Larry L. King
Nieman Class of 1970
Some years ago, a lucky young newspaper reporter was granted a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard. Her best mentor and former professor gifted her with a book called The Old Man and Lesser Mortals, by Larry L. King. King, a Texan, had also spent a year at Walter Lippmann House, the august home of the Nieman Foundation, which was founded 75 years ago this month. With the gift, the mentor conveyed his congratulations, along with a tribal sense of support (all three players being Southerners) and, perhaps, some existential camaraderie. For King opened The Old Man with, “Writers and prostitutes grow accustomed to being asked why they do the things they do. There is no easy answer.” One day, freshly settled in Cambridge, the new Nieman fellow mentioned King to a couple of fellow fellows. “He was a Nieman?” one of them said. A television news reporter, she was thinking of the CNN Larry King. This kind of mistake happened all the time. The news about the other Larry King was delivered: The pertinent Larry King was the Lone Star Larry King — newspaperman; Harper’s writer; protégé of the great Mississippi editor and author Willie Morris; National Book Award nominee; Emmy winner; author; playwright. The Larry King who, perhaps most famously, wrote The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. His observations penetrated. On “super lawyers” he wrote, “There is both a great exhilaration and a certain sense of unspecified doom in such men: they are a little feverish, tending to great emotional peaks and valleys, and quite often they threaten to run for Congress or to write books.” On confessing a desperate desire to win the National Book Award: “…The Nominee asked his black heart why winning had become so vital: What brought out the Lombardi in him, the Bobby Riggs, the Sammy Glick? Not to identify too closely with Richard Nixon, but The Nominee, too, had heard his childhood trains in the night; had dreamed of Fame and Riches and Power and Applause down many an endless Texas cotton row. Those old fantasies now made him squirm: hadn’t he outgrown them, as he had Big Little Books and candy jawbreakers?” On his father: “I came to believe that perhaps what life is all about, with its uncertain currents and puzzling tugging tides, is the extensions of the generations trying to work it all out.”
Larry L. King, the fellows would learn, had marked their program with his singular vivaciousness — his Kingness. There are stories about this. “It’s 1969; Larry L. King is starting his Nieman year, paying an exorbitant $390 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, and bored with most of the speakers,” Elizabeth Leland (Class of ’92) wrote in Nieman Reports. “‘Dear Lanvil,’ he writes his cousin back in Texas:
‘…I find myself often despondent, really dragging my chin, feeling that I am not getting all out of this that I should, asking myself what a 41-year-old fool is doing interrupting his budding career for a year. The answer, on my good days, comes back: ‘Cause you ain’t had no schoolin’ Fool, and ‘cause you so fucking iggernent.’ On bad days, I have no answer. I feel a bit insecure, a bit out of the main stream, and I’m not as well-recognized here as in New York precincts in the matter of Personal Fame, and all this chomps on my Big E Ego.’ King leads a revolt, taking away the role of selecting speakers from Curator Dwight Sargent. One of King’s first invitees is William Styron. In a letter to a friend in Texas, King recounts how Styron ends up in the emergency room after inhaling ‘a bit of Mexican boo smoke’ in King’s apartment.”
(“I don’t recommend Larry’s approach to your year at Harvard,” the mentor had written in the note accompanying his gift.)
After his Nieman year, King went on writing for another four decades. “There is a vexing impermanence to magazine journalism; it bloweth away on the wind and do fly,” he wrote in The Old Man. “Books appear to take on more importance — and the urge to do them. One wants, more and more, to work from his own experiences: to record in fiction the bruises, deaths, disappointments, lessons, and small triumphs that come to him as part of the human condition. If there are real answers to be found, I think, they will be found there or not at all.”
He died last December, at age 83. He is still occasionally confused with the other Larry King, but no matter. His influence lives on, as does that of the mentor, who is dead now, too. His letter has never left the pages of King’s book, not in 17 years; and the book will leave its owner only when it is time to hand it off to someone new, honoring the memory of those who encouraged “the uncertain madness that once represented a dim dream and now has become a way of life,” as King once put it. Those influences “are the culprits,” he wrote. “I love them and thank them for their shares of the blame.”
>“Blowing My Mind at Harvard,” from Harper’s, October 1970, just after his fellowship ended. King was 41 when he started his Nieman year, and a grandfather. Excerpt:
One arrived in Cambridge burned not only by academic and regional paranoias, but obsessed over how to preserve his privacy. The grandfatherly Nieman Fellow had a distaste for group activities surpassing all reason. He had never been a team man (preferring in his youth to lose a football game by three touchdowns when he had personally enjoyed an exceptional night, rather than win one in which he had performed to only perfunctory applause). He had hated the innumerable luncheons, airport rallies, fund-raising dinners, and committee meetings so necessary to the political calling — all those goddamned people, each on earth to intrude push, shove, crowd, hoo-haw: Gimme, gimme, my name’s Jimmy. There remained old friends he enjoyed, and periodically he recharged his social juices through three or four nights of determined reveling. As he grew older, however, even these diversions became less vital. The longer he worked as a writer, free of all obligations except his compulsive appointments with the typewriter, the more he came to cherish seclusion among his books, his deadlines, and his private detachments. On arriving in Cambridge he bought a ton of books with which he planned to read himself into intellectual grace, installed a plug-in telephone, and vowed to contact the outside world only in moments of personal convenience. …
Much, of course, is unknown to Harvard’s young. They know nothing of the tricks of parenthood, of the debilitating pressures of chickenshit bosses, of being locked by age, habit, financial obligations, mean circumstances, or mature cowardice into loveless marriages, dead-end careers, and advancing physical infirmities. They understand little of the depression’s old chills or of the numbing fears of McCarthyism, and they sense practically nothing of what boiling insecurities those events inspired in their elders. They have no visible solutions to many of the problems they rail against; while they will resent its being said, they simply lack the seasoning, judgment, or experience to run the world as efficiently as they presume they would should its care be suddenly thrust upon them. One met young fools at Harvard as well as old. …
For all his small samplings, the grandfatherly Nieman had never been overwhelmingly enamored of academicians. He judged them a bloodless breed, saw much in them of accountants, astronauts, career civil servants; men of large pomposities and little hammers; men who kept one foot on third base and would have shriveled if flashed instructions to steal home. He suspected that R. Milhous Nixon might have prospered at some prairie school where high marks were awarded for memorizing dates of history and the faculty enjoyed pep rallies. He saw them as narrow specialists, untroubled by runaway imaginations, too little concerned with robust fun or the good vinegars of democratic confrontations. Harsh judgments, these. Judgments from one who had listened too closely when his old father had preached so long ago of educated fools.
