When you first meet Mavis and Jay Leno, its the electricity between them that gets you and their long-lasting love that makes them the anomaly. Two strongs can make onethey fit.
She arrives firston timedoesnt 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 youits the trademark that says, Let me be, its who I am) and a presence that makes everyone smile. Jays eyes are tired (hes 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-awarenessshe is someone with a strong sense of purpose, compassion and curiosity. What I have come to know is that shes 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, Ive 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. Youre best friends, arent 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 businessit happens in sports and politics, tooyou go through the usual avarice, and you need someone who will go, What are you doing? You dont 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. Ive known him JL: Over 33 years. ML: It was in JanuaryI dont 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 Improvyoull meet people who can give you jobs. The first time I went, they sat us front row centerthat means youre 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, Ive probably lived with five womenand every one of them was born on the same day. I can look at a woman and go, September 5. I dont know why that is. I dont 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, Im happily married...dont 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, Im 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 didnt 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! ML: My friends spent most of their time at the Improv, so thats where I started going. It just gradually evolved, you know? I had made up my mind when I was little that I would never get married or have children, so I had no agenda. JL: Then I started to work. Her family were like church micethey didnt have two cents. I mean nothingnot even, like, taxes. ML: My father was an actor. Enough said. JL: But you know, I had this insurance policy, and I thought if something happened to me, my girlfriend wouldnt be covered, but if were married, were covered, so...we might as well get married. Not the most romantic. Mavis didnt even get an engagement ring until ML: He was going to get me one, but we had just bought a house, so why would I do that? Im not that kind of person. So this is what he bought me 10 years ago. [Laughs and looks at the large diamond on her finger.]
SS: Mavis, your parents were happily married...why didnt you want to marry? ML: Maybe because my parents were not the typical American couple of that time. They had a very egalitarian relationshipactually, most of the traits I have that people consider feminine, I got from my dad, and the common sense, self-control and practicality is from my mother. When I was little, we would watch The Honeymooners. Heres a very attractive woman, and whenever her husband is with Norton, what are they talking about? How can we get away from the wives? If only it wasnt for the wives. Meanwhile, this woman has nothing to do, lives in this tiny place, cooks his dinner and listens to him talk. As a feminist even then, it was difficult to watch.
SS: Youre mad about it now. ML: I am! I would see Lucy and other showsif they wanted money, they had to ask for it, like they were a kid. That was not my plan for myself. JL: My mother was from Scotland, had a horrible childhoodcame to the country by herself when she was 11. My grandmother had run off with a younger guy, and my grandfather was stuck with six kids. ML: His mom was the youngest. JL: But he could only afford to take care of five, so they took her around the neighborhood as a servant girl to try to see if people would keep her for a few weeks. ML: Jay, how are you telling this story? Her father took her there but not as a servant! JL: But it gets to the comedy angle. My mother was not a depressed person, but I always sensed a sadness. Every time I could get my mother to laugh, it was like a huge gift. My dad was Italian and very outgoing. He would say, Show people youre Angelos boy. My mother would say, Whatever you do, dont call attention to yourself. So it was hilarious to be stuck in the middle. When I made it sort of big, I bought my dad a Cadillac, and of course, he had to get the white Cadillac dElegance with the red velour interior. My mother was mortified. They would drive down the street, and she would sit below seat level, and people would say, I saw your father driving and yelling at somebody. Sometimes if she saw people looking, she would roll down the window and go, Were not Cadillac people. My son got us this. My father would yell, Of course were Cadillac people! Weve got a goddamn Cadillac! Were driving the goddamn thing. Its paid for!
SS: And they were together their whole life? JL: My dad was never sick a day in his life, but when my mother died, he was gone in nine months.
SS: Interesting how that happens. JL: My mom took care of the inside of the house. Dad took care of the outside. We went through three ovens in my lifetime. ML: She was like a short-order cook. There would always be steam coming out of the kitchen, pots boiling. JL: Every breakfast, lunch, dinneralways a full thing. She didnt even buy a box of spaghetti. She would make her own. ML: I was crazy about Jays parents. JL: We married on their wedding day, November 3.
SS: On purpose? As an honor? JL: I thought my mom would like thatNovember 3, 1980. ML: We had a very small wedding at a friends house with a couple friends. JL: We didnt tell anybody.
SS: Mavis, you didnt want to get married, and now theres such a connection. What changed your mind? Was Jay different? ML: It was just that by the time we were together, I was 34. I had been a feminist for years, and I finally realized that fight was won, you know? I was past it, although that was an important gesture for me to makethat I could live without being married.
