NEW YORK: For a complete history of broadcasting, you do not need to go through archives or visit a museum. Just have a chat with Larry King.
The iconic broadcaster, now 83, is coming up on 60 years in the business, having first started on radio on May 1, 1957. Along the way he has interviewed everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt (yes, really) to the current president (more than 100 times, he estimates).
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, King – still working constantly, with his show “Larry King Now” on Ora TV – sat down to distill those tens of thousands of interviews into a few words of wisdom.
Q: Growing up in Brooklyn, who were your biggest influences?
A: My father was a big influence, but he passed away when I was nine. That was a big blow, and I took it very badly. I almost felt like he left me. But I took that emotion and used it to forge ahead. I eventually left Brooklyn at 23, but Brooklyn never left me. It will always be a part of me.
Q: Your dad died when you were 9 years old. What was the money situation in your home in Brooklyn after that?
A: We were on ‘relief’ for a couple of years, which these days is called welfare. My mother couldn’t work, because she was taking care of me and my younger brother. They would give us a stipend of $34 a week, and then inspectors would come to the house and look through the fridge, and ask why she was buying certain cuts of meat.
New York City even bought me my first pair of glasses, because I couldn’t see the blackboard at school. That’s pretty poor. I always had less money than my friends, and was the only one of my friends without a father. I used all that stuff to propel me forward. But I never forgot where I came from.
Q: What was your first job?
A: It was for a grocer on 86th St. in Brooklyn. I had a little cage on the front of my bike, and I would put groceries in it and deliver them. That was the first time I ever saw a $20 bill, honest to God.
Q: Once you started having success on the radio, how did you deal with that wealth?
A: Well, I didn’t make any money for quite a while. At the start, with a small Miami radio station, I was only making $50 a week. At the end of my time there I was doing OK, with radio and TV shows and a newspaper column. But it was only after Ted Turner hired me for CNN in 1985 that I started to make real money.
Q: And how did you handle that?
A: I have never seen one of my own paychecks, actually. I have it all sent to my money managers in Boston. They handle my mortgage, my credit cards, everything. I’ve been with them since 1978, and they stay on top of me. I see monthly statements, but I’m not good with business or finances. That’s not my facility.
Q: What charitable causes have you focused on, with your time and money?
A: In 1987 I had a heart attack. (Former Surgeon-General) C. Everett Koop told me he didn’t like the way I looked, and I had a multiple bypass soon after. So now I have a cardiac foundation, and we try to save a heart a day. My father died of a heart attack at 46, so I outlived him, and it is all thanks to modern medicine.
Q: Any big mistakes in life that you would like to have back?
A: If I could have one day back. I would go back to when I was 17, the day I started smoking. By the time I had my heart attack, I was smoking three packs a day. I didn’t think I could ever stop.
Q: You have a few kids, so what lessons about life do you try to pass along to them?
A: I just tell them to be true to themselves. As Arthur Godfrey once told me, the secret to life is to be yourself. People might like it, or they might not, but you can’t force them. There is no point in trying to be someone else.
Q: What is the one interview that got away?
A: J.D. Salinger. Apparently he watched my show, and was very familiar with it. His wife said he was seriously considering it. That would have been the greatest get of all time.