Book review: Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 5:00pm

Johnny Carson
by Henry Bushkin
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
4 stars

Janet Maslin

Henry Bushkin's Johnny Carson is that rare celebrity tell-all by an author who knows whom and what he's talking about.

Bushkin was a young lawyer in 1970 when Carson, inexplicably, decided to become his client. He was a sadder but wiser one by 1988, when the host of The Tonight Show abruptly fired him, 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.

It's easy to approach this book thinking Bushkin has an axe to grind. Maybe he does, but his account is unexaggerated, credible and willing to place blame wherever it belongs. Bushkin wonders now at his naivete when Carson instantly adopted him as a constant companion. But he was hired when Carson was ending the second of his four marriages, and a malleable new lawyer would be handy. And Bushkin didn't have clients who outranked Carson: the star liked his friends/flunkies' full attention.

His initiation was intense, writes Bushkin: the night after his job interview, he joined a gun-toting Carson and entourage as they broke into an apartment that Joanne Copeland, Carson's soon-to-be-ex-second wife, kept on the sly. 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 evidence of an affair, Bushkin awkwardly watched America's biggest, best-loved TV star cry.

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 actor-turned-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 favoured snarling tantrums and was not easily placated: Reagan wound up calling to apologise.

Carson, who died in 2005, hated phonies, and this book doesn't sound like the work of one. Bushkin is tough but he gives credit where it's due: a gathering where Bob Hope, Sinatra and Carson took turns telling jokes is just one of many tales of bonhomie. And Carson could be as financially generous as he was emotionally distant.

Johnny Carson is especially interesting about the rifts that gradually severed Bushkin from his increasingly sour, capricious client. The lawyer seems to have a true inside track.

The New York Times