SS: What was it about Jay? ML: Well, I was insanely in love with himbut I had had a long relationship before and never for one minute thought about marrying that guy. My belief was that I was a voyager, that I was just going to spend some time on this island and sail along and spend some time on that island. But with Jay, I realized all this time Id been sailing, he was the destination.
SS: Jay, what was it about Mavis? JL: Well, probably the sense that you dont want to be somewhere else when youre together. I mean, Im home every night after work. I dont go outno boys night, card night or any of that stuff. I dont feel the need. ML: He thinks the same things are important that I think are important, the same things are wrong that I think are wrong. We have the same temperament, and we understand each other completely. Before Jay, I had the opposite experience with men to what most women have, because my father was so demonstrative. He must have told my mother he loved her a million times a day. So I always had relationships with men who were that same waygave lots of presents but were flaky and unrealistic, tending toward the depressive. Stuff that means so much to women means nothing to me. Just be there when I need you, but the rest of the time, I take care of myself. And that wasand isJay.
SS: Interesting that Jay picked a woman whos so strong. He looks at you with the admiring sense of someone who is her own person. ML: Funny thing is, when we first got to know each other, in the 70s, it was that in-between time with feminism. Men had stopped saying it was awful and started saying they were supporters, because they could get laid that way.
SS: So it was inauthentic? ML: Yeah, but the thing with Jay was, from day one, he just saw me. I remember saying that I often felt I was from another planet, that I connected to people but I wished I could meet somebody from my own species. The first time talking to Jay, I said, Oh! Youre one, too! Hi!
SS: I think that may be the definition of soul mate. JL: Well, I always look for qualities in women that I dont have. I am attracted to the do-gooderthe rescue-a-cat type. ML: Dont be ridiculousyoure the most do-gooder type in the world!
SS: I guess Jay means he values it in another person. JL: I always tell guys, Look like a man, think like a woman. Thats the best way to get through life. ML: I think were both saying the same thingthe quality we admire is somebody who aspires to goodness. JL: Yeah. ML: Here is who Jay is: When we were first going out, hed get off at the Comedy Store late at night, and wed go get groceries at the all-night Ralphs on Sunset. One night, there was this man harassing a woman. Suddenly, Jay yelled, Honey! Hold on, were coming! and he started walking across the lot, and the guy took off. Jay said to the girl, Do you want to me hang around or follow you a little way? To make sure this guy... She said no. Id lived almost all my life in Hollywood, and there arent any men I ever went out with who would have done that. He didnt even think twice. Right there, I said, Okay! I mean, a component of love, really, has to be admiration. Of course, I thought he was the sexiest thing Id ever seen. I still do. And certainly, he was the funniest. He made me laugh till I almost died many times in the course of a lifetime. JL: Yeah, its better than with women who are like, I dont get it...
SS: I love thinking of those many nights youve been cracking up. ML: I dont think its an accident that comedians have the longest marriages in show business.
SS: Do they? JL: Oh, yeah. ML: Sure, think about it. Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, Bob Hope. You could go on and on. Its a huge advantage. Being funny is just the best way to get through life in a relationship. JL: I think thats probably true. ML: I mean, I cant ever fight with himhe is very even-tempered. JL: If you marry someone, theres really nothing worth fighting about. I mean if you marry someone who is not crazythats the first step. Because everything emanates from that. So when the wife says, I have to do this. Well, is this that important to you? All right, then. It doesnt matter that much, so why argue? ML: Like I said, its the admiration. When Jay and I didnt have that much money, when we were first married, we went to Monte Carlo because Jay was doing some stuff for JL: John Davidson. ML: Yeah, The John Davidson Show. One night, Jay found a wallet lying on the ground. There was money and a work visa and, without thinking twice, Jay said we had to find this guy. He went back out in the square and just yelled JL: Jean-Paul! Jean-Paul Tourneau! I kept yelling, and this guy came running over, saying, I am Jean-Paul! like in one of those bad movies where the guy steps out of the dark and goes, I am Jean-Paulwhy you call my name? ML: That was funny, but the guy was in tears, you know. He was so glad to get it back. Thats Jay.
