In Johnny Carson, the late-night legend’s lawyer Henry Bushkin writes of his decades with the comedian: Tonight Show secrets, partying in Vegas, and helping Carson break into his second wife’s apartment. Below, a complete excerpt from Bushkin’s upcoming book, out Oct 15, 2013.
Johnny Carson, his famously puckish face obscured
by sunglasses and disguised by distress, led a squad of men with downturned mouths and upturned collars through a rain-swept Manhattan evening. Carson strode purposefully, and his four followers hurried behind, dodging taxis and jumping puddles to keep pace. Their destination: a modest high-rise in the East Forties near First Avenue. Their mission: a dubious if not downright illegal cloak-and-dagger caper to enter an apartment to which they had no title, let alone keys. Their identities: Joe Mullen, a licensed New York private eye, straight out of Mickey Spillane,
serious and capable; Mario Irizarry, his tall, gaunt aide-de-camp, adept at lock-picking and conversational as a clam; and Arthur Kassel, a security expert/crime photographer/police groupie.
And then there was me, the last in line. The one hustling hardest to keep up. Sucking wind, I was glad when we finally reached our destination, although as we stood in the lobby, shaking the rain off our London Fogs, I began to feel a sense of panic taking hold. What was I doing here? I was a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School! I had sworn an oath to uphold the law, not violate it, and breaking and entering in New York is a felony. As if sensing my panic, Johnny looked over at me. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said reassuringly. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. Trust me.”
“Henry,” Carson had said when we’d first met the day before, “I have reason to believe my wife is cheating on me. I also have an idea who the son of a bitch is that she’s shacking up with.”
Joanne—née Joanne Copeland—was Johnny’s second wife. His first wife, Jody, was his college sweetheart. It was, as I was to learn, a fairly typical first marriage between young people. It produced three sons—Chris, Ricky, and Cory—but it did not withstand the demands or the sexual temptations of Johnny’s increasingly successful career. Their divorce became final in 1963, and within months he married Joanne, a cute, vivacious former stewardess who had briefly worked as the hostess on a TV game show called Video Village. Now, seven years later, Johnny had substantial evidence that Joanne had secretly leased an apartment within blocks of their UN Plaza home, which she used for clandestine rendezvous with her lover.
“Well, I’ll be happy to file for divorce, if you want…”
“No, I don’t want you to file for divorce,” he interrupted. “I want you to go with Arthur and me and some other guys when we break into the apartment to find evidence to prove the bitch is cheating on me.”
My first reaction was to be appalled. No way, I thought. Members of the bar do not break and enter apartments. I am an officer of the court. I am the heir to a great legal tradition. I thought of Clarence Darrow. I thought of Learned Hand. And yet…this was an immense opportunity at the beginning of my professional life to land a very major client and launch my career into the stratosphere. I hesitated.
Carson continued. “I need a lawyer to accompany the team tomorrow night in case s- - - happens. I have very experienced people who have assured me that there won’t be any problems, and Kassel has already cleared things with the cops. But somebody needs to be there in case something goes wrong…”
“Let me ask you,” I said, “does Mrs. Carson have any money of her own?”
“No, not really,” Johnny replied.
“Then let me suggest that you have been the person who has been paying for this apartment. So arguably it’s your apartment.”
Johnny laughed. “Arthur said you were smart.” Frankly, I had no idea if this argument had any legitimacy, but it was a reasonable line and might well provide enough cover for a fast-talking lawyer to get his coconspirators out of trouble if some nosy cop started being fastidious about the law. “Good,” said Johnny. “You’re part of the team.”
In the bright light of the lobby, the sunglasses Johnny had been counting on to cover his identity proved useless.
“Hey, Johnny Carson!” the burly doorman bellowed. “Hey-ohhh!” But his delight at the sudden apparition of a celebrity in his lobby did not translate into a willingness to admit strangers into a resident’s apartment. Joanne must have used her husband’s money to tip generously.
“Oh no, can’t do that,” the doorman shook his head. “You wait here. I have to go get the building manager.”
Fortunately the building manager turned out to be less committed to the sanctity of his tenant’s domain. When I gave him my spiel about Mrs. Carson being the tenant but Mr. Carson actually paying the bills, the manager made like Earl Warren and actually appeared to be pondering the merits of my argument, which he did right up to the moment the thick-necked Mullen grabbed his hand and slipped several hundred dollars in cash into his palm. “Yeah, okay,” the manager nodded. “Come on up, I’ll let you in.”
With Irizarry left to stand guard in the hallway, the four of us entered Joanne’s snuggery. Almost instantly, Carson discovered evidence of his cuckoldry: the whole living room—in fact, almost the entire pad—was furnished with discards from the couple’s UN Plaza apartment. There were even some pieces that Johnny hadn’t realized were gone.
“Look, it’s him,” said Arthur. He was pointing to a table in front of the window, on which sat about six or seven framed photographs of Joanne’s playmate. For the first time I realized her noontime buddy was Frank Gifford, the former New York Giants football great. One of the pictures showed Frank and Joanne at a restaurant table against some tropical resort-like background.
“Bingo,” said Arthur, just as Joe Mullen emerged from the bedroom. “I got men’s and women’s clothing hanging together.” Then he held up a robe of sorts, although it seemed awfully sheer to be the kind of thing a girl would wear to sit around and watch Bonanza in while she put curlers in her hair. “Recognize it?”
