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'Is He Happy? Is He All Right?'

By David Finkel
Sunday, January 13, 1991

"THIS IS A TRUE STORY."

Larry King says this in that perfect radio voice of his, deep in pitch, confiding in tone, a voice that fills the room where he has come this evening to give a speech.

He is in a synagogue, looking out at 700 people who have paid $20 and up to see him. The synagogue is in Philadelphia, a somewhat uncomfortable place for him to be at the moment because it is the home of Julie King, his sixth wife, whom he is in the process of divorcing. Even as he speaks, she is down the road in her own place, preparing for a final trip to his Arlington apartment to pack up her clothes.

But he is here anyway because he is rich and famous and adored by his fans, and if a synagogue in Philadelphia wants to pay him $15,000 to speak, the least he can do is take a train north, sign some autographs, pose for some pictures and tell some stories from a remarkable life. He is a good speaker, instantly likable, and when he is done, and the synagogue fills with applause, he decides to tell one story more.

"This," he says, "is known as the Carvel story. I've told it on the air. It's in an earlier book. I haven't told it in a while, but you've been a wonderful audience, very warm and nice, and so I'll tell it."

And with that, out comes the most remarkable story of the evening. It involves the neighborhood in Brooklyn where King grew up, and a snowy night in November 1950, and two of King's boyhood friends. One was Herbie Cohen, who remains one of King's closest friends to this day. The other was "Sandy Koufax, later to become a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher."

"We were having a vicious argument -- about ice cream," King says. "I loved Borden's. Herbie loved Breyers. Sandy loved Carvel . . . Finally, we got to price, and Sandy says he knows a Carvel in New Haven, Connecticut, that serves three scoops for 15 cents. Herbie says, 'That's impossible, Sandy. I'll bet you.' I said, 'That's impossible, they can't serve three scoops for 15 cents.' So there's only one way to prove the bet: Three 17-year-old kids are going to drive to New Haven, Connecticut, on this Monday night to find this Carvel and check it out -- because we bet Sandy."

The story goes on from there. They drive and drive, Larry and Herbie up front, Sandy and another kid named Bernie in the back. They find the Carvel, where the price for three scoops is indeed 15 cents, and then they pile back in the car. "Sandy knew New Haven pretty good," King goes on. "He says, 'Listen, I'll drive you around. Cut down this street, and we'll be on Broadway, and I'll show you the main drag.' " Somehow, they end up at an election rally. Somehow, Larry and Herbie end up on stage introducing the mayor. "Sandy can't believe it," King says. "He collapses. He's on the floor . . . he couldn't stop laughing." It takes King more than 10 minutes to tell the entire story, and when he is done the ovation is loud and long. "Every inch of this story is true," he says. "It seems like it's not, but it's true. I swear to God."

But there's a problem.

"This is Sandy Koufax," the man on the phone says a few days later. "I've never been in New Haven, not to this day."

Furthermore, he says, he and Larry King have never been friends.

In fact, he says, even though they grew up in the same neighborhood, he didn't get to know King until long after both had left Brooklyn behind. King was on the radio by the time they met, and the Carvel story had already become a part of his life.

"I asked him about it," Koufax remembers.

And?

"He just laughed." IN BROOKLYN, LARRY KING WAS LARRY ZEIGER, A BOY who lived with his mother and brother on the top floor of a rundown house.

Now, 40 years later, King lives in Arlington, in an elegant apartment overlooking the Potomac. He is 57 and at the crest of a life that has always tilted toward recognition, toward the kind of fame that gets a person treated like royalty in this country. The view from his balcony is of trees and water and all of Washington beyond, and the interior view is equally impressive, especially in the main hallway, which has been designed as a kind of celebrity shrine. "You are a good friend," reads a letter signed "Francis Albert," one of several from Sinatra that have been framed and hung. The walls are covered with such things, with letters of appreciation, with awards and plaques, with photos of King with presidents, with celebrities, by himself. There is a photo of him on the cover of Parade. There is a photo of him from Life. There are books too, hundreds of books, most hardback and many inscribed by guests who have been on either his TV or radio show. "For Larry, the master," wrote Charles Kuralt. "For a great, fun interview, the answer is Larry King," wrote Alex Trebek.

