On January 23, 2021, the Friars Club in New York City joined fans all over the world in mourning the death of its long-time member, supporter, and “Dean,” broadcaster Larry King.
The 87-year-old King, host of Larry King Live on CNN from 1985 to 2010, had become an American icon thanks to his direct but easy-going interview style, drawing out fascinating quotes and anecdotes from the policymakers and style-makers of all backgrounds who joined him in front of the microphone. Over the course of his half-century in radio and television broadcasting, King hosted a remarkable 50,000 guests.
The Friars Club’s statement on King’s death remembered him for his generosity in sharing “his wisdom, his heart and his celebrity” with the group, and with the world.
King joined the legendary show business-focused organization in 1990, and he took over the largely ceremonial post as “Dean” from comedian Freddie Roman in 2014. In the club’s now-disbanded Beverly Hills incarnation, King had previously served as “Abbot.” In his role as the iconic Dean of the New York City Friars, King presided over the group’s wildly popular “roasts” of its celebrity members, alongside “Abbot” Jerry Lewis (Lewis died in 2017).
When the Friars made King their Dean, he told the press he felt like he was “coming home” as he prepared to take the reins at the group’s storied century-old, English Renaissance-style “Monastery” on East 55th Street in Midtown Manhattan.
Larry King was born in Brooklyn on November 19, 1933, with the name Lawrence Harvey Zeiger, the son of an Orthodox Jewish family. He grew up poor; his parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe who ran a local bar and grill.
The young Zeiger grew up listening to then-household names in radio like impresario Arthur Godfrey, the comedy team of Bob and Ray, and the drama-filled detective serial The Shadow. At age 5, he had already decided he wanted to be a radio announcer. Even when he was a child, he would hear adults compliment his warm, engaging voice, telling him he had a future in radio.
His father died when he was still young, and he later remembered working a series of odd jobs until 1957. That was the year that the 24-year-old Zeiger, completely broke, went to Miami because he’d heard it was easier to break into the broadcast market there. He took a job sweeping floors at a small radio station. One day, the station’s deejay walked off the job, and Zeiger was hustled into the vacant chair. The station manager, with the prejudices of the time against Jewish-sounding names, gave him the name “Larry King.”
In 1958, King moved to a job as an interviewer at another—and bigger—Miami station. His easy on-air rapport with guests, and with the waitstaff in the broadcast’s restaurant location, made him stand out and caused more local celebrities to want to appear on his show. By the early 1960s, he had become a recognized name in the Miami market, gaining his own newspaper column in addition to his radio broadcast at a still bigger station.
High Profile Career and Personal Life
The CNN gig he scored in 1985 made him world-famous. King went on to interview Nelson Mandela, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Seinfeld, and perhaps the widest range of other notable cultural and political figures of anyone who has ever worked in media.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, he moved his show back to his hometown of New York. This was the time that King’s colorful personal life also began to fill the tabloids. He was married eight times to seven different women, and he was a loving father to five children.
On his long-running show, King followed some early career advice he’d received from Arthur Godfrey: “Be yourself.” King’s trademark laid-back humor, easy rapport, and conversational interviewing style won the confidence of his subjects, many of whom revealed things to him that they never had to anyone else. He reveled in his own sense of wonder at learning information that was new to him in a wide range of fields, and especially loved talking with scientists.
The Art of Listening
It was King’s extraordinary capacity for active listening that most distinguished his style. “If you don’t listen,” he once said, “you’re not a good interviewer.”
He disdained the common practice of coming to an interview with a laundry list of prepared questions. He felt this boxed other interviewers in, keeping them anxious about sticking to their predetermined roadmaps and thus incapable of seeing opportunities to venture into fresh territory with their subjects.
King, on the other hand, actively concentrated on what his interviewees were saying in the moment, closely following their answers and relying on his own instincts and understanding to lead into the next part of the conversation. Summing up his career in a conversation with Columbia Journalism Review in 2017, King said simply, “I was just asking good questions.”