SS: You have the same values. And you laugh. Those are two key things to this marriages long life. ML: Exactly. Its really important to think the same things are funny. And the good examplesJays and my parents happy marriages undoubtedly contributed. I think a lot of people have a very unrealistic idea of what a long relationship will be like. JL: Happiness is a privilege, not a right. Read the fine print. ML: People always say, Work on a marriage. I think if you work on knowing your own faults and trying to correct them, youre not going to have to work on your marriage. JL: I got a job. I dont need another. ML: When we got married, it dawned on me that his then manager, who was a lawyer, would want a prenup, even though Jay didnt have a lot of money then. So I decided to preempt it for him. I told Jay, You know your manager is going to want a prenup. Ill be perfectly happy to sign it, so dont worry. And Jay got mad. He said, What? Youre already planning were going to get divorced? We just trust each other in a really deep way.
SS: You really do fit. ML: I knew a lot of funny and interesting people, but I didnt know very many trustworthy people. But with Jay, I didnt have to think about it. When a quality is there, it stands out. JL: There are no jokes about wives. If someone is joking about their wife onstage, consciously or subcon-sciously, they mean it. ML: Jays thing is, you elevate the powerless person and make fun of those who are misusing their power.
SS: Its funny, Jay, because in the beginning you said Mavis is your conscience, and thats exactly what you show in your jokes. JL: The Wall Street guy you can nail, the plumber ML: If he asks someone in the audience, What do you do, sir? and the guy says, Im a plumber, Jay will say, Oh, someone who does an honest days work! But if its a banker, hell say, Oh, so you screw widows and orphans for a living. JL: Hopefully funnier than that... ML: Am I a stand-up? No.
SS: My husband and I have been together 39 years. When I look back, I can see our relationship change. Do you find that in yours? ML: A couple of periods were a little more difficult. When Jay got The Tonight Show, the first years were hard for me. All of a sudden, Jay had this day job, and every person on the planet was asking him for something. So I thought, Im going to be the one who doesnt ask for anything. Then it gave him relief at home, but that can also feel like distance. I dont know if he was aware of it because he was so swamped by the jobjust the time demands alone, and the pressure. JL: Its not really a high-pressure job. Do I look like Im under pressure? Write joke, tell joke, get check. It couldnt be simpler. You go to a place like Detroit, and you meet people with real jobs. Show business, let me tell you: The higher up you go, the more retarded people assume you are. Theyll say, Jay drove here by himself! He drove to the studio aloneyes, he did! He came in his own car! [Applauds.]
SS: Youre in a business where people are so self-important, and yet you remain the same. JL: I think thats the keynot to take yourself too seriously. Its not high pressure unless you make it that way. Its not like doing CPR. I was always happy with whatever level I was at. If youre always looking for the next level, youre not going to be happy. ML: At that time, for me, he was gone a lot, and it was not only a new situation for him, it was a situation I had never experienced. And I didnt know anybody to ask, Well, how did you handle this? So it took a little while before I figured it out.
SS: Did it make your relationship stronger? ML: Absolutely, because you know, however steadfast your feelings for each other, your life circumstances are going to go all over the place. Weve been through the death of my parents and his and the loss of Jays brother. We started off with not very much money, and now we have a lot. But weve stayed the same. The great thing about Jay is whatever he says, thats it. Its genuine. JL: Thats right! I put my foot down. Its the law! ML: No. If he says, Oh, Ill do that, then its done. When we were first together, if I wanted to talk to him about something, I would fall into the mode I had used with men in my past, where I would come in with a chip on my shoulder, all my arguments marshaled. But Jay would just say, Okay. Finally I realized I dont need to do all that.
SS: You thought you could depend on him, and now, all these years later, you have all this documentation that the theory was correct. ML: The whole thing is simple: Pick the right person; be the right person.
SS: Thats a great line. ML: If I have one more conversation with a woman about what she wants in a man and how little shes willing to give in returnI mean, wake up. When Jay and I lived together for a year before we married, he had an opportunity to be in a show in New York. He was actually nervous when he said, I have this chance... I thought, Thats greatwhy is he so rattled? And he said, If I take it, I have to be in New Yorkwould you move? And I said, Of course. Look, Im with you nowIm really with you. And then he relaxed. I asked, Would you turn it down if I didnt want to? and he got serious and said, My career is for us. Everything I do is for us. And the last wall inside me fellI knew he would be on my side in everything. If you cant do it for the person because you love them
SS: Then youre never going to do it. Mavis, do you still go to the show after all these years? ML: Off and on, but we watch The Tonight Show together every night at home. JL: Look, I always tell people, you dont fall in love with a hooker. Thats what show business is. You can enjoy show business...and then go home.