He had looked to Harvard to repair those misconceptions.
>“The Old Man,” from Harper’s, April 1971, about his father. Excerpt:
Sons rarely get to know their fathers very well, less well, certainly, than fathers get to know their sons. More of an intimidating nature remains for the father to conceal, he being cast in the role of example-setter. Sons know their own guilty intimidations. Eventually, however, they graduate their fears of the lash or the frown, learn that their transgressions have been handed down for generations. Fathers are more likely to consider their own sins to have been original.
The son may ultimately boast to the father of his own darker conquests or more wicked dirkings: perhaps out of some need to declare his personal independence, or out of some perverted wish to settle a childish score, or simply because the young — not yet forged in the furnace of blood — understand less about that delicate balance of natural love each generation reserves for the other. Remembering yesterday’s thrashings, or angry because the fathers did not provide the desired social or economic advantages, sons sometimes reveal themselves in cruel ways.
Wild tigers claw the poor father for failures real or imagined: opportunities fumbled, aborted marriages, punishments misplaced. There is this, too: a man who has discovered a likeness in his own image willing to believe (far beyond what the evidence requires) that he combines the natural qualities of Santa Claus, Superman, and the senior Saints, will not easily surrender to more mature judgments. Long after the junior partner has ceased to believe that he may have been adopted, or that beating-off will grow hair on the hand while the brain slowly congeals into gangrenous matter, the father may pose and pretend, hiding bits and pieces of yesterday behind his back. Almost any father with the precious stuff to care can adequately conceal the pea. It is natural in sons to lust — yes, to hunger for — an Old Man special enough to have endowed his progeny’s genes with genius and steel. Or, failing the ideal, to have a father who will at least remain sturdy, loyal, and there when life’s vigilantes come riding with the hangman.
>The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which became a Tony-winning Broadway musical and a major motion picture, and that started as a feature in Playboy. A snippet of the show:
>“Confessions of a White Racist,” a Harper’s piece published in January 1970, midway through King’s Nieman year. It became a book by the same name, and a National Book Award finalist. Excerpt:
When I came to Washington in 1954 as assistant to a Texas Congressman, I assumed our nation’s capital to be a showplace of racial equalities and opportunities.
It soon became apparent on Capitol Hill that Negroes were only a small part of democracy’s daily operations. Some few atypical Senators and Congressmen had a showcase black or two on their staffs; one rarely saw the Negro among the several thousand Hill employees, however, except in his role as waiter, mailman, elevator operator, custodian, truck driver, or lower-echelon committee clerk. With few exceptions, only Negro Congressmen such as Adam Clayton Powell or Chicago’s William Dawson trusted their black employees with anything more than minor tasks.
The District of Columbia was then on its way to becoming our first major city with a black majority. Yet the District was ruled by Congressional Committees heavily weighted with powerful old Dixiecrats to whom “integration” had become the foulest word in the language. Their contributions to District schools ended with harassing a superintendent whom they blamed for excess enthusiasm in trying to make integrated classrooms work. Laws enacted by Congress permitted loan sharks, wig sellers, used-car tycoons, or other dollar-oriented types to prey on the black poor virtually without regulation. While adequate public housing was never raised, bus fares often were. Slums were knocked down not to provide decent low-cost housing, but to reclaim preferred lands where private developers were thriving through their expensive high-rises and town houses; displaced blacks were forced into other crowded ghettos. …
>Larry L. King: A Writer’s Life in Letters, Or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, a collection of letters, his favorite medium for writing. Excerpt, from a narrative setup to an early letter:
John Kennedy’s death in Dallas led King to perform a “personal inventory” that convinced him that nothing would do but a complete break with job and family. King moved into a rooming house for men that he dubbed “Heartbreak Hotel” and began working on what would become his first book, The One-Eyed Man. After ten years as a political worker bee and family man, King shoved aside the past. The brashness of completely starting over at thirty-five King attributes to his optimism and naïveté about the odds against any freelance writer making a living. King’s years in politics, however, proved to be formative and indeed became manifest in his subsequent career as a writer. His profiles of those in power, including Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Gerald Ford, Jim Wright, Morris Udall, and LBJ, are written with an insider’s sharp eye and ear, and his later comic theatrical output is bracketed by the dancing, side-stepping Texas governor in 1978’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the sight of Presidents Johnson and Nixon conniving to bargain their way out of Purgatory in 1996’s The Dead President’s Club.
 He included a three-page letter: typewritten, on letterhead from the Houston Chronicle, where he was now the deputy managing editor. The letter told the story of tracking down the King first edition “way out Telephone Road,” via a bookseller named Colleen. “I couldn’t send you my copy, because Larry put a few words in it after one of those long nights in Oxford” — Mississippi, the mentor meant — “and it is now one of my top five possessions. (It ranks right below my Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap with the bill signed by Johnny Podres.)”
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.