L. on Wheels

On an eight-day road trip with Larry L. King, the crotchety West Texan who wrote some of the greatest magazine stories of all time, only one thing was certain: I never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next.

January 2005By Comments

A note from the Texanist: 
The Texanist was saddened by the news this morning of the passing of one his idols, writer Larry L. King, who died in Washington, D.C., last night at the age of 83. Back in 2005, yours truly and friend and colleague John Spong had the very unique pleasure of driving Mr. King halfway across America, from his home in Washington all the way to Austin. In the masterfully-penned story that follows, you will learn a little bit about that trip and whole lot about that man, the Texanist’s idol, Larry L. King. May he rest in peace.

Appreciating the writer Larry L. King is no chore, unless of course you’re easily offended. Or overly judgmental. Or constitutionally genteel, hyperpious, or self-consciously intellectual, i.e., you have outgrown your britches, as Larry might put it. On the other hand, you can be defined by any and all of these traits and still come to love him, so long as you have a sense of humor.

“Ol’ Carl Bernstein still calls me Trick F-er,” said the 76-year-old Larry as the two of us drove up Interstate 66 into Virginia, finally entering the homestretch of a good old-fashioned eight-day, cross-country car trip. He was referring to a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter with whom I was familiar and a shorthand descriptive with which I most certainly was not.

“Excuse me?” I said, turning down Willie Nelson on the CD player.

“A bunch of the regulars were sitting around Elaine’s one night,” he explained, referring to the Manhattan bar that had been the late-sixties, early-seventies home to a generation of American writers and the literary tourists—movie stars, musicians, college newspaper editors, magazine subscribers—who stopped in to be near them, “and this old English woman came in and took an intense dislike to me right off the bat. I don’t know if it was my jeans or my manner, but it was immediate and it was intense.”

You could say Larry had slipped into character, except for the implication that he had ever slipped out. He is, as he always has been, a populist troubadour, presenting first the swagger of a foul-mouthed oil-field roustabout, then sneaking in revelation of one of life’s more significant truths. Be wary, though, that you don’t get hung up on the bluster; you’ll end up missing the moral of his story. But worse, don’t let him sense an inability to recognize insight delivered in a West Texas dust bowl drawl. He’ll cut the lesson short and you off at the knees.

“So she said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a writer, and I teach a class at Princeton University.’ She kind of scoffed and asked, ‘What, pray tell, do you teach?’ And I said, ‘Trick f—ing.’ That shut her up.” End of story.

Full disclosure: Larry L. King is one of my heroes. He has been for six years now, since my friend Dave Courtney and I were commissioned to chauffeur him from his wife’s parents’ place, near Georgetown, to an event in Austin where he would be reading from a book of his collected letters. He’d been kind enough not to mention the fact that we were an hour late to pick him up, presumably because he was so happy to leave a house where he couldn’t indulge his passion for menthol cigarettes. Without a word, he lit up a Kool before we were out of the driveway, then embarked on a monologue that lasted the whole 45-minute drive. Through it we learned that his first meeting with “the Reverend Bud Shrake,” as he insisted on calling the Austin novelist who’s been his best friend for forty years, ended with the pair of them yanking books from the shelves in Larry’s Washington, D.C., apartment in desperate search of a missing bag of weed; that Mississippi man of letters Willie Morris knew no greater pleasure than to order MoonPies and clabber at New York’s finest restaurants; that at a Nashville book fair, sportswriter Dan Jenkins once told a best-selling Christian writer that if he had known religious books would sell so well, he would have named his classic (and groundbreakingly profane) football novel “Semi-God”; that to an old yellow dog like Larry, the term “reactionary” is synonymous with “Republican” (and neither is complimentary); and that he, Larry, had once come out on top in a two-day bar fight at the Chicago Playboy Mansion with Deliverance author and legendary hard guy James Dickey. Our heads were still spinning when, not far from the hotel where Larry was to speak, and with about a half a pack of his cherished Kools sucked down to butts, he cracked the rear window of Dave’s Land Cruiser and asked, “You dudes mind if I smoke?”

