Larry L. King, the acclaimed journalist and playwright best known as the creator of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas died on December 20 in Washington DC. He would have been 84 on January 1.
His death was a result of his fourteen-year battle with emphysema.
The author of 14 books, 8 plays, and hundreds of magazine articles, King was nominated for a National Book Award and won an Emmy. But his most lasting fame came with Whorehouse. The musical chronicled the real-life shuttering of a legendary brothel in rural La Grange by a fame-seeking, do-gooder newsman from big-city Houston. Whorehouse was nominated for six Tony's upon its initial Broadway run in 1978, including King's nomination for best book. It then went on to tour the world and, in 1982, be made into a Hollywood film starring Dolly Parton and Dom Deluise.
But his greatest contribution to American letters came as magazine journalist. He began that career as a free-lance writer in 1964 and quickly established himself as one of the great purveyors of the non-fiction sentence. His second assignment for a national publication, a 1965 Sports Illustrated profile of boxer Sonny Liston, ran as a cover story. His 1967 profile of iconic jazz player Louis Armstrong was so beautifully and thoroughly crafted that it would be reprinted on the program at Armstrong's 1971 funeral. And when his friend and champion Willie Morris was named editor-in-chief of Harper's in 1967,King was the first staff writer to be hired, soon to be joined on the masthead by David Halberstam, John Corry, and Marshall Frady. Along with the other contributors that Morris enlisted—the names read like a Wikipedia entry on mid-to-late-20th Century writers: Mailer, Capote, Didion, Ellison, Roth, Styron, etc.—they embarked on a four-year run unrivaled in magazine history.
King's voice through that period and his entire career was pure rural Texas. Though he'd fled his native state in 1954 to live the balance of his life in New York and Washington D.C., he perpetually returned to what he called "my mind's country" in his writing. "Though I aspired to write almost from the moment I could read, there grew the firm conviction that I must escape Texas to do it," he'd later write. "Call it a failure of imagination if you wish, but there came a day when it dawned on my foggy brain that perhaps the old adage "Write what you know" was not bad advice."
What he knew was a way of life that was fast disappearing, people and places that would have otherwise been forgotten. He shared their language, their accent, and their memories, and he wrote with a sweet, respectful affection, celebrating "bumptious innocents" from "flawed little villages," and saving his judgment for "pucker-brows," "purse-lipped Baptists," "chair-bound Austin bureaucrats," and the would-be titans mucking up his world.
Whorehouse was born as just such a magazine piece. It ran in Playboy in 1974, and like much of his best work, the underlying story was the damnable march of so-called civilized progress. In "The Lost Frontier," a story published by Life in 1972, the metaphor was the closing of the only beer joint in a far West Texas county by the state's liquor control board, an injustice that prompted a distinct bit of King brilliance.
"The land is stark and flat and treeless, altogether as bleak and spare as mood scenes in Russian literature, a great dry-docked ocean with swells of hummocky tan sand dunes or humpbacked rocky knolls changing colors with the hours and the shadows; reddish brown, slate gray, bruise colored. But it is the sky—God-high and pale, like a blue chenille bedspread bleached by seasons in the sun—that dominates."
That poetic, nearly formal quality to his writing alerted more priggish readers to the greater truths contained therein, reminding them that insight into life's mysteries can be imparted by citizens of small towns located long country miles from interstate highways. He'd suck a reader in by being folksy and funny, then when they weren't looking he'd teach them about themselves.
In 1971, Harper's published King's "The Old Man," a piece that King readers consider his masterpiece. It was a memoir about his father set during an eight-day car trip that Kingtook with his own kids and his dad just six weeks before the eldest King's death. The backdrop is Texas, but the subtext is the extended, adolescent estrangement of a renegade, writer son intent on seeing the world, and a blacksmithing, dirt-farming father content to stay close to his Midland home. After Larry had moved out of that house in 1947 to join the Army, return visits were awkward. "We talked haltingly, carefully," he wrote, "probing as uncertainly as two neophyte pre-med students might explore their first skin boil." But by the time of that last road trip, Larry was a father himself, with a deeper understanding of the relationship. He described a moment at the end of their sight-seeing stop at the Alamo.
Now it was late afternoon. [The old man's] sap suddenly ran low; he seemed more fragile, a tired old head with a journey to make; he dangerously tripped on a curbstone. Crossing a busy intersection, I took his arm. Though that arm had once pounded anvils into submission, it felt incredibly frail. My children, fueled by youth's inexhaustible gasses, skipped and cavorted fully a block ahead. Negotiating the street, The Old Man half-laughed and half-snorted: "I recollect helpin' you across lots of streets when you was little. Never had no notion that you'd be doin' the same for me." Well, I said. Well. Then: "I've helped that boy up there"—motioning toward my distant and mobile son—"across some few streets. Until now, it never occurred that he may someday return the favor." "Well," The Old Man said, "he will if you're lucky."
King called the piece "the one story that came the closest to what I meant to do." Simply put, the "The Old Man" provides as honest and accurate a look at fathers and sons as has ever been written.
