Saturday, December 22, 2012

Larry L. King--a small tribute

I didn’t know Larry L. King well. In fact, in later years, I had to re-introduce myself to him every time I saw him. But I had the pleasure of working with him on several projects when I was director of TCU Press, and it really was a pleasure. Sure, I found him to be everything his obituaries say he was—larger than life, hard-drinking, hard living (though by most of the time I knew him  those days were over), and loud. I still remember standing in the hallway on the top floor of what was then, I think, the Texas Hyatt Hotel and cringing with embarrassment while he bellowed at the top of his lungs, “This is the goddamndest worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in!” And there was the night someone convinced the then-director of the press (thank heaven, not me) to pay an outrageous sum of money so we could bring Larry to Fort Worth to speak for an evening. Ten people showed up, and the book review editor from the newspaper fell asleep—a fact that Larry did not allow to stay secret. Yes, he had an ego—what writer doesn’t?—and he craved an audience, preferably a paying one. But he was one of the good guys.

The only major project I worked on with him was Larry L. King: A Writer’s Life in Letters, or Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. It’s a remarkable book, and I recommend it for a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a truly complex man. He was a prolific correspondent and kept carbons—remember those things on onion-skin paper?—of every letter he wrote. After he donated all his papers—an unbelievable number of cartons—to the Southwest Writers Collection housed at Texas State University-San Marcos, he and Richard Holland collaborated to compile this collection of letters. Larry lived in D.C. since the 1950s and worked with Democratic politicians, knew the political scene, and was astute about it, as shows in many of his letters and some other writings, like the play The Dead Presidents’ Club. But he never forgot the West Texas of his childhood; it was the place that gave him identity and his strong identification with the Odessa-Midland area gave rise to some of his best writing, including many of the letters in this collection. They reveal a warm, tender, outrageously funny side to this man as he recounted, with love and irony, stories of his family and of his growing-up years. Some of his best essays also spring from his deep knowledge of the people of this region, their likes, prejudices, fears and joys.

When Willie Morris died, Larry wrote a heartfelt tribute to his old friend—no, not an obituary--a whole book. He sent it to TCU Press, and I spent a long weekend reading the manuscript and making editorial suggestions. Ultimately it went to a bigger, more prestigious press (that paid better than we ever could) but Larry wrote a kind letter of appreciation for my work and suggestions—and he sent me a signed copy of the book.

There were other, smaller crossings of our paths: once I was so bold to ask, and he blurbed a book for me. We re-published one of his plays—The Golden Shadows Old West Museum, based on a short story by Mike Blackman. He was the first emcee of the celebrity dinner at the Texas Book Festival, and he made a rousing good time out of what has become now a much tamer  event. From time to time, I saw him at later festivals. At every turn, I found him, under that bluff surface, to be a good, kind, and caring man.

I suspect in later life the hard living of his early years caught up with him—his obituary says emphysema—and I’m sorry about that. RIP Larry L. King. You brought a lot of humor and common sense to politics and to our view of Texas and Texans. You done good!


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