Larry King Wanted to Know About Your Name

The mythology behind the mononym, if you will

This might be an unusual newsletter, since it was obviously unplanned. Like a lot of people, I spent quite a bit of my day watching Larry King clips, even though that’s not at all what I was supposed to be doing. The iconic broadcaster and host, who passed away this morning at the age of 87, is the kind of TV staple where it’s genuinely difficult to comprehend not having them around anymore. King’s show, at least for me, was never one that I intentionally tuned in to, but rather the kind of thing that would catch me wherever I was—bleary-eyed at the airport, eating chicken fingers with my family somewhere, minding my own business watching Bee Movie (2007). The only real exceptions, I guess, were the occasions on which he interviewed the people I’m often writing about in this newsletter. King chuckling at Madonna’s “Gucci leather” jacket making a ton of noise in one interview, King innocently and cluelessly asking Beyoncé whether she “[does] a lot of movement” on stage in another, and so on.

And I noticed something today while watching some of these clips back, which is that King always wanted to know how these artists had chosen their stage names, or about the origins of their given names, or about their decisions to no longer use their given names. This newsletter is called Mononym Mythology, a slightly awkward title that, to me, means: I write a lot of the time (though not exclusively) about mononymous pop stars and their myth-making (always tying it back to a particular visual, in case you’re new here). King also seems to have cared about mononym mythology, just more literally. He was curious not only about some of these same people and where they’d come from—Beyoncé, Madonna, Prince—but about their actual mononyms. And even with his non-mononymous guests, like Lady Gaga or Barbra Streisand, he still had questions about their names, from their coinage to their spelling. (This wouldn’t have been specific to his interviews with pop music artists, to be clear.) King seemed keenly aware that there would be a story there, too. And he tended to be right. Beyoncé’s name, for example, is a spin on her mother’s maiden name, since “there were no more men in the family, no more sons,” and Miss Tina wanted the name to survive.

Something seemed to click when I read today that King, the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Belarus, was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger:

My name was Larry Zeiger. And it was May 1, 1957, my first big day on the air. And the general manager called me in—I had all my records prepared—and he said, “What name are you gonna use?” I said, “Larry Zeiger.” He said, “You can’t use that. It’s ethnic, too ethnic. People won’t remember it, won’t know how to spell it. You better change your name.” So I’m sitting there. It’s like three minutes to go on the air. My lifetime wish and I’m having my name changed. And The Miami Herald was open. There was an ad for King’s Wholesale Liquors, and he said, “How about Larry King?” I said, “That sounds good!”

Anyway, here are five examples of the sort of thing I’m talking about. (I’ve set each video to a specific time.) Each answer is very different, and each is worth considering in relation to King’s own name change story. If you stumble across any other examples out there, music-related or not, feel free to send them my way. ●  

Prince, 1999: “Most people don’t get famous with one name and then change it, right, would you say? What’s the story of that, by the way?”

Madonna, 1999: “How did you get that name? Why are you a one-name person?”

Beyoncé, 2009: “Who made the decision that you as a career would use first name only?”

Lady Gaga, 2010: “You were born Stefani Ger—why did you change your name? How did you come up with Lady Gaga?”

Barbra Streisand, 2010: “Why is there no second ‘a’ in your name?”

Mononym Mythology is a newsletter about mostly pop divas and their (visual) antics. It now lives over at Ghost, so that’s where you’ll want to subscribe. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram.