CARSON The Unauthorized Biography By Paul Corkery Randt. 239 pp. $17.95 JOHNNY CARSON An Unauthorized Biography By Ronald L. Smith St. Martin's. 245 pp. $17.95
This month, Johnny Carson celebrates his 62nd birthday and his silver anniversary on "The Tonight Show." He's the man millions of Americans see before lights out, an easygoing guy with a soft golf swing whose humorous comments on current events are sharp enough to help scuttle a presidential candidacy.
So it's not surprising that two authors are out with biographies of Carson. Paul Corkery's "Carson: The Unauthorized Biography," published by a small company in Ketchum, Idaho, has been excerpted in the October Good Housekeeping magazine and will be a Literary Guild selection. Ronald L. Smith's "Johnny Carson" got a more prestigious New York trade publisher.
But these are bookend books, both with slick black paper covers that feature color portraits of Carson in black tie. Both are quick reads, each with 16 pages of black-and-white pictures. Neither is written particularly gracefully, and both could have used more careful editing. Corkery, for example, records these words from one former teacher: "I can't recall his best subject in school. I would say that he was probably a 'B' student. I don't remember his grades at all ... I had too many students to foresee what the future would hold for him."
In fact, some of the people from Carson's childhood days do offer worthwhile recollections. But discriminating editing would have separated those worth saving from the mundane -- such as polite observations from home-town folk that Carson was "very nice."
Probably largely because Carson distrusts writers and is as private as is possible for a man who appears before 8 million people each week night, apparently neither author was able to talk with him. To build their profiles, both men rely on comments from Carson that must be attributed to other sources, or, worse, not attributed at all.
Corkery, a former columnist for TV Guide and editor at the Los Angeles Herald, made do with remarks gathered from Carson's home-town folks right up through all three of his ex-wives, which he touts as a coup of sorts. His pie`ce de re'sistance is a question-and-answer chapter called "Joanna Speaks," in which Carson's third wife, former model Joanna Holland, tells her side of their very expensive divorce settlement: She got $2.24 million in cash (Smith says $5 million), their Bel Air home (Corkery says it was worth as much as $8 million, Smith says $5 million), three apartments in New York City, three cars, including a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes, stocks (Corkery says 310 shares of Carson Broadcasting Corp.) and bonds, some royalties from "The Tonight Show" and artwork, including a Picasso. Smith adds that she gets half his pension.
Smith, who has also penned a biography of Bill Cosby ("Cosby") and three other celebrity books, failed to get interviews with any of Carson's ex-wives. He tracked down a Peggy Leach, however, whom he identified as Carson's first girlfriend back in Avoca, Iowa, when they were 8-year-olds. Smith's strong suit is his presentation of the battles between network management and Carson, shedding some light on the influences that come to bear when a star uses his television vehicle as leverage for money and power.
Nevertheless, the reader is left curiously unsatisfied, wondering if this is all there is to the man who entertains millions of people each night. The thought lingers that, aside from his four marriages, three divorces, power struggles and substantial income, perhaps it is. We learn little about his views except as they relate to his marriages and his show, remarks that probably appeared in news clippings. Carson can't be blamed for that -- he's never pretended to be an intellect, and he's never authorized a biography.
On his bailiwick, "The Tonight Show," Carson has survived a quarter century. On the recent anniversary celebration of "The Tonight Show," largely a compilation of clips, Carson remarked that as long as he and the viewers found the show fun, he'd probably continue. His fans -- and they appear to include both Corkery and Smith -- will be pleased. Corkery calls him "a keystone of American popular culture." That seems like a fair assessment.
The reviewer is an assistant editor of The Washington Post's TV Week.