King awakens into this life each morning around 8. He reads the paper, turns on one of his three TVs, walks a treadmill, turns the TV off, gets in his Lincoln and goes to Okyo in Georgetown to get his hair washed and combed by Bernard, always Bernard. In the afternoon, he reads some more, makes phone calls and tries to grab a nap. His days are sedate, spent mostly alone except at lunch, when he goes to Morton's, where a company directive says he can never be allowed to pay, or to Duke Zeibert's, where the waiters treat him in the style to which he has become accustomed. They usher him to his table. They usher him to the phone. They know of his dietary needs because of his heart problems a few years ago, and they prepare his place in advance with a fresh box of matzo and a tin of low-fat cracker spread called Le Slim Cow.

Any number of people might join King at lunch; today it is Stan Bromley, an executive with the Four Seasons Hotel chain, who once arranged it so that when King checked into the Four Seasons in San Francisco, a robe with "King" stenciled across the back was waiting in the closet. More recently, he gave King's 23-year-old daughter, Chaia, her first job.

Bromley arrives first. King arrives a few minutes later. He opens the matzo, takes a bite, takes another, brushes away some crumbs. He sips some water and appears to be settled in when a waiter approaches.

"Mr. Cooke has canceled," the waiter says discreetly. "Would you like your regular table?"

The "regular" table, a table King says "is considered one of the great tables," is one table away. It is where King always sits, unless by chance Jack Kent Cooke has made a reser- vation. King looks at Bromley. Bromley looks at King. The waiter waits.

They move.

At the new table, King resumes eating his matzo while the other table is cleared off and reset and Sam Donaldson, of ABC News, is put there. "Sam!" King calls, seeing this. "Sam! You know who was gonna sit there?"

Donaldson gets up, comes over. "So," he says of King's TV show the previous night, "Steinbrenner."

"You saw?" King says.

"Portions," Donaldson says. "I had my own fish to fry."

He goes back to his table. Bill Regardie, owner of Regardie's magazine, comes in and takes a seat between King and Bromley. The talk turns to the power of the media and why they get to sit where they do.

"Notice what's missing here," King explains. "Money. Nobody's talking about money. The guy who owned Garfinckel's may have more money, may have enough to buy and sell us, but we can get a better table at a restaurant."

Regardie nods in agreement. "I sell Regardie's, I may get 10 or 20 million, but then I can't get this table," he says.

"This is the only city where the first level of power isn't money," says Bromley.

"That's right," says King. "In Miami, the richest guy gets the best table. Not here. Not another place like it." MEDIA POWER: IN MANY WAYS, KING HAS COME TO EPITO- mize it, at least in its most commercial incarnation. It's a curious thing, this power, earned not because people are afraid of him or because they respect him in any particular way, but simply because he has attained what so many people value these days -- a combination of wealth and visible success, fame and access to the famous.

His show on CNN, for example, is the network's highest rated show. His radio show is said to have 3 1/2 million listeners, and his USA Today column is a weekly staple of that paper, a home for such rambling thoughts as, "For what it's worth, I now like Scope's peppermint flavor better than the green stuff." He earns more than $2 million a year, interviews almost anyone he wants, is recognized wherever he goes. He has fans who send him letters and gifts, and later this year he will guest star on "The Simpsons," reading the Bible to Homer.

"I must be doing something right," he says of all of this.

And what exactly does he do?

He asks questions. He listens to answers. He asks more questions. It isn't so much what he does, actually, as the fact that he just . . . is.

Meanwhile, chaos swirls around him.

"What's your question! What's your question!" Tammy Haddad, executive producer of CNN's "Larry King Live," is shouting this at some slow-talking schmo from the Midwest who is trying to get patched through to ask King and his guests about the Persian Gulf. It is 20 minutes into the show. It is 9:20 p.m. in Washington, 3:20 a.m. in Spain, 4:20 a.m. in Zimbabwe and 5:20 a.m. in Moscow, all places that can watch King as he moves toward the portion of his show when he takes viewers' questions.

