The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Larry King

Larry King was nothing less than an American institution. Working nearly to the end of his life, the man they called "The Chair" and "The Scandal Scooper" was a major figure in the media landscape for longer than the average American lives. King started off as a radio personality in the 1950s, eventually adding "nationally read newspaper columnist" to his resume along with "television host," primarily for his long-running CNN interview show Larry King Live, where the glasses-and-suspenders-clad King asked tough, direct, and fair questions to heads of state, newsmakers, and movie stars. It was a familiar and popular style that King continued on his streaming series Larry King Now. 

King became a compelling public figure himself, not just for being a constant presence on the airwaves, both audio and visual, but for a tumultuous personal life which he discussed openly and frankly in his outlets and memoirs. It was a life that was fraught with tragedy. Here's a look into the darker side of the life of Larry King.

Update: Larry King died Saturday, January 23, 2021, according to the Associated Press. In recent weeks, he had spent time in the hospital with complications of COVID-19. King was 87.

Larry King's father died young

Larry King wasn't always Larry King. He was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, where he spent his entire childhood and early adulthood into his twenties under his birth name of Lawrence Harvey Zeiger. His father ran a popular, working-class neighborhood bar and grill, and he and young Lawrence were quite close, which made the tragedy of June 9, 1943, all the more terrible. According to his book My Remarkable Journey (via CNN), in June 1943, young Larry King was walking home from the library when saw three police cars in front of his apartment building. As he got closer, heard his mother scream. He was stopped by a policeman, who informed the nine-year-old that his father had died of a heart attack. The elder Zeiger was only 44 years old.

As his father was the primary breadwinner for the family, which also included King's younger brother, the family's economic situation became dire, and they had to enroll in welfare programs to get by, according to the Academy of Achievement. His father's death and its fallout sent the future Larry King into a spiral of sadness, and his schoolwork suffered so much and for so long that college became out of the question. King managed to graduate and worked a series of jobs to support his mother and brother before he decided to head to Miami and pursue his dream of working in radio.

Larry King used Richard Nixon to scam a friend

In 1957, according to the Orlando Sun-Sentinel, Larry Zeiger moved to Miami. By 1959, he was local star Larry King. His mini-media empire expanded to include multiple radio gigs, several TV shows, and columns for three Miami newspapers. King was earning a comfortable living, but he blew a lot of it at the horse track and also overspent in attempts to keep up with his free-spending celebrity friends who frequently visited and performed in Miami. One prominent friend was a money man named Lou Wolfson. He financed a King talk show in the '60s, which fell apart when Wolfson was investigated — and then convicted — for stock fraud.

King, in his position as a media figure, had become friendly with the newly elected President Richard Nixon, who offered to help get Wolfson exonerated. Nixon gave the case to incoming Attorney General John Mitchell, who declined to take on Wolfson as a client. But King told Wolfson that Mitchell had agreed to work the case, leading a thrilled Wolfson to give King thousands of dollars with which to pay Mitchell's firm. Instead, King used that money to pay off some of his many creditors. 

King eventually came clean, but when Wolfson was released from prison in 1971, he filed a legal complaint, citing theft of $5,000. King tried to pay back the money but was arrested. The charges were ultimately dismissed, but the damage to his reputation had been done. King barely worked in media for four years.

Larry King's first marriages fell apart quickly

Larry King was married a notable number of times. Things didn't work out over and over again, a pattern established in early adulthood with his first couple of wives. According to the New York Daily News, King married for the first time in 1952 to Freda Miller, his high school sweetheart from Brooklyn, barely after he graduated. A year later, the couple's parents forced them to annul the marriage. 

When he moved to Miami in his early twenties, he met a woman named Annette Kaye. In his 2009 memoir My Remarkable Journey, King claimed that the wedding was a secret, and so was the marriage. "I never told anybody about the first time I got married in Florida," King wrote. "Not even my brother. There was no wedding party. I was this young kid, and I got into an affair with a beautiful woman ten years older than me." Annette was married when she first took up with King, and after the mother of three ended her already problematic marriage, she told King that she'd ended that relationship because of King and that he would have to marry her. "She could be very controlling, and I was never good at saying no." 

King and Kaye got legally hitched in Broward County, never even moved in together, and only saw each other in person a couple of times before they divorced.

