© 1979 Kenneth Tynan Estate.
None of this would have happened if I had not noticed, while lying late in bed on a hot Sunday morning last year in Santa Monica and flipping through the TV guide for the impending week, that one of the local public-broadcasting channnels had decided to show, at 1 P.M. that very January day, a film on which my fantasies had fed ever since I first saw it, a quarter of a century before. Even for Channel 28, it was an eccentric piece of programming. I wondered how many of my Southern Californian neighbors would be tempted to forgo their poolside champagne brunches, their bicycle jaunts along Ocean Front Walk, their health-food picnics in Topanga Canyon, or their surfboard battles with the breakers of Malibu in order to watch a silent picture, shot in Berlin just fifty years earlier, about an artless young hedonist who, meaning no harm, rewards her lovers - and eventually herself - with the prize of violent death. Although the film is a tragedy, it is also a celebration of the pleasure principle. Outside in the midday sunshine, California was celebrating the same principle, with the shadows of mortality left out.
I got to my set in time to catch the credits. The director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst, reigning maestro of German cinema in the late nineteen-twenties. The script: Adapted by Ladislaus Vajda from Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box), two scabrously erotic plays written in the eighteen-nineties by Frank Wedekind. For his movie, Pabst chose the title of the later work, though the screenplay differed markedly from Wedekind's original text: Pandora's Box belongs among the few films that have succeeded in improving on theatrical chefs-d'oeuvre. For his heroine, Lulu (the dominant figure in both plays), Pabst outraged a whole generation of German actresses by choosing a twenty-one-year-old girl from Kansas whom he had never met, who was currently working for Paramount in Hollywood, and who spoke not a word of any language other than English. This was Louise Brooks. She made only twenty-four films, in a movie career that began in 1925 and ended, with enigmatic suddenness, in 1938. Two of them were masterpieces: Pandoras Box and its immediate successor, also directed by Pabst - The Diary of a Lost Girl. Most, however, were assembly-line studio products. Yet around her, with a luxuriance that proliferates every year, a literature has grown up. I append a few excerpts:
An actress who needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.
-Lotte II. Eisner, French critic
Her youthful admirers see in her an actress of brilliance, a luminescent personality, and a beauty unparalleled in film history.
-Kevin Brownlow, British director and movie historian
One of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema . . . she was one of the first performers to penetrate to the heart of screen acting.
-David Thomson, British critic
Louise Brooks is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece. . . . Louise is the perfect apparition, the dream woman, the being without whom the cinema would be a poor thing. She is much more than a myth, she is a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema.
-Ado Kyroit, French critic
Those who have seen her can never forget her. She is the modern actress par excellence. ... As soon as she takes the screen, fiction disappears along with art, and one has the impression of being present at a documentary. The camera seems to have caught her by surprise, without her knowledge. She is the intelligence of the cinematic process, the perfect incarnation of that which is photogenic; she embodies all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity. Her art is so pure that it becomes invisible.
-Henri Langlois, director of the Cinémathèque Française
On Channel 28, I stayed with the film to its end, which is also Lulu's. Of the climactic sequence, so decorously understated, Louise Brooks once wrote, in Sight & Sound, "It is Christmas Eve and she is about to receive the gift which has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac." When it was over, I switched channels and returned to the real world of game shows and pet-food commercials, relieved to find that the spell she cast was still as powerful as ever. Brooks reminds me of the scene in Citizen Kane where Everett Sloane, as Kane's aging business manager, recalls a girl in a white dress whom he saw in his youth when he was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry. They never met or spoke. "I only saw her for one second," he says, "and she didn't see me at all - but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl."
I had now, by courtesy of Channel 28, seen Pandora's Box for the third time. My second encounter with the film had taken place several years earlier, in France. Consulting my journal, I found the latter experience recorded with the baroque extravagance that seems to overcome all those who pay tribute to Brooks. I unflinchingly quote:
Infatuation with L. Brooks reinforced by second viewing of "Pandora." She has run through my life like a magnetic thread - this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly. She is a prairie princess, equally at home in a waterfront bar and in the royal suite at Neuschwanstein; a creature of impulse, a creature of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious. In short, the only star actress I can imagine either being enslaved by or wanting to enslave; and a dark lady worthy of any poet's devotion:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Some basic information about Rochester, New York: With two hundred sixty-three thousand inhabitants, it is the sixth-largest city in the state, bestriding the Genesee River at its outlet into Lake Ontario. Here, in the eighteen-eighties, George Eastman completed the experiments that enabled him to manufacture the Kodak camera which, in turn, enabled ordinary people to capture monochrome images, posed or spontaneous, of the world around them. He was in at the birth of movies too. The flexible strips of film used in Thomas Edison's motion-picture machine were first produced by Eastman, in 1889. Rochester is plentifully dotted with monuments to the creator of the Kodak, among them a palatial Georgian house, with fifty rooms and a lofty neoclassical portico, that he built for himself in 1905. When he died, in 1932, he left his mansion to the University of Rochester, of whose president it became the official home. Shortly after the Second World War, Eastman House took on a new identity. It opened its doors to the public and offered, to quote from its brochure, "the worlds most important collection of pictures, films, and apparatus showing the development of the art and technology of photography." In 1972, it was imposingly renamed the International Museum of Photography. Its library now contains around five thousand movies, many of them unique copies, and seven of them - a larger number than any other archive can boast - featuring Louise Brooks. Hence I decide to pay a visit to the city, where I check in at a motel in the late spring of 1978. Thanks to the generous cooperation of Dr. John B. Kuyper, the director of the museum's film department, I am to see its hoard of Brooks pictures - six of them new to me - within the space of two days. Screenings will be held in the Dryden Theatre, a handsome auditorium that was added to the main building in 1950 as a gift from Eastman's niece, Ellen Andrus, and her husband, George Dryden.
On the eve of Day One, I mentally recap what I have learned of Brooks's early years. Born in 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas, she was the second of four children sired by Leonard Brooks, a hardworking lawyer of kindly disposition and diminutive build, for whom she felt nothing approaching love. She herself was never more than five feet two and a half inches tall, but she raised her stature onscreen by wearing heels as high as six inches. Her mother, née Myra Rude, was the eldest of nine children, and she warned Mr. Brooks before their marriage that she had spent her entire life thus far looking after kid brothers and sisters, that she had no intention of repeating the experience with children of her own, and that any progeny she might bear him would, in effect, have to fend for themselves.
The result, because Myra Brooks was a woman of high spirits who took an infectious delight in the arts, was not a cold or neglectful upbringing. Insistent on liberty for herself, she passed on a love of liberty to her offspring. Louise absorbed it greedily. Pirouetting appealed to her; encouraged by her mother, she took dancing lessons, and by the age of ten she was making paid appearances at Kiwanis and Rotary festivities. At fifteen, already a beauty sui generis, as surviving photographs show, with her hair, close-cropped at the nape to expose what Christopher Isherwood has called "that unique imperious neck of hers," cascading in ebony bangs down the high, intelligent forehead, and descending on either side of her eyes in spit curls slicked forward at the cheekbones, like a pair of enameled parentheses - at fifteen, she left high school and went to New York with her dance teacher.
There she successfully auditioned for the Denishawn Dancers, which had been founded in 1915 by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, and was by far the most adventurous dance company in America. She started out as a student, but soon graduated to full membership in the troupe, with which she toured the country from 1922 to 1924. One of her fellow dancers, Martha Graham, became a lifelong friend. "I learned to act while watching Martha Graham dance," she said later, in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, "and I learned to move in film from watching Chaplin."
Suddenly, however, the discipline involved in working for Denishawn grew oppressive. Brooks was fired for lacking a sense of vocation, and the summer of 1924 found her back in New York, dancing in the chorus of George White's Scandals. After three months of this, a whim seized her, and she embarked without warning for London, where she performed the Charleston at the Café de Paris, near Piccadilly Circus. By New York standards, she thought Britain's Bright Young Things a moribund bunch, and when Evelyn Waugh wrote Vile Bodies about them, she said that only a genius could have made a masterpiece out of such glum material.
Early in 1925, with no professional prospects, she sailed for Manhattan on borrowed money, only to be greeted by Florenz Ziegfeld with the offer of a job in a musical comedy called Louie the 14th, starring Leon Errol. She accepted, but the pattern of her subsequent behavior left no doubt that what she meant by liberty and independence was what others defined as irresponsibility and self-indulgence. Of the director of Louie the 14th, she afterward wrote, again for Sight & Sound: "He detested all of Ziegfeld's spoiled beauties, but most of all me because on occasion, when I had other commitments, I would wire my non-appearance to the theatre." In May 1925, she made her movie debut at the Paramount Astoria Studio on Long Island, playing a bit part in The Street of Forgotten Men, of which no print is known to exist. She has written a vivid account of filmmaking in its Long Island days:
The stages were freezing in the winter, steaming hot in the summer. The dressing rooms were windowless cubicles. We rode on the freight elevator, crushed by lights and electricians. But none of that mattered, because the writers, directors, and cast were free from all supervision. Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and Walter Wanger never left the Paramount office on Fifth Avenue, and the head of production never came on the set. There were writers and directors from Princeton and Yale. Motion pictures did not consume us. When work finished, we dressed in evening clothes, dined at the Colony or "21," and went to the theatre. The difference in Hollywood was that the studio was run by B. P. Schulberg, a coarse exploiter who propositioned every actress and policed every set. To love books was a big laugh. There was no theatre, no opera, no concerts-just those god-damned movies.
Despite Brooks's erratic conduct in Louie the 14th, Ziegfeld hired her to join Will Rogers and W. C. Fields in the 1925 edition of his Follies. It proved to be her last Broadway show. One of her many admirers that year was the atrabilious wit Herman Mankiewicz, then employed as second-string drama critic of the Times. Blithely playing truant from the Follies, she attended the opening of No, No, Nanette on Mankiewicz's arm. As the houselights faded, her escort, who was profoundly drunk, announced his intention of falling asleep and asked Brooks to make notes on the show for use in his review. She obliged, and the Times next day echoed her opinion that No, No, Nanette was "a highly meritorious paradigm of its kind." (Somewhat cryptically, the review added that the score contained "more. familiar quotations from itself. . . than even Hamlet.")
Escapades like this did nothing to endear Brooks to the other, more dedicated Ziegfeld showgirls, but an abiding intimacy grew up between her and W.C. Fields, in whose dressing room she was always graciously received. Later, in a passage that tells us as much about its author as about her subject, she wrote:
He was an isolated person. As a young man he stretched out his hand to Beauty and Love and they thrust it away. Gradually he reduced reality to exclude all but his work, filling the gaps with alcohol whose dim eyes transformed the world into a distant view of harmless shadows. He was also a solitary person. Years of traveling alone around the world with his juggling act taught him the value of solitude and the release it gave his mind. . . Most of his life will remain unknown. But the history of no life is a jest.
In September 1925, the Follies left town on a national tour. Brooks stayed behind and sauntered through the role of a bathing beauty in a Paramount movie called The American Venus. Paramount and M-G-M were both pressing her to sign five-year contracts, and she looked for advice to Walter Wanger, one of the former company's top executives, with whom she was having an intermittent affair. "If, at this crucial moment in my career," she said long afterward in London Magazine, "Walter had given me some faith in my screen personality and my acting ability, he might have saved me from further mauling by the beasts who prowled Broadway and Hollywood." Instead, he urged her to take the Metro offer, arguing that if she chose Paramount everyone would assume that she had got the job by sharing his bed and that her major attribute was not talent but sexual accessibility. Incensed by his line of reasoning, she defiantly signed with Paramount.
In course of twelve months (during which Brooks's friend Humphrey Bogart, seven years her senior, was still laboring on Broadway, with four seasons to wait before the dawn of his film career), Brooks made six full-length pictures. The press began to pay court to her. Photoplay, whose reporter she received reclining in bed, said of her, "She is so very Manhattan.Very young. Exquisitely hard-boiled. Her black eyes and sleek black hair are as brilliant as Chinese lacquer. Her skin as white as a camellia. Her legs are lyric."
She worked with several of the bright young directors who gave Paramount its reputation for sophisticated comedy, e.g., Frank Turtle, Malcolm St. Clair, and Edward Sutherland. Chronologically, the list of her credits ran as follows:
American Venus, for Tuttle, who taught her that the way to get laughs was to play perfectly straight; he directed Bebe Daniels in four movies and Clara Bow in six.
A Social Celebrity, for St. Clair, who cast Brooks opposite the immaculately caddish Adolphe Menjou, of whose style she later remarked, "He never felt anything. He used to say, 'Now I do Lubitsch No. 1,' 'Now I do Lubitsch No. 2'. And that's exactly what he did. You felt nothing, working with him, and yet see him on the screen-he was a great actor."
It's the Old Army Game, for Sutherland, who had been Chaplin's directorial assistant on A Woman of Paris, and who made five pictures with W C. Fields, of which this was the first, and of which the third, International House, is regarded by many Fieldsian authorities as the Master's crowning achievement. Brooks married Sutherland, a hard-drinking playboy, in 1926 - an error that was rectified inside two years by divorce.
The Show-Off, for St. Clair, adapted from the Broadway hit by George Kelly.
Just Another Blonde, on loan to First National.
And, finally, to round off the year's work, Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, for Tuttle, the first Brooks film of which Eastman House has a copy. Here begin my notes on the sustained and solitary Brooks banquet that the museum laid before me.
Evelyn Brent is the nominal star of Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, a slick and graceful comedy about Manhattan shopgirls, but light-fingered Louise, as Brent's jazz-baby younger sister, steals the picture with bewitching insouciance. She is twenty, and her body is still plump, quite husky enough for work in the fields; but the face, framed in its black proscenium arch of hair, is already Lulu's in the embryo, especially when she dons a white top hat to go to a costume ball (at which she dances a definitive Charleston). The plot calls for her to seduce her sister's boyfriend, a feckless window dresser, and she does so with that fusion of amorality and innocence which was to become her trademark. (During these scenes, I catch myself humming a tune from Pins and Needles: "I used to be the daisy chain, now I'm a chain-store daisy"). Garbo could give us innocence, and Dietrich amorality, on the grandest possible scale; only Brooks could play the simple, unabashed hedonist, whose appetite for pleasure is so radiant that even when it causes suffering to her and others we cannot find it in ourselves to reproach her.
Most actresses tend to pass moral judgments on the characters they play. Their performances issue tacit commands to the audience: "Love me, "Hate me", "Laugh at me", "Weep with me," and so forth. We get none of this from Brooks. whose presence before the camera merely declares, "Here I am. Make what you will of me." She does not care what we think of her. Indeed, she ignores us. We seem to be spying on unrehearsed reality, glimpsing what the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson later called "le moment qui se sauve." In the best of her silent films, Brooks - with no conscious intention of doing so - is reinventing the art of screen acting.
I suspect that she was helped rather than hindered by the fact that she never took a formal acting lesson. "When I acted, I hadn't the slightest idea of what I was doing," she said once to Richard Leacock, the documentary filmmaker. "I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do - if you know that it's hard. I didn't, so it seemed easy. I had nothing to unlearn. When I first worked with Pabst, he was furious, because he approached people intellectually and you couldn't approach me intellectually, because there was nothing to approach." To watch Brooks is to recall Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, who observes, "Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone."
Rereading the above paragraphs, I pause at the sentence "She does not care what we think of her." Query: Was it precisely this quality, which contributed so much to her success on the screen, that enabled her, in later years, to throw that success so lightly away?
To return to Frank Tuttle's film: Tempted by a seedy and lecherous old horse-player who lives in her rooming house, Brooks goes on a betting spree with funds raised her fellow shopgirls in aid of the Women's Welfare League. The aging gambler is played by Osgood Perkins (father of Tony), of whom Brooks said to Kevin Brownlow years afterward, "The best actor I ever worked with was Osgood Perkins ... You know what makes an actor great to work with? Timing. You don't have to feel anything. It's like dancing with a perfect dancing partner. Osgood Perkins would give you a line so that you would react perfectly. It was timing - because emotion means nothing" (emphasis mine). This comment reveals what Brooks has learned about acting in the cinema: emotion per se, however deeply felt, is not enough. It is what the actor shows - the contraband that he or she can smuggle past the camera - that matters to the audience. A variation of this dictum cropped up in the mouth of John Striebel's popular comic-strip heroine Dixie Dugan, who was based on Brooks and first appeared in 1926. Bent on getting a job in "The Zigfold Follies," Dixie reflected, "All there is to this Follies racket is to be cool and look hot." Incidentally, Brooks's comparison of Perkins with a dancing partner reminds me of a remark she once made about Fatty Arbuckle, who, under the assumed name of William Goodrich, apathetically directed her in a 1931 two-reeler called Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood: "He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career . . . Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films. He was a wonderful dancer - a wonderful ballroom dancer in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut."
What images do I retain of Brooks in Love 'Em and Leave 'Em? Many comedic details, e.g., the scene in which she fakes tears of contrition by furtively dabbling her cheeks with water from a handily placed goldfish bowl, and our last view of her, with all her sins unpunished, merrily sweeping off in a Rolls-Royce with the owner of the department store. And, throughout, every closeup of that blameless, unblemished face.
In 1927, Brooks moved with Paramount to Hollywood and played in four pictures: Evening Clothes (with Menjou), Rolled Stockings, The City Gone Wild, and Now We're in the Air, none of which is in the Eastman vaults. To commemorate that year, I have a publicity photo taken at a house Brooks rented in Laurel Canyon: poised on tiptoe with arms outstretched, she stands on the diving board of her pool, wearing a one-piece black bathing suit with a tight white belt, and looking like a combination of Odette and Odile in some modern-dress version of Swan Lake.
Early in 1928, she was lent to Fox for a picture (happily preserved by the museum) that was to change her career-A Girl in Every Port, written and directed by Howard Hawks, who had made his first film only two years before. Along with Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell, and Lauren Bacall, Brooks thus claims a place among the actresses on David Thomson's list (in his Biographical Dictionary of Film) of performers who were "either discovered or brought to new life by Hawks." As in Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, she plays an amoral pleasure-lover, but this time the mood is much darker. Her victim is Victor McLaglen, a seagoing roughneck engaged in perpetual sexual rivalry with his closest friend (Robert Armstrong); the embattled relationship between the two men brings to mind the skirmishing of Flagg and Quirt in What Price Glory?, which was filmed with McLaglen in 1926. In A Girl in Every Port, McLaglen, on a binge in Marseilles, sees a performance by an open-air circus whose star turn is billed as "Mam'selle Godiva, Neptune's Bride and the Sweetheart of the Sea." The submarine coquette is, of course, Brooks, looking svelter than of old, and clad in tights, spangled panties, tiara, and black velvet cloak. Her act consists of diving off the top of a ladder into a shallow tank of water. Instantly besotted, the bully McLaglen becomes the fawning lapdog of this "dame of class." He proudly introduces her to Armstrong, who, unwilling to wreck his buddy's illusions, refrains from revealing that the lady's true character, as he knows from a previous encounter with her, is that of a small-time gold-digger. In a scene charged with the subtlest eroticism. Brooks sits beside Armstrong on a sofa and coaxes McLaglen to clean her shoes. He readily obeys. As he does so, she begins, softly, reminiscently, but purposefully, to fondle Armstrong's thigh. To these caresses Armstrong does not respond, but neither does he reject them. With one man at her feet and another at her fingertips, she is like a cat idly licking its lips over two bowls of cream. This must surely have been the sequence that convinced Pabst, when the film was shown in Berlin, that he had found the actress he wanted for Pandora's Box. By the end of the picture, Brooks has turned the two friends into mortal enemies, reducing McLaglen to a state of murderous rage mixed with grief which Emil Jannings could hardly have bettered. There is no melodrama in her exercise of sexual power. No effort, either: she is simply following her nature.
After her fling with Fox, Paramount cast its young star (now aged twenty-one) in another downbeat triangle drama, Beggars of Life, to be directed by another young director, William Wellman. Like Hawks, he was thirty-two years old. (The cinema is unique among the arts in that there was a time in its history when almost all its practitioners were young. This was that time.) At first, the studio had trouble tracing Brooks's whereabouts. Having just divorced Edward Sutherland, she had fled to Washington with a new lover - George Marshall, a millionaire laundry magnate, who later became the owner of the Redskins football team. When she was found, she immediately returned to the Coast, though her zest for work was somewhat drained by a strong antipathy to one of her co-stars (Richard Arlen, with whom she had appeared in Rolled Stockings) and by overt hostility from Wellman, who regarded her as a dilettante. Despite these malign auguries, Beggars of Life - available at Eastman House - turned out to be one of her best films.
Adapted from a novel by Jim Tully, it foreshadows the Depression movies of the thirties. Brooks plays the adopted daughter of a penniless old farmer who attempts one sunny morning, to rape her. Seizing a shotgun, she kills him. As she is about to escape, the crime is discovered by a tramp (Arlen) who knocks at the door in search of food. They run away together, with Brooks wearing over-sized masculine clothes, topped off by a large peaked cap. (This was her first serious venture into the rich territory of sexual ambiguity, so prosperously cultivated in later years by Garbo, Dietrich, et al.) Soon they fall in with a gang of hoboes, whose leader - a ferocious but teachable thug, beautifully played by Wallace Beery - forms the third point of the triangle. He sees through Brooks's disguise and proposes that since the police already know about her male imposture, it would be safer to dress her as a girl. He goes in search of female attire, but what he brings back is marginally too young: a gingham dress and a bonnet tied under the chin in which Brooks looks like a woman masquerading as a child, a sort of adult Lolita. She stares at us in her new gear, at once innocent and gravely perverse. The rivalry for her affection comes to its height when Beery pulls a gun and tells Arlen to hand her over. Brooks jumps between them, protecting Arlen, and explains that she would prefer death to life without him. We believe her; and so, to his own befuddled amazement, does Beery. There is really no need for the title in which he says that he has often heard about love but never until now known what it was. He puts his gun away and lets them go.
Footnote: During the transvestite scenes, several dangerous feats were performed for Brooks by a stunt man named Harvey. One night, attracted by his flamboyant courage, she slept with him. After breakfast next day, she strolled out onto the porch of the hotel in the California village where the location sequences were being shot. Harvey was there, accompanied by a group of hoboes in the cast. He rose and gripped her by the arm. "Just a minute, Miss Brooks," he said loudly. "I've got something to ask you. I guess you know my job depends on my health." He then named a Paramount executive whom Brooks had never met, and continued, "Everybody knows you're his girl and he has syphilis, and what I want to know is: Do you have syphilis?" After a long and frozen pause, he added, "Another reason I want to know is that my girl is coming up at noon to drive me back to Hollywood." Brooks somehow withdrew to her room without screaming. Events like these may account for the lack of agonized regret with which she prematurely ended her movie career. Several years later, after she had turned down the part that Jean Harlow eventually played in Wellman's The Public Enemy, she ran into the director in a New York bar. "You always hated making pictures, Louise," he said sagely. She did not bother to reply that it was not pictures she hated but Hollywood.
The Canary Murder Case (directed by Malcolm St. Clair from a script based on S. S. Van Dines detective story, with William Powell as Philo Vance; not in the Eastman collection) was the third, and last, American movie that Brooks made in 1928. By now, her face was beginning to be internationally known, and the rushes of this film indicated that Paramount would soon have a major star on its hands. At the time, the studio was preparing to take the plunge into talkies. As Brooks afterward wrote in Image (a journal sponsored by Eastman House), front offices all over Hollywood saw in this radical change "a splendid opportunity . . . for breaking contracts, cutting salaries, and taming the stars." In the autumn of 1928, when her own contract called for a financial raise, B. P. Schulberg, the West Coast head of Paramount, summoned her to his office and said that the promised increase could not be granted in the new situation. The Canary Murder Case was being shot silent, but who knew whether Brooks could speak? (A fragile argument, since her voice was of bell-like clarity.) He presented her with a straight choice: either to continue at her present figure (seven hundred and fifty dollars a week) or to quit when the current picture was finished. To Schulberg's surprise, she chose to quit. Almost as an afterthought, he revealed when she was rising to leave that he had lately received from G. W Pabst a bombardment of cabled requests for her services in Pandora's Box, all of which he had turned down.
Then forty-three years old, Pabst had shown an extraordinary flair for picking and molding actresses whose careers were upward bound; Asta Nielsen, Brigitte Helm and Greta Garbo (in her third film, The Joyless Street, which was also her first outside Sweden) headed a remarkable list. Unknown to Schulberg, Brooks had already heard about the Pabst offer - and the weekly salary of a thousand dollars that went with it - from her lover, George Marshall, whose source was a gossipy director at M-G-M. She coolly told Schulberg to inform Pabst that she would soon be available. "At that very hour in Berlin," she wrote later in Sight & Sound, "Marlene Dietrich was waiting with Pabst in his office." This was two years before The Blue Angel made Dietrich a star. What she crucially lacked, Pabst felt, was the innocence he wanted for his Lulu. In his own words, "Dietrich was too old and too obvious - one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque. But I gave her a deadline, and the contract was about to be signed when Paramount cabled saying I could have Louise Brooks." The day that shooting ended on The Canary Murder Case, Brooks raced out of Hollywood en route for Berlin, there to work for a man who was one of the four or five leading European directors but of whom a few weeks earlier she had never heard.
Pandora's Box, with which I had my fourth encounter at Eastman House, could easily have emerged as a cautionary tale about a grande cocotte whose reward is the wages of sin. That seems to have been the impression left by Wedekind's two Lulu plays, which were made into a film in 1922 (not by Pabst) with Asta Nielsen in the lead. Summing up her predecessor's performance, Brooks said, "She played in the eye-rolling style of European silent acting. Lulu the man-eater devoured her sex victims . . . and then dropped dead in an acute attack of indigestion." The character obsessed many artists of the period. In 1928, Alban Berg began work on his twelve-tone opera Lulu, the heart of which, beneath the stark and stylized sound patterns, was blatantly theatrical, throbbing with romantic agony. Where the Pabst-Brooks version of the Lulu story differs from the others is in its moral coolness. It assumes neither the existence of sin nor the necessity for retribution. It presents a series of events in which all the participants are seeking happiness, and it suggests that Lulu, whose notion of happiness is momentary fulfillment through sex, is not less admirable than those whose quest is for wealth or social advancement.
First sequence: Lulu in the Art Deco apartment in Berlin where she is kept by Peter Schön, a middle-aged newspaper proprietor. (In this role, the great Fritz Kortner, bulky but urbane, effortless in the exercise of power over everyone but his mistress, gives one of the cinema's most accurate and objective portraits of a capitalist potentate.) Dressed in a peignoir, Lulu is casually flirting with a man who has come to read the gas meter when the doorbell rings and Schigolch enters - a squat and shabby old man who was once Lulu's lover but is now down on his luck. She greets him with delight; as the disgruntled gas man departs, she swoops to rest on Schigolch's lap with the grace of a swan. The protective curve of her neck is unforgettable. Producing a mouth organ, Schigolch strikes up a tune, to which she performs a brief, Dionysiac, and authentically improvised little dance. (Until this scene was rehearsed, Pabst had no idea that Brooks was a trained dancer.) Watching her, I recollect something that Schigolch says in Wedekind's original text, though not in the film: "The animal is the only genuine thing in man. . . . What you have experienced as an animal, no misfortune can ever wrest from you. It remains yours for life." From the window, he points out a burly young man on the sidewalk: this is a friend of his named Rodrigo, a professional athlete who would like to work with her in an adagio act.
