for legal advice, but also to serve as a tennis partner, drinking pal and/or midnight confidant— Bushkin was required to drop everything else and be there.

Not only that. “Johnny encouraged me to pick a play companion out of the chorus line,” Bushkin writes. “And it was clear he wasn’t going to be happy until I did. He wanted a partner in sin, and soon enough, I acquiesced. Thereafter… there was feminine company constantly available for me.”

When he first realized what Carson was going to require of him, Bushkin reports, a small voice inside his head told him to get the hell out. But “I rejected the voice of reason,” he says, “and instead succumbed to the lure of ambition.“

The result? A fabulous legal career, and a failed marriage.

Self-deception

Bushkin concludes with the hope that Carson would have liked this memoir. This suggests that Bushkin still hasn’t stopped deceiving himself.

With this dishy, well-written and insightful little tome, Bushkin has betrayed Carson’s trust and aired his dirty laundry. But he has performed a service for anyone who may have envied this talented, influential and complicated man.

Our readers respond

Mark Lowe

of Parkersburg, WV on November 24, 2013

Ha! Wonderful!

Suzanne Fluhr

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on November 24, 2013

I knew there was a reason to be grateful for not being famous.

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