But his status was not cemented until I received in the mail Larry’s token of thanks, a signed copy of Warning: Writer at Work, The Best Collectibles of Larry L. King. Up until then I knew him merely as the creator of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. (Merely? The franchise, which began as a Playboy article and became a long-running Broadway musical and a Hollywood movie starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, has made him a millionaire twice over.) But with Warning I was introduced to Larry L. King, true craftsman of the American sentence, one of the finest magazine writers ever. He was a staff writer at Harper’s, a thirty-year contributor to TEXAS MONTHLY, a National Book Award nominee, a Nieman fellow at Harvard, a journalism professor at Princeton. His second article for a national publication, a 1965 profile of middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson, written when Larry was an unknown Texas expat in D.C., was made a Sports Illustrated cover story. His 1967 Harper’s story on Louis Armstrong so captured the essence of the twentieth century’s most beloved entertainer that it was reprinted in the program at Pops’s funeral. And his 2001 TEXAS MONTHLY tribute to his old Harper’s editor and champion Willie Morris received the O. Henry Award for best work of magazine journalism from the Texas Institute of Letters.

So I knew exactly what to do when, last spring, Larry told me about a pickle he’d found himself in. The Texas Book Festival was set to honor him with its prize for lifetime achievement, what the TBF had unfortunately dubbed its Bookend Award and Larry only slightly less morbidly referred to as the One Foot in the Grave Award. But he confided that he would be unable to attend. A fifty-year diet of two packs of Kools a day had brought on severe emphysema, and Larry was now on a steady dose of oxygen. Although he could comfortably go a few hours without being tethered to his tank, after a frightening bout with pneumonia three winters back, he was not about to hazard five hours of breathing stale airplane air. There would be no trip.

I reminded him that he had a couple of chauffeurs back in Texas who would be more than willing to get him to the book fair. As added incentive, I offered that the road trip might make a good story, not by him but about him. He accepted the offer but then voiced concern. In an e-mail a week later, he pointed out that he was nearing completion of a biography of Willie Morris and would be returning to another project when that book was done. He was hoping for a two-book deal. “I do worry about coming off like an old geezer standing at death’s door,” he wrote. “I know I ain’t a young buck anymore, that a ‘Lion in Winter’ story is inevitable. . . . Maybe you can claim in your story that I play with myself frequently, or otherwise claim some discernible signs of life.”

On the last Monday in October, the three of us pulled away from Larry’s D.C. mansion, the one across the street from the old Iranian embassy and two blocks away from the vice president’s residence, in a rented Chrysler 300 luxury liner with a “Texas Democrat” bumper sticker freshly affixed by Dave in Larry’s honor. Dave and I took the front seats, pilot and copilot, and Larry stretched out as well as he could in the back. Before Dave and I had met him that first time, I’d asked a woman who worked with Larry how she’d describe him. Her answer was, “God.” By the Illustrated Children’s Bible image I grew up with, she wasn’t far off. Tall, imposing, white beard, booming voice, but with the robe, sandals, and staff swapped for denim, boots, and a pair of square, oversized Harry Caray glasses. Seated at his left hand in the rear of the sedan was his oxygen tank, encased in cream-colored plastic, unplugged and fastened with the safety belt to keep it from bouncing around and, as Larry more than once warned, “blowing us all to shit.”

The drive was over familiar territory for Larry, who had made this trip more times than he cared to remember. As a congressional staffer in the fifties, he’d driven home to Midland at least three times a year, sometimes with a carful of family—his first wife and their three kids—and sometimes by himself. There was no interstate then, and the trips seemed eternal. By comparison, our plan for four 6-hour days of driving seemed as easy as taking a nap.

Or delivering a soliloquy, if that was more in line with your nature. “I didn’t tell you dudes the other good news,” began Larry, as we talked about his award. “I’m also getting statued. Pat Oliphant called me”—Oliphant being a Pulitzer prize-winning political cartoonist and sculptor of no small acclaim—“and said he wanted to come to D.C. in a couple weeks and make some sketches of me for a bust that he’ll send to the Southwestern Writers Collection at the university in San Marcos where all my papers are kept, which I think is a fine first step towards the Larry L. King Memorial Statuary Park.”