Unheralded, Peter Schön lets himself into the apartment, and Lulu has just time to hide Schigolch on the balcony with a bottle of brandy. Schön has come to end his affair with Lulu, having decided to make a socially advantageous match with the daughter of a Cabinet minister. In Lulu's reaction to the news there is no fury. She simply sits on a sofa and extends her arms toward him with something like reassurance. Unmoved at first, Schön eventually responds, and they begin to make love. The drunken Schigolch inadvertently rouses Lulu's pet dog to a barking fit, and this disturbance provokes the hasty exit of Schön. On the stairs, he passes the muscle man Rodrigo, whom Schigolch presents to Lulu. Rodrigo flexes his impressive biceps, on which she gleefully swings, like a schoolgirl gymnast.
A scene in Schön's mansion shows us his son Alwa (Francis Lederer, in his pre-Hollywood days) busily composing songs for his new musical review. Alwa is joined by the Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), a tight-lipped lesbian who is designing the costumes. Lulu dashes in to announce her plans for a double act with Rodrigo, and it is immediately clear that both Alwa and the Countess have eyes for her. She strolls on into Peter Schön's study, where she picks up from the desk a photograph of his bride-to-be. Typically, she studies it with genuine interest; there's no narrowing of eyes or curling of lip. Peter Schön, who has entered the room behind her, snatches the picture from her hands and orders her to leave. Before doing so, she mischievously invents a rendezvous next day with Alwa, whom she kisses, full on the mouth, to the young man's embarrassed bewilderment. With a toss of the patent-leather hair and a glance, half-playful, half-purposeful, at Alwa, she departs. Alwa asks his father why he doesn't marry her. Rather too explosively to carry conviction, Peter replies that one doesn't marry women like that. He proposes that Alwa give her a featured role in the revue, and guarantees that his newspapers will make her a star. Alwa is overjoyed; but when his father warns him at all costs to beware of her, he quits the room in tongue-tied confusion.
So much for the exposition; the principal characters and the main thrust of the action have been lucidly established. Note that Lulu, for all her seductiveness, is essentially an exploited creature, not an exploiter; also that we are not (nor shall we ever be) invited to feel sorry for her. I've already referred to her birdlike movements and animal nature; let me add that in the context of the plot as a whole she resembles a glittering tropical fish in a tank full of predators. For the remainder of this synopsis, I'll confine myself to the four great set pieces on which the film's reputation rests.
1. Intermission at the opening night of Alwa's revue. Pabst catches the backstage panic of scene-shifting and costume-changing with a kaleidoscopic brilliance that looks forward to Orson Welles's handling, twelve years later, of the operatic debut of Susan Alexander Kane. Alwa and Geschwitz are there, reveling in what is obviously going to be a hit. Peter Schön escorts Marie, his fiancée, through the pass door to share the frenzy. Lulu, changing in the wings, catches sight of him and smiles. Stricken with embarrassment, he cuts her and leads Marie away. This treatment maddens Lulu, and she refuses to go on with the show: "I'll dance for the whole world, but not in front of that woman". She takes refuge in the property room, whither Peter follows her. Leaning against the wall, she sobs, shaking her head mechanically from side to side, and then flings herself onto a pile of cushions, which she kicks and pummels. Despite her tantrum, she is watching Schön's every move. When he lights a cigarette to calm himself, she snaps, "Smoking's not allowed in here," and gives him a painful hack on the ankle. The mood of the scene swings from high histrionics through sly comedy to voluptuous intimacy. Soon Schön and Lulu are laughing, caressing, wholeheartedly making love. At this point, the door opens, framing Marie and Alwa. Unperturbed, Lulu rises in triumph, gathers up her costume, and sweeps past them to go onstage. Peter Schön's engagement is obviously over.
2. The wedding reception. Lulu is in a snow-white bridal gown, suggesting less a victorious cocotte than a girl celebrating her First Communion. Peter's wealthy friends flock admiringly round her. She dances cheek to cheek with Geschwitz who rabidly adores her. (The Belgian actress Alice Roberts, here playing what may be the first explicit lesbian in movie history, refused point-blank to look at Brooks with the requisite degree of lust. To solve the problem, Pabst stood in her line of vision, told her to regard him with passionate intensity, and photographed her in closeups, which he then intercut with shots of Brooks. Scenes like these presented no difficulty to Brooks herself. She used to say of a young woman I'll call Fritzi LaVerne, one of her best friends in the Follies, "She liked boys when she was sober and girls when she was drunk. I never heard a man or a woman pan her in bed, so she must have been very good." A shocked Catholic priest once asked Brooks how she felt playing a sinner like Lulu. "Feel!" she said gaily. "I felt fine! It all seemed perfectly normal to me." She explained to him that although she herself was not a lesbian, she had many chums of that persuasion in Ziegfeld's chorus line, and added, "I knew two millionaire publishers, much like Schön in the film, who backed shows to keep themselves well supplied with Lulus.")
The action moves to Peter's bedroom, where Schigolch and Rodrigo are drunkenly scattering roses over the nuptial coverlet. Lulu joins them, and something between a romp and an orgy seems imminent. It is halted by the entrance of the bridegroom. Appalled, he gropes for a gun in a nearby desk and chases the two men out of his house. The other guests, shocked and aghast, rapidly depart. When Peter returns to the bedroom, he finds Alwa with his head in Lulu's lap, urging her to run away with him. The elder Schön orders his son to leave. As soon as Alwa has left, there follows, between Kortner and Brooks, a classic demonstration of screen acting as the art of visual ellipsis. With the minimum of overt violence, a struggle for power is fought out to the death. Schön advances on Lulu, presses the gun into her hand, and begs her to commit suicide. As he grips her fingers in his, swearing to shoot her like a dog if she lacks the courage to do it herself, she seems almost hypnotized by the desperation of his grief. You would think them locked in an embrace until Lulu suddenly stiffens, a puff of smoke rises between them, and Schön slumps to the floor. Alwa bursts in and rushes to his father, from whose lips a fat thread of blood slowly trickles. The father warns Alwa that he will be the next victim. Gun in hand, Lulu stares at the body, wide-eyed and transfixed. Brooks wrote afterward that Pabst always used concrete phrases to get the emotional responses he wanted. In this case, the key image he gave her was "das Blut." "Not the murder of my husband," she wrote, "but the sight of the blood determined the expression on my face." What we see is not Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée but a petrified child.
3. Trial and flight. Lulu is sentenced to five years' imprisonment for manslaughter, but as the judge pronounces the sentence, her friends, led by Geschwitz, set off a fire alarm, and in the ensuing courtroom chaos she escapes. With perfect fidelity to her own willful character, Lulu, in defiance of movie cliché, comes straight back to Schön's house, where she acts like a debutante relaxing after a ball - lighting a cigarette, idly thumbing through a fashion magazine, trying out a few dance steps, opening a wardrobe and stroking a new fur coat, running a bath and immersing herself in it. Only Brooks, perhaps, could have carried off this solo sequence - so unlike the behavior expected of criminals on the run - with such ingrained conviction and such lyrical aplomb. Now Alwa arrives and is astounded to find her at the scene of the crime. The two decide to flee together to Paris. No sooner have they caught the train, however, than they are recognized by a titled pimp, who blackmails them into accompanying him aboard a gambling ship. Geschwitz, Schigolch, and the tediously beefy Rodrigo are also afloat, and for a while the film lurches into melodrama - sub-Dostoevski with a touch of ship's Chandler. Rodrigo threatens to expose Lulu unless she sleeps with him; the Countess, gritting her teeth, distracts his attention by making love to him herself - an unlikely coupling - after which she disdainfully kills him. Meanwhile, the pimp is arranging to sell Lulu to an Egyptian brothel-keeper. Anxious to save her from this fate, Alwa frenetically cheats at cards and is caught with a sleeve full of aces. The police arrive just too late to prevent Alwa, Lulu, and Schigolch from escaping in a rowboat. For the shipboard episode, Pabst cajoled Brooks, much against her will, into changing her coiffure. The spit curls disappeared; the black bangs were parted, waved, and combed back to expose her forehead. These cardinal errors of taste defaced the icon. It was as if an Italian master had painted the Virgin and left out the halo.
4. London and catastrophe. The East End, icy and fogbound, on Christmas Eve. The Salvation Army is out in force, playing carols and distributing food to the poor. A sallow, mournfully handsome young man moves aimlessly through the crowds. He gives cash for the needy to an attractive Army girl, and gets in return a candle and a sprig of mistletoe. Posters on the walls warn the women of London against going out unescorted at night: there is a mass murderer at large. In a garret close by, its broken skylight covered by a flapping rag, Lulu lives in squalor with Alwa and Schigolch. The room is unfurnished except for a camp bed, an armchair, and a kitchen table with an oil lamp, a few pieces of chipped crockery, and a bread knife. Lulu's curls and bangs have been restored, but her clothes are threadbare: all three exiles are on the verge of starvation. Reduced by now to prostitution, Lulu ventures down into the street, where she accosts the young wanderer we have already met. He follows her up the stairs but stops halfway, as if reluctant to go farther. We see that he is holding behind his back a switchblade knife, open. Lulu proffers her hand and leans encouragingly toward him. Her smile is lambent and beckoning. Hesitantly, he explains that he has no money. With transparent candor, she replies that it doesn't matter: she likes him. Unseen by Lulu, he releases his grip on the knife and lets it fall into the stairwell. She leads him into the attic, which Alwa and Schigolch have tactfully vacated.
The scene that follows is tender, even buoyant, but unsoftened by sentimentality. The cold climax, when it comes, is necessary and inevitable. Ripper and victim relax like familiar lovers. He leans back in the armchair and stretches out his hand; she leaps onto his lap, landing with both knees bent, as weightless as a chamois. Her beauty has never looked more ripe. While they happily flirt, he allows her to pry into his pockets, from which she extracts the gifts he received from the Salvation Army. She lights the candle and places it ceremonially on the table, with the mistletoe beside it. In a deep and peaceful embrace, they survey the tableau. The Ripper then raises the mistletoe over Lulu's head and requests the traditional kiss. As she shuts her eyes and presents her lips, the candle flares up. Its gleam reflected in the bread knife on the table holds the Ripper's gaze. He can look at nothing but the shining blade. Long seconds pass as he wrestles, motionless, with his obsession. Finally, leaning forward to consummate the kiss, he grasps the handle of the knife. In the culminating shot, he is facing away from the camera. All we see of Lulu is her right hand, open on his shoulder, pressing him toward her. Suddenly, it clenches hard, then falls, limply dangling, behind his back. We fade to darkness. Nowhere in the cinema has the destruction of beauty been conveyed with more eloquent restraint. As with the killing of Peter Schön, extreme violence is implied, not shown. To paraphrase what Freddy Buache, a Swiss critic, wrote many years later, Lulu's death is in no sense God's judgment on a sinner; she has lived her life in accordance with the high moral imperatives of liberty,and stands in no need of redemption.
After the murder, the Ripper emerges from the building and hurries off into the fog. It is here, in my view, that the film should end. Instead, Pabst moves on to the forlorn figure of Alwa, who stares up at the garret before turning away to follow the Salvation Army procession out of sight. A glib anticlimax indeed, but I'm not sure that the alternative proposed by Brooks, who has said, with characteristic forthrightness, "The movie should have ended with the knife in my vagina." It may be worth adding that Gustav Diessl, who played the Ripper, was the only man in the cast whom she found sexually appealing. "We just adored each other," she has said in an interview with Richard Leacock, "and I think the final scene was the happiest in the picture. Here he is with a knife he's going to stick up into my interior, and we'd be singing and I'd be doing the Charleston.You wouldn't have known it was a tragic ending. It was more like a Christmas party." At Brooks's request, Pabst had hired a jazz pianist to play between takes, and during these syncopated interludes Brooks and Diessl would often disappear beneath the table to engage in intimate festivities of their own.
The Berlin critics, expecting Lulu to be portrayed as a monster of active depravity, had mixed feelings about Brooks. One reviewer wrote, "Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer. She does nothing." Wedekind himself, however, had said of his protagonist, "Lulu is not a real character but the personification of primitive sexuality, who inspires evil unawares. She plays a purely passive role." Brooks afterwards stated her own opinion of what she had achieved. "I played Pabst's Lulu," she said, "and she isn't a destroyer of men, like Wedekind's. She's just the same kind of nitwit that I am. Like me, she'd have been an impossible wife, sitting in bed all day reading and drinking gin." Modern critics have elected Brooks's Lulu to a secure place in the movie pantheon. David Thomson describes it as "one of the major female performances in the cinema," to be measured beside such other pinnacles as "Dietrich in the von Sternberg films, Bacall with Hawks, Karina in Pierrot le Fou." It is true that in the same list Thomson included Kim Novak in Vertigo. It is also true that we are none of us perfect.
My first view of the second Pabst-Brooks collaboration, The Diary of a Lost Girl, based on Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, a novel by Margarethe Boehme, and shot in the summer of 1929. After finishing Pandora, Brooks had returned to New York and resumed her affair with the millionaire George Marshall. He told her that a new movie company, called RKO and masterminded by Joseph P. Kennedy, was anxious to sign her up for five hundred dollars a week. She replied, "I hate California and I'm not going back." Then Paramount called, ordering her to report for duty on the Coast; it was turning The Canary Murder Case into a talkie and required her presence for retakes and dubbing. She refused to go. Under the impression that this was a haggling posture, the studio offered ever vaster sums of money. Brooks's determination remained undented. Goaded to fury, Paramount planted in the columns a petty but damaging little story to the effect that it had been compelled to replace Brooks because her voice was unusable in talkies.
At this point (April 1929), she received a cable from Pabst. It said that he intended to coproduce a French film entitled Prix de Beauté, which René Clair would direct, and that they both wanted her for the lead - would she therefore cross the Atlantic as soon as possible? Such was her faith in Pabst that within two weeks she and Clair ("a very small, demure, rather fragile man" is how she afterward described him) were posing together for publicity shots in Paris. When the photographic session was over, Clair escorted her back to her hotel, where he damped her enthusiasm by revealing that he proposed to pull out of the picture forthwith. He advised her to do the same; the production money, he said, simply wasn't there, and might never be. A few days later, he officially retired from the project. (Its place in his schedule was taken by Sous les Toits de Paris, which, together with its immediate successors, Le Million and À Nous la Liberté, established his international reputation.) With nothing to do, and a guaranteed salary of a thousand dollars a week to do it on, Brooks entrained for a spree in Antibes, accompanied by a swarm of rich admirers. When she got back to Paris, Pabst called her from Berlin. Prix de Beauté, he said, was postponed; instead, she would star under his direction in The Diary of a Lost Girl, at precisely half her present salary. As submissive as ever to her tutor, she arrived in Berlin aboard the next train.
Lovingly photographed by Sepp Allgeier, Brooks in Lost Girl is less flamboyant but not less haunting than she is in Pandoras Box. The traffic in movie actors traditionally moved westward, from Europe to Hollywood, where their national characteristics were sedulously exploited. Brooks, who was among the few to make the eastbound trip, became in her films with Pabst completely Europeanized. To be more exact: in the context that Pabst prepared for her, Brooks's American brashness took on an awareness of transience and mortality. The Theme of Lost Girl is the corruption of a minor - not by sexuality but by an authoritarian society that condemns sexuality. (Pabst must surely have read Wilhelm Reich, the Freudian Marxist, whose theories about the relationship between sexual and political repression were hotly debated in Berlin at the time.) It is the same society that condemns Lulu. In fact, "The Education of Lulu" would make an apt alternative title for Lost Girl, whose heroine emerges from her travails ideally equipped for the leading role in Pandora's Box. Her name is Thymiane Henning, and she is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prosperous pharmacist. In the early sequences, Brooks plays her shy and faunlike, peering wide-eyed at a predatory world. She is seduced and impregnated by her father's libidinous assistant. As soon as her condition is discovered, the double standard swings into action. The assistant retains his job, but, to save the family from dishonor, Thymiane's baby is farmed out to a wet nurse, and she herself is consigned to a home for delinquent girls, run by a bald and ghoulish superintendent and his sadistic wife.
Life in the reformatory is strictly regimented: the inmates exercise to the beat of a drum and eat to the tapping of a metronome. At length, Thymiane escapes from this archetypal hellhole (precursor of many such institutions in subsequent movies, e.g., Mädchen in Uniform) and goes to reclaim her baby, only to find that the child has died. Broke and homeless, she meets a street vendor who guides her to an address where food and shelter will be hers for the asking. Predictably, it turns out to be a brothel; far less predictably, even shockingly, Pabst presents it as a place where Thymiane is not degraded but liberated. In the whorehouse, she blossoms, becoming a fille de joie in the literal sense of the phrase. Unlike almost any other actress in a similar situation, Brooks neither resorts to pathos nor suggests there is anything immoral in the pleasure she derives from her new profession. As in Pandora, she lives for the moment, with radiant physical abandon. Present love, even for sale, hath present laughter, and what's to come is not only unsure but irrelevant. I agree with Freddy Buache when he says of Brooks's performances with Pabst that they celebrated "the victory of innocence and amour-fou over the debilitating wisdom imposed on society by the Church, the Fatherland, and the Family." One of her more outré clients can achieve orgasm only by watching her beat a drum. This ironic echo of life in the reform school is used by Pabst to imply that sexual prohibition breeds sexual aberration. (Even more ironically, the sequence has been censored out of most of the existing prints of the movie.) Brooks is at her best - a happy animal in skintight satin - in a party scene at a night club, where she offers herself as first prize in a raffle. "Pabst wanted realism, so we all had to drink real drinks," she said later. "I played the whole scene stewed on hot, sweet German champagne."
Hereabouts, unfortunately, the film begins to shed its effrontery and to pay lip service to conventional values. Thymiane catches sight of her father across the dance floor; instead of reacting with defiance - after all, he threw her out of his house - she looks stricken with guilt, like the outcast daughter of sentimental fiction. In her absence, Papa has married his housekeeper, by whom he has two children. When he dies, shortly after the nightclub confrontation, he leaves his considerable wealth to Thymiane. Nobly, she gives it all to his penniless widow, so that the latter's offspring "won't have to live the same kind of life as I have." Thereby redeemed, the former whore soon becomes the wife of an elderly aristocrat. Revisiting the reform school, of which she has now been appointed a trustee, she excoriates the staff for its self-righteous cruelties. "A little more kindness," her husband adds, "and no one in the world would ever be lost." Thus lamely, the movie ends.
"Pabst seemed to lose interest," Brooks told an interviewer some years afterward. "He more or less said, 'I'm tired of this picture,' and he gave it a soft ending." His first, and much tougher, intention had been to demonstrate that humanitarianism alone could never solve society's problems. He wanted Thymiane to show her contempt for her husband's liberal platitudes by setting herself up as the madam of a whorehouse. The German distributors, however, refused to countenance such a radical denouement, and Pabst was forced to capitulate. The result is a flawed masterpiece, with a shining central performance that even the closing, compromised sequences cannot dim. Brooks has written that during the making of the film she spent all her off-duty hours with rich revelers of whom Pabst disapproved. On the last day of shooting, "he decided to let me have it." Her friends, he said, were preventing her from becoming a serious actress, and sooner or later they would discard her like an old toy. "Your life is exactly like Lulu's, and you will end the same way," he warned her. The passage of time convinced her that Pabst had a valid point. "Lulu's story," she told a journalist, "is as near as you'll get to mine."
In August 1929, she returned to Paris, where backing had unexpectedly been found for Prix de Beauté, her last European movie and her first talkie - although, since she spoke no French, her voice was dubbed. The director, briefly surfacing from obscurity was Augusto Genina, and René Clair received a credit for the original idea. Like so much of French cinema in the thirties, Prix de Beauté is a film noir, with wanly tinny music, about a shabby suburban crime of passion. Brooks plays Lucienne, a typist who enters a newspaper beauty contest. It's the kind of role which one associates Simone Simon, though the rapture that Brooks diplays when she wins, twirling with glee as she shows off her presents and trophies, goes well beyond the emotional range accessible to Mlle. Simon. Lucienne-Brooks is triumphantly unliberated; she rejoices in being a beloved, fleshy bauble, and she makes it clear to her husband, a compositor employed by the prize-giving newspaper, that she wants a grander, more snobbish reward for her victory than a visit to a back-street fairground, which is all he has to offer. She leaves him and accepts a part in a film. Consumed by jealousy, he follows her one night to a projection theater in which a rough cut of her movie is being shown. He bursts in and shoots her. As she dies, the French infatuation with irony is fearsomely indulged: her image on the screen behind her is singing the movie's theme "Ne Sois Pas Jaloux." In Prix de Beaute, Brooks lends her inimitable flair and distinction to a cliche, but it is a cliche nonetheless.
At this point, when Brooks was at the height of her beauty, her career began a steep and bumpy decline. In 1930, she went back to Hollywood, on the strength of a promised contract with Columbia. Harry Cohn, the head of the studio, summoned her to his office for a series of meetings, at each of which he appeared naked from the waist up. Always a plain speaker, he left her in no doubt that good parts would come her way if she responded to his advances. She rebuffed them, and the proffered contract was withdrawn. Elsewhere in Hollywood, she managed to get a job in a feeble two-reel comedy pseudonymously directed by the disgraced Fatty Arbuckle; her old friend Frank Tuttle gave her a supporting role in It Pays To Advertise (starring Carole Lombard); and she turned up fleetingly in a Michael Curtiz picture called God's Gift to Women. But the word was out that Brooks was difficult and uppity, too independent to suit the system. Admitting defeat, she returned to New York in May 1931. Against her will, but under heavy pressure from George Marshall, her lover and would-be Svengali, she played a small part in Louder, Please, a featherweight comedy by Norman Krasna that began its pre-Broadway run in October. After the opening week in Jackson Heights, she was fired by the director, George Abbott. This was her farewell to the theater; it took place on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday.
For Brooks, as for millions of her compatriots, a long period of unemployment followed. In 1933, determined to break off her increasingly discordant relationship with Marshall, she married Deering Davis, a rich young Chicagoan, but walked out on him after six months of rapidly waning enthusiasm. With a Hungarian partner named Dario Borzani, she spent a year dancing in night clubs, including the Persian Room of the Plaza, but the monotony of cabaret routine dismayed her, and she quit the act in August 1935. That autumn, Pabst suddenly arrived in New York and invited her to play Helen of Troy in a film version of Goethe's Faust, with Greta Garbo as Gretchen. Her hopes giddily soared, only to be dashed when Garbo opted out and the project fell through. Once again, she revisited Hollywood, where Republic Pictures wanted to test her for a role in a musical called Dancing Feet. She was rejected in favor of a blonde who couldn't dance. "That about did it for me," Brooks wrote later. "From then on, it was straight downhill. And no dough to keep the wolves from the door." In 1936, Universal cast her as the ingenue (Boots Boone) in Empty Saddles, a Buck Jones Western, which is the last Brooks movie in the Eastman collection. She looks perplexed, discouraged, and lacking in verve; and her coiffure, with the hair swept back from her forehead, reveals disquieting lines of worry. (Neither she nor Jones is helped by the fact that many of the major sequences of an incredibly complex plot take place at night.) The following year brought her a bit part at Paramount in something called King of Gamblers, after which, in her own words, "Harry Cohn gave me a personally conducted tour of hell with no return ticket." Still wounded by her refusal to sleep with him in 1930, Cohn promised her a screen test if she would submit to the humiliation of appearing in the corps de ballet of a Grace Moore musical entitled When You're in Love. To his surprise, Brooks accepted the offer - she was too broke to spurn it - and Cohn made sure that the demotion of an erstwhile star was publicized as widely as possible. Grudgingly, he gave her a perfunctory screen test, which he dismissed in two words: "It stunk." In the summer of 1938, Republic hired Brooks to appear with John Wayne (then a minor figure) in Overland Stage Raiders. After this low-budget oater, she made no more pictures.
In her entire professional career, Brooks had earned, according to her own calculations, exactly $124,600: $104,500 from films, $10,100 from theater, and $10,000 from all other sources. Not a gargantuan sum, one would think, spread over sixteen years; yet Brooks said to a friend, "I was astonished that it came to so much. But then I never paid any attention to money." In 1940, she left Hollywood for the last time.
Eastman House stands in an affluent residential district of Rochester, on an avenue of comparably stately mansions, with broad, tree-shaded lawns. When my second day of séances with Brooks came to an end, I zipped up my notes in a briefcase, thanked the staff of the film department for their help, and departed in a taxi. The driver took me to an apartment building only a few blocks away, where I paid him off. I rode up in the elevator to the third floor and pressed a doorbell a few paces along the corridor. After a long pause, there was a loud snapping of locks. The door slowly opened to reveal a petite woman of fragile build, wearing a woollen bed jacket over a pink nightgown, and holding herself defiantly upright by means of a sturdy metal cane with four rubber-tipped prongs. She had salt-and-pepper hair combed back into a ponytail that hung down well below her shoulders, and she was barefoot. One could imagine this gaunt and elderly child as James Tyrone's wife in Long Day's Journey into Night, or, noting the touch of authority and panache in her bearing, as the capricious heroine of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. I stated my name, adding that I had an appointment. She nodded and beckoned me in. I greeted her with a respectful embrace. This was my first physical contact with Louise Brooks.
She was seventy-one years old, and until a few months earlier I had thought she was dead. Four decades had passed since her last picture, and it seemed improbable that she had survived such a long period of retirement. Moreover, I did not then know how young she had been at the time of her flowering. Spurred by the TV screening of Pandora's Box in January 1978, I had made some inquiries, and soon discovered that she was living in Rochester, virtually bedridden with degenerative osteoarthritis of the hip, and that since 1956 she had written twenty vivid and perceptive articles, mainly for specialist film magazines, on such of her colleagues and contemporaries as Garbo, Dietrich, Keaton, Chaplin, Bogart, Fields, Lillian Gish, ZaSu Pitts, and (naturally) Pabst. Armed with this information, I wrote her a belated fan letter, to which she promptly replied. We then struck up a correspondence, conducted on her side in a bold and expressive prose style. (It matched her handwriting.) Rapport was cemented by telephone calls, which resulted in my visit to Rochester and the date I was now keeping.
