Joanne Carson dies at 83; ex-wife of 'Tonight Show' host

Joanne Carson, the ex-wife of 'Tonight Show' host Johnny Carson, has died. She was 83.

She was a struggling model and he was the host of a TV game show who shyly asked her if she wanted to watch some film clips of his comedy.

It was the first date in 1960 in New York City for the future Joanne Carson and Johnny Carson, long before he became the king of late-night television.

"Johnny kind of said to me on our first date, 'You love comedy so much, would you like to come up and see a show that I did?'" Joanne Carson said on CNN's "Larry King Live" in 2007.

"And I said, 'Is this a new way of saying come up and see my etchings?' "

Johnny Carson turned "bright red," she said, but it was the beginning of a romance and marriage that extended through the years when he vaulted to fame in New York as the host of "The Tonight Show."

Joanne Carson, 83, who later in life became a close confidant of Truman Capote, died Friday at home in Los Angeles. She had been in declining health and was in hospice care, said Ed Rada, executor of her estate.


For the Record

May 9, 5:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said Joanne Carson was 84. She was 83 when she died. It also misspelled the name of one of Carson's half sisters as Alters. The correct spelling is Shirlee Alpers.


Johnny Carson, who hosted "The Tonight Show" from 1962 to 1992, died in 2005.

Their marriage, which was turbulent at times, lasted from 1963 to 1972, when it ended in divorce. By then, she had moved back to her native California and purchased the home on the fringe of Bel-Air where she lived the rest of her life.

Several years before they met, Joanne Carson had her own chance to get into show business. In the mid-1950s, she was a Pan Am stewardess and helped calm a passenger in first class listed as Mr. Howard. It turned out to be Howard Hughes.

A few weeks later, she told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 1984, she got a call from Hughes' RKO studio offering her a screen test. She worked at the studio briefly, she said, but turned down a long-term contract and eventually moved to New York.

The kinescopes that Johnny Carson showed her were from his daytime program, "The Johnny Carson Show," that originated from Los Angeles in the mid-1950s.

"Johnny said to me, when we were watching the films, 'There's me, without the polish,' " she said in a 2007 Associated Press interview. He was rail-thin and wore ill-fitting suits on the show, but she said he was already poised, charming on screen and hilarious in sketches.

They were inseparable, she said, but both were opinionated and had tempers, according to friends at the time. "There were a lot of arguments," TV announcer and host Jack Narz said in a 1989 interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

They married in 1963 and took an apartment at the United Nations Plaza that was home to several celebrities, including, eventually, Capote. Outwardly, the Carsons were a model couple.

But arguments and accusations flared, friends said. And after a few years, she tired of the celebrity wife life.

"I was living this ivory tower lifestyle that's not really me," she told Larry King. Eventually, they separated and she moved into a hotel, then back West.

"I loved Johnny," she told King, "but I really needed to go home. I needed to come back to California."

Joanne Copeland was born Oct. 20, 1931. She was raised in Los Angeles, but at an early age, her parents' marriage grew rocky and she was sent to a convent school.

When she was about 9, she moved back in with her father, who had remarried. She said her father introduced her to Carson.

After the breakup of her marriage, she and Capote grew especially close. He urged her to write an autobiography and she started on it. "I was going to write a lovely story about my friendship with all these people," she said in a Times interview last year. Capote even edited, heavily, a sample chapter.

But a book editor assigned to the project wanted dirt on celebrities, and she wasn't willing to do that.

"When I saw the 'dishy' kind of autobiographies selling in the '80s, I knew my simple book of friendships would not be interesting."

Capote had a writing room at her house. He died there Aug. 25, 1984, at the age of 59.

Joanne Carson worked as a television talk show host for a time and supported several causes, including those that involved care for dogs. She auctioned off several pieces of memorabilia, including some related to Capote and to her former husband.

In 2006, she found, in the back of a wine cabinet where they had been stored for many years, the films of "The Johnny Carson Show" with which he had wooed her. She had them converted to DVDs and made available to the public.

Joanne Carson had a second marriage late in her life to Richard Rever that also ended in divorce. She had no children and is survived by two half sisters, Barbara Abernathy and Shirlee Alpers.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter @davidcolker

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