Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Obituary for Larry King

The Jewish

Back in the early 1960s when I was a teenager in Queens, New York and lived in an inexorable Roman Catholic family, à la irlandaise, my friend (he had better have been R.C.!) tipped me off that there existed a Franciscan church in Manhattan where I could go to acknowledge my sins to God through a priest who was not stern but indulgent and not wont to load me up with deeply-felt penances.

The inside facts were these: Franciscan monks were easier in the confessional than their diocesan confreres, and certainly more unexacting—“easy as pie!”—than their haughty, doctrinaire Jesuit cohorts. The Franciscans, “Frankies,” were more down to Earth and were so, in part, because many of them had been late vocations to the Church, had often held high positions in secular organisations, and even some of them had been married—of all things! The Jesuits, “Jebbies,” were more “virginal,” more esoteric, more brainy, and less worldly—for sure.

In the “box,” the Franciscan padre made you feel that you were just another sinner—like the rest of them. There was nothing unexampled about your sins. People had been doing what you were doing for centuries. Why make a fuss? The “Frankies” let you understand that the “box” was your nest where you could hatch your sins and then have them expiated. They pretended that they were really interested to hear what you had to say, and I think even they also were always hopeful that a late-model, unheard-of sin would make the day for them. When you left the “box” you intuited that maybe you had done wrong in not sinning enough! The meae culpae were definitely ethereal. You had the doubt that perhaps the next time you should transmit some sins more scintillating. The “Jebbies,” contrariwise, made you pay for your deviltries. When you exited their “box,” you had a hunch you were truly a malfeasant. “Jebbies” slid shut—in your face—the sliding door of the confessional. (If you must confess, stay away from churches bearing the name St. Ignatius Loyola! He was a soldier. By the way, the religious practice of confession is actually a Jewish invention. The Lateran Council of 1215 made auricular confession mandatory for all Roman Catholics and church members were obliged to confess once a year. Since 1977, open confessions, even in groups, have been permitted. No one will argue that closed and open confessions are rarely practiced in modern times, thank goodness. Even different schools of psychoanalysis—great exponents of “secular confessions”—are having rough times recruiting adherents, “believers.”)

In the spring of 1970 I met for the first time an extraordinary character on whom I would bestow the title Jewish Franciscan Friar. He was at his Wailing Wall: the studio of a radio station in Miami, Florida. On the gorgeous Biscayne Bay in the City of Magic, the Sun and Fun City.

It was a balmy, breezy, beautiful evening. The kind that often made me think that it had been a worthwhile decision—after all—to move down South so quickly after my separation from Vietnam and the United States Army in 1968. I pulled up in my yellow Skylark four-door BUICK into the WIOD parking lot, parked, and went anxiously into reception showing up for what I had hoped would be for me a cathartic evening of spieling out to the listeners of a very popular radio talk show. I was led to the WIOD broadcast studio and there, without suspenders, without a tie, with a cigarette, with a Styrofoam cup of coffee stood waiting for me the imposing, The King of Interviewers, Larry King—LIVE!

I had been asked to participate in the show for a very specific reason. I had sent a copy of an article, “The Hippie Lieutenant,” which I had written for Playboy (on speculation) and which had been rejected by Assistant Editor Geoffrey Norman for more or less this motive: “Having had some experience with Vietnam myself, I’d be glad to see material like yours filling the pages of the magazine, but I have to consider our general editorial nature.” Larry had thought I would make an interesting guest, and he called me personally to extend his invitation which I accepted gratefully.

The first thing that impressed me about Larry was his friendliness, his warmth. He fussed over me offering something to drink, something to smoke, something to think about to relax on. He prepped me for the show considerately and considerably before the ON THE AIR, and he kept telling me there was nothing to be nervous about even though he himself, I discerned, was nervous, too. I felt at home with Larry, and I have always held a fond memory of him for making me feel at ease that night. He was just the opposite of some of the Italian television talk show hosts—often arrogant and uncaring—who have interviewed me here on Italian television.

Larry was great at work. He exuded a certain magic that caused me to be aware of the fact that he wanted to hear my story and that everyone else was also keen on it being revealed. Larry, just as any “Frankie” confessor, knew there are no new stories to be told, only new ways of telling them by new faces. In his WIOD days, Larry was decidedly Franciscan—he did not slam the door in anyone’s face.

During my half hour on WIOD, Larry prodded me with fast-flowing questions, sudden interruptions to what I was saying, and he often looked at notes he had written with the questions he wanted to ask me about myself, my rejected article, and my experiences as an artillery officer in Vietnam. Larry “drew me out,” as they say in the interview biz, and he kept me on my toes throughout the one-on-one discussion. There were no dead spots—thanks to Larry. Larry knew when to turn up the tension, and he was (is) an expert at keeping a program flowing and thought- provoking. It was a remarkable event for me, and I left the studio wishing I could have become a friend of the affable, quick-witted Larry King who had just won me over with his charm and evidently impressionable prowess at being a talk show host—the best of them—and an extremely proficient interviewer who obviously did a lot of homework before delving into his next guest.