She has not left her apartment since 1960, except for a few trips to the dentist and one to a doctor. (She mistrusts the medical profession, and this consultation, which took place in 1976, was her first in thirty-two years.) "You're doing a terrible thing to me," she said as she ushered me in. "I've been killing myself off for twenty years, and you're going to bring me back to life." She lives in two rooms - modest, spotless, and austerely furnished. From the larger, I remember Venetian blinds, a green sofa, a TV set, a Formica-topped table, a tiny kitchenette alcove, and fleshpink walls sparsely hung with paintings redolent of the twenties. The other room was too small to hold more than a bed (single), a built-in cupboard bursting with press clippings and other souvenirs, a chest of drawers surmounted by a crucifix and a statue of the Virgin, and a stool piled high with books, including works by Proust, Schopenhauer, Ruskin, Ortega y Gasset, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Wilson, and many living authors of serious note. I'm probably one of the best-read idiots in the world," my hostess said as she haltingly showed me round her domain. Although she eats little (she turns the scale at about eighty-eight pounds), she had prepared for us a perfectly mountainous omelette. Nerves, however, had robbed us of our appetites, and we barely disturbed its mighty silhouette. I produced from my briefcase a bottle of expensive red Burgundy that I had brought as a gift. (Brooks, who used to drink quite heftily, nowadays touches alcohol only on special occasions.) Since she cannot sit upright for long without discomfort, we retired with the wine to her bedroom, where she reclined, sipped, and talked, gesturing fluently, her fingers supple and unclenched. I pulled a chair up to the bedside and listened.
Her voice has the range of a dozen birdcalls, from the cry of a peacock to the fluting of a dove. Her articulation, at whatever speed, is impeccable, and her laughter soars like a kite. I cannot understand why, even if she had not been a beauty, Hollywood failed to realize what a treasure it possessed in the sound of Louise Brooks. Like most people who speak memorably, she is highly responsive to vocal nuances in others. She told Kevin Brownlow that her favorite actress ("the person I would be if I could be anyone") was Margaret Sullavan, mainly because of her voice, which Brooks described as "exquisite and far away, almost like an echo," and, again, as "strange, fey, mysterious-like a voice singing in the snow."
My conversations with the Ravishing Hermit of Rochester were spread over several days; for the sake of convenience, I have here compressed them into one session.
She began, at my urging, by skimming through the story of her life since she last faced the Hollywood cameras: "Why did I give up the movies? I could give you seven hundred reasons, all of them true. After I made that picture with John Wayne in 1938, I stayed out on the Coast for two years, but the only people who wanted to see me were men who wanted to sleep with me. Then Walter Wanger warned me that if I hung around any longer I'd become a call girl. So I fled to Wichita, Kansas, where my family had moved in 1919. But that turned out to be another kind of hell. The citizens of Wichita either resented me for having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn't exactly enchanted with them. I opened a dance studio for young people, who loved me, because I dramatized everything so much, but it didn't make any money. In 1943,1 drifted back to New York and worked for six months in radio soaps. Then I quit, for another hundred reasons, including Wounded Pride of Former Star. [Peal of laughter. Here, as throughout our chat, Brooks betrayed not the slightest trace of self-pity.] During '44 and '45, I got a couple of jobs in publicity agencies, collecting items for Winchell's column. I was fired from both of them, and I had to move from the decent little hotel where I'd been living to a grubby hole on First Avenue at Fifty-ninth Street. That was when I began to flirt with fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills. However, I changed my mind, and in July 1946, the proud, snooty Louise Brooks started work as a salesgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue. They paid me forty dollars a week. I had this silly idea of proving myself 'an honest woman,' but the only effect it had was to disgust all my famous New York friends, who cut me off forever. From then on, I was regarded as a questionable East Side dame. After two years at Saks, I resigned. To earn a little money, I sat down and wrote the usual autobiography. I called it 'Naked on My Goat,' which is a quote from Goethe's Faust. In one of the Walpurgisnacht scenes, a young witch is bragging about her looks to an old one. 'I sit here naked on my goat,' she says, 'and show my fine young body.' But the old one advises her to wait awhile: 'Though young and tender now, you'll rot, we know, you'll rot.' Then, when I read what I'd written, I threw the whole thing down the incinerator."
Brooks insists that her motive for this act of destruction was pudeur. In 1977, she wrote an article for Focus on Film headed "Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs," in which she summed herself up as a prototypical Midwesterner, "born in the Bible Belt of Anglo-Saxon farmers, who prayed in the parlor and practiced incest in the barn." Although her sexual education had been conducted in Paris, London, Berlin, and New York, her pleasure was, she wrote, "restricted by the inbred shackles of sin and guilt." Her conclusion was as follows:
In writing the history of a life I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject unless he is given a basic understanding of that person's sexual loves and hates and conflicts. It is the only way the reader can make sense out of innumerable apparently senseless actions. . . . We flatter ourselves when we assume that we have restored the sexual integrity which was expurgated by the Victorians. It is true that many exposes are written to shock, to excite, to make money. But in serious books characters remain as baffling, as unknowable as ever. ... I too am unwilling to write the sexual truth that would make my life worth reading. I cannot unbuckle the Bible Belt.
Accepting a drop more wine, she continued the tale of her wilderness years. "Between 1948 and 1953, I suppose you could call me a kept woman," she said. "Three decent rich men looked after me. But then I was always a kept woman. Even when I was making a thousand dollars a week, I would always be paid for by George Marshall or someone like that. But I never had anything to show for it - no cash, no trinkets, nothing. I didn't even like jewelry - can you imagine? Pabst once called me a born whore, but if he was right I was a failure, with no pile of money and no comfortable mansion. I just wasn't equipped to spoil millionaires in a practical, farsighted way. I could live in the present, but otherwise everything has always been a hundred percent wrong about me. Anyway, the three decent men took care of me. One of them owned a sheet-metal manufacturing company, and the result of that affair is that I am now the owner of the only handmade aluminum wastebasket in the world. He designed it, and it's in the living room, my solitary trophy. Then a time came, early in 1953, when my three men independently decided that they wanted to marry me. I had to escape, because I wasn't in love with them. As a matter of fact, I've never been in love. And if I had loved a man, could I have been faithful to him? Could he have trusted me beyond a closed door? I doubt it. It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu."
Brooks hesitated for a moment and then went on in the same tone, lightly self-mocking, "Maybe I should have been a writer's moll. Because when we were talking on the phone, a few Sundays ago, some secret compartment inside me burst, and I was suddenly overpowered by the feeling of love - a sensation I'd never experienced with any other man. Are you a variation of Jack the Ripper, who finally brings me love that I'm prevented from accepting - not by the knife but by old age? You're a perfect scoundrel, turning up like this and wrecking my golden years! [I was too stunned to offer any comment on this, but not too stunned to note, with a distinct glow of pride, that Brooks was completely sober.] Anyhow, to get back to my three suitors, I decided that the only way to avoid marriage was to become a Catholic, so that I could tell them that in the eyes of the church I was still married to Eddie Sutherland. I went to the rectory of a Catholic church on the East Side, and everything was fine until my sweet, pure religious instructor fell in love with me. I was the first woman he'd ever known who acted like one and treated him like a man. The other priests were furious. They sent him off to California and replaced him with a stern young missionary. After a while, however, even he began to hint that it would be a good idea if he dropped by my apartment in the evenings to give me special instruction. But I resisted temptation, and in September 1953, I was baptized a Catholic."
Having paused to light a cigarette, which provoked a mild coughing spasm, Brooks resumed her story. "I almost forgot a strange incident that happened in 1952. Out of the blue, I got a letter from a woman who had been a Cherryvale neighbor of ours. She enclosed some snapshots. One of them showed a nice-looking gray-haired man of about fifty, holding the hand of a little girl - me. On the back she'd written, 'This is Mr. Feathers, an old bachelor who loved kids. He was always taking you to the picture show and buying you toys and candy.' That picture brought back something I'd blacked out of my mind for - what? - thirty-seven years. When I was nine years old, Mr. Feathers molested me sexually. Which forged another link between me and Lulu: when she had her first lover, she was very young, and Schigolch, the man in question, was middle-aged. I've often wondered what effect Mr. Feathers had on my life. He must have had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure. For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough - there had to be an element of domination - and I'm sure that's all tied up with Mr. Feathers. The pleasure of kissing and being kissed comes from somewhere entirely different, psychologically as well as physically. Incidentally, I told my mother about Mr. Feathers, and - would you believe it? [Peal of laughter.] She blamed me! She said I must have led him on. It's always the same, isn't it?" And Brooks ran on in this vein, discussing her sex life openly and jauntily, unbuckling one more notch of the Bible Belt with every sentence she uttered.
The year 1954 was Brooks's nadir. "I was too proud to be a call girl. There was no point in throwing myself into the East River, because I could swim; and I couldn't afford the alternative, which was sleeping pills." In 1955, just perceptibly, things began to look up, and life became once more a tolerable option. Henri Langlois, the exuberant ruler of the Cinémathèque Francaise, organized in Paris a huge exhibition entitled Sixty Years of Cinema. Dominating the entrance hall of the Musée d'Art Moderne were two gigantic blowups, one of the French actress Falconetti in Carl Dreyer's 1928 classic La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, and the other of Brooks in Pandora's Box. When a critic demanded to know why he had preferred this nonentity to authentic stars like Garbo and Dietrich, Langlois exploded, "There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" In the same year, a group of her friends from the twenties clubbed together to provide a small annuity that would keep her from outright destitution; and she was visited in her Manhattan retreat by James Card, then the curator of film at Eastman House. He had long admired her movies, and he persuaded her to come to Rochester, where so much of her best work was preserved. It was at his suggestion that, in 1956, she settled there.
"Rochester seemed as good a place as any," she told me. "It was cheaper than New York, and I didn't run the risk of meeting people from my past. Up to that time, I had never seen any of my films. And I still haven't - not right through, that is. Jimmy Card screened some of them for me, but that was during my drinking period. I would watch through glazed eyes for about five minutes and sleep through the rest. I haven't even seen Pandora. I've been present on two occasions when it was being run, but I was drunk both times. By that I mean I was navigating but not seeing." When she watched other people's movies, however, she felt no need for alcoholic sedation. As a working actress, she had never taken films seriously; under Card's tuition, she recognized that the cinema was a valid form of art, and began to develop her own theories about it. In 1956, drawing on her powers of near-total recall, she wrote a study of Pabst for Image. This was the first of a sheaf of articles, sharp-eyed and idiosyncratic, that she has contributed over the years to such magazines as Sight & Sound (London), Objectif (Montreal), Film Culture (New York), and Positif (Paris).
The Brooks cult burgeoned in 1957, when Henri Langlois crossed the Atlantic to meet her. A year later, he presented "Hommage à Louise Brooks," a festival of her movies that filled the Cinémathèque. The star herself flew to Paris, all expenses paid, and was greeted with wild acclaim at a reception after the Cinémathèque's showing of Pandora's Box. (Among those present was Jean-Luc Godard, who paid his own tribute to Brooks in 1962, when he directed Vivre Sa Vie, the heroine of which - a prostitute - was played by Anna Karina in an exact replica of the Brooks hairdo. Godard described the character as "a young and pretty Parisian shopgirl who gives her body but retains her soul.") In January 1960, Brooks went to New York and attended a screening of Prix de Beauté in the Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92nd Street Y, where she made a hilarious little speech that delighted the packed audience. The next day, she returned to Rochester, from which she has never since emerged.
Interviewers and fans occasionally call on her, but for the most part, as she put it to me, "I have lived in virtual isolation, with an audience consisting of the milkman and a cleaning woman." She continued, "Once a week, I would drink a pint of gin, and would become what Dickens called 'gincoherent,' go to sleep, and drowse for four days. That left three days to read, write a bit, and see the odd visitor. No priests, by the way - I said goodbye to the church in 1964. Now and then, there would be a letter to answer. In 1965, for instance, an Italian artist named Guido Crepax started a very sexy and tremendously popular comic strip about a girl called Valentina, who looked exactly like me as Lulu. In fact, she identified herself with me. Crepax wrote to thank me for the inspiration and said he regarded me as a twentieth-century myth. I appreciated the tribute and told him that at last I felt I could disintegrate happily in bed with my books, gin, cigarettes, coffee, bread, cheese, and apricot jam. During the sixties, arthritis started to get a grip, and in 1972 I had to buy a medical cane in order to move around. Then, five years ago, the disease really walloped me. My pioneer blood did not pulse through my veins, rousing me to fight it. I collapsed. I took a terrible fall and nearly smashed my hip. That was the end of the booze or any other kind of escape for me. I knew I was in for a bad time, with nothing to face but the absolute meaninglessness of my life. All I've done since then is try to hold the pieces together. And to keep my little squirrel-cage brain distracted."
As an emblematic figure of the twenties, epitomizing the flappers, jazz babies, and dancing daughters of the boom years, Brooks has few rivals, living or dead. Moreover, she is unique among such figures in that her career took her to all the places - New York, London, Hollywood, Paris, and Berlin - where the action was at its height, where experiments in pleasure were conducted with the same zeal (and often by the same people) as experiments in the arts. From her bedroom cupboard Brooks produced an avalanche of manila envelopes, each bulging with mementoes of her halcyon decade. This solitary autodidact, her perceptions deepened by years of immersion in books, looked back for my benefit on the green, gregarious girl she once was, and found much to amuse her. For every photograph she supplied a spoken caption. As she reminisced, I often thought of those Max Beerbohm cartoons that depict the Old Self conversing with the Young Self.
"Here I am in 1922, when I first hit New York, and the label of 'beautiful but dumb' was slapped on me forever. Most beautiful-but-dumb girls think they are smart, and get away with it, because other people, on the whole, aren't much smarter. You can see modern equivalents of those girls on any TV talk show. But there's also a very small group of beautiful women who know they're dumb, and this makes them defenseless and vulnerable. They become the Big Joke. I didn't know Marilyn Monroe, but I'm sure that her agonizing awareness of her own stupidity was one of the things that killed her. I became the Big Joke, first on Broadway and then in Hollywood. . . . That's Herman Mankiewicz - an ideal talk-show guest, don't you think, born before his time? In 1925, Herman was trying to educate me, and he invented the Louise Brooks Literary Society. A girl named Dorothy Knapp and I were Ziegfeld's two prize beauties. We had a big dressing room on the fifth floor of the New Amsterdam Theatre building, and people like Walter Wanger and Gilbert Miller would meet there, ostensibly to hear my reviews of books that Herman gave me to read. What they actually came for was to watch Dorothy doing a striptease in front of a full-length mirror. I get some consolation from the fact that, as an idiot, I have provided delight in my time to a very select group of intellectuals. . . . That must be Joseph Schenck. Acting on behalf of his brother Nick, who controlled M-G-M, Joe offered me a contract in 1925 at three hundred a week. Instead, I went to Paramount for two hundred and fifty. Maybe I should have signed with M-G-M and joined what I called the Joe Schenck Mink Club. You could recognize the members at '21' because they never removed their mink coats at lunch. . . . Here's Fritzi La Verne, smothered in osprey feathers. I roomed with her briefly when we were in the Follies together, and she seduced more Follies girls than Ziegfeld and William Randolph Hearst combined. That's how I got the reputation of being a lesbian. I had nothing against it in principle, and for years I thought it was fun to encourage the idea. I used to hold hands with Fritzi in public. She had a little Bulgarian boyfriend who was just our height, and we would get into his suits and camp all over New York. Even when I moved out to Yahoo City, California, I could never stop by a lesbian household without being asked to strip and join the happy group baring their operation scars in the sun. But I only loved men's bodies. What maddens me is that because of the lesbian scenes with Alice Roberts in Pandora I shall probably go down in history as one of the gloomy dykes. A friend of mine once said to me, 'Louise Brooks, you're not a lesbian, you're a pansy.' Would you care to decipher that? By the way, are you getting tired of hearing my name? I'm thinking of changing it. I noticed that there were five people called Brooks in last week's Variety. How about June Caprice? Or Louise Lovely?"
I shook my head.
Brooks continued riffling through her collection. "This, of course, is Martha Graham, whose genius I absorbed to the bone during the years we danced together on tour. She had rages, you know, that struck like lightning out of nowhere. One evening when we were waiting to go onstage - I was sixteen - she grabbed me, shook me ferociously, and shouted, 'Why do you ruin your feet by wearing those tight shoes?' Another time, she was sitting sweetly at the makeup shelf pinning flowers in her hair when she suddenly seized a bottle of body makeup and exploded it against the mirror. She looked at the shattered remains for a spell, then moved her makeup along to an unbroken mirror and went on quietly pinning flowers in her hair. Reminds me of the night when Buster Keaton drove me in his roadster out to Culver City, where he had a bungalow on the back lot of M-G-M. The walls of the living room were covered with great glass bookcases. Buster, who wasn't drunk, opened the door, turned on the lights, and picked up a baseball bat. Then, walking calmly round the room, he smashed every pane of glass in every bookcase. Such frustration in that little body!'. . . . Here, inevitably, are Scott and Zelda. I met them in January 1927, at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. They were sitting close together on a sofa, like a comedy team, and the first thing that struck me was how small they were. 1 had come to see the genius writer, but what dominated the room was the blazing intelligence of Zelda's profile. It shocked me. It was the profile of a witch. Incidentally, I've been reading Scott's letters, and I've spotted a curious thing about them. In the early days, before Hemingway was famous, Scott always spelled his name wrong, with two 'm's. And when did he start to spell it right? At the precise moment when Hemingway became a bigger star than he was. . . . This is a pool party at somebody's house in Malibu. I know I knock the studio system, but if you were to ask me what it was like to live in Hollywood in the twenties I'd have to say that we were all - oh! - marvelously degenerate and happy. We were a world of our own, and outsiders didn't intrude. People tell you that the reason a lot of actors left Hollywood when sound came in was that their voices were wrong for talkies. That's the official story. The truth is that the coming of sound meant the end of the all-night parties. With talkies, you couldn't stay out till sunrise anymore. You had to rush back from the studios and start learning your lines, ready for the next day's shooting at 8 A.M. That was when the studio machine really took over. It controlled you, mind and body, from the moment you were yanked out of bed at dawn until the publicity department put you back to bed at night."
Brooks paused, silently contemplating revels that ended half a century ago, and then went on. "Talking about bed, here's Tallulah - although I always guessed that she wasn't as keen on bed as everyone thought. And my record for guessing things like that was pretty good. I watched her getting ready for a meeting with a plutocratic boyfriend of hers at the Elysée Hotel. She forgot to wear the emerald ring he'd given her a few days before, but she didn't forget the script of the play she wanted him to produce for her. Her preparations weren't scheming or whorish. Just businesslike. . . . This is a bunch of the guests at Mr. Hearst's ranch, sometime in 1928. The girl with the dark hair and the big smile is Pepi Lederer, one of my dearest friends. She was Marion Davies's niece and the sister of Charlie Lederer, the screenwriter, and she was only seventeen when that picture was taken. My first husband, Eddie Sutherland, used to say that for people who didn't worship opulence, weren't crazy about meeting celebrities, or didn't need money or advancement from Mr. Hearst, San Simeon was a deadly dull place. I suppose he was right. But when Pepi was there it was always fun. She created a world of excitement and inspiration wherever she went. And I never entered that great dining hall without a shiver of delight. There were medieval banners from Siena floating overhead and a vast Gothic fireplace, and a long refectory table seating forty. Marion and Mr. Hearst sat with the important guests at the middle of the table. Down at the bottom, Pepi ruled over a group - including me - that she called the Younger Degenerates, and that's where the laughter was. Although Mr. Hearst disapproved of booze, Pepi had made friends with one of the waiters, and we got all the champagne we wanted. She could have been a gifted writer, and for a while she worked for Mr. Hearst's deluxe quarterly The Connoisseur, but, it was only a courtesy job. Nobody took her seriously, she never learned discipline, and drink and drugs got her in the end. In 1935, she died by jumping out of a window in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Los Angeles. She was twenty-five years old. Not long ago, I came across her name in the index of a book on Marion Davies, and it broke my heart. Then I remembered a quotation from Goethe that I'd once typed out. I've written it under the photo: 'For a person remains of consequence not so far as he leaves something behind him but so far as he acts and enjoys, and rouses others to action and enjoyment.' That was Pepi."
Of all the names that spilled out of Brooks's memories of America in the twenties, there was one for which she reserved a special veneration: that of Chaplin. In an article for the magazine Film Culture, she had described his performances at private parties:
He recalled his youth with comic pantomimes. He acted out countless scenes for countless films. And he did imitations of everybody. Isadora Duncan danced in a storm of toilet paper. John Barrymore picked his nose and brooded over Hamlet's soliloquy. A Follies girl swished across the room and I began to cry while Charlie denied absolutely that he was imitating me. Nevertheless ... I determined to abandon that silly walk forthwith.
For me, she filled out the picture. "I was eighteen in 1925, when Chaplin came to New York for the opening of The Gold Rush. He was just twice my age, and I had an affair with him for two happy summer months. Ever since he died, my mind has gone back fifty years, trying to define that lovely being from another world. He was not only the creator of the Little Fellow, though that was miracle enough. He was a self-made aristocrat. He taught himself to speak cultivated English, and he kept a dictionary in the bathroom at his hotel so that he could learn a new word every morning. While he dressed, he prepared his script for the day, which was intended to adorn his private portrait of himself as a perfect English gentleman. He was also a sophisticated lover, who had affairs with Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Marion Davies and Pola Negri, and he was a brilliant businessman, who owned his films and demanded fifty percent of the gross - which drove Joe Schenck wild, along with all the other people who were plotting to rob him. Do you know, I can't once remember him still? He was always standing up as he sat down, and going out as he came in. Except when he turned off the lights and went to sleep, without liquor or pills, like a child. Meaning to be bitchy, Herman Mankiewicz said, 'People never sat at his feet. He went to where people were sitting and stood in front of them.' But how we paid attention! We were hypnotized by the beauty and inexhaustible originality of this glistening creature. He's the only genius I ever knew who spread himself equally over his art and his life. He loved showing off in fine clothes and elegant phrases - even in the witness box. When Lita Grey divorced him, she put about vile rumors that he had a depraved passion for little girls. He didn't give a damn, even though people said his career would be wrecked. It still infuriates me that he never defended himself against any of those ugly lies, but the truth is that he existed on a plane above pride, jealousy, or hate. I never heard him say a snide thing about anyone. He lived totally without fear. He knew that Lita Grey and her family were living in his house in Beverly Hills, planning to ruin him, yet he was radiantly carefree - happy with the success of The Gold Rush and with the admirers who swarmed around him. Not that he exacted adoration. Even during our affair, he knew that I didn't adore him in the romantic sense, and he didn't mind at all. Which brings me to one of the dirtiest lies he allowed to be told about him: that he was mean with money. People forget that Chaplin was the only star ever to keep his ex-leading lady [Edna Purviance] on his payroll for life, and the only producer to pay his employees their full salaries even when he wasn't in production. When our joyful summer ended, he didn't give me a fur from Jaeckel or a bangle from Cartier, so that I could flash them around, saying, 'Look what I got from Chaplin.' The day after he left town, I got a nice check in the mail, signed Charlie. And then I didn't even write him a thank-you note. Damn me."
Brooks's souvenirs of Europe, later in the twenties, began with pictures of a burly, handsome, dark-haired man, usually alighting from a train: George Preston Marshall, the millionaire who was her frequent bedfellow and constant adviser between 1927 and 1933. "If you care about Pandora's Box, you should be grateful to George Marshall," she told me. "I'd never heard of Mr. Pabst when he offered me the part. It was George who insisted that I should accept it. He was passionately fond of the theater and films, and he slept with every pretty show-business girl he could find, including all my best friends. George took me to Berlin with his English valet, who stepped off the train blind drunk and fell flat on his face at Mr. Pabst's feet."
The Brooks collection contains no keepsakes of the actress whom she pipped at the post in the race to play Lulu, and of whom, when I raised the subject, she spoke less than charitably. "Dietrich? That contraption! She was one of the beautiful-but-dumb girls, like me, but she belonged to the category of those who thought they were smart and fooled other people into believing it. But I guess I'm just being insanely jealous, because I know she's a friend of yours - isn't she?" By way of making amends, she praised Dietrich's performance as Lola in The Blue Angel, and then, struck by a sudden thought, interrupted herself: "Hey! Why don't I ask Marlene to come over from Paris? We could work on our memoirs together. Better still, she could write mine, and I hers - 'Lulu' by Lola, and 'Lola' by Lulu."
To put it politely, however, Dietrich does not correspond to Brooks's ideal image of a movie goddess. But who does - apart from Margaret Sullavan, whose voice, as we know, she reveres? A few months after our Rochester encounter, she sent me a letter that disclosed another, unexpected object of her admiration. In it she said:
I've just been listening to Toronto radio. There was a press conference with Ava Gardner, who is making a movie in Montreal. Her beauty has never excited me, and I have seen only one of her films, The Night of the Iguana, in which she played a passive role that revealed her power of stillness but little else. On radio, sitting in a hotel room, triggered by all the old stock questions, she said nothing new or stirring - just "Sinatra could be very nice or very rotten - get me another drink, baby - I made fifty-four pictures and the only part I understood was in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. ..." In her conversation, there was nothing about great acting or beauty or sex, and no trace of philosophical or intellectual concern. Yet for the first time in my life I was proud of being a movie actress, unmixed with theater art. Ava is in essence what I think a movie star should be: a beautiful person with a unique, mysterious personality unpolluted by Hollywood. And she is so strong. She did not have to run away (like Garbo) to keep from being turned into a product of the machine. . . . What I should like to know is whether, as I sometimes fancy, I ever had a glimmer of that quality of integrity which makes Ava shine with her own light.
The next picture out of the manila envelopes showed Brooks, inscrutable and somewhat forlorn in a sequined evening gown, sitting at a table surrounded by men with pencil-thin mustaches who were wearing tuxedos, black ties, and wing collars. These men were all jabbering into telephones and laughing maniacally. None of them were looking at Brooks. Behind them I could make out oak-paneled walls and an out-of-focus waiter with a fish-eyed stare and a strong resemblance to Louis Jouvet. "You know where that was taken, of course," Brooks said.
I was sorry, but I didn't.
"That's Joe Zelli's!" she cried. "Zelli's was the most famous nightclub in Paris. I can't remember all the men's names, but the one on the extreme right used to drink ether. The one on my left was half Swedish and half English. I lived with him in several hotels. Although he was very young, he had snow-white hair, so we always called him the Eskimo. The fellow next to him, poor guy, was killed the very next day. He was cut to pieces by a speedboat propeller at Cannes."
Whenever I think of the twenties, I shall see that flashlit hysterical tableau at Zelli's and the unsmiling seraph at the center of it.
