What Did Johnny Carson Resent the Press Got Wrong About His First Marriage?

Television icon, Johnny Carson, was married four times in his life. And through the years, some people attributed to him a reputation for a wandering eye and heart. But there was something else about his first marriage he said he resented the press and public got wrong.

Black and white photo of Johnny Carson and his first wife, Jody Wolcott, at home and discussing a script (c. 1958)
Johnny Carson and Jody Wolcott (formerly Carson) | NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Johnny Carson’s first divorce was one of his biggest personal failures

When Carson spoke to ROOTS author, Alex Haley, for an interview with Playboy magazine in 1967, he opened up on many different issues he usually considered off limits. One of those subjects was his first divorce, which he seemingly regretted was used to paint him in the wrong light.

When Haley asked if Carson’s first show’s cancellation was one of his lowest points, the host said only from a professional standpoint. From a personal position, he said his first divorce was that moment.

“That’s the lowest I’ve ever felt, the worst personal experience of my life,” Carson explained. “We’d been married 10 years — since college, in fact. And children were involved — three sons.”

He said “the worst guilt hang-up you can have [is] when children are involved, but clarified he felt “divorce sometimes is the only answer.”

“I think it’s almost immoral to keep on with a marriage that’s really bad,” he shared. “It just gets more and more rotten and vindictive and everybody gets more and more hurt.”

Johnny Carson didn’t divorce his first wife — she divorced him

Johnny Carson and his first wife, Jody Wolcott, pose for a picture by their home swimming pool (c. 1958).
Johnny Carson and Jody Wolcott (formerly Carson) | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Tonight Show host also told Haley he generally didn’t care what anyone thought of him. At the end of each day, he felt his job required only a good performance, though he wanted to clear the air on one misconception about his only divorce by then.

“The … line I didn’t like was that I had divorced my first wife,” Carson explained of another story about him, brought up in the interview by Haley. “I didn’t; she divorced me. I didn’t initiate it.”

Carson was seemingly put off that the other writer “made it sound like [he] was the kind of guy who made it big and then got rid of the one who had stuck with him all the way.”

Johnny Carson married his first wife in 1949 and they divorced in 1959

On Oct. 1, 1949, Carson and Wolcott married while just out of college. Eventually she gave birth to his three sons, the only children he had despite his other marriages.

Sometime around 1959, the two came to an agreement that it was time to end their union. During their separation, Carson paid his estranged wife child support and alimony. They were eventually divorced in 1963, shortly before his second wedding.

In 1990, Wolcott petitioned to have her payments from Carson increased, essentially based on the fact he was making a lot of money by then and she was beginning to run out. An article from UPI noted court documents recorded she had almost $400,000 in her bank account at the time.

Though one of their sons had died in a tragic car accident and the two others were grown by then, she argued Carson should pay her $120,000 annually. But a judge eventually dismissed the request based on the fact Wolcott had since remarried, and again divorced.

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