Henry Bushkin’s “Johnny Carson” is that rare celebrity tell-all by an author who knows whom and what he’s talking about. Though early readers have been shocked, just shocked, by Mr. Bushkin’s treachery, they have also been drawn ravenously to his book. Mr. Bushkin was a young lawyer in 1970 when Carson, quite inexplicably, decided to become his client. He was a sadder but wiser one by 1988, when Carson abruptly fired him and then went to war, accusing him of negligence, malpractice and other improprieties. But between those temporal bookends, this lawyer and his star client shared a lot of time and a complex bromance.
Still, Mr. Bushkin did not regard himself as very important to Carson, so he was surprised to learn from Kenneth Tynan’s 1978 New Yorker profile of Carson that Carson thought Mr. Bushkin was his best friend.
It’s easy to approach this book thinking that its author has an ax to grind. Maybe he does, but his account sounds unexaggerated, credible and willing to place blame wherever it belongs. Mr. Bushkin wonders now at his own naïveté when Carson instantly adopted him as a constant companion. But he was recruited when Carson was ending the second of his four marriages, and a malleable new lawyer would be handy.
Mr. Bushkin writes that his initiation was intense. The night after his job interview, he joined a gun-toting Carson and entourage as they broke into an apartment that Carson’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Joanne Copeland, kept on the sly. Mr. Bushkin forced himself to reason that if a husband’s funds were used to pay for an apartment, the husband had a right to break and enter. When they found damning evidence of an affair, Mr. Bushkin awkwardly watched America’s biggest, best-loved television star cry.
One night later, Mr. Bushkin got a 2 a.m. summons (at home in Queens) to meet Carson at Jilly’s, the Rat Pack hangout in Manhattan. This was his true initiation to Johnny’s world. He saw Carson curtly dismiss his television sidekick, a very wobbly Ed McMahon. (“We’re done here, right?”) He listened to Carson bemoan his failings as a family man and blame them on his hated mother. Then there were the maudlin parts.
This episode contains so much dialogue that it raises questions about Mr. Bushkin’s too-perfect memory. It’s believable anyway. And the gist of the encounter prefigured what their working relationship would be like.
The good, the bad and the ugly are all on display in a book that sometimes depicts Carson as a kid in a candy store, and Mr. Bushkin as happy to share the perks. “Nipper hears his master’s voice,” Mr. Bushkin’s wife once complained, invoking the old RCA dog and Victrola to describe her husband’s slavish situation. Hot- and cold-running women were part of Carson’s preferred environment, and the book describes these goings-on frankly. Neither man’s marriage could weather the competition.
When it came to work, “the collar around my neck was usually quite loose and comfortable, but not always,” Mr. Bushkin concedes. And when the collar tightened, Mr. Buskin did whatever it took to keep Carson out of diva mode.
Even Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration produced multiple calamities. Joanna Carson, the star’s third wife, was upset about where she was seated. Carson was furious at being pressured by Frank Sinatra into hosting a night of entertainment for the new president. And Carson was disgusted with a White House tour. Walk through the Reagans’ house? “I could have had my real estate agent do that for me in Los Angeles,” Carson is quoted as saying.
According to this book, he favored snarling tantrums and was not easily placated. President Reagan wound up calling to apologize.
Carson hated phonies, and this book doesn’t sound like the work of one. Mr. Bushkin is tough, but he gives credit where it’s due: a gathering where Bob Hope, Sinatra and Carson took turns telling jokes, with Mr. Bushkin lucky to be listening in, is just one of many tales of bonhomie. And Carson could be as financially generous as he was emotionally distant, even being gracious with people he had treated harshly, and there were many of them. Ed Weinberger, the sitcom-writing genius, and Freddy de Cordova, the “Tonight” show’s longtime producer, were both cast out of Carsonland because of disrespect to Rick Carson, the star’s troubled, difficult, paternally neglected son.
“Johnny Carson” is especially interesting about the rifts that severed Mr. Bushkin from his increasingly sour, capricious client. For one thing, Mr. Bushkin began to outgrow the role of yes-man. For another, he began concentrating on the business opportunities made possible by Carson’s clout. He tried to make the boss’s life more lucrative through a television production company and a clothing business, to name just two entrepreneurial efforts. But Carson didn’t feel like modeling the clothes in photo shoots — and if that killed the business, he didn’t care.
He didn’t like his television production company, either. “He just doesn’t get it,” Mr. Weinberger said about Carson and sitcoms. “All he knows is live television and immediate audience reaction.” So, again, he walked away.
Other authors have generalized about Carson’s moods, petulance and bad judgment. But Mr. Bushkin seems to have a true inside track. One of his best anecdotes describes a night at Chasen’s, when “Bad Johnny” was in the house and tried to attack another late-night talk show host. Lured to a different restaurant by McMahon (“What brings America’s favorite couple to our door?” trilled Richard Simmons, then a maître d’), he partied on. Finally “poured” into a limousine, he arrived home at 5 a.m. and scaled the security fence instead of waking his guard. Joanna Carson threw him out.
The day after that, Mr. Bushkin found him ensconced at the Beverly Hills Hotel with a friend of Joanna’s. The Carson Mr. Bushkin knew would have been proud of that story.
A version of this review appears in print on October 16, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Carson, As Seen By Sidekick (Not Ed).
‘Johnny Carson,’ Henry Bushkin’s Tell-All By JANET MASLIN
Published: October 15, 2013
By Henry Bushkin
Illustrated. 294 pages. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.