From the fattest of all her files, Brooks now pulled out a two-shot. Beaming in a cloche hat, she stands arm in arm with a stocky, self-possessed man in a homburg. He also wears steel-rimmed glasses, a bow tie, and a well-cut business suit; you would guess he was in his early forties. "Mr. Pabst," she said simply. "That was 1928, in Berlin, while we were making Pandora's Box. As I told you, I arrived with George Marshall, and Mr. Pabst hated him, because he kept me up all night, going round the clubs. A few weeks later, George went back to the States, and after that Mr. Pabst locked me up in my hotel when the day's shooting was finished. Everyone thought he was in love with me. On the rare evenings when I went to his apartment for dinner, his wife, Trudi, would walk out and bang the door. Mr. Pabst was a highly respectable man, but he had the most extraordinary collection of obscene stills in the world. He even had one of Sarah Bernhardt nude with a black-lace fan. Did you know that in the twenties it was the custom for European actresses to send naked pictures of themselves to movie directors? He had all of them. Anyway, I didn't have an affair with him in Berlin. In 1929, though, when he was in Paris trying to set up Prix de Beauté, we went out to dinner at a restaurant and I behaved rather outrageously. For some reason, I slapped a close friend of mine across the face with a bouquet of roses. Mr. Pabst was horrified. He hustled me out of the place and took me back to my hotel, where - what do I do? I'm in a terrific mood, so I decide to banish his disgust by giving the best sexual performance of my career. I jump into the hay and deliver myself to him body and soul. [Her voice is jubilant.] He acted as if he'd never experienced such a thing in his life. You know how men want to pin medals on themselves when they excite you? They get positively radiant. Next morning, Mr. Pabst was so pleased he couldn't see straight. That was why he postponed Prix de Beauté and arranged to make The Diary of a Lost Girl first. He wanted the affair to continue. But I didn't, and when I got to Berlin it was like Pandora's Box all over again, except that this time the man I brought with me was the Eskimo - my white-headed boy from Zelli's."
Brooks laughed softly, recalling the scene. "Mr. Pabst was there at the station to meet me. He was appalled when I got off the train with the Eskimo. On top of that, I had a wart on my neck, and Esky had just slammed the compartment door on my finger. Mr. Pabst took one stark look at me, told me I had to start work the next morning, and dragged me away to a doctor, who burned off the wart. If you study the early sequences of Lost Girl, you can see the sticking plaster on my neck. I hated to hurt Mr. Pabst's feelings with the Eskimo, but I simply could not bring myself to repeat that one and only night. The irony, which Mr. Pabst never knew, was that although Esky and I shared a hotel suite in Berlin, we didn't sleep together until much later, when Lost Girl was finished and we were spending a few days in Paris. 'Eskimo,' I said to him the evening before we parted, 'this is the night.' And it was - another first and last for Brooks."
More fragments of Brooksiana:
I: Do you think there are countries that produce particularly good lovers?
BROOKS: Englishmen are the best. And priest-ridden Irishmen are the worst.
I: What are your favorite films?
BROOKS: An American in Paris, Pygmalion, and The Wizard of Oz. Please don't be disappointed.
I: They're all visions of wish fulfillment. An American at large with a gamine young dancer in a fantasy playground called Paris. A Cockney flower girl who becomes the toast of upper-class London. And a child from your home state who discovers, at the end of a trip to a magic world, that happiness was where she started out.
BROOKS: You are disappointed.
I: Not a bit. They're first-rate movies, and they're all aspects of you.
Postscript from a letter Brooks wrote to me before we met: "Can you give me a reason for sitting here in this bed, going crazy, with not one god-damned excuse for living?" I came up with more than one reason; viz., (a) to receive the homage of those who cherish the images she has left on celluloid; (b) to bestow the pleasure of her conversation on those who seek her company; (c) to appease her hunger for gleaning wisdom from books; and (d) to test the truth of a remark she had made to a friend: "The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once said, 'We are all lost creatures.' It is only when we admit this that we have a chance of finding ourselves."
Despite the numerous men who have crossed the trajectory of her life, Brooks has pursued her own course. She has flown solo. The price to be paid for such individual autonomy is, inevitably, loneliness, and her loneliness is prefigured in one of the most penetrating comments she has ever committed to print: "The great art of films does not consist in descriptive movement of face and body, but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation."
As I rose to leave her apartment, she gave me a present: a large and handsome volume entitled Louise Brooks - Portrait d'une Anti-Star. Published in Paris in 1977, it contained a full pictorial survey of her career, together with essays, critiques, and poems devoted to her beauty and talent. She inscribed it to me, and copied out, beneath her signature, the epitaph she has composed for herself: "I never gave away anything without wishing I had kept it; nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away." The book included an account by Brooks of her family background, which I paused to read. It ended with this paragraph, here reproduced from her original English text:
Over the years I suffered poverty and rejection and came to believe that my mother had formed me for a freedom that was unattainable, a delusion. Then ... I was . . . confined to this small apartment in this alien city of Rochester. . . . Looking about, I saw millions of old people in my situation, wailing like lost puppies because they were alone and had no one to talk to. But they had become enslaved by habits which bound their lives to warm bodies that talked. I was free! Although my mother had ceased to be a warm body in 1944, she had not forsaken me. She comforts me with every book I read. Once again I am five, leaning on her shoulder, learning the words as she reads aloud Alice in Wonderland.
She insisted on getting out of bed to escort me to the door. We had been talking earlier of Proust, and she had mentioned his maxim that the future could never be predicted from the past. Out of her past, I thought, in all its bizarre variety, who knows what future she may invent? "Another thing about Proust," she said, resting on her cane in the doorway. "No matter how he dresses his characters up in their social disguises, we always know how they look naked." As we know it, I reflected, in Brooks's performances. I kissed her goodbye, buttoned up my social disguise-for it was a chilly evening-and joined the other dressed-up people on the streets of Rochester.
© 1979 Kenneth Tynan Estate. Any unauthorized use, copying or distribution is strictly prohibited.
This article originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1978.
This text taken from: Show People: Profiles in Entertainment by Kenneth Tynan, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980
© 1979 Kenneth Tynan Estate.
July 14, 1977: There is a dinner party tonight at the Beverly Hills home of Irving Lazar, doyen of agents and agent of doyens. The host is a diminutive potentate, as bald as a doorknob, who was likened by the late screenwriter Harry Kurnitz to “a very expensive rubber beach toy.” He has represented many of the top-grossing movie directors and best-selling novelists of the past four decades, not always with their prior knowledge, since speed is of the essence in such transactions; and Lazar’s flair for fleet-footed deal-clinching—sometimes on behalf of people who had never met him—has earned him the nickname of Swifty. On this occasion, at his behest and that of his wife, Mary (a sleek and catlike sorceress, deceptively demure, who could pass for her husband’s ward), some fifty friends have gathered to mourn the departure of Fred de Cordova, who has been the producer of NBC’s “Tonight Show” since 1970; he is about to leave for Europe on two weeks’ vacation. A flimsy pretext, you may think, for a wingding; but, according to Beverly Hills protocol, anyone who quits the state of California for more than a long weekend qualifies for a farewell party, unless he is going to Las Vegas or New York, each of which counts as a colonial suburb of Los Angeles. Most of the Lazars’ guests tonight are theatre and/or movie people; e.g., Elizabeth Ashley, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck, Sammy Cahn, Ray Stark, Richard Brooks. And even Fred de Cordova spent twenty years working for the Shuberts, Warner Brothers, and Universal before he moved into television. The senior media still take social precedence in the upper and elder reaches of these costly hills.
One of the rare exceptions to this rule is the male latecomer who now enters, lean and dapper in an indigo blazer, white slacks, and a pale-blue open-necked shirt. Apart from two months in the late nineteen-fifties (when he replaced Tom Ewell in a Broadway comedy called “The Tunnel of Love”), Johnny Carson has never been seen on the legitimate stage; and, despite a multitude of offers, he has yet to appear in his first film. He does not, in fact, much like appearing anywhere except (a) in the audience at the Wimbledon tennis championships, which he and his wife recently attended, (b) at his home in Bel Air, and (c) before the NBC cameras in Burbank, which act on him like an addictive and galvanic drug. Just how the drug works is not known to science, but its effect is witnessed—ninety minutes per night, four nights per week, thirty-seven weeks per year—by upward of fourteen million viewers; and it provoked the actor Robert Blake, while he was being interviewed by Carson on the “Tonight Show” in 1976, to describe him with honest adulation as “the ace comedian top-dog talk artist of the universe.” I once asked a bright young Manhattan journalist whether he could define in a single word what made television different from theatre or cinema. “For good or ill,” he said, “Carson.”
This pure and archetypal product of the box shuns large parties. Invitations from the Lazars are among the few he accepts. Tonight, he arrives alone (his wife, Joanna, has stopped off in New York for a few days’ shopping), greets his host with the familiar smile, cordially wry, and scans the assembly, his eyes twinkling like icicles. Hard to believe, despite the pewter-colored hair, that he is fifty-one: he holds himself like the midshipman he once was, chin well tucked in, back as straight as a poker. (Carson claims to be five feet ten and a half inches in height. His pedantic insistence on that extra half inch betokens a man who suspects he looks small.) In repose, he resembles a king-sized ventriloquist’s dummy. After winking impassively at de Cordova, he threads his way across the crowded living room and out through the ceiling-high sliding windows to the deserted swimming pool. Heads discreetly turn. Even in this posh peer group, Carson has cynosure status. Arms folded, he surveys Los Angeles by night—”glittering jewel of the Southland, gossamer web of loveliness,” as Abe Burrows ironically called it. A waiter brings him a soft drink. “He looks like Gatsby,” a young actress whispers to me. On the face of it, this is nonsense. Fitzgerald’s hero suffers from star-crossed love, his wealth has criminal origins, and he loves to give flamboyant parties. But the simile is not without elements of truth. Gatsby, like Carson, is a Midwesterner, a self-made millionaire, and a habitual loner, armored against all attempts to invade his emotional privacy. “He had come a long way to this blue lawn,” Fitzgerald wrote of Gatsby—as far as Carson has come to these blue pools, from which steam rises on even the warmest nights. “He doesn’t drink now.” I turn to find Lazar beside me, also peeking at the man outside. He continues, “But I remember Johnny when he was a blackout drunk.” That was before the “Tonight Show” moved from New York to Los Angeles, in 1972. “A couple of drinks was all it took. He could get very hostile.” I point out to Lazar that Carson’s family tree has deep Irish roots on the maternal side. Was there something atavistic in his drinking? Or am I glibly casting him as an ethnic (“black Irish”) stereotype? At all events, I now begin to see in him—still immobile by the pool—the lineaments of a magnified leprechaun. “Like a lot of people in our business,” Lazar goes on, “he’s a mixture of extreme ego and extreme cowardice.” In Lazar’s lexicon, a coward is one who turns down starring roles suggested to him by Lazar. Since Carson already does what nobody has ever done better, I reply, why should he risk his reputation by plunging into movies or TV specials? Lazar concedes that I may be right. “But I’ll tell you something else about him,’’ he says, with italicized wonder. “He’s celibate.” He means “chaste.” “In his position, he could have all the girls he wants. It wouldn’t be difficult. But he never cheats.” It is thirty minutes later. Carson is sitting at a table by the pool, where four or five people have joined him. He chats with impersonal affability, making no effort to dominate, charm, or amuse. I recall something that George Axelrod, the dramatist and screenwriter, once said to me about him: “Socially, he doesn’t exist. The reason is that there are no television cameras in living rooms. If human beings had little-red lights in the middle of their foreheads, Carson would be the greatest conversationalist on earth.” One of the guests is a girl whose hobby is numerology. Taking Carson as her subject, she works out a series of arcane sums and then offers her interpretation of his character. “You are an enormously mercurial person,” she says, “who swings between very high highs and very low lows.” His eyebrows rise, the corners of his lips turn down: this is the mock-affronted expression he presents to the camera when a baby armadillo from some local zoo declines to respond to his caresses. “This girl is great,” he says to de Cordova. “She makes me sound like a cross between Spring Byington and Adolf Hitler.” Before long, he parts as unobtrusively as he came. Meeting him a few days afterward, I inquire what he thought of the party. He half grins, half winces. “Torturous?” he says. Within a month, however, I note that he is back in the same torture chamber. Characteristically, although he is surrounded by the likes of Jack Lemmon, Roger Vadim, Michael Caine, James Stewart, and Gene Kelly, he spends most of the evening locked in NBC shoptalk with Fred de Cordova. De Cordova has just returned from his European safari, which has taken him through four countries in half as many weeks. The high point of the trip, de Cordova tells me, was a visit to Munich, where his old friend Billy Wilder was making a film. This brings to mind a recent conversation I had with Wilder in this very living room. He is a master of acerbic put-downs who has little time for TV pseudostars, and when I mentioned the name of Carson I expected Wilder to dismiss him with a mordant one-liner. What he actually said surprised me. It evolved in the form of a speech. “By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best,” he said. “He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale”—circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope. “What’s more”—and here Wilder leaned forward, tapping my knee for emphasis—”he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.” Since a good deal of what follows consists of excerpts from the journal of a Carson-watcher, I feel bound to declare a financial interest, and to admit that I have derived pecuniary benefit from his activities. During the nineteen-sixties, I was twice interviewed on the “Tonight Show.” For each appearance I received three hundred and twenty dollars, which was then the minimum payment authorized by aftra, the TV and radio performers’ union. (The figure has since risen to four hundred and twenty-seven dollars.) No guest on the show, even if he or she does a solo spot in addition to just chatting, is paid more than the basement-level fee. On two vertiginous occasions, therefore, my earning power has equalled that of Frank Sinatra, who in November, 1976, occupied the hot seat on Carson’s right for the first time. (A strange and revealing encounter, to which we’ll return.) Actually, “hot” is a misnomer. To judge from my own experience, “glacial” would be nearer the mark. The other talk shows in which I have taken part were all saunas by comparison with Carson’s. Merv Griffin is the most disarming of ego strokers; Mike Douglas runs him a close second in the ingratiation stakes; and Dick Cavett creates the illusion that he is your guest, enjoying a slightly subversive private chat. Carson, on the other hand, operates on a level of high, freewheeling, centrifugal banter that is well above the snow line. Which is not to say that he is hostile. Carson treats you with deference and genuine curiosity. But the air is chill; you are definitely on probation. Mort Sahl, who was last seen on the “Tonight Show” in 1968, described to me not long ago what happens when a guest fails to deliver the goods. “The producer is crouching just off camera,” he said, “and he holds up a card that says, ‘Go to commercial.’ So Carson goes to a commercial, and the whole team rushes up to his desk to discuss what went wrong. It’s like a pit stop at Le Mans. Then the next guest comes in, and—I promise you this is true—she’s a girl who says straight out that she’s a practicing lesbian. The card goes up again, only this time it means, ‘Come in at once, your right rear wheel is on fire.’ So we go to another commercial. . . .” Sahl is one of the few performers who are willing to be quoted in dispraise of Carson. Except for a handful of really big names, people in show business need Carson more than he needs them; they hate to jeopardize their chance of appearing on the program that pays greater dividends in publicity than any other. “Carson’s assumption is that the audience is dumb, so you mustn’t do difficult things,” Sahl continued. “He never takes serious risks. His staff will only book people who’ll make him look artistically potent. They won’t give him anyone who’ll take him for fifteen rounds. The whole operation has got lazy.” When an interviewer from Playboy asked Robert Blake whether he enjoyed doing the “Tonight Show,” he gave a vivid account of how it feels to face Carson. He began by confessing that “there’s a certain enjoyment in facing death, periodically.” He went on: Carson’s office Suite at Burbank is above the studio in which, between 5:30 and 7 p.m., the show is taped. Except for his secretary, the rest of the production team occupies a crowded bungalow more than two hundred yards away, outside the main building. “In the past couple of months,” a receptionist in the bungalow said to me not long ago, “I’ve seen Mr. Carson in here just once.” Thus the king keeps his distance—not merely from his colleagues but from his guests, with whom he never fraternizes either before or after the taping. Or hardly ever: he may decide, if a major celebrity is on hand, to bend the rule and grant him or her the supreme privilege of prior contact. But such occasions are rare. As Orson Welles said to me, “he’s the only invisible talk host.” A Carson guest of long standing, Welles continued, “Once, before the show, he put his head into my dressing room and said hello. The effect was cataclysmic. The production staff behaved the way the stagehands did at the St. James’s Theatre in London twenty-five years ago when Princess Margaret came backstage to visit me. They were in awe! One of Carson’s people stared at me and said, ‘He actually came to see you!’ “ (Gust of Wellesian laughter.) Newcomers like me are interviewed several days in advance by one of Carson’s “talent coördinators,” who makes a list of the subjects on which you are likely to be eloquent or funny. This list is in Carson’s head as you plunge through the rainbow-hued curtains, take a sharp right turn, and just avoid tripping over the cunningly placed step that leads up to the desk where you meet, for the first time, your host, interrogator, and judge. The studio is his native habitat. Like a character in a Harold Pinter play, or any living creature in a Robert Ardrey book, you have invaded his territory. Once you are on Carson’s turf, the onus is on you to demonstrate your right to stay there; if you fail, you will decorously get the boot. You feel like the tourist who on entering the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, was greeted by a guide with the minatory remark “Remember, Signore, that here it is not the pictures that are on trial.” Other talk hosts flatter their visitors with artificial guffaws; Carson laughs only when he is amused. All I recall of my first exposure to the Carson ordeal is that (a) I had come to discuss a controversial play about Winston Churchill, (b) the act I had to follow was the TV début of Tiny Tim, who sang “Tip Toe Through the Tulips,” (c) Carson froze my marrow by suddenly asking my opinion not of Churchill but of General de Gaulle, and (d) from that moment on, fear robbed me of saliva, so that my lips clove to my gums, rendering coherent speech impossible. The fault was mine, for not being the sort of person who can rise to Carson’s challenge—i.e., a professional performer. There is abundant evidence that comedians, when they are spurred by Carson, take off and fly as they cannot in any other company. David Brenner, who has been a regular Carson guest since 1971, speaks for many young entertainers when he says, “Nowhere is where I’d be without the ‘Tonight Show.’ It’s a necessary ingredient. . . . TV excels in two areas—sports and Carson. The show made my career.” October 1, 1977, marked Carson’s fifteenth anniversary as the star of a program he recently called “NBC’s answer to foreplay.” For purposes of comparison, it may be noted that Steve Allen, who was the show’s host when it was launched, in September, 1954, lasted only two years and four months. The mercurial and thin-skinned Jack (Slugger) Paar took over from Allen in the summer of 1957, after a six-month interregnum during which doomed attempts were made to turn the “Tonight Show” into a nocturnal TV magazine held together by live contributions from journalists in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Paar’s tenure of office seems in retrospect longer than it was, perhaps because of the emotional outbursts that kept his name constantly in the headlines; it actually ended after four years and eight months. On March 29, 1962, having resigned for positively the last time, he took his final bow on the program, his face a cascade of tears. “Après le déluge, moi” is the thought that should have passed through Carson’s mind, though there is no evidence that it did. He was then in his fifth year as m.c. of “Who Do You Trust?,” an ABC quiz show that had become, largely because of his verbal dexterity, the hottest item on daytime television. A few months before Paar’s farewell, Carson had turned down a firm offer from NBC to replace its top banana. The gulf between chatting with unknown contestants for half an hour every afternoon and matching wits with celebrities for what was then an hour and forty-five minutes every night seemed unnervingly wide, and he doubted his ability to bridge it. However, when the job had been rejected by a number of possible candidates—among them Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, Joey Bishop, and Groucho Marx—either because they wanted too much money or because they were chary of following Paar, NBC came back in desperation to Carson. This time, he asked for two weeks to consider the proposition. Coolly, he weighed the size of his talent against the size of his ambition, decided that the scales approximately balanced, and told NBC that his answer was yes. The only snag was that his contract with ABC did not run out until September. Undismayed, NBC agreed to keep the “Tonight Show” supplied with guest hosts (they included Merv Griffin, Mort Sahl, and Groucho) throughout the summer. On October 1, 1962, Carson took command. His announcer and second banana, transplanted from “Who Do You Trust?,” was Ed McMahon, who was already in great demand as the owner of the most robust and contagious laugh in television. The guests were Rudy Vallée, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks (then a mere comedy writer, though he nowadays insists that he gave a dazzling impersonation of Fred Astaire on that October evening), and Joan Crawford. Any qualms that NBC may have had about its new acquisition were soon allayed. Star performers lined up to appear with Carson. Even his fellow comedians, a notoriously paranoid species, found that working with him was a stimulus rather than a threat. “He loves it when you score,” Woody Allen said, “and he’s witty enough to score himself.” Mel Brooks has explained to me, “From the word go, Carson could tell when you’d hit comic gold, and he’d help you to mine it. He always knew pay dirt when he saw it. The guys on other talk shows didn’t. There were one or two dissenters. Jackie Mason enjoyed his first session with Carson but reported that during his second appearance he was treated with “undisguised alienation and contempt,” and went on to say, “I’d never go back again, even if he asked me.” The press reaction to Carson was enthusiastic, except for a blast of puritanism from John Horn of the Herald Tribune, who wrote of Carson, “He exhibits all the charm of a snickering small boy scribbling graffiti on a public wall.” He added, in one of those phrases that return to haunt critics in their declining years, that Carson had “no apparent gift for the performing arts.” With the public, Carson’s triumph was immediate and nonpareil. Under the Paar regime, the show had very seldom been seen by more than seven and a half million viewers. (One such occasion was March 7, 1960, when the unruly star came back to his post after walking out in a fit of pique, brought on by the network’s decision to delete a mildly scatological joke and protracted for several well-publicized weeks.) Under Carson, the program averaged seven million four hundred and fifty-eight thousand viewers per night during its first six months. The comparable figure for the same period in 1971-72 was eleven million four hundred and forty-one thousand, and it is currently being seen by seventeen million three hundred thousand. Over fifteen years, therefore, Carson has more than doubled his audience—a feat that, in its blend of staying power and mounting popularity, is without precedent in the history of television. (Between April and September, the numbers dip, but this reflects a seasonal pattern by which all TV shows are affected. A top NBC executive explained to me, with heartless candor, “People who can afford vacations go away in the summer. It’s only the poor people who watch us all the year round.”) By network standards, the ultimate test is not so much the size of the audience as the share it represents of the total viewing public in the show’s time slot. Here, after some early ups and downs, the Carson trend has been consistently upward; for example, from twenty-eight per cent in the third quarter of 1976 to thirty per cent in the second quarter of 1977. Moreover, his percentage seems to rise with the temperature; for example, in the four weeks that ended on July 15, 1977—a period during which guest hosts frequently stood in for Carson, whose absence from the show normally cuts the audience by about one-sixth—NBC chalked up thirty-two per cent of the late-night viewers, against twenty-four per cent registered by CBS and twenty-three per cent by ABC. These, of course, are national figures. The happiness of Fred de Cordova, as producer, is incomplete unless Carson not only leads the field nationwide but beats the combined opposition (ABC plus CBS) in the big cities, especially New York and Los Angeles. He is seldom unhappy for long. On peak nights, when Carson rakes in a percentage of fifty or more from the key urban centers, de Cordova is said to emit an unearthly glow, visible clear across the Burbank parking lot. For his first year on the show, making five appearances per week, Carson was paid just over a hundred thousand dollars. His present contract (the latest of many), which comes into force this spring, guarantees him an annual salary of two and a half million dollars. For twenty-five weeks of the year, his performances, which were long since reduced from five to four, will further dwindle, to three; and his vacation period will stay at fifteen weeks—its duration under several previous contracts. These details, which were announced by NBC last December, leave no doubt that Carson qualifies for admission to what the late Lucius Beebe called “the mink-dustcloth set.” Whether they tell the whole story is less certain. Carson’s earlier agreements with NBC contained clauses that both parties were forbidden to disclose, reportedly relating to such additional rewards as large holdings in RCA stock and a million-dollar life-insurance policy at the network’s expense. Concerning Carson’s total earnings, I cannot do better than quote from one of his employers, who told me, months before the new contract was signed, “If someone were to say in print that Johnny takes home around four million a year, I doubt whether anyone at NBC would feel an overpowering urge to issue a statement denying it.” And even this figure excludes the vast amounts he makes from appearances at resort centers—preëminently Las Vegas—and from Johnny Carson Apparel, Inc., a thriving menswear business, founded in 1970, whose products he models on the show. David Tebet, the senior vice-president of NBC, who is revered in the trade as a finder, keeper, and cosseter of talent, and is described in his publicity handout as being “solely in charge of the Johnny Carson show,” said to me recently, “For the past four or five years, Johnny has made more money per annum than any other television performer ever has. And he has also made more money per week than anyone else—except, maybe, for a very rare case like Sinatra, where you can’t be sure, because Sinatra will sell you a special through his own company and you don’t know how much he’s personally taking out of the deal.” Despite the high cost of Carson, he remains a bargain. The network’s yearly income from the show is at present between fifty and sixty million dollars. “As a money-maker,” de Cordova says, “there’s nothing in television close to it.” In 1975, a sixty-second commercial on the program cost twenty-six thousand dollars. In 1977, that sum had risen by half. I dwell on these statistics because they are unique in show business. Yet there is a weird disproportion between the facts and figures of Carson’s success and the kind of fame he enjoys. To illustrate what I mean, let me cite a few analogies. Star tennis players are renowned in every country on earth outside China, and the same is true of top heavyweight boxers. (A probable exception in the latter category is Muhammad Ali, who must surely be known inside China as well.) At least fifty living cricketers are household names throughout the United Kingdom, the West Indies, Australia, South Africa, India, and Pakistan. Movie stars and pop singers command international celebrity; and Kojak, Starsky, Hutch, Columbo, and dozens more are acclaimed (or, at any rate, recognized) wherever the TV programs that bear their names are bought and transmitted. Outside North America, by contrast, Johnny Carson is a nonentity: the general public has never heard of him. The reason for his obscurity is that the job at which he excels is virtually unexportable. (O. J. Simpson is a parallel case, illustrious at home and nada abroad; and if the empire of baseball had not reached out and annexed Japan, Reggie Jackson would be in the same plight.) The TV talk show as it is practiced by Carson is topical in subject matter and local in appeal. To watch it is like dropping in on a nightly family party, a conversational serial, full of private jokes, in which a relatively small and regularly rotated cast of characters, drawn mainly from show business, turn up to air their egos, but which has absolutely no plot. Sometimes the visitors sing. Sometimes, though less often nowadays than in the past, they are people of such worldwide distinction that their slightest hiccup is riveting. But otherwise most of what happens on the show would be incomprehensible or irrelevant to foreign audiences, even if they were English-speaking. This drives yet another nail into the coffin lid, already well hammered down, of Marshall McLuhan’s theory that TV has transformed the world into a global village. (Radio is, as it has long been, the only medium that gives us immediate access to what the rest of the planet is doing and thinking, simply because every country of any size operates a foreign-language service.) Only for such events as moon landings and Olympiads does TV provide live coverage that spans the globe. The rest of the time, it is obstinately provincial, addressing itself to a village no bigger than a nation. Carson, in his own way, is what Gertrude Stein called Ezra Pound—a village explainer. He has spent almost all his life confined, like his fame, to his country of origin. He served in the Navy for three years, beginning in 1943, and was shipped as far west as Guam. Thereafter, his travels abroad indicate no overwhelming curiosity about the world outside his homeland. Apart from brief vacations in Mexico, and a flying visit to London in 1961, when he appeared in a TV special starring Paul Anka, he has left the United States only on three trips: in 1975, to the ultrasmart Hôtel du Cap in Antibes (at the instigation of his wife, Joanna, who had been there before); in 1976, to see the tennis at Wimbledon; and in 1977, when he threw caution to the winds and went to both Wimbledon and the Hôtel du Cap. He was recognized in neither place, except by a handful of fellow-Americans. This, of course, was the purpose of the exercise. Carson goes to foreign parts for the solace of anonymity. But enough is enough: he is soon impatient to return to the cavernous Burbank Studio, where his personality burgeons in high definition and where he publicly discloses as much of his private self as he has ever revealed to anyone, except (I assume, though even here I would not care to bet) his parents, siblings, sons, and wives.