In a January, 2005, profile of King in Texas Monthly, his old Harper's colleague and friend David Halberstam said this: "America in the sixties was increasingly affluent. It was the first time people ever talked about disposable income. But Larry was from a part of the country that was barely electrified, barely even touched by the New Deal. His was the voice of a region, but also a generation."
For all his ambition and confidence, King never aspired to that particular status. Throughout his life he joked that his great aim was to be what he called "a Famous Arthur," and to be sure, his celebrity was hard-earned and, at its full-height, well-enjoyed. Later in life, once the spotlight had dimmed, he spoke frequently of his friends and contemporaries, the Halberstams and Mailers and Plimptons and McMurtys. But he never did so to remind the world that he'd once roamed among them. He was merely recalling the scene, the way they would cede the floor when he joined their table at Elaine's, or wherever else they happened to be gathered. Those lions knew, as did King, that fame was but a byproduct of his realization of the one true goal: Larry L. King was a great American writer.
Lawrence Leo King was born on New Year's Day 1929, the youngest child of Clyde Clayton and Cora Lee Clark King, in Putnam, Texas. He wrote for his high school paper in Midland, Texas, where he also played football, all under the tutelage of Aubra Nooncaster, his football coach and English teacher. He left high school in 1947 to join the Army, where he was a reporter for his base newspaper. After his discharge in 1949 he briefly studied journalism at Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University), and then went on to cover sports and crime for the Hobbs (NM) Daily Flare, the Midland Reporter-Telegram, and the Odessa American. In 1954 he moved to Washington D.C. as the Administrative Assistant to U.S. Representative J.T. "Slick" Rutherford, and then in 1962 joined the staff of future U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright.
After the assassination of President John Kennedy, he quit politics to write full-time. In 1964 he finished a novel, The One-Eyed Man, which was published in 1966, and then concentrated on magazine writing. His first works were published in The Texas Observer, which he later described as "the only voice of dissent (constant) or reason (occasionally) to be found in my native state." From there he took his career to ever larger publications: Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Harpers, Holiday, Life, Parade, Playboy, The Progressive, Sports Illustrated, and Texas Monthly, among others. His topics were typically Texas and politics, but he also wrote about sports, travel, music, and, of course, his own life.
In 1978 he wrote the book for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which won Tonys for best featured actor and actress in a musical. Newly enamored of the theatre, he embarked on a career as a playwright, and his produced plays include The Night Hank Williams Died, The Kingfish, Golden Shadows Old West Museum, Christmas: 1933, and The Dead Presidents' Club.
His National Book Award nomination came in 1972 for Confessions of a White Racist, and his Emmy win came in 1981 for a television documentary, CBS Reports: The Best Little Statehouse in Texas, which he wrote and narrated. He received the Stanley Walker Journalism Award from the Texas Institute of Letters in 1973 for "The Last Frontier," and the TIL's O. Henry Award for Best Work of Magazine Journalism in 2001 for "The Book on Willie Morris." He was awarded the Mary Goldwater Award from the Theatre Lobby Trust in 1988 for The Night Hank Williams Died, which also won the Helen Hayes award for best new play in 1989. And he received the Bookend Award from the Texas Book Festival in 2005 for his lifetime contributions to Texas literature. Other accolades include four American Libraries Awards and the 1969 Mark Twain Society Citation for Contemporary Humor.
King was a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University for the 1969-1970 academic year, and he taught as a Ferris Professor of Journalism and Political Science at Princeton University from the fall of 1973 through the fall of 1974. From 1975 to 1976 he was a Duke Fellow of Communications.
He published twelve non-fiction books, including …And Other Dirty Stories (1968); The Old Man and Lesser Mortals (1974); Of Outlaws, Con Men, Whores, Politicians, & Other Artists (1980), None But a Blockhead: On Being a Writer (1986); True Facts, Tall Tales, & Pure Fiction (1997); Larry L. King: A Writer's Life in Letters, or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye (1999); and In Search of Willie Morris (2006); along with two children's books, That Terrible Night Santa Got Lost In The Woods (1981); and Because of Lozo Brown (1988).
A sought-after public speaker, he emceed the opening night gala at the first four Texas Book Festivals, beginning in 1996, and was a featured speaker at the 2001 Library of Congress National Book Festival gala at the invitation of First Lady Laura Bush.
He was greatly admired by his peers, who through the years had this to say about him: "One of the best writing men in the land, with more than a touch of Mark Twain in his soul." (Willie Morris). "King's strengths are his energy and wit and his integrity not to compromise the fundamentals. He rings an American bell." (Norman Mailer). "Larry L.King writes just like an angel would if it grew up in West Texas and drank." (Roy Blount, Jr.). And as King himself said, "Aw, shucks folks. Ain't nothin' to it but talent and clean livin'."
He is survived by his adored wife of thirty-four years, Barbara S. Blaine, who also worked as his lawyer and agent, their son Blaine Carlton King and daughter Lindsay King Arnoult his children Alexandria King, Kerri King Mitchell, and Bradley Clayton King, and two grandsons. He was pre-deceased by his favorite cousin, Lanvil Gilbert.