How can you tell when Larry King is telling the truth?

Media criticism.
May 21 2009 6:08 PM

Larry King's Imperfect Memory

How can you tell when the CNN host is telling the truth?

Larry King. Click image to expand.
Larry King

Yesterday, Tommy Craggs of Deadspin caught talk-show host Larry King telling a race-track whopper in his new memoir, My Remarkable Journey. In a CNN.com excerpt, King claims to have won $8,000 at the track in 1971 with his last $42, thanks to the performance of a filly named Lady Forli. But that couldn't have happened, writes Craggs. He continues:

According to Equibase, a Lady Forli was foaled in 1972, a chestnut. She ran three times in 1975 and never finished in the money. Larry might've won $8,000 off a horse in 1971, but it certainly wasn't off Lady Forli.

This isn't the first time King has retailed the fanciful Lady Forli tale. At the beginning of the decade, he told a slightly augmented version of it to Esquire. Here are a few differences:

What year does Lady Forli help King win big?
My Remarkable Journey excerpt: 1971
Esquire: 1972

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How much money does King have to his name?
My Remarkable Journey excerpt: $42
Esquire: $48

How much does King win?
My Remarkable Journey excerpt: $8,000
Esquire: $11,000

OK, OK, it's no sin to tell slightly different versions of a story over the years or to repeatedly cite a not-yet-racing horse as the victor of a contest that put you in the green. But a Jan. 13, 1991, Washington Post Magazineprofile of King by David Finkel gives readers an excellent reason to doubt the accuracy of either King rendering.

In the article's opening anecdote, King tells a paying audience of 700 people at a Philadelphia synagogue a story from November 1950, when he was a teenager. One night, he and good friend Sandy Koufax, later to be a baseball star, and two other buddies drive from Brooklyn to New Haven, Conn., to settle a bet about whether the Carvel outlet there actually sells three scoops of ice cream for 15 cents. Finkel writes:

They find the Carvel, where the price for three scoops is indeed 15 cents, and then they pile back in the car. "Sandy knew New Haven pretty good," King goes on. "He says, 'Listen, I'll drive you around. Cut down this street, and we'll be on Broadway, and I'll show you the main drag.' " Somehow, they end up at an election rally. Somehow, Larry and Herbie end up on stage introducing the mayor. "Sandy can't believe it," King says. "He collapses. He's on the floor ... he couldn't stop laughing." It takes King more than 10 minutes to tell the entire story, and when he is done the ovation is loud and long. "Every inch of this story is true," he says. "It seems like it's not, but it's true. I swear to God."

Finkel contacts Koufax, who points out a few discrepancies in the story. For one, Koufax says he's never been to New Haven. Finkel continues:

Furthermore, [Koufax] says, he and Larry King have never been friends.

In fact, he says, even though they grew up in the same neighborhood, he didn't get to know King until long after both had left Brooklyn behind. King was on the radio by the time they met, and the Carvel story had already become a part of his life.

"I asked him about it," Koufax remembers.

And?

"He just laughed."

At the end of the piece, Finkel asks King why he keeps telling the Koufax story. Finkel writes:

"I don't know," King says.

He becomes indignant. "I would not regard it as significant," he says of a story that he has been telling for more than 30 years. "I don't think it has anything to do with my credibility."

He gets defensive. "What makes Sandy's memory perfect?"

He turns humble. "I'm embarrassed."

Koufax is so deeply embedded in King's psyche that almost two decades after his public humiliation in the Post, he still can't give him up. On Page 291 of My Remarkable Journey, King writes:

I barely have time to stop and look at the scrapbook of my seventieth birthday party or the picture of me and Sandy Koufax on the street corner with a bunch of kids when we were teenagers. I really don't look back.

Addendum, May 22: More on Larry King's twisted relationship with his personal history in the June GQ.

******

Derek Jeter and I used to drive to Paw Paw, Mich., on Sunday afternoons to play a little pickup ball with Charlie Maxwell. It's a true story! One time Jeter said to me, he said, "Shaf, I'll betcha if we drove to Lake Michigan right now, I could drink that whole sumbitch in one gulp." Charlie—we called him "Paw Paw"—Charlie said, "It's time we call Jeter's bluff." And we did. Boy were we surprised when he sucked that lake dry and spat it out like a fountain. See my Twitter feed for more of the same or send e-mail with your own inventions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word King in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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