There’s no experience I can describe to you that would compare with doing the “Tonight Show” when he’s on it. It is so wired, and so hyped, and so up. It’s like Broadway on opening night. There’s nothing casual about it. And it’s not a talk show. It’s some other kind of show. I mean, he has such energy, you got like six minutes to do your thing. . . . And you better be good. Or they’ll go to the commercial after two minutes. . . . They are highly professional, highly successful, highly dedicated people. . . . The producer, all the federales are sittin’ like six feet away from that couch. And they’re right on top of you, man, just watchin’ ya. And when they go to a break, they get on the phone. They talk upstairs, they talk to—Christ, who knows? They talk all over the place about how this person’s going over, how that person’s going over. They whisper in John’s ear. John gets on the phone and he talks. And you’re sittin’ there watchin’, thinkin’, What, are they gonna hang somebody? . . . And then the camera comes back again. And John will ask you somethin’ else or he’ll say, “Our next guest is. . .”
This pure and archetypal product of the box shuns large parties. Invitations from the Lazars are among the few he accepts. Tonight, he arrives alone (his wife, Joanna, has stopped off in New York for a few days’ shopping), greets his host with the familiar smile, cordially wry, and scans the assembly, his eyes twinkling like icicles. Hard to believe, despite the pewter-colored hair, that he is fifty-one: he holds himself like the midshipman he once was, chin well tucked in, back as straight as a poker. (Carson claims to be five feet ten and a half inches in height. His pedantic insistence on that extra half inch betokens a man who suspects he looks small.) In repose, he resembles a king-sized ventriloquist’s dummy. After winking impassively at de Cordova, he threads his way across the crowded living room and out through the ceiling-high sliding windows to the deserted swimming pool. Heads discreetly turn. Even in this posh peer group, Carson has cynosure status. Arms folded, he surveys Los Angeles by night—”glittering jewel of the Southland, gossamer web of loveliness,” as Abe Burrows ironically called it. A waiter brings him a soft drink. “He looks like Gatsby,” a young actress whispers to me. On the face of it, this is nonsense. Fitzgerald’s hero suffers from star-crossed love, his wealth has criminal origins, and he loves to give flamboyant parties. But the simile is not without elements of truth. Gatsby, like Carson, is a Midwesterner, a self-made millionaire, and a habitual loner, armored against all attempts to invade his emotional privacy. “He had come a long way to this blue lawn,” Fitzgerald wrote of Gatsby—as far as Carson has come to these blue pools, from which steam rises on even the warmest nights.
“He doesn’t drink now.” I turn to find Lazar beside me, also peeking at the man outside. He continues, “But I remember Johnny when he was a blackout drunk.” That was before the “Tonight Show” moved from New York to Los Angeles, in 1972. “A couple of drinks was all it took. He could get very hostile.”
I point out to Lazar that Carson’s family tree has deep Irish roots on the maternal side. Was there something atavistic in his drinking? Or am I glibly casting him as an ethnic (“black Irish”) stereotype? At all events, I now begin to see in him—still immobile by the pool—the lineaments of a magnified leprechaun.
“Like a lot of people in our business,” Lazar goes on, “he’s a mixture of extreme ego and extreme cowardice.” In Lazar’s lexicon, a coward is one who turns down starring roles suggested to him by Lazar.
Since Carson already does what nobody has ever done better, I reply, why should he risk his reputation by plunging into movies or TV specials?
Lazar concedes that I may be right. “But I’ll tell you something else about him,’’ he says, with italicized wonder. “He’s celibate.” He means “chaste.” “In his position, he could have all the girls he wants. It wouldn’t be difficult. But he never cheats.”
It is thirty minutes later. Carson is sitting at a table by the pool, where four or five people have joined him. He chats with impersonal affability, making no effort to dominate, charm, or amuse. I recall something that George Axelrod, the dramatist and screenwriter, once said to me about him: “Socially, he doesn’t exist. The reason is that there are no television cameras in living rooms. If human beings had little-red lights in the middle of their foreheads, Carson would be the greatest conversationalist on earth.”
One of the guests is a girl whose hobby is numerology. Taking Carson as her subject, she works out a series of arcane sums and then offers her interpretation of his character. “You are an enormously mercurial person,” she says, “who swings between very high highs and very low lows.”
His eyebrows rise, the corners of his lips turn down: this is the mock-affronted expression he presents to the camera when a baby armadillo from some local zoo declines to respond to his caresses. “This girl is great,” he says to de Cordova. “She makes me sound like a cross between Spring Byington and Adolf Hitler.”
Before long, he parts as unobtrusively as he came.
Meeting him a few days afterward, I inquire what he thought of the party. He half grins, half winces. “Torturous?” he says.
Within a month, however, I note that he is back in the same torture chamber. Characteristically, although he is surrounded by the likes of Jack Lemmon, Roger Vadim, Michael Caine, James Stewart, and Gene Kelly, he spends most of the evening locked in NBC shoptalk with Fred de Cordova. De Cordova has just returned from his European safari, which has taken him through four countries in half as many weeks. The high point of the trip, de Cordova tells me, was a visit to Munich, where his old friend Billy Wilder was making a film. This brings to mind a recent conversation I had with Wilder in this very living room. He is a master of acerbic put-downs who has little time for TV pseudostars, and when I mentioned the name of Carson I expected Wilder to dismiss him with a mordant one-liner. What he actually said surprised me. It evolved in the form of a speech. “By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best,” he said. “He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale”—circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope. “What’s more”—and here Wilder leaned forward, tapping my knee for emphasis—”he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.”
Since a good deal of what follows consists of excerpts from the journal of a Carson-watcher, I feel bound to declare a financial interest, and to admit that I have derived pecuniary benefit from his activities. During the nineteen-sixties, I was twice interviewed on the “Tonight Show.” For each appearance I received three hundred and twenty dollars, which was then the minimum payment authorized by aftra, the TV and radio performers’ union. (The figure has since risen to four hundred and twenty-seven dollars.) No guest on the show, even if he or she does a solo spot in addition to just chatting, is paid more than the basement-level fee. On two vertiginous occasions, therefore, my earning power has equalled that of Frank Sinatra, who in November, 1976, occupied the hot seat on Carson’s right for the first time. (A strange and revealing encounter, to which we’ll return.) Actually, “hot” is a misnomer. To judge from my own experience, “glacial” would be nearer the mark. The other talk shows in which I have taken part were all saunas by comparison with Carson’s. Merv Griffin is the most disarming of ego strokers; Mike Douglas runs him a close second in the ingratiation stakes; and Dick Cavett creates the illusion that he is your guest, enjoying a slightly subversive private chat. Carson, on the other hand, operates on a level of high, freewheeling, centrifugal banter that is well above the snow line. Which is not to say that he is hostile. Carson treats you with deference and genuine curiosity. But the air is chill; you are definitely on probation.
Mort Sahl, who was last seen on the “Tonight Show” in 1968, described to me not long ago what happens when a guest fails to deliver the goods. “The producer is crouching just off camera,” he said, “and he holds up a card that says, ‘Go to commercial.’ So Carson goes to a commercial, and the whole team rushes up to his desk to discuss what went wrong. It’s like a pit stop at Le Mans. Then the next guest comes in, and—I promise you this is true—she’s a girl who says straight out that she’s a practicing lesbian. The card goes up again, only this time it means, ‘Come in at once, your right rear wheel is on fire.’ So we go to another commercial. . . .” Sahl is one of the few performers who are willing to be quoted in dispraise of Carson. Except for a handful of really big names, people in show business need Carson more than he needs them; they hate to jeopardize their chance of appearing on the program that pays greater dividends in publicity than any other. “Carson’s assumption is that the audience is dumb, so you mustn’t do difficult things,” Sahl continued. “He never takes serious risks. His staff will only book people who’ll make him look artistically potent. They won’t give him anyone who’ll take him for fifteen rounds. The whole operation has got lazy.”
When an interviewer from Playboy asked Robert Blake whether he enjoyed doing the “Tonight Show,” he gave a vivid account of how it feels to face Carson. He began by confessing that “there’s a certain enjoyment in facing death, periodically.” He went on:
Carson’s office Suite at Burbank is above the studio in which, between 5:30 and 7 p.m., the show is taped. Except for his secretary, the rest of the production team occupies a crowded bungalow more than two hundred yards away, outside the main building. “In the past couple of months,” a receptionist in the bungalow said to me not long ago, “I’ve seen Mr. Carson in here just once.” Thus the king keeps his distance—not merely from his colleagues but from his guests, with whom he never fraternizes either before or after the taping. Or hardly ever: he may decide, if a major celebrity is on hand, to bend the rule and grant him or her the supreme privilege of prior contact. But such occasions are rare. As Orson Welles said to me, “he’s the only invisible talk host.” A Carson guest of long standing, Welles continued, “Once, before the show, he put his head into my dressing room and said hello. The effect was cataclysmic. The production staff behaved the way the stagehands did at the St. James’s Theatre in London twenty-five years ago when Princess Margaret came backstage to visit me. They were in awe! One of Carson’s people stared at me and said, ‘He actually came to see you!’ “ (Gust of Wellesian laughter.) Newcomers like me are interviewed several days in advance by one of Carson’s “talent coördinators,” who makes a list of the subjects on which you are likely to be eloquent or funny. This list is in Carson’s head as you plunge through the rainbow-hued curtains, take a sharp right turn, and just avoid tripping over the cunningly placed step that leads up to the desk where you meet, for the first time, your host, interrogator, and judge. The studio is his native habitat. Like a character in a Harold Pinter play, or any living creature in a Robert Ardrey book, you have invaded his territory. Once you are on Carson’s turf, the onus is on you to demonstrate your right to stay there; if you fail, you will decorously get the boot. You feel like the tourist who on entering the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, was greeted by a guide with the minatory remark “Remember, Signore, that here it is not the pictures that are on trial.” Other talk hosts flatter their visitors with artificial guffaws; Carson laughs only when he is amused. All I recall of my first exposure to the Carson ordeal is that (a) I had come to discuss a controversial play about Winston Churchill, (b) the act I had to follow was the TV début of Tiny Tim, who sang “Tip Toe Through the Tulips,” (c) Carson froze my marrow by suddenly asking my opinion not of Churchill but of General de Gaulle, and (d) from that moment on, fear robbed me of saliva, so that my lips clove to my gums, rendering coherent speech impossible. The fault was mine, for not being the sort of person who can rise to Carson’s challenge—i.e., a professional performer. There is abundant evidence that comedians, when they are spurred by Carson, take off and fly as they cannot in any other company. David Brenner, who has been a regular Carson guest since 1971, speaks for many young entertainers when he says, “Nowhere is where I’d be without the ‘Tonight Show.’ It’s a necessary ingredient. . . . TV excels in two areas—sports and Carson. The show made my career.”
October 1, 1977, marked Carson’s fifteenth anniversary as the star of a program he recently called “NBC’s answer to foreplay.” For purposes of comparison, it may be noted that Steve Allen, who was the show’s host when it was launched, in September, 1954, lasted only two years and four months. The mercurial and thin-skinned Jack (Slugger) Paar took over from Allen in the summer of 1957, after a six-month interregnum during which doomed attempts were made to turn the “Tonight Show” into a nocturnal TV magazine held together by live contributions from journalists in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Paar’s tenure of office seems in retrospect longer than it was, perhaps because of the emotional outbursts that kept his name constantly in the headlines; it actually ended after four years and eight months. On March 29, 1962, having resigned for positively the last time, he took his final bow on the program, his face a cascade of tears. “Après le déluge, moi” is the thought that should have passed through Carson’s mind, though there is no evidence that it did. He was then in his fifth year as m.c. of “Who Do You Trust?,” an ABC quiz show that had become, largely because of his verbal dexterity, the hottest item on daytime television. A few months before Paar’s farewell, Carson had turned down a firm offer from NBC to replace its top banana. The gulf between chatting with unknown contestants for half an hour every afternoon and matching wits with celebrities for what was then an hour and forty-five minutes every night seemed unnervingly wide, and he doubted his ability to bridge it. However, when the job had been rejected by a number of possible candidates—among them Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, Joey Bishop, and Groucho Marx—either because they wanted too much money or because they were chary of following Paar, NBC came back in desperation to Carson. This time, he asked for two weeks to consider the proposition. Coolly, he weighed the size of his talent against the size of his ambition, decided that the scales approximately balanced, and told NBC that his answer was yes. The only snag was that his contract with ABC did not run out until September. Undismayed, NBC agreed to keep the “Tonight Show” supplied with guest hosts (they included Merv Griffin, Mort Sahl, and Groucho) throughout the summer. On October 1, 1962, Carson took command. His announcer and second banana, transplanted from “Who Do You Trust?,” was Ed McMahon, who was already in great demand as the owner of the most robust and contagious laugh in television. The guests were Rudy Vallée, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks (then a mere comedy writer, though he nowadays insists that he gave a dazzling impersonation of Fred Astaire on that October evening), and Joan Crawford.
Any qualms that NBC may have had about its new acquisition were soon allayed. Star performers lined up to appear with Carson. Even his fellow comedians, a notoriously paranoid species, found that working with him was a stimulus rather than a threat. “He loves it when you score,” Woody Allen said, “and he’s witty enough to score himself.” Mel Brooks has explained to me, “From the word go, Carson could tell when you’d hit comic gold, and he’d help you to mine it. He always knew pay dirt when he saw it. The guys on other talk shows didn’t. There were one or two dissenters. Jackie Mason enjoyed his first session with Carson but reported that during his second appearance he was treated with “undisguised alienation and contempt,” and went on to say, “I’d never go back again, even if he asked me.” The press reaction to Carson was enthusiastic, except for a blast of puritanism from John Horn of the Herald Tribune, who wrote of Carson, “He exhibits all the charm of a snickering small boy scribbling graffiti on a public wall.” He added, in one of those phrases that return to haunt critics in their declining years, that Carson had “no apparent gift for the performing arts.”
With the public, Carson’s triumph was immediate and nonpareil. Under the Paar regime, the show had very seldom been seen by more than seven and a half million viewers. (One such occasion was March 7, 1960, when the unruly star came back to his post after walking out in a fit of pique, brought on by the network’s decision to delete a mildly scatological joke and protracted for several well-publicized weeks.) Under Carson, the program averaged seven million four hundred and fifty-eight thousand viewers per night during its first six months. The comparable figure for the same period in 1971-72 was eleven million four hundred and forty-one thousand, and it is currently being seen by seventeen million three hundred thousand. Over fifteen years, therefore, Carson has more than doubled his audience—a feat that, in its blend of staying power and mounting popularity, is without precedent in the history of television. (Between April and September, the numbers dip, but this reflects a seasonal pattern by which all TV shows are affected. A top NBC executive explained to me, with heartless candor, “People who can afford vacations go away in the summer. It’s only the poor people who watch us all the year round.”) By network standards, the ultimate test is not so much the size of the audience as the share it represents of the total viewing public in the show’s time slot. Here, after some early ups and downs, the Carson trend has been consistently upward; for example, from twenty-eight per cent in the third quarter of 1976 to thirty per cent in the second quarter of 1977. Moreover, his percentage seems to rise with the temperature; for example, in the four weeks that ended on July 15, 1977—a period during which guest hosts frequently stood in for Carson, whose absence from the show normally cuts the audience by about one-sixth—NBC chalked up thirty-two per cent of the late-night viewers, against twenty-four per cent registered by CBS and twenty-three per cent by ABC. These, of course, are national figures. The happiness of Fred de Cordova, as producer, is incomplete unless Carson not only leads the field nationwide but beats the combined opposition (ABC plus CBS) in the big cities, especially New York and Los Angeles. He is seldom unhappy for long. On peak nights, when Carson rakes in a percentage of fifty or more from the key urban centers, de Cordova is said to emit an unearthly glow, visible clear across the Burbank parking lot.
For his first year on the show, making five appearances per week, Carson was paid just over a hundred thousand dollars. His present contract (the latest of many), which comes into force this spring, guarantees him an annual salary of two and a half million dollars. For twenty-five weeks of the year, his performances, which were long since reduced from five to four, will further dwindle, to three; and his vacation period will stay at fifteen weeks—its duration under several previous contracts. These details, which were announced by NBC last December, leave no doubt that Carson qualifies for admission to what the late Lucius Beebe called “the mink-dustcloth set.” Whether they tell the whole story is less certain. Carson’s earlier agreements with NBC contained clauses that both parties were forbidden to disclose, reportedly relating to such additional rewards as large holdings in RCA stock and a million-dollar life-insurance policy at the network’s expense. Concerning Carson’s total earnings, I cannot do better than quote from one of his employers, who told me, months before the new contract was signed, “If someone were to say in print that Johnny takes home around four million a year, I doubt whether anyone at NBC would feel an overpowering urge to issue a statement denying it.” And even this figure excludes the vast amounts he makes from appearances at resort centers—preëminently Las Vegas—and from Johnny Carson Apparel, Inc., a thriving menswear business, founded in 1970, whose products he models on the show. David Tebet, the senior vice-president of NBC, who is revered in the trade as a finder, keeper, and cosseter of talent, and is described in his publicity handout as being “solely in charge of the Johnny Carson show,” said to me recently, “For the past four or five years, Johnny has made more money per annum than any other television performer ever has. And he has also made more money per week than anyone else—except, maybe, for a very rare case like Sinatra, where you can’t be sure, because Sinatra will sell you a special through his own company and you don’t know how much he’s personally taking out of the deal.” Despite the high cost of Carson, he remains a bargain. The network’s yearly income from the show is at present between fifty and sixty million dollars. “As a money-maker,” de Cordova says, “there’s nothing in television close to it.” In 1975, a sixty-second commercial on the program cost twenty-six thousand dollars. In 1977, that sum had risen by half.
I dwell on these statistics because they are unique in show business. Yet there is a weird disproportion between the facts and figures of Carson’s success and the kind of fame he enjoys. To illustrate what I mean, let me cite a few analogies. Star tennis players are renowned in every country on earth outside China, and the same is true of top heavyweight boxers. (A probable exception in the latter category is Muhammad Ali, who must surely be known inside China as well.) At least fifty living cricketers are household names throughout the United Kingdom, the West Indies, Australia, South Africa, India, and Pakistan. Movie stars and pop singers command international celebrity; and Kojak, Starsky, Hutch, Columbo, and dozens more are acclaimed (or, at any rate, recognized) wherever the TV programs that bear their names are bought and transmitted. Outside North America, by contrast, Johnny Carson is a nonentity: the general public has never heard of him. The reason for his obscurity is that the job at which he excels is virtually unexportable. (O. J. Simpson is a parallel case, illustrious at home and nada abroad; and if the empire of baseball had not reached out and annexed Japan, Reggie Jackson would be in the same plight.) The TV talk show as it is practiced by Carson is topical in subject matter and local in appeal. To watch it is like dropping in on a nightly family party, a conversational serial, full of private jokes, in which a relatively small and regularly rotated cast of characters, drawn mainly from show business, turn up to air their egos, but which has absolutely no plot. Sometimes the visitors sing. Sometimes, though less often nowadays than in the past, they are people of such worldwide distinction that their slightest hiccup is riveting. But otherwise most of what happens on the show would be incomprehensible or irrelevant to foreign audiences, even if they were English-speaking. This drives yet another nail into the coffin lid, already well hammered down, of Marshall McLuhan’s theory that TV has transformed the world into a global village. (Radio is, as it has long been, the only medium that gives us immediate access to what the rest of the planet is doing and thinking, simply because every country of any size operates a foreign-language service.) Only for such events as moon landings and Olympiads does TV provide live coverage that spans the globe. The rest of the time, it is obstinately provincial, addressing itself to a village no bigger than a nation. Carson, in his own way, is what Gertrude Stein called Ezra Pound—a village explainer.
He has spent almost all his life confined, like his fame, to his country of origin. He served in the Navy for three years, beginning in 1943, and was shipped as far west as Guam. Thereafter, his travels abroad indicate no overwhelming curiosity about the world outside his homeland. Apart from brief vacations in Mexico, and a flying visit to London in 1961, when he appeared in a TV special starring Paul Anka, he has left the United States only on three trips: in 1975, to the ultrasmart Hôtel du Cap in Antibes (at the instigation of his wife, Joanna, who had been there before); in 1976, to see the tennis at Wimbledon; and in 1977, when he threw caution to the winds and went to both Wimbledon and the Hôtel du Cap. He was recognized in neither place, except by a handful of fellow-Americans. This, of course, was the purpose of the exercise. Carson goes to foreign parts for the solace of anonymity. But enough is enough: he is soon impatient to return to the cavernous Burbank Studio, where his personality burgeons in high definition and where he publicly discloses as much of his private self as he has ever revealed to anyone, except (I assume, though even here I would not care to bet) his parents, siblings, sons, and wives.
“Johnny Carson on TV,” one of his colleagues confided to me, “is the visible eighth of an iceberg called Johnny Carson.” The remark took me back to something that Carson said of himself ten years ago, when, in the course of a question-and-answer session with viewers, he was asked, “What made you a star?” He replied, “I started out in a gaseous state, and then I cooled.” Meeting him tête-à-tête is, as we shall see later, a curious experience. In 1966, writing for Look, Betty Rollin described Carson off camera as “testy, defensive, preoccupied, withdrawn, and wondrously inept and uncomfortable with people.” Nowadays, his off-camera manner is friendly and impeccably diplomatic. Even so, you get the impression that you are addressing an elaborately wired security system. If the conversation edges toward areas in which he feels ill at ease or unwilling to commit himself, burglar alarms are triggered off, defensive reflexes rise around him like an invisible stockade, and you hear the distant baying of guard dogs. In addition to his childhood, his private life, and his income, these no-trespassing zones include all subjects of political controversy, any form of sexual behavior uncountenanced by the law, and such matters of social concern as abortion and the legalization of marijuana. His smile as he steers you away from forbidden territory is genial and unfading. It is only fair to remember that he does not pretend to be a pundit, employed to express his own opinions; rather, he is a professional explorer of other people’s egos. In a magazine article that was published with annotations by Carson, Fred de Cordova wrote, “He’s reluctant to talk much about himself because he is essentially a private person.” To this Carson added a marginal gloss, intended as a gag, that had an eerie ring of truth: “I will not even talk to myself without an appointment.” He has asked all the questions and knows all the evasive, equivocal answers. When he first signed to appear on the “Tonight Show,” he was quizzed by the press so relentlessly that he refused after a while to submit to further interrogation. Instead, he issued a list of replies that journalists could append to any questions of their choice:
1. Yes, I did.
2. Not a bit of truth in that rumor.
3. Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday.
4. I can do either, but I prefer the first.
5. No. Kumquats.
6. I can’t answer that question.
7. Toads and tarantulas.
8. Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorskie Islands.
9. As often as possible, but I’m not very good at it yet. I need much more practice.
10. It happened to some old friends of mine, and it’s a story I’ll never forget.
Extract from Carson-watching journal, January, 1976:
There is such a thing as the pleasure of the expected. Opening routine of “Tonight Show” provides it; millions would feel cheated if the ceremony were changed. The close shot of Big Ed McMahon as his unctuous baritone takes off on its steeply ascending glissando “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” Stagehands create gap in curtain. Carson enters in his ritual Apparel, style of which is Casual Square. Typical outfit: checked sports coat with two vents, tan trousers, pale-blue shirt with neat but ungaudy tie. Not for him the bluejeaned, open-necked, safari-jacketed Hollywood ensemble: that would be too Casual, too Californian. On the other hand, no dark suits with vests: that would be too Square, too Eastern Seaboard. Carson must reflect what de Cordova possessively calls “our bread-basket belt”—the Midwest, which bore him (on October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa), and which he must never bore.
On his lips as he walks toward applauding audience is the only unassuming smirk in show business. He halts and swivels to the right (upper part of body turning as rigid vertical unit, like that of man in plaster cast) to acknowledge Big Ed’s traditional act of obeisance, a quasi-Hindu bow with fingertips reverently joined. Then the leftward rotation, to accept homage from Doc Severinsen—lead trumpet and musical director, hieratically clad in something skintight and ragingly vulgar—which takes more bizarrely Oriental form: the head humbly bowed while the hands orbit each other. Music stops; applause persists. In no hurry, Carson lets it ride, facially responding to every nuance of audience behavior; e.g., shouts of greeting, cries of “Hi-yo!” When the ecstasy subsides, the exordium is over, and Carson begins the monologue, or address to the faithful, which must contain (according to one of his writers) between sixteen and twenty-two surefire jokes.
Tone of monologue is skeptical, tongue-in-cheek, ironic. Manner: totally relaxed, hitting bull’s-eyes without seeming to take aim, TV’s embodiment of “Zen in the Art of Archery.” In words uttered to me by the late screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, “Carson has a delivery like a Winchester rifle.” Theme: implicitly liberal, but careful to avoid the stigma of leftism. The unexpected impromptus with which he rescues himself from gags that bomb, thereby plucking triumph from disaster, are also part of the expected pleasure. “When it comes to saving a bad line, he is the master”—to quote a tribute paid in my presence by George Burns. Carson registers a gag’s impact with instant, seismographical finesse. If the laugh is five per cent less than he counted on, he notes the failure and reacts to it (“Did they clear the hall? Did they have a drill?”) before any critic could, usually garnering a double-strength guffaw as reward. Whatever spoils a line—ambiguous phrasing, botched timing, faulty enunciation—he is the first to expose it. Nobody spots flaws in his own work more swiftly than Carson, or capitalizes on them more effectively. Query: Is this becoming a dangerous expertise? In other words, out from under how many collapsed jokes can you successfully climb?
