"Nobody said no to me, lady!"
It was the most obvious question.
In his new memoir, My Remarkable Journey , Larry King writes about his eight marriages to seven women. If he was so prone to popping the question, and seven said yes, then I figured it was likely there were many more who said no.
The suggestion causes the host of Larry King Live , who celebrates his 25th anniversary with CNN next year, to spring from his slightly hunched-over position in his chair to jokingly defend his romantic reputation.
"I may have been turned down, but I can't remember," he says, laughing, after a moment's reconsideration.
"I don't even remember a formal proposal," he adds. "I was raised in a culture where you got married. … I never lived with a woman. I don't even have a memory of spending a night at a woman's house. I went home." He shrugs his big shoulders.
Born Larry Zeigler in Brooklyn, N.Y., seventy-five years ago, he was always in a hurry, whether it was acquiring wives, lovers (bombshell Angie Dickinson is among his conquests), money or an exclusive interview. In his book, he writes that while he was covering the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles, he was dating the jury consultant for the defence team as well as the publicist for the prosecution. "It came in handy," he writes of his prodigious romantic skill. He also reveals that Jessica Hahn, the former church secretary who had an affair with televangelist Jim Bakker, made a pass at him by poking her toe into his crotch.
A thin man, built like a bug with a square torso, spindly appendages, a large head and narrow face, he seems to be held up by his suspenders and a healthy sense of his own success.
His story delights him so much, he is inclined to repeat it, telling the stories he has already documented in the book and veering off on pointless tangents without prompting. Do we really care that he wishes rotary phones were still in use?
Larry King needs a grumpy Larry King-style interviewer to rein him in. If he had a mike, I might have threatened to turn it off, as he has done with controlling panel guests on his show. As it was, I had to interrupt him a few times to bring him back on track.
Part of his enthusiasm for himself seems to be his surprise that "little Larry Zeigler," as he often refers to himself in his memoir, ever rose from being the son of immigrants who wore wire-rimmed glasses issued to families on government assistance.
"Why am I around for all these years?" he asks himself at one point. "Wait a minute," he says, eager to answer his own question. He sits forward and raises a finger in the air. "I know I'm good. I know I ask good questions. I think I'm Everyman. Maybe that's the answer. I ask the kind of questions that a guy on the street would ask."
Uninterested in school after his father died suddenly when he was 9, he had no prospect of attending college. To break into radio broadcasting, he headed to Miami and knocked on doors. When his lucky break came, he changed his name to King five minutes before going on air for the first time. Zeigler was too ethnic, the station manager said. Spread out before him on the desk was an ad for King's Wholesale Liquors in The Miami Herald.
"King! How about Larry King?" his manager suggested.
And the rest is a kind of Horatio Alger tale, although it was not a smooth ride to the top.
His money troubles were as frequent as his affairs of the heart. He was constantly in debt, playing a game of "financial musical chairs," he writes. He got involved with dubious characters, and in 1968, approached Richard Nixon, then U.S. president-elect, with the intent to finagle a pardon for a friend, to whom he was indebted, by presenting Mr. Nixon with a campaign contribution worth millions. In the end, Mr. King couldn't do it. "I would have been the conduit," he says now, shaking his head of gently coloured hair. "There would have been the King hearing. You would not be talking to me except in jail." Three years later, in 1971, on a related matter involving the same friend, he was charged with grand larceny, which caused him to lose his radio job and his newspaper column.
Did he decide to write the story of his life, without sparing any embarrassing details, because he is now untouchable? "Well, it's sort of like what Don Rickles says, 'What are they going to do to you now?'" he jokes. Age is another factor. "I've reached an age I never thought I'd be," he says. In his early 50s, he had a heart attack and later underwent quintuple bypass surgery.
His success has been built on a willingness to be himself, he says. "If I don't understand something, I ask, 'What do you mean?' I am curious, and I'm not afraid to go to my curiosity. … I'm not afraid to be dumb."
Mr. King has a radio voice but not the classic good looks of a CNN television presenter, I gently point out. Has he ever wondered what his appeal is on air?
"It's unanswerable," he says, a look of bemused pleasure on his face. "I had a long conversation about this with Johnny Carson," he says, leaning in. "And Carson said to me, 'I'm just a guy from Nebraska. What do you think you have?' And the answer is you don't know. You either have it or you don't."
Ditto in the bedroom.
"I'm a babe magnet," he acknowledges with a big laugh. His current wife of 12 years, Shawn Southwick-King, is a blond beauty 26 years his junior. They have two boys, aged 10 and nine, bringing the total number of his children to five. "And you know what I think it is? I'm funny ... and laughing is an aphrodisiac. I'm convinced. And if you have a nice voice, and some power, that helps. Henry Kissinger ain't no Robert Redford, but he didn't do bad with women, either."
I wonder if he ever worries that his appeal to women is his wallet. But I hold back that nasty question and choose to politely laugh at the jokes he insists on trying out. (Later this month, he will perform stand-up comedy in Las Vegas.)
Mr. King's fame is quintessentially American: He is king of the king-making medium. The TV-talk show is where guests go to be affirmed or redeemed, made or forgiven, and audiences turn to it not for its ability to get to the bottom of people but for the very opposite - its eye for surface detail. Mr. King knows that he has risen on the culture's appetite for the insubstantial. "Substance? You don't have time for substance. It's you've got 10 minutes, tell me your life story."
How does he feel about that?
The king of the suspenders and the softball questions does not hesitate with his answer. He peers through his glasses, and utters the passive cultural explanation of our time: "It is what it is."