I turned down the stereo. Here was the reason we’d volunteered for the drive: a Larry L. King tall tale, somewhat akin to an Irishman’s blarney or ghetto elders’ doing of the dozens, but with no indication that this was anything less than gospel.

“It’s an idea I’ve been flirting with for some while now. My old lawyer friend Warren Burnett was for years the treasurer of the Larry L. King Memorial Statuary Park Fund and charged with raising donations. But all he ever managed to collect was thirty-seven cents, so I fired his ass for malfeasance in office.”

“Did he abscond with the money?” asked Dave.

“No, he actually sent it to me, but I felt that was too little too late. So I appointed Reverend Shrake to succeed him and sent Shrake detailed instructions on the park’s layout: twenty-one statues of varying poses and heights, but none under twelve feet tall, with some making speeches, some singing songs, some bestowing blessings, some receiving accolades. Twenty of them were to be arranged in a circle, with the tallest one in the center, with a jeweled clock in its belly button exhibiting the time of day.

“Well, Shrake sent me a letter saying he couldn’t quite get right the statue that was supposed to be kicking a football. As if that weren’t bad enough, he refused to knock down his house, which happened to be on the site where I’d finally decided the park should be built. And he claimed he’d only been able to raise five dollars and thirteen cents, so I fired his ass too and demanded he send me the funds, which he never has. I still hold that over his head. He’d better not mess with me or I’ll turn him in. Embezzlement is a crime.”

You don’t build a career like Larry’s merely by BSing, no matter how good your BS might be. His first real acclaim came for political stories. He left Texas for good in 1954 to take a job on the staff of “Congressman J. T. ‘Slick’ Rutherford, cowboy statesman,” as Larry still calls his old boss on first reference. He turned to writing full-time after Kennedy was shot, and the persona he presented—“Dress like John Wayne, quote a little Shakespeare”—made him an in-demand commentator on JFK’s successor. Larry’s 1966 Harper’s story, “My Hero LBJ,” is the favorite of America’s preeminent cultural historian, David Halberstam, who would later join the Harper’s staff with King. And Larry still laughs about his two weeks as a news show pundit after a Harper’s column he wrote accurately predicted—make that demanded—that Lyndon Johnson would not run for a second term. But Larry made his name with more-personal stories, writing about people and places that would have otherwise been forgotten, like his birthplace of Putnam, which was all but shut down after Interstate 20 rerouted traffic away from its lone blinking light. He wrote about places like those as someone who’d actually lived there, forging a brand of participatory New Journalism that, for his fans, rang truer than Hunter S. Thompson’s waking nightmares or George Plimpton’s locker room slumming. “America in the sixties was increasingly affluent,” says Halberstam. “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 of a generation.”

Larry’s greatest achievement, by his own estimation and by that of us True Believers, was a 1971 story for Harper’s called “The Old Man.” The story described a car trip that Larry took with his dad, an 82-year-old blacksmith, dirt farmer, and lay preacher. Their relationship had been one long struggle; for Larry, Clyde King was a man of frustratingly few yearnings. But as Clyde got along in years, he admitted to small holes in life’s experience that he wanted to fill. Despite living in Texas almost all his life, he had never visited the Alamo or the statehouse. Those were the wishes that Larry fulfilled, and six weeks later, after Clyde had died from complications brought on by hardened arteries, or, really, from a lifetime of refusing to visit the doctor, Larry would turn the trip into his masterpiece. It sounded in his customary professional Texan voice, but it spoke to universals, of small dreams and big disappointments, of loved ones locking horns with a ferocity they’d never inflict on a stranger, and of what was left when the battles were over. He wrote of these things knowingly, and sweetly.

Now it was late afternoon. His sap suddenly ran low; he seemed more fragile, a tired old head with a journey to make; he dangerously stumbled 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 gases, 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 one day 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.”

