A new biography explores David Letterman’s fractured psyche amid his 2009 sex scandal.
Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night is written by New York Times reporter Jason Zinoman and reveals how the scandal sent Letterman into a spiralling depression.
“I’m in hell. I will always be in hell until the day after, when I will go to hell,” Letterman reportedly told writer Steve Young. The two were going over the monologue in which he would announce the scandal on his show, according to People. After telling his audience that “I have had sex with women who work for me,” the host was “shaken.”
“It was akin to having killed your family in a car crash. It was like that to me,” Letterman said about his desperation, according to the book’s author. “I was afraid my family was gone.”
In 2015, Letterman told Rolling Stone how grateful he was to have his wife remain by his side. He also admitted to not having told, at the time, his now-13-year-old son about the scandal. “He will [know about it] one day,” Letterman said. “We’ll have to have a conversation about it. But not yet.”
The sex scandal rocked the talk show host’s world and made headlines everywhere. It turns out, however, his audience weren’t the only ones caught off-guard. “Most ‘Late Show’ staffers said they had no idea that he was having an affair…” writes Zinoman. “Some suspected as much, and a few said they knew what Letterman was doing. There had been rumours among some on staff about Letterman’s flirtations for years.”
After his on-air confession, Letterman organized a postmortem meeting with his staffers. No one “was allowed to talk about the show,” Zinoman explains. The meeting was actually Letterman’s way “to cope with and avoid his personal life.”
“I was looking for a refuge,” Letterman said, according to Zinoman. “‘Whether they knew it or not, [my staffers] were being used to support me. I didn’t want to go outside. Outside I was scared. Scared as I’ve ever been in my life. The show was endlessly helpful.”
The biography also details Letterman’s bitter feud with Jay Leno. “Letterman assumed one day he would get a call from [Johnny] Carson or the head of NBC to offer him the job [as host of ‘The Tonight Show’]. It never happened,” writes Zinoman.
“Rick Ludwin, head of late-night programming at NBC, respected Letterman as a great entertainer but was skeptical that he could draw the broad swath of viewers that made up the ‘Tonight Show’ audience. He also saw Letterman as difficult to deal with. Whereas Leno was friendly and approachable, Letterman was distant, even hostile.”
Though Leno would attract the eyeballs, many, including former Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson, praised Letterman as an innovator. Praise, however, did not ease Letterman’s mind. ““Everyone is born with an emotional thermostat,” writer Steve Young said to Zinoman. “You can nudge it up and down, but it will always revert to its natural setting. His was that he was never truly comfortable unless he was seething with unhappiness at something.”
Letterman retired shortly after Leno left “The Tonight Show”. “Once Jay left, I knew I had to get out,” said Letterman to Zinoman about the decision to retire. “I was already the old guy.”
You can pick up a copy of The Last Giant of Late Night April 11.