Don Imus is quoted as having said, "My goal is to goad people into saying something that ruins their life." It is not recorded whether he meant one of the people to be himself and the life his own.
But he’s certainly been true to his word. During a radio career that began in 1971 in his home state of California, Imus blazed the trail for shock jocks to follow, first with a string of irreverent characters who peopled his early shows and later with a barrage of misanthropic insults directed at just about everyone and everything on the planet.
Through the years, while he’d often teetered on the edge separating mere bad taste from reprehensible conduct, he had always managed to avoid falling into the abyss. He has called African-American Bill Rhoden, The New York Times sports columnist, a "quota hire," while characterizing another African-American, Gwen Ifill of PBS’ "Washington Week," as a "cleaning lady."
Congressman Joe Barton of Texas, who once offended Imus, was called "a lying fat little skunk from Texas," Lesley Stahl a "gutless, lying weasel," Rush Limbaugh a "fat, pill-popping loser," and Arabs "ragheads."
But Imus has been insulated by his enormous popularity, his multiple Marconi Awards, his membership in the Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the understanding of his audience that no one is safe from the Imus needle — with the exception of whichever celebrity he’s actually interviewing live.
None of his over-the-top comments ever stuck until April 4, when he characterized the Rutgers women’s basketball team as "nappy-headed ho’s."
Slapped with a two-week suspension by MSNBC, which simulcasts his morning radio show that originates at New York’s WFAN-AM, Don Imus is not only fighting for his life, but also doing something that’s never been part of his shtick: begging forgiveness, and from Al Sharpton, no less.
'Are you naked?'
The 66-year-old radio icon was born on July 23, 1940 in Riverside, Calif.
Biographies of him say that his father was an alcoholic and the family moved frequently around the Southwest. His parents eventually separated, and in 1957, at the age of 17, he joined the Marines, serving for two years and playing in a drum and bugle corps.
He tried a variety of jobs, including a railroad brakeman, and tried his hand at becoming a musician. According to his own Web site, imonthe.net, his brother, Fred, was the musician and he was the singer; their musical genre was rhythm and blues.
In 1966, he went to broadcasting school, finishing a year later. His first radio job, as the morning host at KUTY-AM in Palmdale, Calif., came in 1968.
He switched jobs frequently and in 1970 came to WGAR in Cleveland, where he became enormously popular for his crude humor (He shocked the adults and delighted teenagers by asking female callers in a guttural growl, "Are you naked?") and a stock of comic characters who included The Right Rev. Billy Sol Hargis of the First Church of the Gooey Death and Discount House of Worship.
Within a year, he was doing morning drive on WNBC in New York City, where the previous kings of the morning airwaves were icons Bob and Ray and their gently whimsical humor. Imus was also doing massive quantities first of vodka and then cocaine. Although he was enormously popular, his behavior, which included missing more than 100 days of work in a single year and urinating in a phone booth inside the NBC building, prompted the station to fire him in 1977.
Imus crept back to Cleveland in 1978, and by the following year had worked himself back to New York City and WNBC. It would be another nine years, however, before he finally kicked his addictions; he’s remained sober since 1988. (Imus later would also quit smoking, replacing cigarettes with nicotine gum.)
At home on the ranch
Imus has been married twice. He divorced his first wife, Harriet, with whom he had four daughters, all of whom are now adults, in 1979. In 1994, he married Deirdre Coleman, which whom he has one son, Frederic Wyatt, born on July 3, 1998. While his daughters were rarely mentioned on his show, he speaks constantly about Wyatt. Deirdre is also a frequent guest on his show.
Together, they devote a great deal of time talking about his ranch in New Mexico, where he retreats during the summer to host children who have cancer or have lost siblings to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the charity for which he raises large sums of money during an annual fundraising drive on WFAN.
The 4,000-acre ranch has cattle and horses, but the bill of fare is strictly vegan in accordance with Deirdre Imus’ dietary convictions.
In 2004, a former nanny, Nichole Mallette, sued Imus for wrongful termination after, according to her suit, she was escorted off the ranch property at 4:15 a.m. after the Imuses learned she had taken a cap gun and a pocket knife with an inch-and-a-half blade on an outing with Wyatt.
But his most famous feud has been with fellow shock-jock Howard Stern, who early in his career shared the WNBC airwaves with Imus as the afternoon-drive host. Initially cordial, the two have waged a constant war over which one invented their mutual medium and which is better at offending listeners.
During his AM-radio days, Stern excelled at collecting FCC fines for crude and vulgar speech and shtick, which frequently included nude women in the broadcast studio. Stern had a movie made about his life; Imus has been the best-selling author of a novel, "God’s Other Son," and a photography book he co-authored with his brother Fred.