I’d brought up “The Old Man” when I pitched Larry the idea of turning our car trip into a story, which is part of the reason he’d initially balked. But sitting in the lounge of the Knoxville Hilton, where he rewarded me and Dave for our first day’s labor with about half a dozen each of the Bloody Marys he’d once enjoyed more than Kools, he started to talk about “life’s cursed attrition.” Of course, he began in his customary fashion—“So I said, ‘Rockefeller, if you got so much goddamn money, how come we’re sitting on the floor eating bait?’ and I got up and walked out of that goddamn sushi place!”—but then he started to run deeper.

“What I always wanted,” he said, “was a place in that first tier of American writers, with the Vonneguts, the Mailers. I don’t think I ever did quite manage it.”

“But if you’ve got all those stories that will last forever—” I started.

“No, Shakespeare is forever,” he said. “Mark Twain is forever. Those stories of mine won’t last forever.”

“Forever or not,” I continued, “you wrote ‘The Old Man,’ and no one will ever capture fathers and sons better than that.”

“That may be true. That’s the one story that came the closest to being what I wanted. When I gave that one to Willie Morris, in 1970, he told me that people will be reading it for fifty or a hundred years. Well, I told him I thought that was an exaggeration. But they still are. It’s still picked up and anthologized, and that’s after thirty-five years. God, I cried a lot writing that. I wanted it to be just right. And I worried a little bit about was it any good.”

We sat and watched the television behind the bar for a second, where the Bengals and the Broncos were playing on Monday Night Football. Larry returned to an earlier discussion of a technique that an NFL quarterback famous in the sixties had once advised was the absolute most productive manner in which to give pleasure to a woman. Then we went up to bed.

I made my first real mistake of the trip just outside Gadsden, Alabama. We were headed to Oxford, Mississippi, where Larry had scheduled dinner with some old friends, and the plan was to get to town in the early afternoon and take some time to rest up. Manning the map, I saw that a couple of connecting state highways offered a straight shot across Alabama, so I directed Dave to turn right at Gadsden.

This was officially two-lane, backwoods Alabama: thick trees and deep green brush that seemed to reach over the road and block out the sky; cars on blocks in front of beat-up mobile homes; and every business a garage, a used-tire store, or a restaurant or bar bearing the name of somebody’s mama—Sara’s, Lola’s, Foxy’s. We were soon stuck behind a series of logging trucks, and with every pebble that flew from the big rigs’ tires and snapped—pop!—off our windshield, Larry would yell out, “Snipers!” But the detour ceased to be quaint about the time our air conditioner stopped blowing cold. The scene was all too familiar for Larry, whose mind drifted back to tense all-day drives just to get through Birmingham. “My God, when the first civil rights wars were coming, in the fifties and sixties,” he remembered, “the people down here were clannish and hateful. If you drove through here with D.C. tags, they held you personally responsible. I had plenty of folks cuss me and throw stuff at my car. They were so paranoid that for years it seemed like every car in Mississippi had a bumper sticker that read ‘The most lied-about state in the union.’”

Larry asked me to plug in his nebulizer, a device that fed him lung medicine in a fine mist. I slid its adapter into a power point in the console and hollered, “Contact!” into the backseat. Larry yelled, “Contact!” right back and bit down on the machine’s mouthpiece to take a fifteen-minute treatment. At one point he pulled out the mouthpiece and said, “I guess it’s a good thing we can’t pass anybody or one of these goddamn old Alabama women might think I was sucking on my bong.”

Once in Mississippi, we refound the interstate, and the air conditioner started back up. Reinvigorated by the nebulizer, so did Larry.

“Burt Reynolds and I got into a little feud on Whorehouse. See, what charm as that show had was because the sheriff was an older fella, and the madam had reached middle age, and they’d had a romance since they were both very young. But Reynolds refused to play the sheriff as ‘an old fart,’ as he put it. And since he was then the number one box office star in America, the studio let him have his f—ing way. So I got pissed off. I knew a bunch of gossip columnists, and I started calling them up and suggesting they ask what I thought about Reynolds. Then I’d answer, ‘Well, I guess he wears those elevator shoes because he’s about half midget, and he wears that wig because he must be bald. But I suspect he’ll do an all right job.’

