Larry L. King, a writer and playwright whose magazine article about a campaign to close down a popular bordello became a hit Tony Award-nominated musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and a movie starring Burt Reynolds, died Thursday. He was 83.
His wife, Barbara Blaine, said King died after battling emphysema at Chevy Chase House, a retirement home in Washington where he had been living the past six months. “One of the things that I will always remember about Larry is that he remained funny all the way through this illness,” she said.
He wrote in a good ol’ boy vernacular style similar to other Southern authors such as Roy Blount and Charles Portis. King wrote two musicals, five plays, 14 books, a few screenplays and hundreds of magazine articles, for which he won an O. Henry Award in 2001.
His books include None But a Blockhead about the act of writing, and a children’s book called “Because of Lozo Brown,” about the fears children have of meeting others. Collections of his essays were also published, including The Old Man and Lesser Mortals, which began as an article about his father.
“King’s strengths are his energy and wit and his integrity not to compromise the fundamentals. He rings an American bell,” Norman Mailer once said.
His Confessions of a White Racist — he called it “a gratuitous admission of guilt on behalf of all white racists past and present, malignant and benign” — was a finalist for a National Book Award. He won an Emmy for his 1982 television documentary for CBS, The Best Little Statehouse in Texas. He taught at Princeton and was a fellow at Duke.
“Writing looks much easier than trapeze work, I know, until you sit before a typewriter long enough to realize it won’t speak back unless spoken to,” King wrote in “None Bit a Blockhead.”
King came to Washington in 1954 to work for a newly elected Congressman from El Paso. A journalist from West Texas, he had planned to remain on Capitol Hill for about three years and then go to work for a newspaper.
He wound up staying in politics as an aide in Washington for 10 years. His experience produced a best seller in 1978, Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator.
He said President John F. Kennedy’s assassination caused him to reevaluate his life. King quit politics and headed to New York where he taught, worked on books and free-lanced for magazines.
King was not shy about his battles with alcohol and kicked the bottle decades ago. “If you’re not out getting drunk, and waking up with hangovers and having fights with people, there’s a lot of time to write,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1987.
King wrote his most famous piece about the Chicken Ranch brothel in 1974 for Playboy magazine, took the $3,000 and thought no more about it. But Peter Masterson, a Texas actor, saw the article and thought it would make a great play. He and King got together with songwriter Carol Hall, another Texan, to create the smash musical. Tommy Tune was the director and in charge of musical staging.
The movie version starring Dolly Parton and Reynolds was less than a smash with critics, includingKing, who thought Hollywood had ruined the story and turned it into a sex romp.
King was one of a group of journalists who spent 1969-70 at Harvard University and his 8,000-word account of the year, “Blowing My Mind at Harvard,” appeared in Harper’s magazine. He also wrote for The Texas Observer, Life and Texas Monthly, among others, and penned a biography of former Harper’s editor Willie Morris in 2006.
As a humorist, he had a jaundiced affection for the folks he wrote about. “I would say Larry was a man who had a lot of fun with life. He had a twinkle in his eye,” his wife said.
In the late 1980s, King had some success with his play The Night Hank Williams Died, a pungent yet poignant tale of lost loves, missed opportunities, unfulfilled expectations and fatal mistakes that made it off-Broadway. It was set in 1952 at a bar and Williams’ music wails from the jukebox as a colorful group of characters try to find meaning with coarse Texas humor.
AP theater critic Michael Kuchwara wrote in a 1989 review that it was flawed but “has enough low-key charm and homespun humor to soften the hardest of hearts.”
King, Tune, Hall and Masterson came together in 1994 to create a sequel the flopped spectacularly. “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public” closed after 28 previews and 16 performances.
Blaine said King had ups and downs in his writing career and that he didn’t necessarily consider his plays to be his most important works. “To him, his most important works are really his essays.”
King has three grown children by his first wife. His second wife died in 1972. He also had two grown children with his third wife, Blaine. A private funeral was planned and King would be buried at theTexas State Cemetery in Austin, she said.
“I’m of the belief that sad endings, or bad endings, make for better drama than happy endings,” Kingtold the AP in 1986. “And life really works more that way anyhow for most people.”