wedding leno

  (peden + munk)

When you first meet Mavis and Jay Leno, it’s the electricity between them that gets you and their long-lasting love that makes them the anomaly. Two strongs can make one—they fit.

She arrives first—on time—doesn’t need hair or makeup and graciously agrees to be touched up, as a team is waiting. Unassuming, thoughtful and at ease, she exudes an air of total calm, a quiet dignity that you somehow know is deep and true. An intelligence and genuine concern lead her to bring me up to date on the condition of women in Afghanistan, her lifelong passion, even as she allows us to curl those curls because “my husband likes them wild.”

Then her husband enters, one of the most famous faces in the world, with white hair that begs to be smoothed (yet why would you—it’s the trademark that says, “Let me be, it’s who I am”) and a presence that makes everyone smile. Jay’s eyes are tired (he’s just returned from a trip to Detroit, where he entertained unemployed autoworkers), but they light up when they focus on his wife of 28 years. They touch, and the bond between them envelops everyone. Welcome to the Lenos’ love story.

I met Mavis a few years ago at our monthly book club. (She is a voracious reader whose passion is English history.) I was first struck by her depth of character and self-awareness—she is someone with a strong sense of purpose, compassion and curiosity. What I have come to know is that she’s someone who turns her wisdom into action. She works unceasingly with the Feminist Majority Foundation to help girls and women around the world gain rights through education so that human equality is realized.

Given the never-wavering glare on celebrity couples, I was impressed with their authentic relationship, one that feels grounded and decidedly non-Hollywood. Although I liked her before our interview, I told my husband of 34 years that in its aftermath, I had fallen in love with Mavis Leno. By that I mean the kind of unbridled universal love we feel for others when we realize what qualities they bring to humanity. What I learned from the Lenos’ love is how much a partner can help us discover such qualities in ourselves. Jay brings out the best in Mavis, and Mavis brings out the best in Jay. That has to be the definition of a perfect marriage.

Sue Smalley: Jay, I’ve heard Mavis talk about you so many times and how much in love she is. I guess I always felt you should share that story. Even just having your pictures taken a few moments ago, I could feel how happy you are being next to each other. You’re best friends, aren’t you?
Mavis and Jay Leno: [In unison.] Oh yeah.
JL: I had this discussion with Drew Barrymore on The Tonight Show. She was asking about being married, and I said, “You should always marry your conscience.” By that I mean, in show business—it happens in sports and politics, too—you go through the usual avarice, and you need someone who will go, “What are you doing? You don’t act like this.” If you wind up with someone who enjoys those things, you go to hell pretty much together. I spent half of my life trying not to disappoint my mother and the other half trying not to disappoint my wife. I mean, you have to respect the standard. You need to be able to look in the mirror.

SS: Mavis says, from the bottom of her heart, “He could never disappoint me.”
ML: No, because I truly know him, and he truly knows me. I met Jay in 1976. I’ve known him—
JL: Over 33 years.
ML: It was in January—I don’t remember the day. But at the time I thought, Holy s--t! That comedian is gorgeous! I had gone to the Comedy Store with my girlfriend because I was writing comedy with some partners. Friends kept saying, “You have to hang out at the Comedy Store and the Improv—you’ll meet people who can give you jobs.” The first time I went, they sat us front row center—that means you’re this far from the comic. And there was Jay.

SS: Was that at the very beginning of your career, Jay?
JL: Yeah, pretty much. But the interesting thing is, I’ve probably lived with five women—and every one of them was born on the same day. I can look at a woman and go, “September 5.” I don’t know why that is. I don’t look for a woman born on September 5, I just wind up attracted to them.
ML: Just casually, he asked what my birthday was, and I said, “September 5.” He started laughing. I remember it so clearly. I said, “What?” And he said, “Aw, nothing.”
JL: I remember I had Cathy Guisewite [of the “Cathy” comic strip] on, and I said, “I’m happily married...don’t take this wrong...I am attracted to you but in an odd way. Were you born on or around September 5?” And she said, “Yes, on September 5.” I said, “Sorry, I’m not flirting,” and then I explained. It made me laugh.
ML: When he finished his act the night we met, I needed to go to the ladies’ room. What I didn’t know was in the Comedy Store back then, that area was the only place for the comedians to hang out. So when I came out of the bathroom, he said, “Are you that girl in front?” and I said, “Yes, that was me.”

SS: Did you really notice her?
JL: Yeah!