Don Imus

Don Imus was one of America’s most polarizing radio personalities in life, and even in death the sharp-tongued DJ continues to split opinion. The shock jock was taken to hospital on Christmas Eve 2019, and passed away days later of complications from lung disease, his family confirmed (via the Associated Press). News of the 79-year-old’s passing divided Twitter, where opinions were predictably strong. Some users mourned the loss of a pioneer, while others were unable to forgive him for his numerous inflammatory remarks over the years. Love him or loathe him, one thing’s for sure — the I-Man had a very interesting life.

John Donald Imus Jr. was born on a cattle ranch in California, but his family moved to Arizona when he was still a child. According to Vanity Fair contributor Buzz Bissinger (who spent a memorable week with Imus back in 2006) he was born into "relative affluence," but his rancher turned real estate investor father "squandered most of his money." Imus had to start from scratch, and he rose to the challenge. He started out on local radio in 1968 and was more-or-less on the air for five decades, walking a tightrope with his content the entire time.

His checkered past is being explored in greater detail now that he’s gone, and it turns out his personal life was often just as shocking as his radio show. This is the untold truth of Don Imus.

Don Imus was a ‘horrible adolescent’

Don Imus

By his own admission, Don Imus was not a pleasant child. The DJ opened up about his school days when he was visited by Dinitia Smith for a New York magazine profile back in 1991, and he didn’t sugar-coat it. He told Smith that he was "bounced from one hideous private school to another" during his childhood, but he wasn’t looking for any pity. "I was a horrible adolescent," Imus revealed. "Always the rotten kid who made fun of the fat kid in school." His own grandmother told him that he was going to "end up in prison" if he didn’t straighten himself out, which is where the United States Armed Forces came in.

In 1957, a 17-year-old Imus dropped out of school and joined the Marines, but the military life didn’t repress the joker in him. He transferred to the drum and bugle corps because it was "far easier lifting" according to Vanity Fair‘s Buzz Bissinger, who got to hear a few stories about Imus’ time in the military during his week with the shock jock. According to Bissinger, Imus and a friend once "stole the stars off a general’s jeep and put them on their own vehicle but then got mad at the sentry at the gate for not properly saluting them." This general evidently had a sense of humor, because Imus was ultimately given an honorable discharge.

Getting fired has been Don Imus’ thing for a long time

Don Imus

Imus didn’t go straight into radio after leaving the military. The I-Man had a number of jobs before he made it big on the airwaves, though he apparently didn’t last very long in any of them. He worked as a uranium miner at the Grand Canyon for a spell, but that ended when he broke one (or both of his legs, depending on the account) in an on-site accident. It was dangerous work, but Imus "made a lot of money" while it lasted, he told the Los Angeles Times.

According to New York magazine, Imus’ first post-military job was as a window dresser in San Bernardino, Calif. He was fired after he decided to put on a little striptease with the mannequins, right in the middle of morning rush hour. These were the kind of stunts that would get him noticed after he moved into radio, but he was never bullet proof, especially in the early days.

Imus got sacked from a Stockton, Calif. radio station after a few incendiary incidents. First, he uttered the word "Hell" on the air. Then, in what proved to be the last straw for the provocative DJ, he staged an Eldridge Cleaver lookalike contest, which The Washington Post described as his "commentary on the FBI’s inability to find the fugitive Black Panther." Imus’ own reasoning? "My position was that J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon would accept any black person [as Cleaver]," he told New York.

Laws were changed because of Don Imus’ on-air antics

Don Imus

After his mouth cost him his job in Stockton, Calif., Imus found work at a radio station in Sacramento, Calif. It was here that he pulled a stunt that led to him being crowned DJ of the year in the medium size markets category by Billboard. Per Vanity Fair, the boundary-pushing shock jock decided to pose as the sergeant of an invented body called the International Guard for the gag, which involved calling up a McDonald’s and ordering 1,200 hamburgers for his non-existent troops.

"Now, listen, on 300 of those I want you to hold the mustard," Imus told the baffled clerk (via New York magazine). "But put on plenty of mayonnaise and lettuce. But I don’t want any onion on those. And on 200 — well, make that 20 — I want you to hold the mayo and the lettuce but lay on the mustard and make those medium rare." The incident gained national attention and ultimately contributed to a new FCC ruling — going forward, DJs had to "identify themselves" when they made calls to the public.

The bigger effect was on Imus’ career. It wasn’t long before he landed a more lucrative job in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was able to reach a much larger audience. He once again won the Billboard award for DJ of the year (this time in the major markets category) during his time in Cleveland, his last stop before he landed in New York.

