As Lucille Ball, Burt Reynolds and Rowan and Martin looked on in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel, a beaming Johnny Carson cut the 12-foot-high cake in celebration of his tenth anniversary as host of NBC’s Tonight Show. Then he dropped the bombshell of the evening: “A lot of columnists have been asking why me and my gal haven’t set a date for the wedding, so I think I will tell you that we were married at 1:30 this afternoon.” After kissing his bride, model Joanna Holland, Carson was startled by a kiss from another comely admirer—Flip Wilson as Geraldine. “Johnny took everybody by surprise,” concedes the third Mrs. Carson, “even me.” Two years later, Carson, 49, and 34-year-old Joanna are leading a married life as closely guarded as their courtship.
It is a style apparently well-suited to both. When Joanna first spotted Johnny eyeing her across the room at New York’s elegant 21 Club in the fall of 1971, he had long since shed his first wife, Jody Wolcott, and was in the midst of bitter divorce proceedings against Joanne Copeland, later a Los Angeles-based hostess of her own TV talk show.
Divorced herself from former World Backgammon Champion Tim Holland since 1966, Joanna was one of Manhattan’s highest-paid fashion models and shared a small apartment with her son, Tim. The night of the first encounter, Carson recalls, “I was flirting like a sophomore.” On their first date, they celebrated his 46th birthday with dinner and a show. The next day Carson called her at 4:30 p.m.—the first of the daily 4:30 calls he would make without fail for the next full year.
Carson’s decision to move The Tonight Show from New York to California marked the couple’s first crisis. A diehard New Yorker, Joanna balked at the notion of leaving her native city. Less than a month after the show started broadcasting from Burbank Carson settled the issue dramatically. He flew to New York, marched into Joanna’s apartment and ordered her to pack. “You’re coming to California with Tim,” he declared, “and we’re going to be married.”
Professionally as well as personally, Carson is accustomed to getting his way. In addition to his annual Tonight Show gross of $3 million, Carson plays to capacity audiences in Las Vegas four to five weeks a year—but never more than one week at a time. By cutting his two shows a night to one at-a record weekly rate of $200,000, Caesar’s Palace managed to lure Johnny from the Sahara. With the one-time help of financial wizard Sonny Werblin, Carson has also cashed in on such lucrative spinoffs as his $75-million-a-year line of men’s clothing, and now has a deal with Paramount to produce made-for-TV movies.
Nor is Joanna idle. Although she expresses no desire to return to work, the leggy, jade-eyed brunette devotes much of her time to charity. As home-maker, she excels in the kitchen—”I’m the best spaghetti cook in the world”—but usually winds up catering to her husband’s meat-and-potatoes diet. The Carsons’ half-a-million-dollar electronically guarded Bel Air mansion, originally the home of Mervyn LeRoy, reflects the eclectic tastes of its soft-spoken chatelaine. Spacious and airy, the modern glass-walled house boasts soaring ceilings and an oval swimming pool. “To tell you the truth, Johnny,” Joanna told her husband recently, “this wasn’t my type of house. I wanted a four-poster type of home.” Carson replied: “Now she tells me. I’m up to my ass in mortgage and now she wants a four poster home.” They both laughed. To satisfy Joanna’s pangs of homesickness, the Carsons occasionally retreat to their “New York room,” a cozy, windowless first-floor den.
An unabashed fitness fanatic, Carson’s zeal for indoor exercise was blunted somewhat by his recent celebrated tussle with an exercise board. Still, Carson is far from sedentary. He recently renounced his passion for golf (“It’s a nice way to louse up a walk”) for tennis, and is building his own court in the backyard. “I made myself a promise,” he says. “When friends and relatives call up to use it, it’s going to be a definite no! That’s a trap.”
One who obviously does not share Carson’s sentiments on the subject of golf is eldest son, Chris, 24, who is working to become a golf pro in Florida. Ricky Carson, 22, is a production assistant with NBC’S Tomorrow show, while 21-year-old Cory is studying guitar. Joanna’s son Tim, now 13, lives with the Carsons and is enrolled at a nearby junior high school.
Socially, the Carsons keep a decidedly low profile. Their tight circle of friends includes Carson’s brother Dick and his wife, Pat, the Jack Bennys, attorney Henry Bushkin, theatrical manager Bud Robinson and his wife Cece and—surprise—Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen and Tonight Show producer Fred DeCordova. While they seldom go out, the Carsons do throw small dinner parties, followed by first-run screenings in their projection room. What of Carson’s reputation for being stand-offish? “You just can’t win,” he muses between sips of coffee served by the Carsons’ uniformed butler. “If you’re a little gregarious and enjoy going out, then you’re tagged as having an entourage. If you’re a private person and like to be alone, you’re considered aloof.”
Up by 8 each morning, Carson breakfasts on coffee, toast and juice while searching the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for material. After a swim and sometimes a quick set of tennis, he heads for work in one of the couple’s his-and-her Mercedes 450 convertibles. Staff meetings and rehearsals end by 3:30 p.m., when Carson closets himself alone in his office with the 60-odd jokes submitted each day by his writers for his opening monologue. Joanna is seldom present at the late-afternoon 90-minute tapings. “I don’t have that much to say about Johnny’s work,” shrugs Joanna, summing up an attitude that is undoubtedly one of the marriage’s great strengths. “It’s not my place.”