David Letterman’s mother, Dorothy Mengering, has died at age 95. Anyone who watched Letterman’s NBC and CBS talk shows probably remembers Dorothy: On camera, she always seemed a cheerful, small-boned woman with twinkly eyes and snow-white hair. She made most of her numerous appearances on Letterman’s Late Show in the 1990s, when she would appear via satellite from her Indiana home and play goofy games with her goofy son — such as “Guess Mom’s Pies” — and reading lists such as “The Top 10 Things In Mom’s Refrigerator.” She was the world’s most unlikely Olympics correspondent: Letterman wrapped her in a big parka and sent her off to cover the Games in places such as Lillehammer, Norway, and Nagano, Japan.
Dorothy — I’m calling her Dorothy because that’s how she became known to viewers; the surname of her second husband was never used on the air, to my knowledge — was of stern German-Lutheran stock. With her son, she was apparently unlike her warm, on-air presence; Letterman referred to her more than once as “the least demonstrative person in the world.” She possessed that Midwestern reserve that emphasized politeness but could also suggest emotional reserve.
In Jason Zinoman’s new biography, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night — published Tuesday, the day she died — Letterman describes the way, when he was a boy, his mother became irritated when TV host Ed Sullivan asked the audience to applaud for an act on his Sunday night variety show: “She thought you should get applause on merit,” Letterman said. You could look at Letterman’s career as a decades-long effort to get his mother to applaud him enthusiastically. You could, but that would be too facile. As in everyone’s relationship with his or her mother, the complexities were undoubtedly profound. In this clip, Dave begins by asking his mom, “How long have you and I known one another?” He then says, “I’m 58. How many of those years did we get along, do you think?” All 58, Dorothy replies. “You’re not under oath, Mom,” says Dave with a tart brightness tinged with a touch of bitterness.
In 1996, in her one concession to her small bit of fame her son had brought her, she wrote a cookbook called Home Cookin’ with Dave’s Mom. When I interviewed Letterman in 1995, he talked about the origin of the project in his typically ornery yet warm way. “You know how this happened?” he asked. “She was at the Olympics for us, and when she comes back, everyone wants her — the World Wrestling Federation wants her to referee a match, that kind of thing. It just got to be silly. So I said, ‘Okay, we’ll listen to any offer — it’s just got to be for a million dollars.’” Did you pick this figure arbitrarily? I asked. “I just thought it would be discouraging and they’d leave us alone,” he said. “But then we get a call from this publisher [Pocket Books] who wanted to do it, and — by the way, this is off the record, I don’t want people to know how much. …” I interrupted Dave here to say that it was reported in Publishers Weekly, that the fee was $1 million. “It was?” said Letterman with mock-horror. “Oh, gawd. Anyway, I’m worried now that it’s somehow going to turn into a cookbook about me.”
It didn’t. My condolences to David Letterman.
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