Tonight’s topic: men who love too much.
Forget David Letterman fishing off the company pier, the low-bräu tastes of Sandra Bullock’s tattooed husband, or Tiger Woods’s all-thumbs mastery of text messaging. America’s senior swordsman is without question a stooped and suspendered 76-year-old from Brooklyn: Lawrence Harvey Zeigler, a.k.a. Larry King.
Fifty-three years into a broadcasting career that has taken him from a tiny AM radio station in Miami to living rooms around the globe, courtesy of a nightly platform on CNN, the host of Larry King Live is said to be closing in on his 50,000th interview. But these days it is a different set of numbers that has captured the public imagination—his eight marriages to seven different women, and strong indications that he might soon be in the market for another bride.
Even in this age of prurience, the tabloid revelations are unsettling: suggestions that King cheated on his 50-year-old wife, Shawn Southwick, with her younger sister Shannon, 45, showering her with a million dollars worth of gifts, including a diamond necklace and $160,000 luxury car—and counterclaims that Shawn carried on an affair with Hector Penate, a former college baseball player the couple hired to coach their two young sons. And then there’s the special ick-factor provided by the 31-year-old would-be actor’s tales of routinely romping in the marital bed with Shawn while King’s TV show played in the background.
The cable host has yet to address the matter on his show, long recognized as a soft landing spot for celebrities trying to control the damage from their own foibles and checkered personal lives. But as befits someone who traffics in revelations, he’s never been averse to confessing to—and profiting from—his own frailties.
Last spring, when he was promoting his autobiography, My Remarkable Journey (in a remarkable coincidence just released in paperback), he came clean about the son “I didn’t know I had.” The details didn’t quite live up to the billing: he reconnected with the product of his second marriage more than 15 years ago, and Larry King Jr. was hardly hiding, having helped run his father’s cardiac charity since 1998.
But King has always been more about the sizzle than the steak. By his own admission, he either limits research for his interviews to a half-hour, or skips it altogether. “If I were to pick an ideal show, you’d see the curtain open up and we’d all discover who the guest is,” he told an interviewer back in 1991. That dependence on the kindness of strangers has paid dividends, however. His Rolodex is the envy of the industry: Hollywood A-listers and political heavy-hitters have a shared fondness for a gotcha-free zone with an open mic.
Being a good listener also worked to his advantage off the air. King may not be the handsomest guy, but he has never lacked female companionship. And his first marriage, to a high-school classmate just after graduation, may have been the last time he shot low. (Frada was “a plain girl, the type who doesn’t wear makeup,” he writes in his memoirs.) Number two was a comely, married cougar he wed out of a sense of obligation after she sought a divorce. Alene, who was both wife three and five, was a bunny at one of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy night clubs. A pattern emerged: hasty marriages, followed by quick divorces. King freely admits that he has never been very good at fidelity, nor at the niceties of wedded life. And as he got more famous, so did his bust-ups. His messy 1989 divorce from businesswoman Julie Alexander got so much publicity that then-president George H.W. Bush asked about it when they met at a baseball game.
Along the way, King has also been linked to actresses Angie Dickinson and Deanna Lund. During the O.J. Simpson trial—a staple of his show—he simultaneously dated a jury consultant for the defence, and a prosecution publicist.
He met No. 8, Shawn, then the host of TV’s Hollywood Insider, in a chance L.A. encounter, and courted her in a unique fashion, sending vats of hot tamales, maraschino cherries, gummy bears, and a single rose each morning. On one date, he had Al Pacino drop by the restaurant to say hi. Another time, he got Colin Powell to leave her a message. They wed in September 1997, as he lay in a Los Angeles hospital awaiting heart surgery. A few months later there was a second ceremony. Ted Turner was the best man, and Jane Fonda a bridesmaid. Don Rickles did a bit ridiculing the unlikely union of a Jew and a Mormon. Pacino recited a poem by e.e. cummings.
The marriage has proven the broadcaster’s most enduring; Shawn likes to joke that she is the only wife to make double digits. In the dedication to his memoir, he awards her “the civilian Purple Heart.”
The act was so successful they even took it on the road. During the final weekend of March, King and his wife were scheduled for a two-night engagement at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, Ont. In the run-up to the show, he told the local paper his plans for the evening were to have Shawn open with a half-hour musical set, then he would riff for about an hour on the famous people he has interviewed, his life, and many marriages. After a question-and-answer session, the pair would close the evening with a duet. Jerome Kern’s chestnut, The Way You Look Tonight, is “their song.”
It’s not clear how it all went, as no one bothered to review the shows. Fallsview, which heavily promoted the event with Toronto radio spots, didn’t respond to repeated interview requests. But on his Twitter page, King seemed enthusiastic. “I did an event in Canada over the weekend & finally saw Niagara Falls. Breathtaking!” he wrote. The next Friday, he tweeted that night’s topic—infidelity—with guest host Jeff Probst, and announced he was off to the Dodgers game with his family. On April 14, the Kings filed for divorce in Superior Court, citing “irreconcilable differences.”
Lately, there has been talk of a reconciliation. At their sons’ baseball game in Beverly Hills last week, paparazzi snapped photos of the pair conspicuously smooching, and Shawn patting Larry on the tuchus. As with all of King’s many marriages, there is no pre-nup.