This evening’s main attraction is Don (The Enforcer) Rickles, not so much the court jester of TV as the court hit man. Carson can cope superbly with garrulous guests who tell interminable stories (whether ponderously, owing to drink or downers, or manically, owing to uppers or illicit inhalations). Instead of quickly changing the subject, as many hosts would, he slaughters the offenders with pure politesse. Often, he will give them enough rope to hang themselves, allowing them to ramble on while he affects attentive interest. Now and then, however, he will let the camera catch him in the act of half-stifling a yawn, or raising a baffled eyebrow, or aiming straight at the lens a stare of frozen, I-think-I-am-going-mad incredulity. He prevents us from being bored by making his own boredom funny—a daring feat of comic one-upmanship. The way in which he uses the camera as a silent conspirator is probably Carson’s most original contribution to TV technique. There is a lens permanently trained on him alone—a private pipeline through which he transmits visual asides directly to the viewer, who thus becomes his flattered accomplice. Once, talking to me on a somewhat tattered theme, the difference between stage and screen acting, Paul Newman made a remark that seemed obvious at the time but grows in wisdom the more I ponder it. “On the stage, you have to seek the focus of the audience,” he said. “In movies, it’s given to you by the camera.” Among the marks of a star on television, as in the cinema, is his or her ability to grasp this truth and act on it. Seek, and you shall not find; grab, and it shall not be given unto you. Carson learned these rules early and is now their master practitioner.
Even the best-planned talk shows, however, run into doldrums; e.g., the guest who suffers from incontinent sycophancy, or whose third marriage has brought into his life a new sense of wonder plus three gratingly cute anecdotes about the joys of paternity, or who is a British comedian on his first, tongue-tied trip to the States, or whose conversational range is confined to plugging an upcoming appearance at Lake Tahoe. On such occasions, the ideal solution is: Bring on Rickles, king of icebreakers, whose chosen weapon is the verbal hand grenade. Rickles is an unrivalled catalyst (though I can already hear him roaring, “What do you mean, I’m a catalyst? I’m a Jew!”). Squatly built, rather less bald than Mussolini, his bulbous face running the gamut from jovial contempt to outright nausea, he looks like an extra in a crowd scene by Hieronymus Bosch. No one is immune from his misanthropy; he exudes his venom at host and guests alike. In a medium ruled by the censorious Superego, Rickles is the unchained Id. At his best, he breaks through the bad-taste barrier into a world of sheer outrage where no forbidden thought goes unspoken and where everything spoken is anarchically liberating. More deftly than anyone else, Carson knows how to play matador to Rickles’ bull, inciting him to charge, and sometimes getting gored himself. At one point during this program, Rickles interrupts a question from Carson with an authentic conversation-stopper. “Your left eye is dancing!” he bellows, leaning forward and pointing a stubby finger. “That means you’re self-conscious. Ever since you stopped drinking, your left eye dances.” Even Carson is momentarily silenced. (I did not fully understand why until, at a subsequent meeting, Carson told me that there was one symptom by which he could infallibly recognize a guest who was on the brink of collapse, whether from fear, stimulants, or physical exhaustion. He called it “the dancing-eyeball syndrome.” A famous example from the early nineteen-sixties: Peter O’Toole appeared on the show after forty-eight sleepless hours, spent filming and flying, and could not utter a coherent sentence. Carson ushered him offstage during the first commercial. “The moment he sat down, I could see his eyeballs were twitching,” Carson said to me. “I recognized the syndrome at once. He was going to bomb.”)
Testimony of a Carson colleague:
My witness is Pat McCormick, who has been supplying Carson with material on and off for eighteen years and was a staff writer on the show from 1972 to 1977. Regarded as one of the most inventive gagmen in the business, he has also worked for Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, and others of note. McCormick, at forty-seven, is a burly, diffident man with hair of many colors: a reddish thatch on top, a gray mustache, and patches of various intermediate tints sprouting elsewhere on his head and face. Suitably resprayed, he might resemble a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Zero Mostel. I have it on Ed McMahon’s authority that McCormick takes the occasional drink, and that he once turned up at a script conference declaring, “I have lost my car, but I have tire marks on my hands.” He gives me his account of a typical day on the “Tonight Show.” “The writers—there are usually five of us—arrive at the studio around 9:30 a.m.,” he says. “We’ve read the morning papers and the latest magazines. Once a week, we all get together for an ideas meeting, but most days we work separately, starting out with the monologue. I tend to specialize in fairly weird, uninhibited stuff. Johnny enjoys that kind of thing, and I just let it pour out. Like a line I came up with not long ago: ‘If you want to clear your system out, sit on a piece of cheese and swallow a mouse.’ Johnny finds his own ways of handling bum gags. When he’s in a bad situation, I always wonder how the hell he’ll get out of it, and he always surprises me.”
Always? I remind McCormick of an occasion two days earlier, when a series of jokes had died like flies, and Carson had got a situation-saving laugh by remarking, “I now believe in reincarnation. Tonight’s monologue is going to come back as a dog.” That sounded to me like echt McCormick.
With a blush matching some of his hair, he admits to authorship of the line. He continues, “All the monologue material has to be on Johnny’s desk by three o’clock. He makes the final selection himself. One of his rules is: Never tell three jokes running on the same subject. And, of course, he adds ideas of his own. He’s a darned good comedy writer, you know.”
One sometimes detects a vindictive glint in Carson’s eye when a number of gags sink without risible trace, but McCormick assures me that this is all part of the act and causes no outbreaks of cold sweat among the writing team. “After the monologue,” he goes on, “we work on the desk spot with Ed McMahon, which comes next in the show, or on sketches that need polishing, or on material for one of Johnny’s characters.”
Accustomed to thinking of Carson the host, we forget the range of Carson the actor-comedian. His current incarnations include the talkative crone Aunt Blabby (Whistler’s mother on speed); the bungling turbanned clairvoyant named Carnac the Magnificent; Art Fern, described by McCormick as “the matinee-movie m.c. with patent-leather hair who’ll sell anything;” and—a newer acquisition—Floyd Turbo, the man in the red shirt who speaks for the silent majority, rebutting liberal editorials with a vehemence perceptibly impaired by his inability to read from a TelePrompTer at more than dictation speed. Fans will recall Turbo’s halting diatribe against the anti-gun lobby: “If God didn’t want man to hunt, he wouldn’t have given us plaid shirts. . . . I only kill in self-defense. What would you do if a rabbit pulled a knife on you? . . . Always remember: you can get more with a smile and a gun than you can with just a smile.”
Everything for the evening’s show must be rehearsed and ready for taping by five-thirty, apart from the central, imponderable element, on which all else depends: Carson’s handling of the guests. Briefed by his aides, he knows the visitors’ backgrounds, recent achievements, and immediate plans, and during the commercials he will listen to tactical suggestions from confreres like Fred de Cordova; but when the tape is running, he is the field commander, and his intuitions dictate the course of events. As he awaits his entrance cue, he is entitled to reflect, like Henry V on a more earthshaking occasion, “The day, my friends, and all things stay for me.” McCormick, who now and then appears as a guest on the show, has this to say of Carson the interviewer: “He leans right in and goes with you, instead of leaning back and worrying about what the viewers are thinking. He never patronizes you or shows off at your expense. If you’re getting a few pockets of laughter from the studio audience, he’ll encourage you and feed you. He’s an ideal straight man as well as a first-rate comedian, and that’s a unique combination. Above all, there’s a strand of his personality that is quite wild. He can do good bread-and-butter comedy any day of the week—like his Vegas routines or his banquet speeches—but he has this crazy streak that keeps coming through on the show, and when it does it’s infectious. You feel anything could happen.”
Example of Carson when the spirit of pure, eccentric play descends upon him and he obeys its bidding, wherever it may lead: During the monologue on May 11, 1977, he finds, as sometimes happens, that certain words are emerging from his mouth in slightly garbled form. He wrinkles his brow in mock alarm, shrugs, and presses on to the next sentence: “Yetserday, U.S. Steel announced. . .” He pauses, realizing what he has said, turns quizzically to McMahon, and observes, “ ‘Yesterday’ is not a hard word to say.” Facing the camera again, he goes on, “Yesterday—all my troubles seemed so far away . . .” Only now he is singing—singing, unaccompanied, the celebrated standard by John Lennon and Paul McCartney: “Now it looks as though they’re here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday.” By this time, the band, which was clearly taken by surprise, has begun to join in, at first raggedly but soon improvising a respectable accompaniment. Warming to his berserk task, Carson does not stop until he has reached the end of the chorus. He resumes the monologue: “Now, what was I talking about? Oh, yes. Yesterday . . .” But no sooner has the word passed his lips than Doc’s combo, determined not to let him off the hook, strikes up the melody again. Undaunted, Carson plunges into the second chorus. Having completed it, he silences the musicians with a karate chop. There is loud applause, followed by an extended pause. Where can he go from here? Cautiously feeling his way, he continues, “about twelve hours ago, U.S. Steel announced . . .” And successfully finishes the gag. Everyone in the studio is laughing, not so much at the joke as at the sight of Carson on the wing. Grinning, he addresses McMahon.
Carson: That’s what makes this job what it is.
McMahon: What is it?
Carson: (frowning, genuinely puzzled): I don’t know.
McCormick on Carson the private man: “Don’t believe those iceberg stories. Once, when I was going through a bad divorce and feeling pretty low, I was eating alone in a restaurant and Johnny came in with a bunch of people. I’m not one of his intimate friends, but as soon as he saw me he left his guests and sat with me for more than half an hour, giving me all kinds of comfort and advice.”
Further notes of a Carson watcher (random samplings from October and November, 1976):
Where other performers go home to relax after the show, Carson goes to the show to relax. The studio is his den, his living space—the equivalent in the show-business world of an exclusive salon in the world of literature. He instantly reacts to any untoward off-camera occurrence—a script inadvertently dropped, a guitar string accidentally plucked, a sneeze from a far corner of the room—as most of us would react to comparably abnormal events in the privacy of our homes. Mutatisvery much mutandis, the show could be seen as a TV version of “The Conning Tower,” Franklin P. Adams’ famous column in the Tribune, which was launched in 1914 and consisted mainly of anecdotes, aphorisms, and verses contributed by F.P.A.’s friends and correspondents. “The Conning Tower,” like the “Tonight Show,” was a testing ground for new talents, and many of the people it introduced to the public went on to become celebrities.
October 1st: Traditional two-hour retrospective to mark the fourteenth anniversary of Carson’s enthronement as NBC’s emperor of causerie. Choice of material is limited to the period since 1970, for, with self-destructive improvidence, the company erased all the earlier Carson tapes, including Barbra Streisand’s first appearance as his guest and Judy Garland’s last. Host’s debonair entry is hailed with fifty-second ovation, which sounds unforced. I note the digital mannerisms (befitting one who began his career as a conjurer) that he uses to hold our attention during his patter. The right index finger is particularly active, now stabbing downward as if pressing computer buttons, now rising to flick at his ear, to tickle or scratch one side of his nose: constantly in motion, never letting our eyes wander. Thus he stresses and punctuates the gags, backed always by Big Ed’s antiphonal laughter.
Well-loved bits are rerun. The portly comic Dom DeLuise attempts a feat of legerdemain in which three eggs are at risk, and carries it off without breakage. But the sight of unbroken eggs—and others on standby—provokes Carson to a spell of riot. He tosses the original trio at DeLuise, who adroitly juggles with them and throws them back; Carson retaliates with more eggs, aiming a few at McMahon for good measure. Before long, in classic slapstick style, he has expressionlessly cracked an egg over DeLuise’s head and dropped another inside the front of his trousers, smashing it as it falls with a kindly pat on the belly. “You’re insane!” the victim cries. “You guys are bananas!” He gives Carson the same treatment; McMahon joins in; and by the end the floor and the three combatants are awash with what Falstaff would have called “pullet-sperm.” Looking back on the clip, Carson puckishly observes, “There’s something about eggs. I went ape.” The whole impromptu outburst would not have been funny if it had been initiated by someone like Buddy Hackett; it worked because of its incongruity with Carson’s persona—that of a well-nurtured Midwestern lad, playful but not vulgar. (“Even though he’s over fifty,” Fred de Cordova once said to me, “there’s a Peck’s Bad Boy quality that works for Johnny, never against him.”)
Other oddities from the program’s past: Carson diving onto a mattress from a height of twenty feet; splitting a block of wood with his head on instructions from a karate champion; tangling with a sumo wrestler; cuddling a cheetah cub; permitting a tarantula to crawl up his sleeve. We also see Carson confronted by guests with peculiar skills—the bird mimic whose big items are the mallard in distress and the cry of the loon, for instance, and the obsessive specialist whose act (one of the most memorable stunts ever recorded in a single take) consists of seven thousand dominoes arranged on end in a convoluted, interwoven pattern, involving ramps and tunnels, so that the first, when it is pushed, sets off a chain reaction that fells the remaining six thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine, which spell out—among other things—the DNA symbol and Carson’s name. In addition, we get the parody of “Dragnet,” that triumph of alliterative tongue-twisting in which Jack Webb, investigating the theft of a school bell, sombrely elicits from Carson the information that kleptomaniac Claude Cooper copped the clean copper clappers kept in the clothes closet. Best of all are the snippets from Carson’s interviews with people aged ninety and upward, whom he addresses as exact equals, with care and without condescension, never patronizing them, and never afraid to laugh when they get a sentence back to front or forget the punch line of a joke; one such encounter is with a woman of a hundred and three years, who is still a licensed driver. (Paul Morrissey, the movie director, who is watching the program with me, remarks, “Nobody else on TV treats old people with the perfect tact and affection of Carson. He must have a very loving relationship with his parents.”) An NBC spokesman chips in with a resounding but meretricious statistic. The Carson show, he says, has already been seen by more than four times the population of our planet. This presumably means that one person who has watched the program a hundred times counts as a hundred people. Either that or NBC is laying claim to extraterrestrial viewers. The ratings war being what it is, anything is possible.
November 12th: After days of spot announcements and years of coaxing by the network, Frank Sinatra makes his debut on the show. Received like visiting royalty, he gives the impression of swaggering even when seated. For once, the host seems uneasy, overawed, too ready to laugh. Don Rickles is hurried on unannounced to dissipate the atmosphere of obsequiousness, which he does by talking to the singer like Mafia subaltern reporting to Godfather; at least this is better than treating him as God. (I get memory flash of cable sent to me by Gore Vidal when he agreed to accept my younger daughter as godchild: “Always a godfather, never a god.” For many people in entertainment business, Sinatra is both.) When conversation again falters, Rickles declares to world at large, “I’m a Jew, and he’s an Italian, andhere”—he thrusts at Carson a face contorted with distaste, like diner finding insect in soup—”here we have . . . what?” Rickles wraps up interview by saying that he truly admires Sinatra, because “he stimulates excitement, he stimulates our industry, and”—fixing Carson with glare of malign relish—”he . . . makes . . . you . . . nervous.”
Not long afterward, Carson had his revenge. While acting as guest host on the show, Rickles broke the cigarette box on Carson’s desk by striking it with his clenched fist when a gag fell flat. The next night, Carson returned. As soon as he sat down, he noticed the damage. “That’s an heirloom,” he said. “I’ve had it for nine years.” Informed that Rickles was the culprit, he picked up the debris and rose, telling one of the cameras to follow him. (None of this was rehearsed.) He then left the “Tonight Show” studio, crossed the corridor outside, and, ignoring the red warning lights, marched into the studio opposite, where Rickles was at that moment halfway through taping the next episode of his comedy series “CPO Sharkey.” Walking straight into the middle of a shot, Carson held out his splintered treasure to Rickles and sternly demanded both restitution and an apology. The Enforcer was flabbergasted, as were his supporting cast, his producer, and his director. Carson was impenitent. “I really shook him,” he said to me later, with quiet satisfaction. “He was speechless.”
Testimony from the two NBC associates who are closest to Carson:
These are Fred de Cordova and Ed McMahon De Cordova, who has been Carson’s producer for the past seven years, talks to me in the “Tonight Show” bungalow at Burbank. He is a large, looming, beaming man with horn-rimmed glasses, an Acapulcan tan, and an engulfing handshake that is a contract in itself, complete with small print and an option for renewal on both sides. Now in his mid-sixties, he looks like a cartoon of a West Coast producer in his early fifties. His professional record, dating back to 1933, is exceptional: Ten years in theatre with the Shubert organization, followed by a decade making movies in Hollywood. Thence into TV, where he worked (directing and/or producing) with Burns and Allen, George Gobel, Jack Benny, and the Smothers Brothers. In the magazine piece he wrote which appeared with notations by Carson, he said he now had “the last great job in show business,” because the Carson program was “spontaneous” and “instantaneous.” He explained that it wasn’t technically live, in that taping preceded transmission; nevertheless, “practically speaking, we are the only continuing live show left.” (For accuracy’s sake, this phrase should be amended to read, “the only continuing nationwide nighttime quasi-live talk show left, apart from Merv Griffin’s.”) He went on to compare the program to a ballgame, played “in front of a jammed grandstand night after night.” “To me,” Carson noted in the margin, “it’s like a salmon going up the Columbia River.” Trying to define Carson’s appeal, de Cordova wrote, “He’s somebody’s son, somebody’s husband, somebody’s father. He combines them all.” Which sounds very impressive until you reflect that it applies to most of the adult male population. Carson circled this passage and made it slightly narrower in scope by adding to the first sentence, “and several people’s ex-husband.” De Cordova’s most telling point, at which no one could cavil, came later in the article. “We have no laugh track,” he said. “We’re naked.” In an age when canned hilarity has all but usurped the viewer’s right to an autonomous sense of humor, it is reassuring to read a statement like that.
On the wall behind de Cordova’s desk hangs a chart showing the lineup of guests for weeks, and even months, ahead. Perennial absentees, long sought, never snared, include Elton John and Robert Redford. When de Cordova is asked why the list is so sparsely dotted with people of much intellectual firepower, he reacts with bewilderment: “That just isn’t true. We’ve had some of the finest minds I know—Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich, Margaret Mead, Gore Vidal, Shana Alexander, Madalyn Murray O’Hair.” This odd aggregation of names sprang from the lips of many other “Tonight Show” employees to whom I put that question, almost as if they were contractually bound to commit it to memory. Nobody, however, denied that there have been few latter-day guests with the political weight of Nelson Rockefeller, Hubert Humphrey, and John and Robert Kennedy, all of whom appeared with Carson in his earlier years. De Cordova continues, “I’ve heard it said that Johnny is intimidated by witty, intellectual women. Well, just who are these women? Apart from people like Shana, who’ve had a lot of TV experience, they tend to freeze on camera. We’ve so often been fooled by witty cocktail talkers who simply didn’t transfer to television.” Carson, he points out, is no numbskull; he reads extensively, with special emphasis on politics, and has more than an amateur knowledge of astronomy. Also of sports: “Ike Nastase, Chris Evert, and Dwight Stones have all been very effective guests.” But there are, he admits, certain categories of people who are unlikely to receive the summons to Burbank: “We don’t have an official blacklist, but Johnny wouldn’t have Linda Lovelace on the show, for example. Or anyone mixed up in a sexual scandal, like Elizabeth Ray. And no criminals, except reformed criminals—we turned down Clifford Irving, the guy who forged the Howard Hughes memoirs. Johnny prefers to look for non-celebrities who’ll make human-interest stories. We subscribe to fifty-seven newspapers from small towns and cities all over the country, and that’s where we find some of our best material.” He goes on to say, “In the monologue, Johnny will attack malfeasance, illiberal behavior, Constitutional abuses. But then compassion sets in. He was the first person to stop doing anti-Nixon jokes.” (Ten years ago, Henry Morgan said of Carson, “He believes that justice is some kind of entity that is palpable. He talks about it as if he were talking about a chair.”) Does the monologue suffer from network censorship? “The problem doesn’t come up, because Johnny has an in-built sense of what his audience will take,” de Cordova says. “He’s the best self-editor I’ve ever known.” This, as we shall see, was a somewhat disingenuous reply.
Lunch with the bulky, eternally clubbable McMahon in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Born in Detroit, Big Ed is now in his mid-fifties, and has worked with Carson for two decades, including five years as his announcer on “Who Do You Trust?” NBC gives him eight weeks’ annual vacation with full pay, and he makes a great deal of money on the side from night-club appearances, real-estate investments, and commercials for a variety of products, chief among them beer and dog food. Even so, he is well aware that, as he says to me, “the ‘Tonight Show’ is my staple diet, my meat and potatoes—I’m realistic enough to know that everything else stems from that.” In 1972, when the show moved from New York to Los Angeles, McMahon left his wife and four children, after twenty-seven years of marriage, to go with it. (Divorce followed soon afterward; McMahon remarried in 1976.) He has known his place, and kept to it without visible resentment, since 1965, when the notorious Incident of the Insect Repellent showed him exactly where he stood. “Johnny was demonstrating an anti-mosquito spray,” he says, “and just before using it he said he’d heard that mosquitoes only went for really passionate people. Acting on instinct, I stuck out my arm and slapped it. It wrecked Johnny’s gag, and I had to apologize to him during the next break. That taught me never to go where he’s going. I have to get my comedy in other areas. Before the show, I do the audience warmup, and even there I have to avoid any topical material he might be using in the monologue.”
This being a show day, McMahon eats and drinks frugally (cold cuts and beer). Both he and Carson have drastically reduced their alcoholic intake over the past few years. On camera, Carson sips coffee and cream (no sugar), and McMahon makes do with iced tea. McMahon denies the rumor that Carson has become anti-social because of his abstinence: “If it’s a big affair, you’ll maybe find him in a corner, talking one to one, but in a small group he can be the life of the party, doing tricks, killing everybody.” One of the unauthorized biographies of Carson contains a story about a surprise birthday party to which his second wife, Joanne, invited all his close friends. “There were about eight people there,” an unnamed guest is quoted as saying, “and I think it was a shock to all of us.” Pooh-poohing this yarn, McMahon counters by telling me about a surprise party he gave for Carson in 1962: “I built it up by pretending it was being held in his honor by TV Guide and he really had to go. He finally gave in. I said I’d drive him down there, and he began bitching as soon as he got in the car. So I suggested stopping off at my place for a preliminary drink, and he agreed. I’d arranged for the other cars to be parked out of sight, in case he recognized them. What happened was that he walked straight into the arms of about fifty friends and relatives who’d come from all over to see him. He had tears in his eyes. That was the first time I saw him touched.”
Professionally, McMahon most enjoys the tête-à-tête at Carson’s desk which follows the monologue: “Sometimes he develops a real resistance to bringing out the first guest. I see something goofy in his eyes. It means that he wants us to go on rapping together, so we play back and forth, getting wilder and wilder, until maybe the guest has gone home and it’s time for the first commercial.”
I read to him some remarks made by the columnist Rex Reed, who described Carson as “the most over-rated amateur since Evelyn and her magic violin” and continued, “The most annoying thing about Carson is his unwillingness to swing, to trust himself or his guests. . . . He never looks at you; he’s too busy (1) watching the audience to see if they are responding, and (2) searching the face of his producer for reassurance.”
McMahon finds these comments inexplicable. “Johnny can get absolutely spellbound by his guests,” he says. “You’ll see him lean his chin on his hand and really drink them in. And as for that stuff about not swinging—did the guy ever watch him with Tony Randall or Buck Henry or Orson Bean? He’s always going off into unplanned areas and uncharted places. Other people have clipboards full of questions and use them like crutches. Johnny never uses any. And he loves meeting new comics and feeding them lines, the way he did with Steve Martin and Rodney Dangerfield when hardly anyone had heard of them. Naturally, he likes to get laughs himself. That’s part of the job. A few nights ago, Tony Bennett was on the show, talking about his childhood and how his family hoped he’d achieve fabulous things when he grew up. Johnny listened for a long while and then said, quite deadpan, ‘My parents wanted me to be a sniper.’ Another time, he asked Fernando Lamas why he’d gone into movies, and Lamas said, ‘Because it was a great way to meet broads.’ I loved Johnny’s comeback. He just nodded and said, ‘Nietzsche couldn’t have put it more succinctly.’ And, of course, there are the famous ad-libs that everyone remembers, like when Mr. Universe was telling him how important it was to keep fit—’Don’t forget, Mr. Carson, your body is the only home you’ll ever have’—and Johnny said, ‘Yes, my home is pretty messy. But I have a woman who comes in once a week.’ “ McMahon confirms my impression that Carson was daunted by Sinatra. He adds, ‘And he’s always a little bit overawed by Orson Welles. But there was one time when we were both nervous. I came on as a guest to plug a film I’d just made, and we had a rather edgy conversation. When the interview was over, Johnny came out from behind his desk to shake hands and revealed to the world that he had no pants on. I was so anxious to get off that I didn’t even notice.” How long, I ask, will Carson stay with the show? “He’ll still be there in 1980,” says McMahon confidently.
The year 1977, for Carson-watchers, was one in which the “Tonight Show,” while retaining all its sparkle and caprice, gained not an inch in intellectual stature. It is one thing to say as Carson often does, that he is not a professional controversialist. It is quite another to avoid controversy altogether.
February 2nd: Appearance of Alex Haley to talk about “Roots.” (During the previous night’s monologue, Carson used a curiously barbed phrase to account for the success of ABC’s televised adaptation of Haley’s best-seller. “Give the people what they want,” he said. “Hatred, violence, and sex.” It was difficult to tell whether the gibe was aimed at the rival network or at the book itself. One wondered, too, why he thought it amusing to add, “My great-great- great-great-grandfather was a runaway comedian from Bangladesh.”) In 1967, when Haley was working for Playboy, he conducted a lengthy interview with Carson. In the course of it, Carson attacked the C.I.A. for hiring students to compile secret reports on campus subversives, condemned “the kind of corporate espionage and financial hanky-panky that goes on in business,” supported the newly insurgent blacks in demanding “equality for all,” and said, “It’s ludicrous to declare that it’s wrong to have sex with anyone you’re not married to.” Moreover, he summed up the war in Vietnam as “stupid and pointless.” He seldom voiced these opinions with much vehemence on the show. Ten years later, with the war safely over, he welcomed Jane Fonda as his guest and congratulated her on having lived to see her views on Vietnam fully justified by history. With considerable tact, Ms. Fonda not only resisted the temptation to address her host as Johnny-come-lately but refrained from reminding him that when she most needed a television outlet for her ideas the doors of the “Tonight Show” studio were closed to her.
To return to February 2nd: Haley takes the initiative by asking Carson how far back he can trace his own roots. He replies that he knows who his grandparents were, and was personally very close to his father’s parents, both of whom survived into their nineties. Of his pedigree before that, he confesses total ignorance. Haley thereupon shakes him by producing a heavy, leatherbound volume with a golden inscription on the cover: “Roots of Johnny Carson—A Tribute to a Great American Entertainer.” Haley has signed the fly-leaf, “With warm best wishes to you and your family from the family of Kunta Kinte.” Carson is obviously stirred. “I was tremendously moved that Alex had found time to do all this research in the middle of his success,” he said to me afterward, and I learned from McMahon that this was only the second occasion on which he had seen the boss tearful. Although Haley was the instigator, the work was in fact carried out by the Institute of Family Research, in Salt Lake City. The people there first heard of the project on the evening of Saturday, January 29th, when Haley called them up and told them that the finished book had to be ready for presentation to Carson in Los Angeles the following Wednesday. “That gave us two working days to do a job that would normally take us two months,” a spokesman for the Institute told me. “What’s more, we had to do it in absolute secrecy, without any access to the person involved.” A task force of fifteen investigators toiling round the clock for forty-eight hours just managed to beat the deadline. The result of their labors—consisting of genealogical charts going back to the sixteenth century, biographical sketches of Carson’s more prominent forebears, and anecdotes from the family’s history—ran to more than four hundred pages. The gesture cost Haley (or his publishers) approximately five thousand dollars. Carson lent me the book, a massive quarry of data, from which I offer a few chippings:
(1) Earliest known Carson ancestor: Thomas Kellogg, on the paternal side of the family, born c. 1521 in the English village of Debdon, Essex. The first Kelloggs to cross the Atlantic were Daniel (born 1630) and his wife, Bridget, who settled in Connecticut. By the early nineteenth century, we find offshoots of the clan widely dispersed in Indiana and Nebraska, and it was Emiline, of the Nebraska Kelloggs, who married Marshall Carson, great-grandfather of Johnny. Marshall (born c. 1833) was allured by gold, and staked a profitless claim in the western part of Nebraska. Along with Emiline, he moved to Iowa, where by dying in 1922 he narrowly failed to become a nonagenarian. That was the year in which his grandson Homer Loyd Carson married a girl named Ruth Hook. John William Carson (born 1925) was the second child of this union, flanked by an elder sister, Catherine, and a younger brother, Dick.