"What's your question! Quickly! Quickly!" Haddad says, working a phone in the control room that has eight lines, all busy with callers trying to get through. In the studio, King sits there for all the world to see, hair coiffed, suspenders in place, chatting with his guests, calm as a pond, while in the control room Haddad is getting rid of callers right and left. Line 1: "We already have somebody asking that question." Line 2: "Call again." Line 3: "What is the question!" Line 4: "Try again." Line 5: "Try again." Line 6: "Okay. Where are you calling from?" "Pikeville, Kentucky," says the caller. "Pikeville, Kentucky," shouts Haddad to another staff member, who says it over a telephone to another staff member, who types it into a computer and readies it to be superimposed over the image of King. "Pikeville, Kentucky," Haddad says into a microphone that is connected to a line that feeds into King's ear, and as soon as she says it, King says, "Pikeville, Kentucky, hello," and Pikeville, Kentucky, is on the air talking to King and his guests and the world.

"Larry King Live" is on for an hour, and this is how it goes the entire time. In the control room, and in the production office at CNN, things can get frantic. Staffers keep track of the ratings, the mail, the guests on "Oprah" and "Nightline." They book the guests, get them in from the airport, fetch them coffee, straighten their ties, adjust their chairs, mop their foreheads, bring them water, bid them farewell. And King, well, he shows up, goes on the air, goes off the air, leaves.

He acknowledges that he is only vaguely aware of the complexity of producing his show. But he also knows that the show works, and that the main reason it does is because of him. He has a great voice. He knows that. "I remember people telling me I sounded great at my bar mitzvah," he says. He is a smooth interviewer, always accommodating, never challenging, which makes people want to be on his show. He knows that too.

"Be aware, my friend, you are very rare in your line of work, never asking self-serving questions or competing with your guests in any way," reads one of the framed letters from Sinatra.

"I write books, and one of the terrible things of writing a book is you have to go out and sell the son of a bitch," says Russell Baker, explaining why he liked being a guest on King's show. "He's the best at what he does."

Which is?

"Interviewing people who are selling books."

"You should see the mail he gets," says Haddad of King's relationship with his viewers. "They want to know why his color was a little off. Is he happy? Is he all right?"

"I've had listeners send pictures: 'This is me, listening to you,' " King says, amazed. "I swear to God. 'Here I am, listening to you.'

"Sometimes," he goes on, "they write poems to me." He thinks about this, wondering who else might inspire such a thing. "Would people write a poem to Walter Cronkite? I would bet not. But he came into their homes every night too. They would to Johnny Carson. They wouldn't to Koppel. They would to Jane Pauley. They certainly would to Jane Pauley. Might to Bryant Gumbel. Would to Phil Donahue. Maybe." "BETHESDA, MARYLAND, HELLO."

It is 1:40 in the morning Eastern time, 40 minutes into the third and final hour of King's radio show, which is broadcast live five nights a week from a studio in Crystal City. It is the portion of the show called Open Phone America in which King becomes his own guest, answering calls from around the country. It is just him, and his voice, and his microphone and a dirty-looking phone with 14 lines, all blinking in unison, all busy with listeners trying to get through.

One of them, a man named Lou, is in Bethesda, listening to King on the console stereo in his living room. His house is dark except for a single lamp, next to the couch, which is illuminating an elderly man who is patiently holding a phone to his ear. He is in pajamas and a robe and socks, up at this time of night, he will explain later, because "when you're 70, you go to bed, you have to get up to urinate, you're awake." He watched Carson. He watched some Letterman. He shut off the TV and turned on the radio, and just before 1 o'clock began dialing the phone. "I like to get his reaction to things," Lou will say of why he would call. "He is a successful man. He's a dynamo. He knew Edward Bennett Williams. He knows Duke Zeibert." It has now been 45 minutes since Lou dialed, and most of that time he has been holding the receiver to his ear, listening to the rings. Now, he hears a click. "Bethesda, Maryland, hello." It is King.

"A comment on the Middle East," Lou says. "We've got to continue this, uh, multinational, that's the important word, multinational effort to get the, um, Saddam Hussein cut off. And if that's the case we will be successful, and Bush will go down as one of the great presidents of all time."

"Obviously," King says, punching the next button on the phone. "Hicksville, Long Island, New York. Hello."

"Hello, Larry."