“Well, that showed up in the papers and it got to him. So one day I get a letter from him saying something about how he’d like to take me out behind a barn and teach me some Southern manners. Well, that really pissed me off. So I wrote back and said, ‘You may be as tough an old Southern boy as you think you are, but I doubt you’re bulletproof, you sorry son of a bitch. Most sincerely, Larry L. King.’ And I thought that was that.

“But then Burt told the studio big shots that he wouldn’t come to the world premiere in Austin if I went. Maybe he thought I really was going to shoot him. Well, I hated to give him his way, but the studio wanted him to be there, so I agreed not to go.

“But I had to do something to him while he was down there. I had written a book about the making of the play and the movie, and I had included all the shit about Burt. Of course, that was the chapter that Playboy excerpted, and the issue happened to come out just as Burt was starting his PR tour in Texas. So I called Shrake and said, ‘There is bound to be a f—ing way we can get a copy of that to Burt.’ Well, Shrake sent his secretary with a copy of it to Burt’s press conference, where she innocently asked him to sign it. Burt went ape shit. He tore the magazine up and said that he’d never met me but that if he ever did, he was going to hit me so hard my whole family would die. Just what we wanted. Immediately the gossip columnists started to call, and to each of them I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m sorry he said that about my dear old parents, because they’re both dead. I don’t know why he’d say that. You think he was drinking or doping?’

“And that got in all the papers too, and there was such a flap about it. And then, I’m proud to say, with that very movie he lost his title as number one box office star and never recovered it.”

Larry opted to pass on a swing through Putnam, a detour that would have added a mere four hours to the trip. He allowed, however, in a quiet moment between Waco and Austin, that after he’d gone on the oxygen in D.C., three years ago, he hadn’t expected to ever get back to Texas. But any ghosts stirred up by his return to his native state were drowned out by the fanfare awaiting him in Austin, where forty-odd old friends and family members from around the country had assembled to cheer his award. The official festivities kicked off with an authors’ breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion early Saturday, where, with his wife in attendance, Larry was on his best behavior. He even smiled for a photograph with Republican governor Rick Perry. At the Bookend Award ceremony, later that morning, with six hundred attendees packed into the selfsame House chamber at the Capitol that Larry had toured with his father 34 years before, former congressman Charlie Wilson introduced him with a short speech that, as Larry put it, was “diplomatically” devoid of any salacious recollections. Then Larry made his own remarks, thanking among others his parents, Mark Twain, his high school football coach, Bud Shrake, and Willie Morris.

“And last but far from least,” he concluded, “I thank my wife-lawyer-agent, Barbara S. Blaine, for putting up with my writer’s insanity and grumpiness when my words won’t decently parade themselves across the page and for hectoring me to reorder my words until they are close to right. Which is the most any writer can hope for.” That, and the standing ovation that followed.

DAVE DIDN’T MAKE the return trip with us to D.C. So it was just Larry and me on that same 1,500-mile drive, minus the Alabama sightseeing; at Larry’s uncharacteristically gentle insistence, we kept to the interstate. To be honest, a few of his stories repeated themselves, but when they end in punch lines like “Plimpton looked at me like I’d just hit him in the face with a sock full of wet shit,” they can stand a second listen.

The two of us shared hotel rooms. The first night was a Monday in Monroe, Louisiana, in a small Holiday Inn room with two queen-size beds, a television, and little else. As he did everyplace we stayed, Larry fired up his oxygen tank as soon as we got to the room, fit its hose over his head and into his nostrils, changed into striped pajamas, and phoned Barbara. Then we laid in our beds and watched the Jets beat up on the Dolphins. After about an hour of air, Larry was ready to talk.

“Did you ever read a story I wrote later on called ‘Happy Birthday to a Fine Boy’?”

“Which one was that?” I asked.

“That was a very important story to me, a big part of my history,” he said. “It was about how I learned the truth as to how my grandfather had died long before I was born. He’d been shot by a man that I’d always known as a close family friend, who I had been taught by my parents to call ‘Uncle Charlie.’ He always brought me gifts at Christmas and birthdays, and that’s where I got that title, from a New Testament he gave me for my eleventh birthday and wrote ‘Happy birthday to a fine boy’ in it.”

