Briar Patch

HARD-SCRABBLE NOTES

1. The Once & Future Larry King

A FEW YEARS AGO, IN a brief but characteristic moment of reflection, Larry King attempted a survey of all that he had mastered, and he was not greatly reassured. “Success and I are strangers,” he said. “Failure and I are such old friends he drops by the house for coffee. I have wearied of his company and bid the stranger come in…”

To lend some sense of proportion to this austere summing-up, it is necessary to remind oneself that King’s standards and his hard-scrabble work ethic compulsions are seldom fully satisfied. He was the son of an impoverished West Texas dirt farmer, blacksmith and occasional fundamentalist preacher. The most money his father ever had at any one time in those early years was $88, after he’d sold an unusually good crop of turkeys. “He was on the fringe of solvency for exactly two hours before some city slicker from Cisco picked his pocket of every last dime.” Worse than poverty and endless farm demands, King remembers “eternal days of rain and cold with nothing to do but huddle by the open fireplace where your front roasted while your rump grew icicles, or vice-versa should you turn around.” But the primary agony was “the awful grinding boredom…nothing to read, no radio, nobody to talk with. The isolation was close to maddening.”

All of which might give some hint of the nature of King’s energy reserves, propelling him through some improbable adventures as small town football star, postman, oilfield roughneck, reporter, broadcaster, political aide to Congressmen and future Presidents. After ten years of hunkering up at the feet of the mighty in Washington, D.C., he concluded that he might as well step on a few as well. He became one of the country’s most successful magazine writers and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. Not long before he was provoked to his melancholy reflections on success and failure, his by-line had appeared in literally dozens of publications. His opinions were sought on network radio and television in the United States and Canada; his novel, The One-Eyed Man, was a book club alternate; a collection of articles, …And Other Dirty Stories, was widely acclaimed; he won a year’s study at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow; and his most recent work, Confessions of a White Racist, was a National Book Award nominee and inspired John Kenneth Galbraith to wonder: “There may be a better and more compelling writer around than Larry King, but I certainly don’t know his name.”

All of which hopefully provides suitable background for reporting our recent happy confrontations with the old wordsmith himself. We were locked in the planning stages of an article (scheduled for March TM dealing with those exotic South of the Border English language radio stations, powered by monster wattage and hellfire fundamentalist hucksterism), and we dimly remembered an experience of King’s recounted to us a dozen years ago. We wrote to him for a little amplification, and he responded by telephone from Washington. King advised us to hold on, ole buddy, he’d be in Texas in a day or two and fill us in. In the background, we could hear the voice of George Jones painfully spinning out his heart or some equally irreplaceable vital organ, all in the service of bucolic love and down-home dalliance. We were compelled to speak well of his taste in music and the quality of what he called his Home Entertainment Center.

“Listen,” he said, “I am trying to make myself write two magazine articles, both seriously overdue, on the boring subjects of Jane Fonda and Jack Anderson. I am having trouble doing any kind of work at all, in fact, for the first time in my life. So I think I am going to ask Life Magazine to let me choose a more congenial assignment. I think I will watch a movie being made of Larry McMurtry’s novel by the name of Leaving Cheyenne, though they are calling it something else of course.”

2. The Next Picture Show

They were calling the movie Molly, Gid and Johnny, we remembered, and the low, scruffy hills southeast of Austin were alive with the sound of assistant directors screaming for “ QUIET, please.” Larry King, a day or two later, led us on a whispered tour of the set: “This here’s a sure-nuff live take—ain’t that right, Steve?” Steve was the nice, bright young man from New York who that morning had driven us out to the set, an abandoned ranch house near Bastrop. “Steve Friedman, our driver,” King had said, introducing us. Now Steve nodded and stared transfixed as the scene unfolded (there is an uncommonly huge amount of standing and staring and transfixation on motion picture sets). Director Sidney Lumet put Beau Bridges and Tony Perkins through their cowpoke paces, a puffed-up, pot-bellied Bridges hammering on a gate post, wiping his face, then joining a skinny and wizened Perkins on the porch for some careless beer-drinking and nostalgic repartee having to do with the perils of seeking shelter from hailstorms on the underside of cow ponies. At length, Lumet said “Cut and print,” and King ventured to interpret this as meaning we need not stand and stare transfixed for awhile.

In the chow line, Bridges had stripped down to his pot belly, which was revealed as a sort of inflatable girdle. Everyone sat in the open, plates piled with simple country grub, and King had to admire the tough-minded, unpretentious visitors, hard at their tasks since daybreak, engaged in a business that seemed about as glamorous as clearing railroad right-of-way. “Look at ‘em going after that meat loaf,” he said, “just like it was edible.”

Steve Friedman offered to line up a few interviews, but King said he would prefer to stare transfixed for a few more days. He had read the script the night before and was much impressed by its faithfulness to the McMurtry novel. Who had written it? “Steve Friedman here,” said King,

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