It is Frances Simile, who is up at this time of night because of insomnia and arthritis. Sometimes she drives around in her 1973 Ford Mercury to give it a workout, and she'll listen to King as she cruises the neighborhood. Other times, she will sit in her den and listen on a portable radio, which is what she is doing now. This is her second time calling. The first time, a few weeks before, she got on the air only to have King tell her to turn the volume on her radio down. Because of her arthritis, it took her a while -- she had to get out of the chair, grab her cane, get across the room -- and when she got back to the phone, she heard King humming. She didn't know why, so she stayed awake that night and listened to her local station rebroadcast the show, something most stations do as soon as King signs off the air, and it turned out that while she was struggling across the room, King, who couldn't have known what she was going through, was humming, and tapping his fingers, and saying, "Is she back?" and humming some more, and she thought that was one of the funniest things she'd ever heard. Which is why she's calling again.

"I called you a couple of weeks ago," she begins, "and I wanted to know, can I get a tape of that conversation?"

"No," King says. "We don't sell tapes of Open Phones."

"Oh," she says, "because I . . . um . . . uh . . . did you ever make a tape of the Carvel, three-scoop, 15-cent . . ."

"That is available," King says. "It's $10, and all you do is ask for the anniversary show, and you get a lot of stories and the anniversary show." THE SHOW ENDS AT 2 A.M. THE PHONE LINES, ALL BLINKING, go out one by one, and King gets ready to leave a studio he describes as "a nice place to be, a place that's always safe."

The studio is where he was a week before when he called Julie and told her he wanted a divorce. She was in Philadelphia at the time, where, because of her job as a legal headhunter, she had continued to spend her weekdays during the course of their 13-month marriage. He called her at 10, went on the air at 11 to interview a guest about a smoking program, called her again at the midnight news break and hasn't talked to her since. She changed her phone number, he changed the locks on his apartment. She changed her private number at work, he changed the number of his checking account. He stopped trying to phone her, she sent a letter to him that ended, "P.S. Please don't forget my jacket from 'The Simpsons.' "

Now, on this night, before he leaves, he takes down two photographs of her that had been taped to a studio wall. One of the photographs was from their wedding, which was held at Duke Zeibert's. "In previous marriages," he was quoted as saying at the time, "I was walking down the aisle saying to myself, 'Yeah, but . . .' This is the first time there are no buts." Just for a moment, he looks at the picture. He looks at her dress. It cost $5,000. He looks at her smile. It's a lovely smile. He picks at the tape, which won't come off.

"Damn," he says.

He says it quietly, just one more word that vanishes into the air, but there is something about it, a sighing quality, that suggests unease.

Some of his friends say that while King is a success by external measures, internally the story is different. He has, after continued on page 35 KING continued from page 15 all, been married six times, and he did, at one point, have to declare bankruptcy after running up debts of more than $350,000. In one marriage, even as he walked down the aisle, he was wondering how he was going to break the news that he was earning only $15,000 a year, rather than the $50,000 he had professed. In another marriage, a short one, the result was a pregnancy and a divorce and a baby given up for adoption.

So inside him, they say, there is a history of missteps and mistakes, of embellishments and regrets, a history that can be traced back to his childhood. In the stories he tells, King leaves the impression that most of those Brooklyn days were wonderful, but when pressed, he'll acknowledge that they were largely unhappy, that he was happy for a while, but then, when he was 10, his father died of a heart attack and things fell apart from there.

He likes to tell a story of how, when he first thought he would like to be on the radio, he would stand on street corners and call out the names of passing cars, mimicking an announcer. His story ends there -- a cute story of early ambition, nothing more -- but his friends say it was really a form of escape. "It's the little kid, the young boy, who was very, very hurt," one friend says of that time in his life. "It wasn't just the death of his father, it was the way he was treated. His role was never quite good enough . . . His role was that of duckling. He had to live in his head. He had to fantasize.

"He is two people," the friend goes on. "Larry King and Larry Zeiger."

Larry Zeiger, she says, was a rather lonely boy, while Larry King is protected from loneliness by a mothering circle of friends. Larry Zeiger, she continues, is an unreconciled memory at this point, pushed into the background because Larry King is so busy, running here, running there, getting married, getting divorced, breathing his life away into a microphone, happy because of what he has achieved. A FEW DAYS LATER, HE GOES TO PHIL- adelphia.

When he agreed to speak there, he envisioned the trip differently from the way it is working out. He thought he and Julie would go to the synagogue together, and he'd talk, and she'd listen, and afterward he wouldn't have to go to sleep alone.

But instead, accompanying him on the train from Washington is Mark Barondess, a 30-year-old lawyer handling the divorce, who says to him, "My mother wanted me to tell you that you used to go out with a friend of hers when you lived in Miami."

