RIP, Larry L. King

The writer who was known for writing the book for the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas died Thursday at 83. Read three of senior editor John Spong's favorite stories by the giant of Texas letters. 
Mon December 24, 2012 2:20 am
Bill Wittliff/The Wittliff Collections

Strange as it may seem, it’s almost a shame Larry L. King, who died Thursday in Washington, D.C., is known primarily for  The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.  Don’t get me wrong. His original 1974 Playboy article [SFW] of that title is a tremendous read. All the LLK hallmarks are there–the folksy ribaldry, the contempt for do-gooder hypocrites, and the big-hearted respect for small-town underdogs. I’m less familiar with the franchise it inspired, never having attended the musical nor viewed the film it inspired, but I know it as Larry thought of it–as his “home run.” All underpaid magazine writers know what that means. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’ve all got a little place inside of us where we jump up and down like Carlton Fisk waving at the flag pole every time we finish a story, hoping we can coax it out of the ballpark. Whorehouse did just that, making Larry enough money to buy a 200-year-old mansion in D.C.–or “Dee Cee,” as he called it–and put his kids through school. For all the hundreds of thousands of people who have fallen for Whorehouse, none of them loved it as much as Larry did. It made him rich.

Like most folks, all I knew of Larry when I met him in the spring of 1998 was his connection to  Whorehouse. David Courtney (who readers of Texas Monthly now know as The Texanist) and I had been enlisted to drive him from his in-laws’ place in Georgetown, Texas, to a reading in Austin. For forty-five minutes he sat in the backseat of Dave’s Land Cruiser, sucking on Kools and spewing forth a stream of personal history anecdotes tailor-made to turn on a pair of fledgling magazine hacks. They had punchlines like “Plimpton looked at me like I’d just hit him across the face with a sock-full of wet shit;” “So I told Burt Reynolds, ‘You may be as tough an old Southern boy as you think you are, but I doubt your ass is bulletproof;’” and “When Dickey finally surrendered I let him out of my choke-hold, and then I got my ass the hell out of that damn Playboy Mansion.”

As you’d imagine, Dave and I ended up volunteering to drive Larry any time he needed, which over the next eight years meant whenever he was in town for the Texas Book Festival and, eventually, two long roadtrips from D.C. to Austin. (One of those trips turned into a piece I wrote for Texas Monthly in 2005.) All the drives were like that first one, long monologues from him that expanded to topics like the civil rights wars, the sexual revolution, his glory years at Harper’s, and his own place in the literary pantheon. He said that ever since he was a little boy shirking chores on his daddy’s farm in Putnam, his dream had been to become Mark Twain. In his honest estimation he’d failed at that goal. But, he allowed, he’d written some magazine stories he was proud of.

Dave and I found out what that meant with our compensation for those chauffeuring duties. Whenever Larry was safely back to D.C., he’d go to his bookshelf, pull down a couple anthologies of his journalism that he liked to buy up at used book stores, and drop them in the mail to us. That’s how we got to know Larry L. King, one of the greatest magazine writers who ever lived. My initial favorite was “ Everybody’s Louis ” ( Harper’s, November 1967), a profile of Louis Armstrong that the jazz great’s family thought well enough of to have it reprinted on the program at Armstrong’s funeral. Then I read “ The Lost Frontier ” ( Life, March, 1972), Larry’s remarkably eloquent look at an unforgivable abuse of state power–the time the Texas Liquor Control Board issued a seven-day suspension of the beer permit to Newt and Tootsie’s, the only beer joint in all of Loving County, Texas.

Larry’s greatest achievement, however, was a profile of his father, “ The Old Man ” ( Harper’s, April 1971). Larry and his dad had experienced long, dark years of estrangement born of counter-opposing world views. The elder King valued hard labor and had little curiosity about the world beyond the Midland-Odessa oil patch; the younger’s taste ran to the Lit Game high-life, to holding court at Plimpton’s Paris Review parties and a table at Elaine’s. But with death closing in, Clyde King revealed to his son his one great regret: He’d never visitied the Alamo nor the statehouse. Their subsequent four-day car trip would become Larry’s masterpiece, the best examination of the relationship between fathers and sons that I’ve ever found, and the finest magazine writing I’ve ever read. But Larry, who was never known to be overburdened by humility, described it more simply. “That’s the one story,” he used to say, “that came the closest to being what I wanted.”

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