Most celebrity memoirs as told to someone else are hardly worth taking off the shelf; they are exercises in the building and preservation of a factitious public image that is the source of great financial rewards. Such images tend to have only fleeting contact with reality.
Larry King is an exception -- not, we should immediately specify, the Larry L. King who writes about prostitution in Texas, but the Larry King who was born Larry Zeiger in Brooklyn and whose midnight-to-dawn talk show on the Mutual Radio Network is heard on more than 250 stations across the nation. In terms of image, this Larry King, who talks a very entertaining book, blew it all a long time ago -- in 1971, to be exact, when his hopeless financial condition and the underhanded ways he found to deal with it became front-page news. From a position as undisputed king of the media (electronic and print) in Miami, he was plunged into an arrest and aborted trial and four years of unemployment before he began his tentative return to a kind of stardom.
It is an interesting, dramatic story and one full of well-known names--Richard Nixon, Bebe Rebozo, John Mitchell and the millionaire financial manipulator Lou Wolfson, who proved to be the downfall not only of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas but also (with considerably more justice) of Larry King. A brief, mysterious appearance is made by Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who became disastrously involved in the investigation of John Kennedy's assassination, and there is even a marriage (actually two of them) with a Playboy bunny, and an affair with a model who is left unnamed but made to sound like Helen of Troy. Not only heady stuff but very seamy and forthrightly presented.
Toward the end of the book, when he has exhausted autobiography and told about all the celebrities he has known, King waxes philosophical and makes a remark about radio audiences that might also apply to the audience for a book like this. Americans, he says, "really admire honesty and are willing to forgive a lot if people will just own up to their mistakes. If my listeners heard the words 'I'm sorry,' from politicians more often, politicians would be held in much higher regard." King's "I'm sorry" is eloquent and has a fine ring of sincerity and it should assure his book a warm welcome.
It should be expected that such a book often reads like a longish talk-show segment, full of random observations, anecdotes and even moderately successful attempts to bring on stage some of the personalities who have brightened King's programs through the years. One of the central anecdotes is the time he got Frank Sinatra on the radio, with help from Jackie Gleason. King is one of the most skilled interviewers alive, and after an hour he actually got Sinatra to talk about a taboo subject, his son's kidnaping; but the real self-revelation came when Sinatra talked about his idol, Humphrey Bogart:
"The greatest sign I've ever seen in my life was on the door of Bogart's house . . . The sign was by his doorbell, and it read, 'It better be important.' You read that and then go ring that bell. The only reason I've never put the same thing next to my door is that I've never liked to copy people."
In spite of the big names that march through his pages, though, the figure that dominates this book is that of Larry King. This is partly a result of the self-absorption necessary to anyone who expects to make it big in the media but it also reflects the fact that -- considered as a morality tale -- his life has more than common interest. His father, an e'migre' from Russia who owned a bar and grill in Brooklyn, died when he was 10 years old but had already implanted elements that would dominate the son's life. "My father was a passionate sports fan and racing fan," King recalls. "The radio was a focus of our lives -- a way to keep track of those interests. Unlike his son, however, my father never let his gambling get out of control."
After changing from Zeiger to King and making his way to the top in Miami, King did let it get out of control. In 1971, he was earning $70,000 per year but living as though it were $100,000 and his life was a constant effort to elude creditors when Wolfson finally blew the whistle on him. He had been acting as an intermediary in transferring cash contributions from Wolfson to Garrison. Sometimes Garrison was hard to find and King used some of the money for his own pressing needs -- no big deal to Wolfson until King failed on another crucial assignment: to get some help from Nixon in the legal problems that finally sent Wolfson to jail. King was dragged down in the Wolfson shipwreck, but managed to rise to the top again. This may mean that, in some senses, he is a lightweight, but his book gives evidence of considerably more gravity than you find in the average media personality.