[17 July 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
MIAMI — From 50 years and 3,000 miles away, Larry King can laugh about how South Florida nearly ended his broadcasting career before it really began, but it didn’t seem that funny at the time. He was working the overnight shift at a little Miami Beach radio station when the phone rang.
“I really want you,” cooed the breathy female listener on the other end. “And I’m only 11 blocks from the station.” King promptly slapped a Harry Belafonte album on the turntable and raced out the door — only, when he arrived at his wannabe paramour’s house, to hear Belafonte on the radio: Down the way where the nights are ... where the nights are ... where the nights are ...
Reporting for work the next day, King was petrified, but the station manager never said a thing. Possibly, he didn’t even know what had happened — “The truth is, management never listens; the suits make decisions, but they never listen,” says King — and possibly he knew but understood that in South Florida, hormones rule. “Miami,” muses King wistfully, “is the sexually loosest place I’ve ever lived.”
As a tourism marketing slogan, that may not have quite the ring of “I (heart) NY,” but King’s new autobiography “My Remarkable Journey” isn’t exactly chamber-of-commerce-brochure stuff. He dishes plenty of dirt — on himself, and on South Florida, where he broke into broadcasting and for two decades led an often seamy rags-to-riches-to-rags life.
King gambled. He wrote bad checks. He was arrested on charges of stealing $5,000 from financier Louis Wolfson. He slept around with married women. (A lot of them married to him: The majority of King’s eight marriages took place in Miami.) He got in an auto wreck with one president, and came perilously close to offering a bribe to another. His life was such a mess that he even gave away a daughter for adoption.
It seems odd that, at age 75, being a millionaire many times over and with his nightly CNN show a television institution, King would want to monger his own old scandals. But, speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he says there was no other way.
“If you’re gonna write an autobiography, you might as well tell it all, because people are gonna find out anyway,” King says. “In the age of blogs and the Internet, if you try to hide something, you’re going to get crucified: ‘He wrote about Miami and didn’t tell about this?’
“And, anyway, what’s the difference? It’s like some kid who breaks a window with a baseball — just get it over with; just admit it. So I did it. What are they gonna do, hit me?”
Not that King means to sound blase about his years here. He regrets a lot of what happened, particularly his involvement with the freewheeling millionaire Wolfson. What started as a friendship devolved into a twisted, lurid codependency as King helped Wolfson shuttle clandestine money to favored politicians and causes, then assisted in the financier’s increasingly frantic (and ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to avoid prison on charges of selling unregistered stock.
King says he even agreed to carry Wolfson’s offer of a $4 million campaign contribution to Richard Nixon just as Nixon was about to enter the White House — an unspoken plea for a presidential pardon. But as he talked with Nixon, King flinched.
“I sure am glad I didn’t make the proposition to Nixon — which, to be honest, I almost did,” King says. “If I had done it, we would have had the King hearings right along with the Watergate hearings. This would inevitably have come out during the Watergate investigation, and Nixon would have called it a bribe, even though it wasn’t intended as a bribe.”
King’s other encounter with a president-to-be was also out there on the fringes of the law. In 1958, soon after arriving in South Florida, he ran into John F. Kennedy on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. Not as in, “saw him shopping.” As in, “rammed his convertible with a ratty old car.”
Kennedy was not yet president, but he was America’s most famous senator, and at the moment, its maddest, too. “How could you?” he roared. “Early Sunday morning, no traffic, not a cloud in the sky, I’m parked — how could you run into me?” King knew the truthful answer — that he was a dumb kid newly arrived from the seedy side of Brooklyn and had been gawking at Palm Beach’s fairy-tale boutiques — wasn’t a good one.
‘All I could say was, ‘Senator, do you want to exchange information from our driver’s licenses?’” recalls King. ‘Eventually he calmed down, and he said he’d forget the whole thing if we just promised to vote for him when he ran for president. We did, and he drove away — though not before saying, ‘Stay waaay behind me.’”
For all the trouble he got into in South Florida, King still remembers it fondly, not least of all for stuff like that 2 a.m. phone call from the temptress down the street.
“I’d lived in Brooklyn, which was about as sexually un-loose as it gets,” King recalls. “And later I would live in Washington, D.C., which is certainly sexual but very private about it. But Miami! There was nothing like the Miami of the 1960s. The palm trees and the ocean ... Nothing seemed solid, there was nothing to grab onto. It was loose, so you grabbed onto each other.
“The Playboy Club, the Jockey Club, The Place for Steak and all the other places on the 79th Street causeway, the Bonfire and the Luau, they were just teeming with women at night. Lots of divorcees. The big acts at the Miami Beach hotels, Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme and Dean Martin and Danny Thomas, they’d finish their shows and then they’d go over to the late-hour places. And the women followed.”
Even the celebrities seemed a bit unhinged, King says, remembering an infamous food fight at the Fontainebleau coffee shop that started when Sinatra jostled another diner while reaching for a piece of pie behind the counter. When it ended, the restaurant was such a carnage of cherries, blueberries and meringue that it had to be shut down for four hours and the story was all over the papers.
“The next day I was driving someplace with Don Rickles,” King says. ‘I asked him what he made of it. And Rickles said, ‘The trouble is Frank cannot accept the fact that Al Capone is dead.’”