The real reason Don Imus started drinking

Don Imus

Don Imus brought his provocative act to the Big Apple in 1971 and was an immediate hit. He landed the WNBC morning drive time slot and his career took off (Life magazine dubbed him the "country’s most outrageous disc jockey," per Vanity Fair), but Imus found the business side of the big leagues daunting. He didn’t drink "much" before moving to New York, but Imus found that having a drink in his hand "help[ed] him get through" meetings with "sponsors."

As his drinking increased, his conduct and reliability declined. His attendance became so bad that staff at the station placed bets on whether he’d turn up at work, and even if he did show, that was just the first hurdle. On one occasion, he crashed out mid-show. "He was usually able to get it together enough to perform on the air, but often on the air it would go downhill pretty fast," the late Michael Lynne, a lifelong friend of Imus who was acting as his entertainment lawyer at the time, told Vanity Fair.

Imus didn’t show up for work for a total of 100 days in 1973, and he continued to push his luck in the years that followed. Bosses finally lost patience and fired him in 1977, when he was forced to return (though only briefly) to Cleveland. "It was humiliating," Imus told New York magazine. "But I needed to make some money and get my act together."

Don Imus slept on park benches with thousands of dollars in his pocket

Don Imus

Alcohol wasn’t Don Imus’ only vice. He was reportedly a regular user of speed in the ’70s (the keen photographer would take it and shut himself away in his apartment’s dark room, according to Vanity Fair). Imus was introduced to cocaine in the early ’80s, which he dabbled with for a couple of years before he got sick of dealing with the people who supplied it and quit.

"Cocaine was fun for the first couple lines, then you run out," he told the outlet, adding, "You always run out. Cocaine dealers are the second-most irresponsible people on the planet. Really. You can’t get hold of them." Imus swore off the drugs in 1983, but he was still drinking heavily, and his behavior only seemed to get worse. He began behaving erratically at work (he even turned up with no shoes on one day) and he would sometimes sleep rough, crashing out "on park benches with thousands of dollars in his pocket."

By 1987, Imus’ alcoholism deeply concerned those around him. "His face resembled a death mask," his friend Kinky Friedman told New York magazine. "He looked like your garden variety hatchet murderer." In July of that year, Imus went on a nine-day binge. When he woke up and realized that he couldn’t stop shaking without alcohol, he had his station set up a long overdue stint in rehab and he finally got himself clean.

The Howard Stern v. Don Imus feud was legendary

Howard Stern

Don Imus and Howard Stern were colleagues at WNBC-AM from 1982 to 1985, but just because their shows shared a home doesn’t mean that they saw eye-to-eye. According to author Rich Mintzer’s Stern biography, Imus called Stern "a Jew b*****d" in 1984, and their feud intensified when Stern moved to the morning spot on K-ROCK. The rival shock jocks butted heads on several occasions and were constantly compared to one another, but as far as Imus was concerned, he was in a different league. "People perceive me as Howard Stern," Imus told The New York Times in 1993. "It’s not the case. I’m Howard Stern with a vocabulary. I’m the man he wishes he could be."

Their grudge reached boiling point in 2003 when Imus discovered that one of Stern’s listeners had been spying on him in the gym and reporting back. He responded by saying that Stern would always be his "b****." An incensed Stern called Imus’ show when they were both on air and threatened to reveal things about his daughter and his past. A NSFW argument ensued, which Imus cut short — he played a song as Stern continued his tirade. "Nice showdown, d*****bag," Stern said.

When he retired in 2018, Imus conceded that Stern was one of the biggest radio personalities of all time, and claimed that their feud was always pretty one-sided. "He had a big problem with me," Imus told NewsDay. "I didn’t with him."

The time Don Imus roasted Bill Clinton right in front of Hillary

The Clintons

Don Imus was off the booze and ready to get serious by the time the 1990s rolled around, spurred on by the debate over the Gulf War. He transformed his show from a crude spectacle full of edgy jokes and crazy characters like the Right Rev. Dr. Billy Sol Hargis to a place where serious political debate took place. The likes of Joe Biden and John McCain began to appear as guests on his show, but when it comes to politicians, the DJ will forever be associated with Bill Clinton.

In 1996, Imus was asked to speak at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in Washington. He assured the higher ups at the association that he wouldn’t mock the less savory aspects of the Clintons’ marriage ("I can’t tell womanizing jokes about the president with his wife sitting right there," Imus told them, per Fox News), but he did just that. On top of referring to the president as "a pot-smoking weasel," Imus saw Clinton’s recent appearance at a baseball game as a chance to joke about his alleged extramarital affairs.

"Bobby Bonilla hit a double; we all heard the president in his obvious excitement holler, ‘Go, baby!’ I bet that’s not the first time he’s said that," Imus told the audience, which, according to The Baltimore Sun, was largely appalled. Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, called Imus’ jokes "fairly tasteless" in a statement (via the Associated Press).