Johnny nodded. Crushed by the overwhelming amount of evidence, Carson leaned against the living room wall and began to weep. It was a painfully uncomfortable moment. Arthur busied himself taking photos of the premises, while the rest of us tried to look away and give Johnny his privacy. It was, however, a small space, and I couldn’t always keep my eyes away. During one of those glances, I could see that Carson’s raincoat had fallen open. I was shocked to see that Johnny was carrying a .38 revolver in a holster on his hip. Mullen, seeing what I saw, shot me a look that warned, Don’t say a f—ing word, and then he quietly flipped the framed pictures of Gifford on the windowsill so that their backs faced the room. Across the room, the silent Joe Mullen deftly swept some lingerie under the sofa with the toe of his shoe. He wanted to spare Johnny the sight. There was little else that could be done.
Very little was said on the walk back to Johnny’s apartment. The rain had subsided, but no one felt like recapping the raid. When we reached Johnny’s apartment, he thanked us and said he was tired and wanted to be alone. He asked his houseman to give me a ride back home. As the car headed over the Queensboro Bridge, I realized that I was probably one of the very few people who had ever seen Johnny Carson cry.
That evening, I hit the sack shortly after nine p.m. and soon fell deeply asleep. But at two a.m. the phone rang. It was Carson, and he was obviously tanked.
“I’m sitting here with Ed at Jilly’s,” he slurred. “Can you please come down here right away.” I considered putting him off, but knowing how s—ty he must have been feeling, and realizing that he might still have a gun, I told him I’d be there shortly. I dragged myself out of bed, put on a suit, and grabbed my briefcase. I managed to hail a cab (no easy feat at that hour in Queens) and arrived at Jilly’s around three a.m.
A dark-leathered tomb of a place, Jilly’s was frequented not only by celebrities but also by a criminal element that gave the setting a dangerous allure. It was said that when he walked in one night, Sinatra had quipped, “Jesus, there must be forty-two indictments sitting at the bar.” He loved the place so much that he set a scene from The Manchurian Candidate there.
At the wee small hour I arrived, the club was dark, lit only by lamps above the smoked-glass mirrors that cast a light so frail that it quit before it reached the banquettes. All the regulars were long gone; even the hatcheck girl had checked out. Behind the bar was a barkeep in a bow tie, and at the bar was one patron, Johnny Carson, his head in a cumulous cloud of cigarette smoke, nursing a drink; all that was missing was Ol’ Blue Eyes singing “One for My Baby and One More for the Road.”
As I approached him, Ed McMahon wobbled out of the men’s room, steadying himself on bar stools as he moved. He still had a few feet to negotiate, but then Johnny straightened up and said, “Ed? We’re done here, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Ed replied, and with a slight recalculation of his course and direction, Johnny’s sidekick was gone in thirty seconds. I took the empty stool to form a new trio: me, Carson, and the bartender, who brought me a Heineken and then slipped discreetly away. The silence was oppressive, and the pressure to make small talk was overwhelming. Johnny, sighing heavily, finally spoke. “I’m not surprised that Joanne did this to me,” he said, “but it hurts. Hurts like hell.”
That he 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 judgment.
“I shoulda been home more,” he said with a drunk’s certainty. “Not out running around.”
I didn’t try to respond. There was nothing to say. Johnny was lost in regret and self-loathing. “I’m a s—. I have three kids with my first wife and I don’t see any of them.”
Carson lit another cigarette then looked me straight in the eye. “I can’t quit smoking and I get drunk every night and I chase all the p- - -y I can get. I’m s- - -ty in the marriage department. Make sure you understand this.”
Understand what? What was he saying? And why was he saying all this to me? I don’t know what he saw in me in our initial meetings; I don’t know what I had done, but I suddenly realized that he was going to let me stick around. He was telling me all these things so I would realize what he expected of me. Carson’s mood then turned on a dime. He shot me a smile and said, “Henry, did you know that it’s a proven fact that married men live longer than single guys? It’s also a proven fact that married men are far more willing to die.” I burst into laughter, and he did too. And suddenly the dark cloud lifted.
“Why Frank Gifford?” he asked. “What’s that a–hole got that I don’t have?” I wasn’t sure where he was going with this but maybe nowhere good. The mood appeared to be swinging back. “That guy plays three positions on the field,” he said. “I could never get Joanne to go for more than two.” His deadpan timing was perfect. I nearly fell off my stool laughing. He was smiling appreciatively. “I think I’ll use that line in tomorrow’s monologue.”
From the front of the bar, the creak of the door opening and the 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 that 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.
Next to me, Johnny rose from his stool. “Henry, we’re done here, right?”
I knew my line. “Yes, sir,” I said, and the handsome couple left. All the trauma and misery from Joanne’s betrayal vanished the minute he had another woman on his arm. Whatever cares he had were melting faster than the ice cubes in his Tanqueray and tonic.
Later that same morning, not long before noon, he called. “Hey, what did we talk about last night?” he asked. “What the hell did I say?”
“Nothing much,” I replied. “Nothing important.”
He paused for several seconds. I think that he was impressed that my discretion extended even to him. “You must never, ever repeat a word from last night,” he finally said. “You understand that?”
“So what did I talk about?”
“You talked about everything last night—everything. Your mother, your family, your heartbreak over Joanne, a lot of stuff. But if you’re worried, just realize that I’m your lawyer; everything that is said between us is confidential and covered by attorney-client privilege. I would lose my license if during your lifetime I repeated it to a soul.”
I heard him laugh. “Well, Henry, I guess you’re my lawyer now. Can you come over this afternoon? I want you to file for divorce as soon as possible.”