Happily Ever Laughter
Jay and Mavis Leno on strong women, real men—and why theirs is a love for the ages by Sue Smalley / photograph by 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?
ML: My friends spent most of their time at the Improv, so that’s 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 mice—they didn’t have two cents. I mean nothing—not 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 wouldn’t be covered, but if we’re married, we’re covered, so...we might as well get married. Not the most romantic. Mavis didn’t 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? I’m 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 didn’t you want to marry?
ML: Maybe because my parents were not the typical American couple of that time. They had a very egalitarian relationship—actually, 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. Here’s 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 wasn’t 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: You’re mad about it now.
ML: I am! I would see Lucy and other shows—if 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 childhood—came 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 you’re Angelo’s boy.” My mother would say, “Whatever you do, don’t 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 d’Elegance 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, “We’re not Cadillac people. My son got us this.” My father would yell, “Of course we’re Cadillac people! We’ve got a goddamn Cadillac! We’re driving the goddamn thing. It’s 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, dinner—always a full thing. She didn’t even buy a box of spaghetti. She would make her own.
ML: I was crazy about Jay’s parents.
JL: We married on their wedding day, November 3.
SS: On purpose? As an honor?
JL: I thought my mom would like that—November 3, 1980.
ML: We had a very small wedding at a friend’s house with a couple friends.
JL: We didn’t tell anybody.
SS: Mavis, you didn’t want to get married, and now there’s 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 make—that I could live without being married.
SS: What was it about Jay?
ML: Well, I was insanely in love with him—but 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 I’d been sailing, he was the destination.
SS: Jay, what was it about Mavis?
JL: Well, probably the sense that you don’t want to be somewhere else when you’re together. I mean, I’m home every night after work. I don’t go out—no boys’ night, card night or any of that stuff. I don’t 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 way—gave 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 was—and is—Jay.
SS: Interesting that Jay picked a woman who’s 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! You’re 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 don’t have. I am attracted to the do-gooder—the rescue-a-cat type.
ML: Don’t be ridiculous—you’re 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.” That’s the best way to get through life.
ML: I think we’re both saying the same thing—the quality we admire is somebody who aspires to goodness.
ML: Here is who Jay is: When we were first going out, he’d get off at the Comedy Store late at night, and we’d 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, we’re 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. I’d lived almost all my life in Hollywood, and there aren’t any men I ever went out with who would have done that. He didn’t 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 I’d 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, it’s better than with women who are like, “I don’t get it...”
SS: I love thinking of those many nights you’ve been cracking up.
ML: I don’t think it’s 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. It’s a huge advantage. Being funny is just the best way to get through life in a relationship.
JL: I think that’s probably true.
ML: I mean, I can’t ever fight with him—he is very even-tempered.
JL: If you marry someone, there’s really nothing worth fighting about. I mean if you marry someone who is not crazy—that’s 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 doesn’t matter that much, so why argue?
ML: Like I said, it’s the admiration. When Jay and I didn’t 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-Paul—why you call my name?”
ML: That was funny, but the guy was in tears, you know. He was so glad to get it back. That’s Jay.
SS: You have the same values. And you laugh. Those are two key things to this marriage’s long life.
ML: Exactly. It’s really important to think the same things are funny. And the good examples—Jay’s 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, you’re not going to have to work on your marriage.
JL: I got a job. I don’t 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 didn’t 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. I’ll be perfectly happy to sign it, so don’t worry.” And Jay got mad. He said, “What? You’re already planning we’re 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 didn’t know very many trustworthy people. But with Jay, I didn’t 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: Jay’s thing is, you elevate the powerless person and make fun of those who are misusing their power.
SS: It’s funny, Jay, because in the beginning you said Mavis is your conscience, and that’s 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, “I’m a plumber,” Jay will say, “Oh, someone who does an honest day’s work!” But if it’s a banker, he’ll 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, I’m going to be the one who doesn’t ask for anything. Then it gave him relief at home, but that can also feel like distance. I don’t know if he was aware of it because he was so swamped by the job—just the time demands alone, and the pressure.
JL: It’s not really a high-pressure job. Do I look like I’m under pressure? Write joke, tell joke, get check. It couldn’t 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. They’ll say, “Jay drove here by himself! He drove to the studio alone—yes, he did! He came in his own car!” [Applauds.]
SS: You’re in a business where people are so self-important, and yet you remain the same.
JL: I think that’s the key—not to take yourself too seriously. It’s not high pressure unless you make it that way. It’s not like doing CPR. I was always happy with whatever level I was at. If you’re always looking for the next level, you’re 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 didn’t 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. We’ve been through the death of my parents and his and the loss of Jay’s brother. We started off with not very much money, and now we have a lot. But we’ve stayed the same. The great thing about Jay is whatever he says, that’s it. It’s genuine.
JL: That’s right! I put my foot down. It’s the law!
ML: No. If he says, “Oh, I’ll do that,” then it’s 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 don’t 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: That’s a great line.
ML: If I have one more conversation with a woman about what she wants in a man and how little she’s willing to give in return—I 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, That’s great—why is he so rattled? And he said, “If I take it, I have to be in New York—would you move?” And I said, “Of course. Look, I’m with you now—I’m really with you.” And then he relaxed. I asked, “Would you turn it down if I didn’t 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 fell—I knew he would be on my side in everything. If you can’t do it for the person because you love them—
SS: Then you’re 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 don’t fall in love with a hooker. That’s what show business is. You can enjoy show business...and then go home.