Carson's Ex-wives Dish The Dirt Trio Helped Author Paul Corkery Write An Unauthorized Bio

Posted: September 17, 1987

This is the 25th year Johnny Carson's electronic image has beamed into American bedrooms. Yet, while the undisputed king of late-night television sends 5 to 9 million viewers to sleep laughing, he wakes each morning grouchy (if $50,000 richer).

"Carson is not merely a comic or late-night pal - he's a keystone of American popular culture" says writer Paul Corkery, author of "Carson: An Unauthorized Biography."

But few know much about our moody national humorist - this Nebraskan with the acerbic streak and Huck Finn blushes. "In an industry of massive egos," says Corkery during an interview in his Central Park apartment, "Carson is self-conscious, bashful and exceedingly remote."

Carson doesn't socialize much - especially with journalists. And predictably, he didn't dish the inside dope to Corkery. His closest buddies and associates also dabbed their lips with epoxy.

But the three ex-Mrs. Carsons opened theirs. So wide, in fact, that lawyers deleted some juicy passages from the manuscript, especially about Carson's "troubled days" in the early '80s.

Corkery says he and his West Coast researcher, Eleanor Hoover, spent more than six months trying to persuade them to give interviews.

"I felt they'd reveal more to a woman than a man," the author explains. ''That approach worked: Each ex gave extensive interviews."

Corkery recalls the months "sniffing behind the scenes at the 'Tonight' show and traveling through the Midwest, tracking tidbits about the reclusive star." He says he discovered not only that Nebraska is cold in the winter, but that "it takes much thawing out to get Nebraskans to talk." But more than 200 people around the country finally blabbed.

In her first interview, Jody Wolcott, Carson's first wife (1949-62) and mother of his three sons, discussed his first show's failure - a disaster that almost ended his showbiz career. Jody Carson describes her ex's hellion days as a gameshow host on "Who Do You Trust." He reportedly imbibed so much ''flagon of the grape" that he's still not all that welcome in certain New York nightclubs, she reports.

Carson's University of Nebraska sweetheart, now a graying woman in her 60s, lives modestly - in contrast to his other two ex's. His second wife, Joanne Copeland, whom he reportedly locked out of their UN Plaza apartment in New York, became the first source of his alimony jokes on the "Tonight" show. She now lives in Bel Air.

Her neighbor is Carson's third ex-wife, Joanna Holland, whom the book quotes as saying that Carson "sometimes uses that show like it was an analyst's couch."

Carson started acting "strange" during their last year of marriage, and when they decided to divorce (after 10 years), she switched off the television when he made alimony jokes. Her lawyers, however, taped them. No wonder. The couple's celebrated 80-page marriage dissolution reads like a Christmas catalog from Neiman-Marcus.

But the man who lives in a $8.6-million glass house is no longer throwing stones. He's living quietly with his new bride, Alexis Maas, whom he first eyed through his window as she strutted down Malibu in a bikini.

Now the fourth Mrs. Carson, the 37-year-old former secretary from Pittsburgh and her new husband are enjoying their 12,000-square-foot mansion.

Carson, an avid astronomer, loves reading, tennis and poker and not attending parties. "Except his own cocktail party - the 'Tonight' show," says Corkery. "He can't live without it."

Neither can NBC. The largest single moneymaker for the network, ''Tonight" generates over $50 million a year. Carson gets $6 million for showing up in the barn-like Studio One four nights a week (three nights, starting this fall).

Carson appears to be "just folks," never too smart alecky or too provocative, says Corkery. "but he's also very hip."

While his jokes reflect the humor of the coffee shops of Nebraska, says Corkery, "for the last 36 years, Carson has been living a very rarified, posh life."

Hollywood has forced him to retreat. "Everybody is after Carson for a favor," says Corkery, "every agent and PR person wants their clients on his show."

Not surprisingly, since Carson likes spotlighting new talent, and an appearance on the "Tonight" show can make a career. Woody Allen first appeared on the "Tonight" show in 1965, followed by George Carlin (1966), Richard Pryor (1968) and David Brenner (1971). He also gave Joan Rivers her first shot.

"Johnny's greatest joy is finding new and talented young people and introducing them to fame and fortune," Bob Newhart once joked. ''Unfortunately, most of them are his ex-wives."

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