Now I remembered. Charlie Hasp, not yet close enough to the King family to be considered an uncle, had come home from work early one day in 1904 and found Mrs. Hasp in bed with Clyde King’s father. Calmly, Mr. Hasp had then walked Mr. King out into a field, instructed him to kneel, and shot him in the back of the head with a shotgun. Clyde, twelve years old when his dad was murdered, later found Jesus and, judging his father to have been in the wrong, forgave Charlie and made him a member of the family. Larry learned all of this just after he himself had turned twelve.

“I never understood how my own father could have become so close to that man, could have welcomed him into our home. It made me so goddammed angry at my father and at the church that allowed him to stand in judgment that way. Between that and having to grow up so poor, and not being able to remember when the family had had some pretty good times . . .” He looked off past the television.

“Dad had had his own blacksmith shop, which had made him some money back in the old days, but then, as he put it, ‘The car come along and I was blowed up.’ He did do a little oil development, some shallow-field stuff around Putnam, but then the crash hit and wiped that all out. But maybe it gave me some ambition. When I was a star on the high school football team after we’d moved ourselves to Midland, I’d be invited to certain parties but not others. Now I realize that those parties were about marriage, about getting rich folks’ kids together. That’s why I wasn’t invited, and I resented it.”

I thought about how far it was from Midland to Manhattan and tried to reconcile competing images of Larry that popped into my head: a young kid leaning into a doorman’s face at a country club in Midland and the self-styled “famous arthur” holding court at Elaine’s, with Willie Morris and David Halberstam hanging on every word.

“Halberstam and I shared an office when we wrote for Willie at Harper’s,” he said after a while. “He was the hardest-working writer I’ve ever known. Still is. Writes a fat book, then a small book, then a fat book. Always working.”

“How important was Willie to you?” I asked.

“Willie Morris really did make my career. He gave me a place to write and insisted that I find my own voice. He had chosen Elaine’s to be the bar where all the writers hung out, and it was sort of his second office. He’d sit and drink with a writer and start ’em to talking about something, and then when their eyes started glowing, he’d say, ‘Why don’t you write about that for me.’ He could tell when you really cared and were bound to write a good piece. He was just brilliant that way.”

Larry got up and walked to the bathroom. He had thirty feet of hose on his oxygen so he didn’t have to come unplugged. While he was up, the Jets scored again, and I heard him yell from the bathroom, “If the Dolphins don’t start playing better, I do believe that Miami coach’s ass belongs to the gypsies.” Then he came back in and lay down.

After a short while, he spoke. “God, I miss Willie. Cursed attrition has taken him and a lot of my old friends. Warren Burnett. My cousin Lanvil Gilbert. Malcolm McGregor, a former state representative from El Paso. He was even younger than me.

“You look at my life, you’d think I’d be gone before a lot of those people.”

“When young people die, it’s supposedly tragic,” I said. “It’s an event. Does it get easier?”

“Oh, it stops being a surprise. But it doesn’t get easy, no.”

He paused. But then he rolled onto his side and started to smile. For a moment he looked like a little kid. “Have I told you what I’m gonna do when I die?” He sat up in bed and put his old feet on the floor. “I want to be cremated. And I’ve told Barbara and the children that I want—I still own the lot in Putnam where I was born. I’ve kept the taxes paid up, and I want them to go over there and scatter the ashes on the same plot I was born on. That’ll take me full circle. And then there’s a song I’ve taught the kids that they’ve all got to sing.”

He raised his right hand high over his head and started swinging it up and down and stomping his feet, one-two-three-four, leading a procession he saw in his mind. And at the top of his battered old lungs he began to sing his self-penned death march:

Da Da King was mighty handsome
Beloved by millions throughout the world
And they all cheered for his statues, with features fair, and hair of curls
So thick and beautiful
And people worship him by the hour

Larry stopped mid-song, putting an abrupt halt to the graveyard parade.

“Oh, my God, that’s funny,” was all I could muster. And then, “But you can’t stop there. How does it end?”

Larry didn’t answer. He was laughing so hard he couldn’t talk.

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