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.

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

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