(2) On his mother’s side, Carson’s first authenticated forebear is Thomas Hooke, a seventh great-grandfather, who sailed from London to Maryland in 1668. Most of his maternal roots, however, lead back to Ireland, whence two of his fifth great-grandfathers embarked for the States in the middle years of the eighteenth century.
(3) His family tree is laden with hardworking farmers. Decennial census sheets from 1840 to 1900 show Carson progenitors tilling the land in Maine, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, and Iowa.
(4) As far as anyone knows, Johnny and Kit Carson are no more closely related than Edward and Bonwit Teller. Johnny’s background nonetheless contains two figures of some regional celebrity. One is Captain James Hook (maternal branch), who is reputed, but not proved, to have served with Washington at Valley Forge. In a private quarrel, Captain Hook lost a sliver of his ear to a man who pulled a knife on him. Being unarmed, Hook riposted by tearing off a much larger piece of his assailant’s ear with his teeth. The other Carson ancestor of note is Judge James Hardy (paternal branch), a whimsical but beloved dispenser of justice in mid-nineteenth-century Iowa.
(5) Judge Hardy’s son Samuel, who died in 1933, at the age of eighty-five, was a skilled amateur violinist. Otherwise, in all the four previous centuries of the Carson family saga there is no sign of anyone with an interest in the arts or a talent for entertainment.
February 10th: Significant how many of the failed gags in Carson’s monologues miss their target because they are based on the naïve assumption that the studio audience has read the morning papers. One often gets the feeling that Carson is doubly insulated against reality. Events in the world outside Burbank and Bel Air impinge on him only when they have been filtered through magazines and newspapers and then subjected to a second screening by his writers and researchers. Hence his uncanny detachment, as of a man sequestered from the everyday problems with which most of us grapple. In fifteen years, barely a ripple of emotional commitment has disturbed the fishpond smoothness of his professional style. We are watching an immaculate machine. Some find the spectacle inhuman. “He looks plastic,” said Dorothy Parker in 1966. On the other hand, Shana Alexander told me with genuine admiration, “He’s like an astronaut, a Venusian, a visitor from another planet, someone out of ‘Star Trek.’ ”
Two reflections on tonight’s monologue. First, drawing on the latest Nielsen report, Carson informs us that during the icebound month of January the average American family watched television for seven hours and sixteen minutes per day A fearsome statistic. No wonder they have so little time for newspapers. Second, he knocks the Senate for allowing its members’ salaries to be raised to fifty-seven thousand five hundred dollars a year. The joke gives off a whiff of bad taste, coming, as it does, from a man who earns more than that every week. Whatever Carson’s failings may be, they do not include a lack of chutzpah.
April 1st: Nice to hear Ethel Merman on the show, blasting out “Ridin’ High” as if calling the cattle home across the sands of D flat major. But I wonder whether Carson would (or could) have done what Merv Griffin, of all people, did earlier in the evening; namely, devoted most of a ninety-minute program to a conversation with Orson Welles, which was conducted on what by talk-show standards was a respectably serious level. In 1962, when Carson took over the stewardship of the “Tonight Show,” America was about to enter one of the grimmest and most divisive periods in its history, marked by the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the ghetto insurrections, the campus riots, the Vietnam war. Is it arguable that during this bad time Carson became the nation’s chosen joker because, in Madison Avenue terms, he was guaranteed to relieve nervous strain and anxiety more swiftly and safely (ask your doctor) than any competing brand of wag? Now that the country’s headaches have ceased to throb so painfully, its viewers may be ready for a more substantial diet than any that Carson, at the moment, cares to provide.
April 7th: Characteristic but in no way exceptional duologue between Carson and Buck Henry, the screenwriter and occasional actor. Whenever they meet on the show, their exchanges are vagrant, ethereal, unhurried, as if they were conversing in a limbo borrowed from a play by Samuel Beckett.
Carson: Do you believe in plastic surgery?
Henry: Absolutely. It’s important, I think, to move things about judiciously.
Carson: They’re talking about freezing people and then reviving them in hundreds of years’ time.
Henry: (nods for a while, until a thought strikes him): But suppose you died of freezing to death? (Pause.) I think it would be frightening to come back.
Carson: If you could come back as somebody else, who would it be?
Henry: (unhesitatingly): Miss Teen-Age America.
Carson: Where do you get ideas for your work?
Henry: Oh, everyday places. Looking through keyholes.
Carson: Eugene O’Neill got his ideas from his family.
Henry: I expect to get a short monograph out of mine. (Pause.)
Carson: You have a strange turn of mind.
Carson brings up a newspaper story about a California woman who was recently interred, in accordance with a clause in her will, at the wheel of her Ferrari.
Henry: Yes. It’s reasonable to be married—or I may mean buried—in a Ferrari.
Carson: How do you want to go?
Henry: (very slowly): Very slowly. With a jazz band playing in the background. I want to be extremely old. I want to be withered beyond recall.
Carson: But if you lived to be a hundred arid fifty, how would you kill time for the last seventy years?
Henry: (contemplatively): You’d read a lot. I don’t know what the real fun things to do would be after a hundred and twenty. I think the normal activities that come to mind would probably cripple you.
There was also some adagio talk about quarks and their relationship to other subatomic particles, but Henry declined to expand on the subject, perhaps feeling that it might be over our heads.
May 11th: Advice from Carson on longevity: “If you must smoke, don’t do it orally.” And, more cryptically: “You can add years to your life by wearing your pants backwards.”
June 15th: He chats with someone who has attained longevity. Clare Ritter, an impoverished widow from Florida in her late seventies, discloses that her life’s ambition is to make a trip to Egypt. In order to achieve it, she sells waste aluminum, which she collects by ransacking garbage cans.
Carson: How much is this trip going to cost?
Mrs. Ritter: Three thousand dollars.
Carson: And how much have you saved so far?
Mrs. Ritter: About half of it.
Carson volunteers to give her the rest himself. A graceful (and, I am assured, unpremeditated) gesture.
July 19th: Seated at the desk with McMahon, Carson says, “If you decide to ban your kids from watching TV here’s what they can do instead.” He picks up a sheaf of humorous suggestions submitted by his writers, scans the first page, shows by his reaction that he finds it unfunny, and drops it on the floor. (This, like what ensues, is unplanned and impromptu.) He inspects page 2, raises his eyebrows, shows it to McMahon, drops that on the floor; goes on to page 3, gives McMahon a glimpse of it, whereupon both men shake their heads, and it, too, ends up on the floor. At this point, Carson starts to chuckle to himself. “How about this?” he says, and page 4 is tossed away, to be joined in rapid succession by a dozen, by two dozen more pages, falling faster and faster (the chuckle is by now uncontrollable), in a blizzard of rejection that does not stop until he has discarded every sheet of what was obviously planned as a solid five-minute comedy routine. On network TV, this is just not done. You do not throw away an expensive script in full view of a national audience unless you can ad-lib something funnier to take its place. Carson offers us nothing in exchange except what he alone can supply: the spectacle of Carson being Carson, acting on impulse, surrendering to whim, and, as ever, getting away with it. (No claim is made for the above escapade as archive material, or as anything more than a specimen of Carson in average form on an average night. I record it to illustrate how, in the right hands, pure behavior becomes pure television. Like Shakespeare’s Parolles, Carson can say, “Simply the thing I am shall make me live.”)
Later in this show, Albert Finney, an actor who has temporarily turned his hand to lyric-writing and his voice to singing, plugs his first L.P., declaring with brooding self-satisfaction that his songs derive from “the spring well” of personal experience. The number with which he favors us constitutes more of a threat to English grammar (“What has become of you and I?”) than to Charles Aznavour, who seems to be Finney’s model. The last guest is Madeline Kahn, who discusses the psychological ups and downs of her career as an actress. Carson responds with a rare flash of self-revelation. “I’ve had a little therapy myself,” he says, “to cut down the hills and get out of the valleys.”
August 4th: President Carter has recommended that it should not be a criminal offense to be found in possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
Carson: The trouble is that nobody in our band knows what an ounce or less means.
Doc Severinsen: It means you’re about out.
January 18, 1977: My first solo encounter with Carson. We are to meet at the Beverly Hills Hotel for an early luncheon in the Polo Lounge. I prepare for my date by looking back on Carson’s pre-”Tonight Show” career. It is not a story of overnight success. At the time of his birth in Corning, Iowa, his father was a lineman for an electricity company. It was a peripatetic job, and the family moved with him through several other Iowa hamlets. When Johnny was eight, they settled in Norfolk, Nebraska, a town of some ten thousand, where Carson senior got a managerial post with the local light-and-power company. “When one meets Johnny’s parents, one understands him,” Al Capp has said. “They’re almost the definitive Nebraska mother and father. Radiantly decent, well-spoken. The kind that raised their kids to have manners. Of all the television hosts I’ve faced, Carson has the most old-fashioned manners.” By contemporary standards, he had a strict—even rigorous upbringing, not calculated to encourage extrovert behavior. His brother Dick (now director of the “Merv Griffin Show”) was once quoted as saying, “Put it this way—we’re not Italian. Nobody in our family ever says what they really think or feel to anyone else.” Except, I would add, in moments of professional crisis, when Johnny Carson can express himself with brusque and unequivocal directness. In 1966, for instance, the first three nights of a cabaret engagement he played in Miami were spoiled by a backstage staff too inexperienced to handle the elaborate sound effects that his act required. Carson accused his manager, Al Bruno, who had looked after his business affairs for almost ten years, of responsibility for the fiasco, and fired him on the spot. Again, there was the case of Art Stark, who described himself to an interviewer in 1966 as “Johnny’s best friend.” He had every reason to think so: for nearly a decade he had been Carson’s producer, first on “Who Do You Trust?” and then on the “Tonight Show.” He was the star’s closest confidant, and when, in 1967, Carson embarked on a legal struggle with NBC for control of the show, including the right to hire and fire, he repeatedly assured Stark that, whatever the outcome, Stark’s job would be safe. Having won the battle, however, Carson summoned Stark to his apartment and announced without preamble that he wanted another producer, unconnected with NBC. Dumbfounded, Stark asked when he would have to quit. “Right now,” said Carson.
When Carson was twelve, he picked up, at a friend’s house, a conjuring manual for beginners called “Hoffman’s Book of Magic.” Its effect on him has been compared to the impact on the youthful Keats of Chapman’s Homer. (“Chapman hit it in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game against Milwaukee,” said the man who made the comparison, a former Carson writer. “Little Johnny Keats was standing behind the center-field fence and the ball landed smack on his head.”) Carson immediately wrote off for a junior magician’s kit. He worked hard to master the basic skills of the trade, and, having tried out his tricks on his mother’s bridge club, he made his professional début, billed as The Great Carsoni, before a gathering of Norfolk Rotarians. For this he received three dollars—the first of many such fees, for the kid illusionist was soon in demand at a variety of local functions, from firemen’s picnics to county fairs. As a student at Norfolk High, he branched out into acting and also wrote a comic column for the school newspaper.
Digressive flash forward: In 1976, Carson was invited back to Norfolk to give the commencement address. Immensely gratified, he accepted at once. He took great pains over his speech, and when he delivered it, on May 23rd, the school auditorium was packed to the roof. In the front row, alongside his wife, brother, and sister, sat his parents, to whom he paid tribute for having “backed me up and let me go in my own direction.” He also thanked one of his teachers, Miss Jenny Walker, who had prophetically said of him in 1943, “You have a fine sense of humor and I think you will go far in the entertainment world.” In case anyone wondered why he had returned to Norfolk, he explained, “I’ve come to find out what’s on the seniors’ minds and, more important, to see if they’ve changed the movie at the Granada Theatre” (where, I have since discovered, Carson was working as a part-time usher when the manager interrupted the double feature to announce that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor). He went on to recall that he had been chosen to lead the school’s scrap-metal drive: “Unfortunately, in our zeal to help the war effort, we sometimes appropriated metal and brass from people who did not know they were parting with it.” He continued, “I was also a member of the Thespians. I joined because I thought it meant something else. Then I found out it had to do with acting.” In the manner expected of commencement speakers, he offered a little advice on coping with life in the adult world. Though his precepts were homespun to the point of platitude, they were transparently sincere and devoid of conventional pomposity. The main tenets of the Carson credo were these: (1) Learn to laugh at yourself. (2) Never lose the curiosity of childhood: “Go on asking questions about the nature of things and how they work, and don’t stop until you get the answers.” (3) Study the art of compromise, which implies a willingness to be convinced by other people’s arguments: “Stay loose. In marriage, above all, compromise is the name of the game. Although”—and here he cast a glance at his third wife—”you may think that my giving advice on marriage is like the captain of the Titanic giving lessons on navigation.” (4) Having picked a profession, feel no compulsion to stick to it: “If you don’t like it, stop doing it. Never continue in a job you don’t enjoy.” (On the evidence, it would be hard to fault Carson for failing to practice what he preached.) A question-and-answer session then took place, from which I append a few excerpts:
Q: How do you feel about Norfolk nowadays?
Carson: I’m very glad I grew up in a small community. Big cities are where alienation sets in.
Q: Has success made you happy?
Carson: I have very high ups and very low downs. I can all of a sudden be depressed, sometimes without knowing why. But on the whole I think I’m relatively happy.
Q: Who do you admire most, of all the guests you’ve interviewed?
Carson: People like Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich, Margaret Mead . . . (He recites the official list, already quoted, of Most Valued Performers.)
Q: In all your life, what are you proudest of?
Carson: Giving a commencement address like this has made me as proud as anything I’ve ever done.
The applause at the end was so clamorous that Carson felt compelled to improvise a postscript. “If you’re happy in what you’re doing, you’ll like yourself,” he said. “And if you like yourself, you’ll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined. I thank you all very much.” He left the stage to a further outburst of cheers, having established what may be a record for speakers on such occasions: throughout the evening, he had made no reference to the deity, the flag, or the permissive society; nor had he used the phrase “this great country of ours.”
After graduating from Norfolk, in 1943, Carson enrolled in the Navy’s V-12 program, but training did not start until the fall, so he filled in time by hitchhiking to California. There, in order to gain access to the many entertainments that were offered free of charge to servicemen, he stopped off at an Army-Navy store and prematurely bought himself a naval cadet’s uniform. Thus attired, he danced with Marlene Dietrich at the Hollywood Stage Door Canteen. Later, he travelled south to see Orson Welles give a display of magic in San Diego, where he responded to the maestro’s request for a volunteer from the audience and ecstatically permitted himself to be sawed in half. That night, he was arrested by two M.P.s and charged with impersonating a member of the armed forces—an offense that cost him fifty dollars in bail. After induction, he attended the midshipmen’s school at Columbia University and served in the Pacific aboard the battleship Pennsylvania. Never exposed to combat, he had plenty of time to polish his conjuring skills. In 1946, discharged from the Navy, he entered the University of Nebraska, where he majored in English and moonlighted as a magician, by now earning twenty-five dollars per appearance. In need of an assistant, he hired a girl student named Jody Wolcott; he married her in 1948. (To dispose, as briefly as possible, of Carson’s marital history: The liaison with Jody produced three sons—Chris, Ricky, and Cory—and was finally dissolved, after four years of separation, in 1963. “My greatest personal failure,” Carson has said, “was when I was divorced from my first wife.” In August, 1963, he married Joanne Copeland, aged thirty, a diminutive, dark-haired model and occasional actress. They parted company in 1970 but were not legally sundered until two years later, when the second Mrs. Carson was awarded a settlement of nearly half a million dollars, in addition to an annual hundred thousand in alimony. She had by then moved from New York to Los Angeles. Shortly afterward, Carson migrated to the West Coast, bringing the show with him. Between these two events she discerns a causal connection. She has also declared that when, at a Hollywood party, Carson first met his next wife-to-be, “she was standing with her back to him, and he went right up to her, thinking it was me.” On matters such as this, Carson’s lips are meticulously sealed. All we know—or need to know—is that on September 30, 1972, during a gaudy celebration at the Beverly Hills Hotel in honor of his tenth anniversary on the “Tonight Show,” he stepped up to the microphone and announced that at one-thirty that afternoon he had married Joanna Holland. Of Italian lineage, and a model by profession, she was thirty-two years old. They are still together. It is difficult to see how Carson could have mistaken her, even from behind, for her predecessor. She could not be sanely described as diminutive. Dark-haired, yes; but of medium height and voluptuous build. The third Mrs. Carson is the kind of woman, bright and molto simpatica, whom you would expect to meet not in Bel Air but at a cultural soiree in Rome, where—as like as not—she would be more than holding her own against the earnest platonic advances of Michelangelo Antonioni.)
Carson’s post-college career follows the route to success traditionally laid down for a television—What? Personality-cum-comedian-cum-interviewer? No single word yet exists to epitomize his function, though it has had many practitioners, from Steve Allen, the archetypal pioneer, to the hosts of the latest and grisliest giveaway shows. In Carson’s case, there are ten steps to stardom. (1) A multi-purpose job (at forty-seven dollars and fifty cents a week) as disc jockey, weather reporter, and reader of commercials on an Omaha radio station, where he breaks a precedent or two; e.g., when he is required to conduct pseudo-interviews, consisting of answers prerecorded by minor celebrities and distributed to small-town d.j.s with a list of matching questions, he flouts custom by ignoring the script. Instead of asking Patti Page how she began performing, he says, “I understand you’re hitting the bottle pretty good, Patti—when did you start?,” which elicits the taped reply “When I was six, I used to get up at church socials and do it.” (2) A work-hunting foray, in 1951, to San Francisco and Los Angeles, which gets him nowhere except back to Omaha. (3) A sudden summons, later in the same year, from a Los Angeles television station, KNXT, offering him a post as staff announcer, which he accepts, at a hundred and thirty-five dollars a week. (4) A Sunday-afternoon show of his own (“KNXT cautiously presents ‘Carson’s Cellar’ “), produced on a weekly budget of twenty-five dollars, plus fifty for Carson. It becomes what is known as a cult success (a golden phrase, which unlocks many high-level doors), numbering among its fans—and subsequently its guests—such people as Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Red Skelton. (5) Employment, after thirty weeks of “Carson’s Cellar,” as a writer and supporting player on Skelton’s CBS-TV show. (6) The Breakthrough, which occurs in 1954 and is brought about, in strict adherence to the “Forty-second Street” formula, by an injury to the star: Skelton literally knocks himself out while rehearsing a slapstick routine, and Carson, at roughly an hour’s notice, triumphantly replaces him. (7) The Breakdown: CBS launches “The Johnny Carson Show,” a half-hour program that goes through seven directors, eight writers, and thirty-nine weeks of worsening health before expiring, in the spring of 1956. (8) Carson picks self up, dusts self off, starts all over again. On money borrowed from his father, he moves from the West Coast to New York, where he joins the Friars Club, impresses its show-business membership with his cobra-swift one-liners, makes guest appearances on TV and generally repairs his damaged reputation until (9) he is hired by ABC, in 1957, to run its quiz program “Who Do You Trust?,” on which he spends the five increasingly prosperous years that lead him to (10) the “Tonight Show,” and thence to the best table in the Polo Lounge, where he has been waiting for several minutes when I arrive, precisely on time.
He is making copious notes on a pad. I ask what he is writing. He says he has had an idea for tonight’s monologue. In Utah, yesterday, the convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who had aroused national interest by his refusal to appeal against the death sentence passed upon him, got his wish by facing a firing squad—Utah being a state where the law allows condemned criminals to select the method by which society will rid itself of them. Thus, the keepers of the peace have shot a man to death at his own urgent request. Carson’s comment on this macabre situation takes the form of black comedy. Since justice must be seen to be done, why not let the viewing public in on the process of choice? Carson proposes a new TV show, to be called “The Execution Game.” It would work something like this: Curtains part to reveal the death chamber, in the middle of which is an enormous wheel, equipped with glittering lights and a large golden arrow, to be spun by the condemned man to decide the nature of his fate. For mouth-watering prizes—ranging from a holiday for two in the lovely Munich suburb of Dachau to a pair of front-row seats at the victim’s terminal throes—members of the audience vie with one another to guess whether the arrow will come to rest on the electric chair, the gas chamber, the firing squad, the garrote, or the noose.
This routine seems to me apt and mordant, and I tell Carson that I look forward to seeing it developed this evening. (Footnote: I looked in vain. The January 18th edition of the “Tonight Show” contained no mention of Gary Gilmore’s execution apart from a terse and oddly sour sentence—”Capital punishment is a great deterrent to monologues”—inserted without buildup or comic payoff in Carson’s opening spiel. A couple of nights later, one of his guests was Shelley Winters, who burst into an attack on the death penalty, using the Gilmore case as her springboard. Carson showed a distinctly nervous reluctance to commit himself; indeed, he shied away from the subject, and cut the discussion short by saying, “There are no absolutes.” Yet I had seen him writing a piece that implied fairly bitter opposition to the process of judicial killing. What had happened? I called up Fred de Cordova, who admitted, after some hesitation, that he had disliked the “Execution Game” idea and that the network had backed him up. There had been a convulsive row with Carson, but in the end “Johnny saw reason” and the item was dropped. Hence his remark, meaningless except to insiders, about capital punishment’s being “a great deterrent to monologues”; and so much for de Cordova’s description of Carson as a supreme “self-editor” who never needed censorship.)
A believer in eating only when one is hungry, Carson orders nothing more than a salad and some mineral water. “I gave up drinking a couple of years ago,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it.” He adds that we can chat until two o’clock, when he must be off to Burbank. He doesn’t know who is lined up to appear tonight. This prompts an obligatory question: Which guests has he coveted and failed to corral? “Cary Grant, of course. But straight actors often get embarrassed on the show. They say they feel naked. Their business is to play other people, and it bugs them to have to speak as themselves. Naturally, I’d be glad to have Henry Kissinger. And it was a great sorrow to me when Charles Laughton, whom we’d been after for ages, died a few days before he was scheduled to appear. But on the whole I’m pretty content to have had a list of guests like Paul Ehrlich, Gore Vidal, Carl Sagan, Madalyn Murray O’Hair . . .” He flips through the familiar roster. “And it gives me a special kick to go straight from talking to that kind of person into an all-out slapstick routine.” He runs over his rules for coping with fellow-comedians on the program: “You have to lay back and help them. Never compete with them. I learned that from Jack Benny. The better they are, the better the show is.” (In more immature days, Carson’s technique was less self-effacing. The late Jack E. Leonard told a reporter in 1967, “You say a funny line on Griffin, and he laughs and says, ‘That’s brilliant.’ Carson repeats it, scavenging, hunting all over for the last vestiges of the joke, trying desperately to pull a laugh of his own out of it.”) Carson continues, “When people get outrageous, you have to capitalize on their outrageousness and go along with it. The only absolute rule is: Never lose control of the show.”
To stay in control is the hardest trick of all, especially when the talk veers toward obscenity; you have to head it off, preferably with a laugh, before it crashes through the barrier of public acceptance. At times, you have to launch a preëmptive strike of salaciousness in order to get an interview started. “Not long ago, a movie starlet came on the show with gigantic breasts bulging out of a low-cut dress,” Carson says. “The audience couldn’t look at anything else. If I’d ignored them, nobody would have listened to a word we said. There was only one thing to do. As soon as she sat down, I stared straight at her cleavage and said, ‘That’s the biggest set of jugs I ever saw.’ It got a tremendous laugh. ‘Now that we’ve got that out of the way,’ I said, ‘let’s talk.’ ”
High on his list of favorite guests is Don Rickles, though he feels that Rickles has sadly mishandled his own TV career: “He went in for situation comedy and tried to be lovable. And he failed every time. What he needed—and I’ve told him this over and over again—was a game show called something like ‘Meet Don Rickles,’ where he could be himself and insult the audience, the way Groucho did on ‘You Bet Your Life.’ “ Although Carson himself is less acid than he used to be, he is still capable of slapping down visitors who get uppish with him. “There was one time,” he recalls, “when we had Tuesday Weld on the program, and she started behaving rather snottily. I finally asked her something innocuous about her future plans, and she said she’d let me know ‘when I’m back on the show next year.’ I was very polite. I just said that I hadn’t scheduled her again quite that soon.” Beyond doubt, Carson’s least beloved subjects are British comedians, of whom he says, “I find them unfunny, infantile, and obsessed with toilet jokes. They’re lavatory-minded.” (It is true that British comics sometimes indulge, on TV, in scatological—and sexual—humor that would not be permitted on any American network; but this kind of liberty, however it may be abused, seems to me infinitely preferable to the restrictiveness that prevented Buddy Hackett, Carson’s principal guest on February 1, 1977, from completing a single punch line without being bleeped.) I throw into the conversation my own opinion, which is that to shrink from referring to basic physical functions is to be truly infantile; to make good jokes about them, as about anything else, is evidence of maturity. It is depressing to reflect that if Rabelais were alive today he would not be advised to appear on the “Tonight Show.”
Carson once said, “I’ve never seen it chiselled in stone tablets that TV must be uplifting.” I ask him how he feels about his talk-show competitor Dick Cavett. His answer is brisk: “The trouble with Dick is that he’s never decided what he wants to be—whether he’s going for the sophisticated, intellectual viewer or for the wider audience. He falls between two stools. It gets so that you feel he’s apologizing if he makes a joke.” In reply to the accusation that his own show is intellectually jejune, Carson has this to say: “I don’t want to get into big debates about abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, and so forth. Not because I’m afraid of them but because we all know the arguments on both sides, and they’re circular. The fact is that TV is probably not the ideal place to discuss serious issues. It’s much better to read about them.” With this thought—self-serving but not easily refutable—he takes his leave.
