Ed Over Heels

updated 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AMERICA'S MOST FAMOUS SECOND banana, it turns out, hates to be apart from the bunch. "I would like to grow old with someone," muses Ed McMahon, 68, in the rolling baritone with which he has opened The Tonight Show for the past 29 years. "I see these older couples on the street going hand in hand. To me, that's what you should have, and it's unfortunate that I haven't found it yet."

Standing at the bow of his 50-foot Chris-Craft yacht, the Miss Katherine (named for his 5-year-old daughter), watching the sun set beyond Marina del Rey, L.A.'s poshest yacht haven, the twice-divorced lonely guy is searching for, well, a new second bananette. McMahon—who will say "Heeere's Johnny!" for the last time on May 22, 1992, the same night his boss bids a final farewell—is a sailor plowing the storm-tossed seas of romance.

And the affable, burly sidekick—not to mention Star Search host, Marine colonel, multimillionaire product spokesman, Polo Lounge regular and Hollywood institution—is a very busy mariner at that. Another daughter, Claudia, 46, an NBC cable network producer in New York City, calls Dad regularly for the latest romantic update. (His other grown children: Michael, 40, a home renovator; Linda, 39, a housewife and mother of McMahon's two grandchildren; and Jeffrey, 31, who develops TV programming for the NFL.) "As the oldest child," Claudia says, "I just become bossy. I demand that he tell me what's going on."

Have you got a few hours, Claudia? McMahon and his first wife, Alyce (mother of his four older children), divorced after 29 years in 1974. His second hitch of 14 years, to Victoria Valentine, a VIP hostess for National Airlines, ended in divorce this year (the breakup came after she had an affair with a Los Angeles police officer).

Since then, McMahon has had two highly publicized—and messy—affairs, one with Joanna Ford, 49, a hostess at trendy eatery Ma Maison, the other with Andrea Casden, 28, an aspiring actress. In the past year he has gone out with Palm Springs socialite Diana Christie, 47, and—for the past month or so—fashion designer and ad executive Pamela Hum, 37.

What explains The Many Loves of Ed, as this romantic soap opera might be called? For one thing, "Ed is an enormously social human being," says his attorney and business manager Paul Tobin. "He likes people around. He is not good as a single person." Also, notes Madeline Kelly, McMahon's personal manager for the past 11 years, "Ed is very comfortable with women. He has a great sense of himself, which allows him to be comfortable."

He's comfortable to be with, says current girlfriend Hum. "He's very easy to be around," she says. "He's very well-informed, someone you can really have a decent conversation with. He has a great heart."

And he has, by all accounts, a very generous touch where lady friends are concerned. He has provided a six-bedroom house in Beverly Hills for Joanna Ford (in which she still lives) and a Jaguar and wardrobe for Andrea Casden. Nor does he stint on himself: There's the four-bedroom Malibu home he shares with little Katherine, the yacht with its three staterooms, and 30 years of chauffeured limousines.

McMahon's appetite for high life was learned, he says, from his father, Ed, a professional fund-raiser he describes as "a hustler, an entrepreneur." (McMahon's parents are dead; his mother was named Eleanor.) In flush times, McMahon remembers, he and his folks lived in a penthouse suite in a San Francisco hotel and dialed room service for dinner. Daughter Claudia makes her dad sound almost like Auntie Mame McMahon. "He taught me to celebrate every imaginable event," she says.

McMahon doesn't understand the fuss over his love life. "To date a few women in two years is not a womanizer, in my opinion," he says. And yet, like a chatty guest on the Talk Show of Love, he is willing to discuss some of his affaires de coeur.

Victoria Valentine, now 46: McMahon met her on a trip to New Orleans in 1973. Now, despite the divorce, "we're friendly," McMahon says. "For Katherine's sake, we're being very civil, very Mommy and Daddy. Victoria and I are having dinner tonight with her." He and Victoria adopted Katherine in 1985; they have joint custody. "Katherine is handling it well," McMahon says. "I'm lucky that I get so much time to spend with her. We have a great relationship."

Joanna Ford: She was at one point engaged to be the third Mrs. McMahon, but their relationship untangled even as she discovered a cancerous lump in her breast and had to undergo a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy. "Her cancer had nothing to do with our breakup," says McMahon. "We were just having personal difficulties with each other. She has a 9-year-old boy who I would have had to raise, and I wasn't equipped for that." Ford's cancer is in remission ("I have to hang tough," she says. "I have to be strong for my son"), and she is now a personal assistant to a Hollywood director. As to the split: "I'm fine about it," she says. "Ed's just a child. He'll never change."

Andrea Casden: As to why he took up with her last year, his first response is, "Who the hell knows?" But he elaborates: "She was very bright. I used to call her my child-woman. We started having a little...what I call a freedom fling. It was like a Fourth of July rocket, bright and colorful and fiery, but it vanished quickly." But Casden apparently hasn't disappeared with the rocket's plume of sparks. Attorney Tobin recently obtained a restraining order against her, alleging that she has continued to turn up at McMahon's Malibu home and yacht as an unwelcome visitor. (Casden denies that she has pestered McMahon.)

Diana Christie: "I met her in Palm Springs," says McMahon of his previous girlfriend, who is married to, but separated from, a banking executive. Technically, though, they met at a Sunset Strip restaurant 20 years ago, when she was a model, and became reacquainted while he was still dating Casden.

Pamela Hurn: She and McMahon were introduced by a mutual friend after Hum was asked to name her dream date and she answered—guess. "She's an extremely attractive lady, inside and out," McMahon says of Hum, who's divorced (she has a 19-year-old son, Alex). "She has a good head on her shoulders."

The question is, Will Ed keep his head? In any event, we'll probably be hearing of fewer liaisons, dangerous or otherwise, in the future. "What has sobered him from a financial standpoint was Johnny's announcement that he was retiring," says Tobin. "The Tonight Show is certainly not Ed's sole income, but it is a huge chunk of it. And when that show ends, that income stops."

Heeeeeere's the future! Despite having plenty of show-business plans (Star Search, promotions, plus a possible Veterans Day TV special in which he'll explain the meaning of war to little Katherine), McMahon says he feels ambivalent about life after Tonight, when bandleader Doc Severinsen will also retire. "In one way, I think it's time to leave," McMahon says. "But I wonder, What's going to happen to me when I wake up in the morning without The Tonight Show to do that day?"

He'll probably go cruising. On his love boat, Captain McMahon doesn't usually handle the wheel himself—that's done by a skipper named Bobby Harris. What McMahon does well, says Harris, is maneuver the Miss Katherine into a narrow berth at the yacht club "without a scratch." Now, if he can only show such skill bringing the next Mrs. McMahon alongside.

DORIS BACON in Los Angeles

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