I “met” Larry King for the second time in August, 1984 at the Hotel Dante Lugano in Switzerland, but on this occasion it was under a different set of circumstances. At the reception desk of the hotel I was invited to tune in on, in my room, a new satellite, all-news station called CNN. I had heard about the world-wide transmission before and was anxious to have a look for myself for the first time. I liked it—watched more of it when not sightseeing in the beautiful Lugano. On the second day of my sojourn, the LARRY KING LIVE show popped up and, low and behold, there was a coiffed Larry King wearing a tie! (I do not remember if he wore suspenders.) I re-identified him instantly, and then I ruminated about what I had seen in him before that now would have propelled him to start on that trajectory which would make of him one of the most-recognized faces on this planet. I was really proud of him. And of myself. After all, I too, had become one of the more than 30,000 interviewees he had grilled during his thirty-five years (in 1996) of interviewing!

I have been watching Larry on and off for more than ten years, and I must confess that he has changed considerably from those days when I met him and realized he was a nice guy to talk to and to be with. In the old days Larry was more modest. Today he appears to be caught up in such a complex, corporate whirlwind he cannot even afford to be nonchalant. He is more stressed; he is much more popular; he is much more—necessarily so—calculating; and, he has distanced himself from the subjects he is questioning. Larry’s style is significantly more choppy, and his work these days is compact and brisk. You feel he is watching the clock waiting to break for a commercial. To take a rest. Larry can get almost any guest he wants, but it is obvious his program does not give him the time to put before the world all the other V.I.P.’s who would like to be on LARRY KING LIVE—and in every corner of the world! (There must be a lot of negotiating going on at LARRY KING LIVE.) Larry is riding in the fast lane; he is condemned to live with that morbid inconvenience famous pop stars and politicians suffer with: the loss of probably all of one’s privacy. At the homely WIOD, Larry never had to deal with this terrible burden when he entertained old, rich Jewish men and women who had come on down to Miami to dry out their gelid joints and bones. To compensate, Larry has had to become tough-skinned. Larry hears confessions now with Jesuitical nattiness. He is cold, hard. He slides the door in his confesses’ faces.

Two things peeve me about the new, modish Larry King, but I cannot fault him too much for them. He chums up all too readily to the powers that be in the high offices of the Fourth Estate. Surely, he is being paid a very fine figure (how much?) to do so. He has to have lost a great deal of his independence in return. Before, he ran the show the way he wanted to. Now he is certain to conform and compromise at every turn. He is not working to satisfy a Miami audience of geriatrics. He is slaving to suck in even more of a global viewing share. There is more moolah involved in this enterprise, and with the pressures from higher-ups and advertising lords, Larry must bend this way and then that way to please as many as he can. Without a doubt he has a staff to do the nitty-gritty, but Larry’s life is not as simple as it once was in the balmy breezes of Miami.

I want to scream when Larry presses The Censor Button—before we can hear what is being said!—on some character he will diagnose immediately as “sick,” or “a crazy,” or “nuts.” Could it be that many of these callers are saying things we should not hear? What should we not hear? Who is to say we should not hear it? Why cannot we decide for ourselves? Certainly, all the callers do not merit censoring. Larry is too quick to mediate for us. What is his criteria for doing so? I believe we all should be able to hear what is being said even if it is offensive to others. Once what is uttered is aired, we can right after that label it with our own judgment—and not Larry’s or his bosses. Censoring people’s comments makes Larry King loom up authoritative, dogmatic. Is that what the behind-the-scenes reality is at the LARRY KING LIVE show?

I do not want to remember Larry with the Jesuitical air about him. I want to reminisce about him as the Jewish Franciscan Friar I had once met. I want to remember him as the friend he was to me in 1970 in Miami.

Larry and I have two things in common: we were both born in Brooklyn, New York and we both possess voracious curiosities. I found outlet for my inquisitiveness in three universities, the newsrooms of four newspapers, and three countries—the United States, Venezuela and Italy. Larry made his egress interviewing people—face to face—whom he thought to be interesting for his audience. At one time in his life he did his job with more aplomb. He interviewed more humanely, with more respect for the simpler things in life. Now, Larry hobnobs with politicians, movie stars, and fat cats who come to his show to promote their interests and those of their associates. I only wish more confessions would come from Larry’s guests.

Less Promotions. More Confessions.

Good night, Larry.

* * *

30 December 1996

Authored by:

Anthony St. John
Casella Postale 38

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