HOUSTON -- Long before Letterman and Leno delivered their first monologues, Johnny Carson reigned as the undisputed king of late night television, one of the most famous celebrities of his era.
So maybe it’s hard to believe a celebrity of his magnitude kept a big secret about a big investment in Houston.
“Sure, Houston,” Carson reportedly said. “I love Houston. Aerospace. Oil.”
But Carson was attracted to what was commonly called Space City back in the 1970s by something beyond the city’s explosive economy. According to a newly published memoir, it seems one of the biggest stars in television history secretly had a girlfriend in Houston.
Carson cracked countless jokes about marriage and divorce – he went through both institutions so many times, it became a running gag – and he shamelessly dropped double entendres about attractive women appearing on his show. But his often ribald monologues never mentioned one particular woman in his life, a mysterious mistress in Houston whose existence is only now becoming public.
“Miss Texas” is the nickname bestowed upon her by Henry Bushkin, the longtime attorney for the king of late night, whose tell-all bestseller “Johnny Carson” reveals previously undisclosed details about the television star’s public and private lives. The author depicts Carson not only as insular and isolated, but also as a hard-drinking, serial philanderer.
“He was completely different than the guy who was on when the red light was on,” Bushkin said. “That was an act and that’s who he was on television.”
Bushkin’s book recounts his long professional and personal relationship with the affable but enigmatic television star, who died of emphysema in 2005. The book details a life of celebrity studded parties and glamorous trips abroad that came to an abrupt end for Bushkin in a bitter business feud that forever banished him from Carson’s orbit.
“Never have I met a man possessed of a greater abundance of social gifts – intelligence, looks, manners, style, humor – and never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships,” Bushkin writes.
Buried deep in Bushkin’s narrative, readers from Houston will find an intriguing story about a real estate development with a familiar name. The attorney recalls scheduling a business trip to work on an investment in a mixed-use project near what’s now Willowbrook Mall.
“Great,” said Carson, according to the book. “You don’t mind if I come with you, do you?”
Carson wasn’t involved in the project, Bushkin writes, but on the flight to Houston he jumped into the middle of the deal by telling the attorney he’d had someone make all the arrangements for a dinner with the investors.
“Remember Miss Texas?” Carson reportedly said.
Bushkin did indeed remember “Miss Texas.” Although he now says he can’t remember her name, his description makes it seem it was hard to forget the “nubile young lady” Carson had met during a series of Texas club dates back in 1974.
“I don’t remember if she ever officially held that title, but I’d like to meet the woman who could have topped her in the swimsuit competition,” Bushkin writes.
Carson quickly became an investor in the Willowbrook area real estate deal, Bushkin said. Once, he recalls, they flew over the development and landed at a nearby McDonald’s restaurant, where the manager brought burgers and fries out to the star who had dropped from the sky. But his interest wasn’t so much financial, Bushkin said, as it was personal.
“Well, he had an interest in a lady friend in Texas,” Bushkin said in an interview with KHOU. “And when the opportunity came to participate in the investment in Houston, he sort of welcomed it because it gave him reason to be in Houston.”
Bushkin, whose book doesn’t shy away from telling tales on his old friend, still wouldn’t reveal much about Carson’s purported Houston mistress.
"The ongoing affair continued for, I guess, eight or nine years," Bushkin said.
The Willowbrook investment, like so many other real estate deals of that era, fell into a tailspin of legal troubles with the collapse of the Texas economy, Bushkin said. As the story’s told in the new book, it also played a prominent role in the bitter dispute that led Carson to abruptly shut Bushkin out of his life.
“At the end of the day, Johnny ended up owning the entire 93 acres and making a lot of money on it,” Bushkin said.
And it reportedly gave Carson an ongoing excuse to visit a Houston mistress, whose identity the king of late night carried to his grave.