Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Urban Legend: Mrs. Palmer on 'The Tonight Show'

Is an urban legend about golf actually a suburban legend?

There's a story that's told about Arnold Palmer's wife appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This would be Winnie Palmer, and the time was the late '60s. According to this legend, the following snippet was part of the conversation between Winnie and Johnny:

Johnny: Do you do anything for Arnold before a tournament as a sort of good-luck charm or superstition?

Mrs. Palmer: I kiss his balls.

Johnny: Well ... I bet that makes his putter flutter.

I've heard many people tell this story. Even had one friend who insisted that he watched it in real time.

But there are a couple problems with the story. First, why would Carson have Arnold Palmer's wife on the show? Winnie Palmer was not herself famous. Second, nobody who knew Winnie can imagine her going on a talk show, nor - especially - coming anywhere near such a double-entendre.

And, sure enough, a check of the Johnny Carson archives confirms that it never happened. Winnie Palmer was never a guest on The Tonight Show.

Urban legend. Never happened.

If that's the case, why do so many people think it happened, and why do some people claim to remember seeing it happen? Memory is a funny thing. The act of trying to remember something can actually modify or falsify existing memories, or create new ones. Hearing the story about Arnold Palmer's wife on The Tonight Show, being told that it really happened (even though it didn't), can lead to the formation of a "memory" of the non-existent event. Memory research shows over and over how easily we fool ourselves, and how easy it is to create false memories.

But how did the Winnie Palmer story get started in the first place? Probably as a joke that somebody dreamed up, later misunderstood or intentionally transformed into a supposedly real event. In other words, your standard-issue urban legend.

The urban legend website Snopes.com has an entry on the Arnold-Palmer's-wife-on-The-Tonight-Show legend, and points out that Mrs. Palmer wasn't even the first golfer's wife about whom the story was told. It's been told about Jack Nicklaus' wife, about Sam Snead's wife, and also about the wives of tennis players and couples from other sports. Basically any sport that involves balls also involves the creation of double-entendre ball jokes.

Snopes also points out that Arnold Palmer himself has said it never happened, including during an (actual) appearance of his own on the Jay Leno version of The Tonight Show in 1994. In that appearance, Leno asked Palmer about the story. Arnie told him that it was actually Carson, speaking to Arnold (not Arnold's wife), who made a ball joke:

Leno: ... apparently Johnny said, 'Is there anything your wife does to bring you good luck?'

Arnold Palmer: No, Johnny said, 'Does your wife kiss your balls before you go play?' And I said, 'I don't even go to bed without pajamas.'

Some of you reading this are shaking your heads, thinking, "but I saw Winnie Palmer on The Tonight Show!" No, you didn't. You need to wrap your mind around the fact that you are "remembering" something that never happened. Winnie Palmer never appeared on The Tonight Show (something that has been confirmed numerous times by Tonight Show archivists), and Arnie himself says it's an urban legend.