Exhaustive as it was, the American Master’s documentary “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” on PBS Monday left out one of Carson’s favorite guests. She was my great-grandmother, Mildred Holt.
I suppose it’s a forgivable oversight. The stooped, frail-looking woman in a powder-blue dress was neither a celebrity nor a newsmaker when she appeared on “The Tonight Show” in August 1987. She was just a little old lady from a tiny town in Kansas—and by old, I mean historic. She was 105 at the time. But she had all her marbles, as well as a fierce, straight-shooting wit, and that was enough for Carson.
While sipping a highball from a coffee mug, Mimi—as my family called her—teased the TV king about his many marriages and had Carson so charmed that he kept her on after the commercial break.
When Carson remarked that she was “the oldest person I have ever met and ever had on the show,” Mimi quipped with a big grin, “I’m too mean to die.”
Opinionated as ever, she told him about getting her first car in 1914, and how she regretted having to give up driving at the age of 103.
She also spoke out against coastal snobbery where the Midwest was concerned, which must have struck a chord with the Nebraska-born Carson: ‘’I met a man at the hotel,” Mimi told him, “and he said, ‘Where’re you from?’ and I said, ‘Kansas’ and he said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ That made me mad.’’
‘’He forgets that Kansas produces more wheat than any state in the Union,” Mimi continued, pounding the arm of her chair with her little wrinkled hand. “That’s where your bread comes from ... The trouble is they can’t get any money for the wheat.’’
Carson laughed at most everything she said, leaning on his elbow and, so it seemed to me, just devouring Mimi’s crackling optimism. After the show, the Hollywood Squares game show called her to ask if she’d be on their program too, but she declined. From now on, she told them, she just wanted to stay in Ellsworth, the Kansas town where she’d lived all her life.
After all, plucky little Ellsworth, pop. 2,000 in those days, had been as good to her as she was to it. It was one of the community leaders who lobbied Carson’s staff to invite Mimi on the show, believing this venerable town fixture deserved a spot on his set.
Who could argue? Mimi was an irrepressible force. The daughter of a Civil War veteran, she was the youngest of 10 children. She married a banker and had three children (among them my grandfather). When her husband lost his business in the Great Depression, Mimi took borders into their roomy foursquare house. She also converted her dining room into a tearoom, and served the noon meal (back when that was referred to as “dinner”) to the local teachers. Mimi turned out amazing meals in her small kitchen, which was never updated, never had a dishwasher. If visitors dropped by while she was cooking, she’d bring a cutting board into the living room and continue chopping vegetables on her lap.
She had the most active social life of anyone I have ever known, making daily visits to friends around town, and hosting teas and card games. (I learned to play gin rummy at her knee.) She lived in her big house with her widowed daughter until the very end of her life, climbing up and down the stairs each day. In her later years, as her card-playing friends moved into the old-folks home—none of them, it turned out, was as extraordinarily hale as she was—she’d visit them there. Among her favorite sayings was that she would never eat a meal alone. By all accounts, she never did.
It was big news in Ellsworth and throughout the family when she finally got to appear on “The Tonight Show.” I had an internship at the Detroit News at the time, and had to work late that night. When I rushed home just in time to watch the show, I found out the Tigers were playing overtime on NBC. I nearly worked myself into an ulcer waiting for the game to end and praying I’d still get to see Mimi on national TV. Sure enough, the show was broadcast in full, and Mimi was in her glory.
I felt such a jolt hearing Carson announce her name, listening to the band play for her—and then there she was, leaning on her cane and smiling cheerily. She took a few steps through the parted curtain to stand uncertainly in her clunky oxford shoes. The lights bounced off her round spectacles. Her thick gray hair was fluffed into a wavy cloud, and she wore a corsage pinned to her dress.
Carson got up and helped her to the chair beside his desk—I suspect the powerful lights were blinding her. But once settled, she was utterly herself.
When she sipped from the coffee mug that was waiting for her on Carson’s desk, the host ran a finger under his lower lip and reminded her, teasingly, that when his staff had offered to put a glass of water on the set for her, she’d asked for a highball instead. The audience busted up laughing.
Carson seemed fascinated by Mimi, by her ease in front of the cameras and her ebullient good humor. When she ribbed him about the number of wives he’d had, he ducked his head like a schoolboy. He always seemed to enjoy his regular-folks guests, but to me—if you’ll forgive the bragging—it was clear he had a special fondness for Mimi.
Others did too: A 2002 book by Stephen Cox, “Here’s Johnny!: Thirty Years of America’s Favorite Late-Night Entertainer” mentions Mimi’s appearance and includes a photo of an attentive Carson giving Mimi his hand as he helped her onto his set.
Mimi died three years after her TV debut, one month shy of her 109th birthday. Her obituary ran in newspapers around the country, all noting her fame as Johnny Carson’s highball-sipping oldest guest.