‘Johnny Carson’ – Who says you can’t libel the dead?

Carson McmahonThe memoir by Henry Bushkin, “Johnny Carson” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is an instant best-seller, but you have to wonder how many people will enjoy this depressing, mean-spirited look back at the host of “The Tonight Show” by his longtime lawyer and “best friend.”

I suppose that you cease being someone’s friend after they fire you — that’s what happened to Bushkin after nearly two decades on Carson’s payroll — but you would think that an honorable attorney would not violate the confidence of a client even after they ceased doing business together. Especially when said-friend made countless millions from being the client’s financial partner.

Many of us have read more Hollywood kiss-and-tell books than we care to remember in which faded stars cash in by revealing their secrets, but “Johnny Carson” might be the first example of what you could call a sign-and-tell — an exhaustive account of a lucrative Hollywood business relationship that morphed into something both parties viewed as a friendship.

Bushkin was a lowly 27-year-old entertainment lawyer in a New York firm when he got in carson2Carson’s good graces by helping him find dirt on then-wife Joanne Copeland, who was about to take her husband to the cleaners in a divorce suit. Bushkin helped Carson and a few of his ex-police cronies gain admittance to Joanne’s not-so-secret love nest where she was having an affair with Frank Gifford.

We’re only a few pages into the book and Bushkin has already dragged in a (semi) innocent bystander for some reputation tarnishing.

It turns out that in settling scores with Johnny, his fired lawyer has no problem giving us dirt on a whole host of (mostly dead) third parties ranging from Buddy Hackett to Dean Martin to Tom Snyder.

Bushkin also shares skeevy anecdotes that don’t quite qualify as dirt — he and Johnny fought over Joyce DeWitt one night in Las Vegas — but a good proportion of the celebrity mentions do not reflect well on the people in them.

The moment of truth comes early for Bushkin when he has to choose between a weekend in Connecticut with his wife or babysitting his client: “I didn’t know how many times I could tell him I wasn’t available to have dinner with him at Danny’s Hideaway, but I was reluctant to find out. I was a young man, and I didn’t have the confidence to find out whether Johnny would keep me around just on the basis of my fine legal skills…”

Before you can say Jacqueline Susann or Harold Robbins, the lawyer is involved in a naked five-way with Carson (strictly heterosexual!) and is ridding himself of his wife just like his boss did three times. (Here’s the bottom line on Bushkin’s marriage: “I had attained a life beyond all imagining, and I suppose I thought the trade-offs, though regrettable, were worth it.”)

This sort of book is written so rarely — it’s the crassest of Hollywood business & morality tales told from the inside — that I finished “Johnny Carson,” but I can’t say I’m happy about that fact.

Joe Meyers