Larry King's next marriages ended poorly, too

Larry King became a radio star in Miami in the 1950s and '60s, and according to his book My Remarkable Journey, he had a few Playboy Bunnies on the show one day, including a woman who brought her 20-year-old cousin (and future Bunny), Alene Akins. "I was attracted to her right away," King wrote, adding that there were some complications, primarily that Akins had a five-year-old son named Andy. The couple married a few months after King divorced Annette Kaye, but this marriage was doomed, too, ending in 1963 after King formally adopted Andy. 

After they split, King introduced Akins to a friend, and they hit it off and moved to Iowa. "It was a blow to my ego, which might explain why I rebounded a by marrying a woman who worked [with me]" at the radio station. It didn't last, and as of the 2009 publishing of My Remarkable Journey, Larry's fourth wife wasn't interested in public attention. We know a little from public records; according to People, his fourth wife was Mickey Sutphin, and she was married to King for three years, during which time they had a daughter. Sutphin left King for another man, and she took custody of the kid, formally adopted by this new guy. King soon found love again, remarrying Akins, who soon thereafter gave birth to their daughter, Chaia, according to the Orlando Sen-Sentinel. Nevertheless, King and Akins would split a second time, for good, in 1971.

Larry King's relationships in the '80s and '90s failed

Larry King really liked to get married, particularly to blonde women younger than himself, seemingly never dissuaded by how every single one of his romantic relationships had fizzled out or ended in divorce. According to the New York Daily News, King followed his second marriage to (and second divorce from) Alene Akins with a 1976 wedding to production assistant and math teacher Sharon Lepore. They unfortunately split up in 1983, and King would wait six years before marrying again, although when he found his next spouse, he acted quickly. 

In the summer of 1989, King met Philadelphia-based businesswoman Julie Alexander. They went out on a date on August 1 — and King proposed that evening. They were married in October of that year, but the marriage didn't make it, possibly because the couple rarely saw one another — Alexander remained in Philadelphia, while King remained near his workplaces in Washington, D.C. They separated in 1990 and formally divorced two years later. The next woman to steal King's heart, at least temporarily: B-movie actress Deanna Lund (pictured above), to whom the radio and TV host proposed after five weeks of dating in 1995. They split up before the ceremony.

Larry King's final marriage ended in heartbreak

In 1997, it seemed like Larry King had finally found his happily ever after, following so many previous missteps and failed marriages. He married Shawn Southwick, a singer and TV host 26 years his junior. In fact, he liked her so much he married her twice. The first wedding went down in King's hospital room three days before a significant and serious operation to repair a clogged artery. The second was a more elaborate and lavish affair in front of invited guests. 

While it was King's longest-lasting marriage by far (and one that produced two sons, per People), it wasn't particularly peaceful. In April 2010, King filed for divorce in the wake of a National Enquirer report that Southwick had engaged in an affair with one of their kid's coaches. But they couldn't go through with the divorce — not ready to split, the couple reconciled. Six years later, they faced trouble again when Southwick carried on a lengthy affair, a source close to the pair told People. King and Southwick denied any infidelity and stayed married ... for a while. In August 2019, King once again filed legal paperwork to divorce Southwick, according to Us Weekly

A few months later, King told People (via The Daily Mail) that what ultimately destroyed the relationship wasn't affairs. "The age difference eventually takes its toll," he said. "Also my wife is a very religious Mormon, and I'm an agnostic atheist, so that causes little problems."

Larry King experienced a near-fatal heart attack in the '80s

Larry King had two major habits in his life: getting married and chain-smoking. In his memoir My Remarkable Journey, he admitted to a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. King smoked profusely from the 1950s up until the late 1980s, when he was forced to quit in order to save his own life. In February 1987, he experienced a heart attack just after his 53rd birthday, according to the Orlando Sun-Sentinel. Also contributing to the frightening cardiac event, as he told Life Extension, was the fact that he worked long and stressful hours, ate too many fried foods and desserts, and didn't get much exercise. 

Even though his own father had died of a heart attack at age 44, King didn't think he was at risk for one because they "happened to other people," going so far as to ignore earlier warning signs that a heart attack was coming, such as shortness of breath and chest pain, telling WebMD (via MedicineNet) that he figured it was just heartburn. But that morning in 1987, he experienced stomach pain and an achy shoulder, and, after smoking one more cigarette, he checked into a hospital in Washington, D.C., where doctors told King that he was in the middle of a heart attack. They administered a not-yet-FDA approved blood clot-eradicating drug — King signed a waiver freeing the hospital of all liability should he die ... but it worked, and it saved his life.