"Don't tell me that," King says.

"I can't remember her name," Barondess goes on. "I think it was something like Tiny."

King looks at him. "I never went out with anyone named Tiny."

It is dark when they arrive. "Strange coming into Philadelphia," King says.

They get into a limousine, which takes them out of downtown and through an area that includes Rockledge, Abington and Elkins Park.

"All places that have called me."

They get to the synagogue, where half a dozen reporters, including one from the National Enquirer, which will publish a front-page story about the divorce, show up for a press conference.

"As you know," King begins, "I've separated from my wife, and my attorney is here, and I'm not going to answer any questions on that based on his advice. Fire away."

"Why is it that you will not speak on the subject?" comes the first question, from a reporter with the Philadelphia Daily News. "Do you fear a Donald Trump-style media circus?"

"It's very personal," King says, "and I'm better off leaving it that way."

"I don't want to be confrontational," the reporter persists, "but you've gotten into this subject matter yourself on many occasions, in broadcast and in print, talking about your personal life . . ."

"My lawyer said not to," King says, hoping such questions will end, but of course they don't, and after a while he starts asking questions back.

"Why is this of interest?" he asks.

"Why?" says the reporter from the Enquirer. "Because it's gossip, and because you're a personality, and people like it."

"I have never liked it," King says. "If I were doing an interview with someone, it would be of no interest to me. None. Zip. Zero . . . Whether I'm married or not has absolutely nothing to do with how I'll be on the air tomorrow night, and how I'll be on the air tomorrow night is all that counts to the public."

"Did you not receive calls from your listeners on your radio show?" the Enquirer reporter says. "I suggest the interest is obviously there."

"Yeah, I realize that," King says. "But there should also be this: respect."

"Larry," asks the reporter from the Daily News, "would you agree with me that you probably enjoy a high degree of trust from the American people?"

"The answer would be yes, but I have no way of knowing that," King says. "You mean like Walter Cronkite kind of trust? I don't know how you're defining trust. You mean would I lie to them? I don't think they'd think I'd lie to them."

The press conference ends. King goes into the main hall of the synagogue, takes the stage, looks out at 700 people, gives his speech, tells his stories, listens to their applause.

Afterward they crowd around him:

"Mr. King, I just want to shake the hand of a celebrity."

"I listen to you every night."

"Funny. Fun-neeee." THIS IS A TRUE STORY.

Once, long ago, two boys lived in Brooklyn. One was popular, the other wasn't. One was athletic, the other was overweight. One was smart, the other barely graduated from high school. One says the two never really knew each other, certainly never went to New Haven together in a car, and the other, told of this, is now trying to explain why he has spent most of his life saying they did. But he can't.

"I don't know," King says.

He becomes indignant. "I would not regard it as significant," he says of a story that he has been telling for more than 30 years. "I don't think it has anything to do with my credibility."

He gets defensive. "What makes Sandy's memory perfect?"

He turns humble. "I'm embarrassed."

It is nighttime when he says this. He has just finished his TV show. In a few minutes he will begin his radio show, and then he will go home to an apartment with walls of plaques and an empty bed, and when he wakes up he will get his hair done and go to Duke Zeibert's for matzo and Le Slim Cow. His friends wonder sometimes if King is happy or sad, but here in the studio, where the phone lines have already begun to blink with listeners trying to get through, he says he has never been happier in his life. And, as proof, smiles.

"Who are you?" he is asked.

"That's a good question," he says. "I am a successful broadcaster. I am a very good interviewer. I'm a funny storyteller. I'm a raconteur. I'm instinctive. I'm impatient. I'm impulsive. The things that work for me on the air sometimes don't work for me off the air. Now, that answers what I am. Who I am? It's a question I've never asked."

"Then how about Larry Zeiger? Who was he?"

"He was an acne-faced, overweight, Jewish kid whose father died, who was on welfare, whose mother spoiled him. And then, in the course of his life, in his mid-twenties, he became Larry King."

"And who is Larry King?"

"All the things that Larry Zeiger never was."

"So who was telling that story at the temple? Larry Zeiger or Larry King?"

"Probably Larry Zeiger," he says. "Larry King wouldn't have to exaggerate anything.

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© 1991 The Washington Post Company