The racist remark that ruined Don Imus’ career

Rutgers team

In 2007, Don Imus fell from the tightrope he’d been walking for decades, and he fell hard. This was, of course, when he infamously referred to the mostly-black Rutgers University women’s basketball team as "nappy headed h**s," sparking immediate backlash. "Nappy is in the lexicon of racism in the same category as pickaninny and n*****," Anne Soukhanov (U.S. editor of the Encarta Webster’s Dictionary) told Reuters at the time, describing Imus’ language as "antique racism — words not used anymore except by people who are very insensitive to the culture we live in."

At first, Imus scoffed at the idea that his words had offended people, telling everyone to stop getting bent out of shape over "some idiot comment meant to be amusing" (via The New York Times), but his bosses weren’t happy. With pressure mounting, Imus admitted that his comments were "thoughtless and stupid." He later met with the Rutgers team to apologize in person, but the damage was already done — CBS Radio cut him loose, and Imus became "an immediate pariah," according to the Associated Press.

Imus bounced back on WABC a year after CBS fired him, eventually retiring for good in 2018. One of his "few regrets?" The "Rutgers thing," as he put it to CBS Sunday Morning, adding, "It did change my feeling about making fun of some people who didn’t deserve to be made fun of and didn’t have a mechanism to defend themselves."

Don Imus was a failed rock musician

Don Imus

Doin Imus’ brother Fred became a regular on his radio show when the former became famous, but at one stage, Fred Imus was the more successful of the two siblings. In the period between him leaving the military and starting in radio, Don and his brother moved to Hollywood and started a band. They played "’60s rock’n’roll and blues stuff" according to Imus, who told the Los Angeles Times all about his failed music career back in 1996. "I just ran out of money, you know, and I was sleeping in this Laundromat on Vine Street, a block or two below Sunset," he recalled. "I used to sleep behind the dryers there, then I’d go around to get money out of the phone booths."

Fred went solo and had some mild success in the country music market, but Don couldn’t catch a break. The only reason he got into radio to begin with was because he figured it was the only way he was going to get airplay for his music, but after he landed his first DJ gig at a station in Palmdale, Calif., he came to a stark realization. "I recognized that essentially my records sucked," he told the Los Angeles Times. He quickly discovered that he was perfectly happy playing other people’s music — so long as he could talk in between tracks. As his take-no-prisoners persona developed, listeners began asking for less music, and more Imus.

There’s a long history of Don Imus’ racially insensitive remarks

Don Imus

The Rutgers incident is the one that he’ll always be remembered for, but it wasn’t the only time that Don Imus made a racially insensitive remark during his radio career. Long before he called the university’s women’s basketball team "nappy headed h**s" on air, Imus raised eyebrows when he insulted two black journalists who were working for The New York Times. The DJ called Gwen Ifill (who was the first African-American woman to anchor a weekly national public affairs show) a "cleaning lady," and he also went after sports columnist William C. Rhoden, calling him a "quota hire" for the newspaper.

Amazingly, Imus continued to make these kinds of comments after his crack about the Rutgers players. When the furor died down, he made a quiet return to the airwaves, but the spotlight was on him once again in 2008 when he brought up suspended Dallas Cowboys cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones. The NFL star’s arrests came up in conversation, and Imus asked sports announcer Warner Wolf what Jones’ race was. When Wolf said "African-American," Imus responded with: "There you go. Now we know."

Imus claimed that he was actually commenting on the unfair treatment of African-Americans by police when he make the comment, but Jones wasn’t buying it. "Obviously Mr. Imus has problems with African-Americans," he told The Dallas Morning News (via ESPN). "I’m upset, and I hope the station he works for handles it accordingly. I will pray for him."

Don Imus was a philanthropist who loved kids

Don Imus

The name Don Imus doesn’t exactly spring to mind when philanthropy comes up in conversation, but the shock jock was actually a supporter of some very worthy causes in his lifetime. According to the Associated Press, Imus raised over $40 million for charities and organizations that he supported, the CJ Foundation for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome among them. His biggest achievement was his ranch in New Mexico, which he turned into a summer camp for kids affected by cancer and blood disorders.

About a hundred children would descend upon the ranch (which covered an area of almost 4,000 acres) every year to learn how to ride horses and all there is to know about farm life. Imus regularly plugged the ranch on his show in the hope of drumming up donations, and if that doesn’t prove that he really cared about the kids in his care (he and his wife Deirdre ran the camps in person) then his argument with Dr. Howard Pearson, who served as the camp’s physician, most certainly did.

Pearson sued Imus after the DJ went ballistic at him for refusing a ride to the infirmary (Pearson walked instead) when there was a 16-year-old girl in severe pain. Pearson claimed he wasn’t aware of any emergency, but Imus later blew his lid at the camp doctor. According to Vanity Fair, Imus called Pearson an "arrogant son of a b**** doctor who doesn’t mind letting a child suffer."