Larry King fought cancer, stroke, and depression

Larry King's health problems didn't end with his 1987 heart attack. The broadcaster told People that the same year he had his heart attack, he was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. Fast-forward 12 years, and he faced a prostate cancer diagnosis. Years later, he'd fight cancer once more. In 2017, the then-83-year-old King felt fine and "didn't have any pain" but went in for his annual physical checkup anyway. A standard chest X-ray revealed a small dark spot, which King's doctor investigated with a CAT and PET scan, leading to a scary diagnosis: stage 1 lung cancer. At stage 1, the cancer is so new that it doesn't manifest in many symptoms in the body, so King considered himself "lucky" that the routine X-ray had spotted the tumor before it could become a problem. King soon underwent surgery to get the malignant growth removed, and he was back to work after just about a week of convalescence.

While working throughout 2019, King had a few severe health scares. "I had a stroke," King told Extra. While he said that "everything got better except my left foot," he had to use a walker and couldn't drive and had few memories of the past few months, which included a brief coma. The devastating, debilitating series of events led King to suicidal thoughts. "I didn't want to live this way," he told KTLA. "I didn't want to live dependent on others."

Larry King had to end Larry King Live

Larry King was best known for his years of consistent television hosting work, but he was a radio man first, and his success in that medium is what led to his entry into television. In 1985, CNN founder Ted Turner asked King to take his act — one-on-one interviews with politicians and famous people and inviting callers to ask questions, too — to his still new and developing cable TV network. The nightly Larry King Live became one of CNN's signature and most important shows. History happened on the show, including Ross Perot announcing his upstart presidential campaign there in 1992 and Middle East leaders Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin coming on the show to discuss peace talks in 1995. 

In 2010, it all went away when King announced in a statement that he "talked to the guys here at CNN and I told them I would like to end Larry King Live, the nightly show, this fall, and CNN has graciously accepted, giving me more time for my wife and I to get to the kids' little league games."

Be that as it may, the reasons for the cancellation of Larry King Live weren't so clear-cut. According to The Wrap, the ratings for Live had dropped by 43 percent over the previous year. A CNN source explained that other factors were considered: "What brought this to a head was his messy personal life, and he's old — it's too much."

Larry King accidentally made a video for a foreign government

In the decade after CNN's Larry King Live went off the air, Larry King remained in broadcasting, starring on the similarly structured interview show Larry King Now, found on outlets like Hulu, RT America, and King's own Ora TV. King could also be hired to narrate and appear in industrial and promotional films, like the ones businessman Jacobi Niv paid King to do for a decade. 

In March 2019, according to ProPublica, Niv sent a script to King's team at Ora, where executive producer Jason Rovou expressed concerns because it wasn't the usual ad copy but a series of open-ended questions for a Russian journalist about the U.S.-China trade deficit conflict that decidedly took the side of Chinese government. Rovou pleaded with King to not allow himself to be manipulated into lending his name, image, and credibility to a work of what ProPublica called propaganda, but King didn't seem concerned and made the video anyway. 

Shortly after, a YouTube clip based on that footage called "Larry King US China Special Conference 2019" appeared and went viral on Chinese-language social media sites, spread by accounts associated with the Chinese government. "It's unfortunate that Larry found himself unwittingly being exploited," said Ora CEO John Dickey. "This was obviously not right, and in hindsight, I wish it never would have happened. Larry didn't know."

Two of Larry King's children died within weeks of each other

As a result of all of his many marriages over the years, Larry King became a father five times over. According to USA Today, he was dad to Chance and Cannon with Shawn Southwick and had a son named Larry King Jr. with Annette Kaye in 1961 (though he didn't meet Jr. until 1994, according to the New York Post). King married Alene Akins two separate times in the 1960s — during the first marriage, he adopted Akins' young son, Andy, and after they divorced and remarried, they had a daughter, Chaia, together.

On August 22, 2020, King announced via social media channels that both of his children with Akins, Andy King and Chaia King, had passed away that summer. According to the statement, Andy King passed after suffering a heart attack on July 28, while Chaia died on August 20, not long after receiving a lung cancer diagnosis. "Losing them feels so out of order," King wrote. "No parent should have to bury a child."