February 10, 1977: The Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard has elected Carson its Man of the Year. There have been ten previous holders of the title, among them Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, James Stewart, Dustin Hoffman, and Warren Beatty. Delighted by the honor, because it is untainted by either lobbying or commercialism, Carson will fly to Harvard in two weeks’ time to receive his trophy. While he is there, he will attend the opening night of “Cardinal Knowledge,” the hundred-and-twenty-ninth in the series of all-male musicals presented by Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which claims to be the oldest dramatic society in the United States. I am to travel with Carson on what will be his first trip to Harvard. To give me details of the program of events that the Pudding people have prepared for him, he asks me to his home in Bel Air, where I present myself at 11 a.m. It is roughly five minutes by car from the Beverly Hills Hotel, and was built in 1950 for the director Mervyn LeRoy. Carson bought it five years ago, and, like many places where West Coast nabobs dwell, it is about as grand as a house can be that has no staircase. When you turn in at the driveway, a voice issuing from the wall sternly inquires your name and business; if your reply pacifies it, iron gates swing open to admit you.
I am welcomed by Joanna Carson’s secretary, a lively young woman named Sherry Fleiner, part of whose job consists of working with Mrs. C. for a charitable organization known as share—Share Happily And Reap Endlessly—which raises funds for the mentally retarded. (Other than a married couple who act as housekeepers, the Carsons have no live-in servants.) Proffering Carson’s apologies, Miss Fleiner says that he is out on the tennis court behind the house, halfway through a closely fought third set. While awaiting match point, I discreetly case the joint, which has (I learn from Miss Fleiner) six bedrooms. Except where privacy is essential, the walls are mainly of glass, and there is window-to-window carpeting with a zebra-stripe motif. Doors are infrequent. In accordance with local architectural custom, you do not leave one room to enter another, you move from one living area to the next. In the reading area (or “library”) I spot a photograph of four generations of Carsons, the eldest being my host’s grandfather Christopher Carson, who died two years ago at the age of ninety-eight, and I recall Carson’s saying to me, in that steely, survivor’s voice of his, “One thing about my family—we have good genes.” On a wall nearby hangs a portrait of Carson by Norman Rockwell, the perfect artist for this model product of Middle American upbringing. Other works of art, scattered through the relaxing, ingesting, and greeting areas, reveal an eclectic, opulent, but not barbarously spendthrift taste; e.g., a well-chosen group of paintings by minor Impressionists; a camel made out of automobile bumpers by John Kearney and (an authentic rarity) a piece of sculpture by Rube Goldberg; together with statues and graphic art from the Orient and Africa. Over the fireplace in the relaxing area, a facile portrait of Mrs. Carson, who deserves more eloquent brushwork, smilingly surveys the swimming pool.
Having won his match, Carson joins me, his white sporting gear undarkened by sweat, and leads me out of the house to a spacious octagonal office he has built alongside the tennis court. This is his command module. It contains machinery for large-screen TV projection, and a desk of Presidential dimensions, bristling with gadgets. On a built-in sofa lies a cushion that bears the embroidered inscription “it’s all in the timing.” Coffee is served, and Carson offers me one of his cigarettes, which I refuse. He says that most people, even hardened smokers, do the same, and I do not find this surprising, since the brand he favors is more virulent and ferociously unfiltered than any other on the market. He briefs me on the impending Harvard visit—a day and a half of sightseeing, speechmaking, banquets, conferences, seminars, and receptions that would tax the combined energies of Mencken, Mailer, and Milton Berle—and then throws himself open to me for further questioning.
Q: When you’re at home, whom do you entertain?
Carson: My lawyer, Henry Bushkin, who’s probably my best friend. A few doctors. One or two poker players. Some people I’ve met through tennis, which is my biggest hobby right now—though I’m still interested in astronomy and scuba diving. And, of course, a couple of people who work on the show. But the point is that not many of my friends are exclusively show-business.
Q: Why do you dislike going to parties?
Carson: Because I get embarrassed by attention and adulation. I don’t know how to react to them in private. Swifty Lazar, for instance, sometimes embarrasses me when he praises me in front of his friends. I feel much more comfortable with a studio audience. On the show, I’m in control. Socially, I’m not in control.
Q: On the show, one of the things you control most strictly is the expression of your own opinions. Why do you keep them a secret from the viewers?
Carson: I hate to be pinned down. Take the case of Larry Flynt, for example. [Flynt, the publisher of the sex magazine Hustler, had recently been convicted on obscenity charges.] Now, I think Hustler is tawdry, but I also think that if the First Amendment means what it says, then it protects Flynt as much as anyone else, and that includes the American Nazi movement. As far as I’m concerned, people should be allowed to read and see whatever they like, provided it doesn’t injure others. If they want to read pornography until it comes out of their ears, then let them. But if I go on the “Tonight Show” and defend Hustler, the viewers are going to tag me as that guy who’s into pornography. And that’s going to hurt me as an entertainer, which is what I am.
Q: In private life, who’s the wittiest man you’ve ever known?
Carson: The wittiest would have to be Fred Allen. He appeared on a show I had in the fifties, called “Carson’s Cellar,” and I knew him for a while after that—until he died, in 1956. But there’s an old vaudeville proverb—”A comic is a man who says funny things, and a comedian is a man who says things funny.” If that’s a valid distinction, then Fred was a comic, whereas Jonathan Winters and Mel Brooks are comedians. But they make me laugh just as much.
Before I go, Carson takes me down to a small gymnasium beneath the module. It is filled with gleaming steel devices, pulleys and springs and counterweights, which, together with tennis, keep the star’s body trim. In one corner stands a drum kit at which Buddy Rich might cast an envious eye. “That’s where I work off my hostilities,” Carson explains. He escorts me to my car, and notices that it is fitted with a citizens-band radio. “I had one of those damned things, but I ripped it out after a couple of weeks,” he says. “I just couldn’t bear it—all those sick anonymous maniacs shooting off their mouths.”
I understand what he means. Most of what you hear on CB radio is either tedious (truck drivers warning one another about speed traps) or banal (schoolgirls exchanging notes on homework), but at its occasional—and illegal—worst it sinks a pipeline to the depths of the American unconscious. Your ears are assaulted by the sound of racism at its most rampant, and by masturbation fantasies that are the aural equivalent of rape. The sleep of reason, to quote Goya’s phrase, brings forth monsters, and the anonymity of CB encourages the monsters to emerge. Not often, of course; but when they do, CB radio becomes the dark underside of a TV talk show. No wonder Carson loathes it.
February 24, 1977: Morning departure from Los Angeles Airport of flight bearing Boston-bound Carson party, which consists of Mr. and Mrs. C., Mr. and Mrs. Henry Bushkin, and me. Boyish-looking, with an easy smile, a soft voice, and a modest manner, Bushkin, to whom I talked a few days earlier, is a key figure in Carson’s private and professional life. “Other stars have an agent, a personal manager, a business manager, a P.R. man, and a lawyer,” he told me. “I serve all those functions for Johnny.” Bushkin was born in the Bronx in 1942. He moved to the West Coast five years ago and swiftly absorbed the ground rules of life in Beverly Hills; e.g., he is likely to turn up at his desk in a cardigan and an open-necked shirt, thus obeying the precept that casualness of office attire increases in direct ratio to grandeur of status. He first met Carson through a common friend in 1970, when he was working for a small Manhattan law firm that specialized in show-business clients. At that time, Carson lived at the United Nations Plaza, where one of his neighbors was David (Sonny) Werblin, formerly the driving force behind the Music Corporation of America and (until 1968) the president of the New York Jets. In 1969, Werblin had drawn up a plan whereby he and Carson would form a corporation, called Raritan Enterprises, to take over the entire production of the “Tonight Show,” which would then be rented out to NBC for a vast weekly fee. Rather than risk losing Carson, the network caved in and agreed to Raritan’s terms. “As the tax laws were in the late sixties, when you could pay up to ninety per cent on earned income, the Raritan scheme had certain advantages,” Bushkin explained to me. “But there were handicaps that Johnny hadn’t foreseen. Werblin had too many outside interests—for one thing, he owned a good-sized racing stable—and Johnny found himself managing the company as well as starring in the show, because his partner wasn’t always there. When a major problem came up, he’d suddenly discover that Werblin had taken off for a month in Europe and couldn’t be reached. Around 1972, Johnny decided that the plan wasn’t working, and that’s when he asked me to represent him. Not to go into details, let’s just say that Werblin was painlessly eliminated from the setup. By that time, the maximum tax on earned income was down to fifty per cent, and that removed the basic motive for the corporate arrangement. So the show reverted to being an NBC operation. But Johnny went back with a much better financial deal than he had in 1969.” When Bushkin came to Beverly Hills, in 1973, his life already revolved around Carson’s. “It took about three years for our relationship to get comfortable, because Johnny isn’t easy to know,” he went on. “But now we’re the best of friends, and so are our wives. The unwritten rule for lawyers is: Don’t get too friendly with clients. But this is an unusual situation. This is Carson, and Carson’s my priority.”
Ed McMahon, I remarked, had predicted that Carson would stay with the “Tonight Show” until 1980. “I’ll bet you that he’s still there in 1984,” Bushkin said.
If Carson can hold on as long as that, it would be churlish of NBC to unseat him before he reaches retiring age, in 1990.
5:30 p.m.: We land at Boston. Frost underfoot. Carson, following his new President’s example, totes his suit (presumably the tuxedo required for tomorrow’s festivities) off the plane. He murmurs to me, “If someone could get Billy Carter to sponsor a carry-off suitcase, they’d make a fortune.” He walks through popping flashbulbs and a fair amount of hand-held-camera work to be greeted by Richard Palmer and Barry Sloane, undergraduate co-producers of the Hasty Pudding show, who look bland, businesslike, and utterly untheatrical; i.e., like co-producers. Waiting limos take Carsons and Bushkins to the Master’s Residence at Eliot House, where they are to spend the night. I repair to my hotel.
8:30 p.m.: Pudding people give dinner for Carson and his entourage at waterfront restaurant called Anthony’s Pier 4. When I announce destination, my cabdriver says, “That’s the big Republican place. Gold tablecloths. Democrats like checked tablecloths. They go to Jimmy’s Harbor Side.” Décor at Anthony’s features rustic beamery and period prints. Tablecloths definitely straw-colored, though cannot confirm that this has political resonance. Carson (in blue sports jacket, white shirt, and discreetly striped tie) sits beside wife (in brown woollen two-piece, with ring like searchlight on left hand) at round table with Bushkins, Pudding officials, and short, heavily tanned man with vestigial hair, dark silk suit, smoke-tinted glasses, and general aspect of semi-simian elegance. This, I learn, is David Tebet, the senior vice-president of NBC, whose suzerainty covers the Carson show, and who in May, 1977, will celebrate his twenty-first anniversary with the network. Of the three men who wield influence over Carson (the others being Bushkin and Fred de Cordova), Tebet is ultimately the most powerful. “It’s a terrible thing to wish on him,” Frank Sinatra once said of Tebet, “but it’s too bad he’s not in government today.” In 1975, Robert D. Wood, then president of CBS-TV, described Tebet as “the ambassador of all NBC’s good will—he sprinkles it around like ruby dust.” With characteristic effusiveness, de Cordova has declared that the dust-sprinkler’s real title should be “vice-president in charge of caring.” In 1965, Carson came to the conclusion that he had to quit the “Tonight Show,” because the daily strain was too great, but Tebet persuaded him to stay; what tipped the scale was the offer of an annual paid vacation of six weeks. Ten years later, Carson said he had a feeling that when he died a color TV set would be delivered to his graveside and “on it will be a ribbon and a note that says, ‘Have a nice trip. Love, David.’ “
During dinner, although wine is served, Carson drinks only coffee. He talks about “Seeds.” a Wasp parody of “Roots,” dealing with history of orthodox Midwestern family, which was recently broadcast on the “Tonight Show.” Concept was his, and he is pleased with how it came out, though he regrets loss of one idea that was cut; viz., scene depicting primitive tribal ceremony at which the hyphen is ritually removed from Farrah Fawcett-Majors.
“He looks so mechanical, “ mutters a Pudding person on my right. “Like a talking propelling pencil.” Same fellow explains to me that the club is divided into social and theatrical compartments. Former was founded in 1795; latter did not develop until 1844, when first show was presented, establishing an annual tradition that has persisted—apart from two inactive years in each of the World Wars—ever since. Pudding performers have included Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Randolph Hearst, Robert Benchley (star of “Below Zero,” 1912), and Jack Lemmon. Tomorrow’s production, which is to play a month at Pudding theatre, followed by quick tour to New York, Washington, and Bermuda, will cost a hundred thousand dollars. Revenue from box office and from program advertising, plus aid from wealthy patrons, will insure that it breaks even. (Undergraduates provide words, music, and cast; direction, choreography, and design are by professionals.) Publicity accruing from Carson’s presence will boost ticket sales; thus, his visit amounts to unpaid commercial for show.
Another Pudding functionary tells me that club also bestows award on Woman of the Year—has, in fact, been doing so since 1951. First recipient was Gertrude Lawrence, Bette Midler got the nod in 1976, and last week Elizabeth Taylor turned up to collect the trophy for 1977. “She is genuinely humble,” my informant gravely whispers. After dinner, Carson and wife are interviewed in banqueting salon of restaurant by local TV station. Mrs. C. is asked, “Did you fall in love with the private or the public Johnny Carson?” She replies, “I fell in love with both.” Before further secrets of the confessional can be extracted, camera runs out of tape, to her evident relief.
February 25, 1977: Dining hall of Eliot House is crowded at 8:45 a.m. University band, with brass section predominant, lines up and plays “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” as Carson (black-and-white checked sports jacket) leads his party in to breakfast. His every move is followed, as it will be all day, by television units, undergraduate film crew, and assorted press photographers. Asked by TV director whether sound system is to his liking, Carson says he has no complaints, “except I thought the microphone under the bed was pushing it a bit.” Member of Harvard band achieves minor triumph of one-upmanship by conning Carson into inscribing and autographing autobiography of Dick Cavett.
Fast duly broken, party embarks on walking tour of Harvard Yard and university museums. Hundreds of undergraduates join media people in the crush around Carson, and police cars prowl in their wake to protect the star from terrorist assaults or kidnap attempts. Weather is slate-clouded and icy; Mrs. Carson and Mrs. Bushkin both wear mink coats. Climax of tour is meeting with John Finley, internationally eminent classical scholar and treasure of Harvard campus, Eliot Professor of Greek Literature Emeritus and Master of Eliot House Emeritus, whose study is in the Widener Library. (During previous week, I called Professor Finley to find out how he felt about forthcoming encounter with Carson. “At first, I thought it was an asinine idea,” he said. “I’ve never seen the man on television—as a matter of fact, I’ve spent most of my life with my nose plunged into classical texts. But, after all, how important is one’s time anyway?”) Carson is properly deferential in the presence of this agile septuagenarian. Eavesdropping on their conversation, I hear Professor Finley say, “Writing is like an artesian well that we sink to find the truth.” He talks about Aristotle, getting little response, and then tries to clarify for Carson the distinction drawn by Lionel Trilling between sincerity and authenticity, in literature and in life. “President Carter is an example of sincerity,” he explains. “But whether he has authenticity—well, that’s another matter. I’m not sure that Trilling would have been much impressed.” Cannot imagine what Carson is making of all this.
12:30 p.m.: Luncheon in Carson’s honor at the A.D. Club, described to me by reliable source as “the second-stuffiest in Harvard.” (First prize goes, by general consent, if not by acclamation, to the Porcellian Club. Choice of venue today is dictated by fact that co-producers of Pudding show are members of A.D. and not of Porcellian.) Atmosphere is robustly patrician enough to warm heart of late Evelyn Waugh: sprigs of Back Bay dynasties sprawl in leather armchairs beneath group photographs of their forebears. Club clearly deserves title of No. 2; it could not conceivably try harder. Members cheer as Carson enters, flanked by Bushkin and Tebet. (This is a strictly stag sodality.) About twenty guests present, among them Professor Finley and Robert Peabody, son of former governor of Massachusetts and vice-president of Pudding Theatricals—a bouncing two-hundred-and-fifty-pound lad much cherished by Pudding enthusiasts for his comic talent in drag. Carson, still rejecting grape in favor of bean, wears blue sweater, dark slacks, and burgundy patent-leather shoes. When meal is consumed, he makes charming speech of thanks, in which he regrets that life denied him the opportunity of studying under Prof. Finley. (Later, rather less lovably, he is to tell drama students at Pudding Club that from his lunchtime chat with Finley “I learned a hell of a lot more about Aristotle than I wanted to know.”)
2 p.m.: Carson is driven to Pudding H.Q. on Holyoke Street—narrow thoroughfare jammed with fans, through whom club officials have to force a way to the entrance. Upstairs, in red-curtained reception room, Carson is to hold seminar with thirty handpicked undergraduates who are studying the performing arts. This select bunch of initiates sits in circle of red armchairs. Carson takes his place among them and awaits interrogation. Standard of questions, dismal for allegedly high-powered assembly, seldom rises above gossip level; e.g.:
Q: As a regular viewer, may I ask why you have switched from wearing a Windsor knot to a four-in-hand?
Carson: Well, I guess that’s about all we have time for. [Questioner presses for reply.] Just between ourselves, it’s a defense mechanism.
Q: Did Jack Paar have someone like Ed McMahon to work with?
Carson: No. A psychiatrist worked with Jack Paar. The last time I saw Paar was in Philadelphia. He was sitting on a curb and he had a swizzle stick embedded in his hand. I removed it.
Q: I’ve noticed that people don’t always laugh at your monologue. Why is that?
Carson: Well, we don’t actually structure it to go down the toilet. But we work from the morning papers and sometimes the audience isn’t yet aware of what’s happened in the news.
Q: How do you really feel about Jimmy Carter?
Carson: The Carter Administration is perfect comedy material. And I think he rented the family. I don’t believe Lillian is his mother. I don’t believe Billy is his brother. They’re all from Central Casting.
Q: Do you normally watch the show when you get home?
Carson: No. I’d get worn out from seeing it all over again. If we’re breaking in a new character, I’ll watch.
Q [first of any substance]: Has the “Tonight Show” done anything more important than just brighten up the end of the day?
Carson: I’d say it was quite important to let people hear the opinions of people like Paul Ehrlich, Carl Sagan, Gore Vidal, Margaret Mead. . . [Vide supra, passim.] We’ve also taken an interest in local politics. One year, there were eleven candidates for Mayor of Burbank, and we had to give them all equal time. That was pretty public-spirited. But what’s important? I think it’s important to show ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Like we once had a Japanese guy from Cleveland who wanted to be a cop but he was too short, so his wife had been hanging him up every night by his heels. And it’s important to help people live out their fantasies, like when I pitched to Mickey Mantle on the show, or when I played quarterback for the New York Jets. But a lot of the time TV is judged by the wrong standards. If Broadway comes up with two first-rate new plays in a season, the critics are delighted. That’s a good season. But on TV they expect that every week. It’s a very visible medium to jump on. And there’s another thing that isn’t generally realized. If you’re selling hard goods—like soap or dog food—you simply can’t afford to put on culture. Exxon, the Bank of America—organizations like that can afford to do it. But they aren’t selling hard goods, and that’s what the “Tonight Show” has to do. [Applause for candor. This is the nearest approach to hard eloquence I have heard from Carson, and he sells it to great effect.]
Q: What is Charo really like?
This reduces Carson to silence, bringing the seminar to a close.
4:30 p.m.: Cocktail party for Carson at Club Casablanca, local haunt crowded to point just short of asphyxiation. Star and companions have changed into evening dress. Carson tells me how Prof. Finley sought to explain to him eternal simplicities of Aristotle’s view of life, and adds, “He’s out of touch with the real world.” Subject for debate: By what criteria can Carson’s world be said to be closer to reality than Aristotle’s? Or, for that matter, than Professor Finley’s? Carson group and non-acting Pudding dignitaries then proceed on foot to nearby bistro called Ferdinand’s for early dinner. Eating quite exceptional soft-shell crabs, I sit next to Joanna C., who has flashing eyes and a quill- shaped Renaissance nose. Her mother’s parents came from northern Italy; her father’s family background is Sicilian. She introduced Carson to what is now his favorite Manhattan restaurant, an Italian place named Patsy’s, and her immediate ambition is to coax him to visit Italy. Eying her husband (who must be well into his second gallon of coffee since breakfast), she tells me that the only time she has seen him cry was at the funeral of Jack Benny, who befriended and helped him from his earliest days in TV. She doesn’t think he will still be on the “Tonight Show” when he’s sixty (i.e., in 1985). “Of course, everybody wants him to act,” she continues. “He was offered the Steve McQueen part in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ and Mel Brooks begged him to play the Gene Wilder part in ‘Blazing Saddles.’ He read the script twice. Then he called Mel from Acapulco and said, ‘I read it in L.A. and it wasn’t funny, and it’s even less funny in Mexico.’ “
David Tebet, seated opposite, leans across table and tells me what he does. His voice is a serrated baritone growl. From what I gather, he is a combination of talent detector, ego masseur (of NBC stars), and thief (of other networks’ stars). Has been quoted as saying that he judges performers by “a thing called gut reaction,” and that he understands “their soft underbellies.” To a thing called my surprise, he adds that these qualities of intestinal intuition help to keep stars reassured. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a two-thousand-year-old samurai sword hangs over the door of his New York office. Am not certain that this would have reassuring effect on me. It may, however, explain enigmatic remark of Bob Hope, who once referred to Tebet as “my Band-Aid.” Razor-edged weapon is part of huge Tebet art collection (mainly Oriental but also including numerous prints and lithographs by Mucha, Klimt, Schiele, Munch, et al.), much of which adorns his NBC suite. Tebet claims this makes actors feel at home. But at whose home?
7 p.m.: Back to Pudding Club for pre-performance press conference. I count five movie and/or TV cameras, eight microphones, about thirty photographers, and several dozen reporters, all being jostled by roughly a hundred and fifty guests, gate-crashers, and ticket-holders diverted from route to auditorium by irresistible surge of Carson-watchers. Bar serves body-temperature champagne in plastic glasses; Carson requests slug of water.
Reporter asks what he thinks of Barbara Walters’ million-dollar contract with ABC News.
He replies, “I think Harry Reasoner has a contract out for Barbara Walters.”
Press grilling is routine stuff, except for:
Q: What would you like your epitaph to be?
CARSON [after pause for thought]: I’ll be right back.
Laughter and applause for this line, the traditional cliché with which talk-show hosts segue into commercial break. Subsequent research reveals that Carson has used it before in answer to same question. Fact increases my respect for his acting ability. That pause for thought would have fooled Lee Strasberg.
8 p.m.: Join expectant crowd in Pudding theatre, attractive little blue auditorium with three hundred and sixty-three seats. Standees line walls. In fat program I read tribute to “that performer who has made the most outstanding contribution to the entertainment profession during the past years—Johnny Carson.” Article also states that in the fifties he wrote for “The Red Skeleton Show”—ideal title, I reflect, for Vincent Price Special—and concludes by summing up Carson’s gifts in a burst of baroque alliteration: “Outspoken yet disciplined, he is a pool of profanity, a pit of profundity.” Audience by now buzzing with impatience to hear from pool (or pit) in person.
Co-producer Palmer takes the stage and, reading from notes, pays brief homage to “a performer whose wit, humor, and showmanship rank him among America’s greatest—ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Johnny Carson!” Band plays “Tonight Show” theme as Carson walks down the aisle and clambers up to shake Palmer’s hand. Standing ovation greets him. Co-producer Sloane emerges from wings and solemnly presents him with small golden pudding pot. Ovation persists—three hundred and sixty-three seats are empty. When it and the spectators have subsided, Carson holds up his hands for silence and then makes speech precisely right for occasion. (Without notes, of course, as befits man who, if program is to be believed, has “liberated the airwaves from scripted domination.”) He begins by saying that it is gratifying to hear so much applause without anyone’s brandishing a sign marked “Applause.” He thanks the club for the honor bestowed on him, even though (he adds) “I understand that this year the short list for the award was me, Idi Amin, and Larry Flynt.” He expresses special gratitude for the hospitality extended to his wife and to him by Eliot House: “It’s the first time I’ve scored with a chick on campus since 1949.” He has never visited the university before. However, it has played a small but significant role in his family history: “My Great-Uncle Orville was here at Harvard. Unfortunately, he was in a jar in the biology lab.” Widening his focus, he throws in a couple of comments on the state of the nation. Apropos of the recent and groundless panic over immunizing the population against a rumored epidemic of swine flu: “Our government has finally come up with a cure for which there is no known disease.” And a nostalgic shot at a familiar target: “I hear that whenever anyone in the White House tells a lie, Nixon gets a royalty.” End of address. Sustained cheers, through which Carson returns, blinking in a manner not wholly explicable by the glare of the spotlights, to his seat.
“Cardinal Knowledge,” the Pudding musical, at last gets under way. It’s a farrago of melodramatic intrigue, with seventeenth-century setting and plethora of puns; e.g., characters called Barry de Hatchet and Viscount Hugh Behave. (How far can a farrago go?) Am pleased by high standard of performance, slightly dismayed by lack of obscenity in text. No need to dwell on show except to praise Robert Peabody, mountainously flirtatious as Lady Della Tory, and Mark Szpak, president of Pudding Theatricals, who plays the heroine, Juana deBoise, with a raven-haired Latin vivacity that puts me in mind of the youthful Lea Padovani. Or the present Mrs. Carson.
10:15 p.m.: Intermission not yet over. Carson at bar, still on caffeine, besieged by mass of undergraduates, all of whom receive bright and civil answers to their questions. He has now been talking to strangers for thirteen hours (interrupted only by Act I of show) with no loss of buoyancy. “For the first time in my life,” he remarks to me, “I know what it’s like to be a politician.”
Midnight has passed before the curtain falls and he makes his exit, to renewed acclamation. One gets the impression that the audience is applauding not just an admired performer but—why shun simplicities?—a decent and magnanimous man.
Two thoughts in conclusion:
(1) If the most we ask of live television is entertainment within the limits set by commercial sponsorship, then Carson, week in, week out, is the very best we shall get. If, on the other hand, we ask to be challenged, disturbed, or provoked at the same time that we are entertained, Carson must inevitably disappoint us. But to blame him for that would be to accuse him of breaking a promise he never made.
(2) Though the written and rehearsed portions of what Carson does can be edited together into an extremely effective cabaret act, the skill that makes him unique—the ability to run a talk show as he does—is intrinsically, exclusively televisual. Singers, actors, and dancers all have multiple choices: they can exercise their talents in the theatre, on TV, or in the movies. But a talk-show host can only become a more successful talk-show host. There is no place in the other media for the gifts that distinguish him—most specifically, for the gift of re-inventing himself, night after night, without rehearsal or repetition. Carson, in other words, is a grand master of the one show-business art that leads nowhere. He has painted himself not into a corner but onto the top of a mountain.
Long—or, at least, as long as the air at the summit continues to nourish and elate him—may he stay there.
© 1978 Kenneth Tynan Estate. Any unauthorized use, copying or distribution is strictly prohibited.
This article originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1978.
This text taken from: Show People: Profiles in Entertainment by Kenneth Tynan, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980