Author Larry King Says the Best Little House in Texas Features Affairs—of State
Texas-born journalist, author and inveterate iconoclast Larry King, 52, specializes, it sometimes seems, in raising more cain than cotton. Shucks, the very title of his smash Broadway musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, staggered even jaded New Yorkers when it showed up in advertisements on the sides of buses. More recently, his wrangles about Hollywood’s plans to star Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton in the film version of Whorehouse, based on a Lone Star bordello known as the Chicken Ranch, kicked up gossip column dust nationwide. Typically, King’s kindest words for movie execs are that they are “sleazy mothers.” So when CBS started massaging the cactus-prickly writer to narrate and co-write this week’s documentary The Best Little Statehouse in Texas, they should have known he would bite the hand that kneads him.
“One network executive wanted to open the show with a shot from Dallas, which is CBS, right?” King drawls incredulously. “I said, ‘Booooolshit. I ain’t here to advertise that show.’ ” He concedes, however, that Dallas may have influenced the CBS decision to use Texas “to show people what kind of hands the country will be in when the Reagan Administration gives some power back to the states.” Likewise, King has no illusions about why he got such “amazing” access to state politicians for the revealing documentary. “I think that goddamned musical’s what opened it up for me. Even the lieutenant governor wanted an autographed photo of the Chicken Ranch.”
The Washington-based writer’s three-year-old Broadway hit has opened more than the doors to smoky political back rooms. After 15 years of a free-lance writer’s precarious finances, his reported share of the gross from productions of Whorehouse still is a sinful $750,000 or so annually. Yet King’s ransom hasn’t tempted Larry to pardon the upcoming Whorehouse movie. “For reasons of Hollywood wisdom,” he growls, “they rewrote my script. Hell, I heard Pete Masterson [King’s collaborator] and I were-fired on a Rona Barrett segment. I hear the new script’s crap.”
King suggested casting Rip Torn and Jill Clayburgh in the lead roles as the sheriff and the brothel madam. Instead, Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton were hired. “Burt wants a bunch of fistfights and car chases,” scorns Larry. “And Dolly looks too much like she really runs a whorehouse.” As for the rewrite, King is especially riled by the buzz-off he got from Universal’s film honcho, Ned Tanen. King says Tanen told him contemptuously, “We’re not exactly tampering with My Fair Lady.” King crabs that he’d “like to box three rounds with that bastard.”
Until he finally won it a year ago, King’s toughest previous fight had been against the bottle. A world-class raconteur whose fluid blend of Texas bombast and universal profanity can be mesmerizing, King used to spend “all my free time in bars” holding court for Capitol Hill cronies. “I sometimes never came home from lunch,” he recalls. He’d sign book contracts (including a six-figure deal for a bio of Lyndon Johnson), then neglect to deliver. After Whorehouse opened in 1978, King says, “I spent all my time partying.” Finally, last summer, he “went off to get detoxified” at a Maryland dry-out farm.
“I used to think I couldn’t write unless I got pumped up on pot and booze,” King recalls. “But I reformed. I just wasn’t doing my work.” His third wife, Barbara Blaine, helped. They met 13 years ago when he gave a lecture at Yale, began dating in the mid-’70s and wed in 1978. Now 32, she is his agent, lawyer and mother of their daughter, Lindsay, 21 months.
Larry laughs about repaying Barbara for helping him get on the wagon. For a time she worked for the law firm of erstwhile Republican presidential aspirant John Connally. Larry earlier had written an Atlantic Monthly article about the ex-Treasury Secretary’s trial (he was acquitted) for accepting an illegal gratuity from the dairy industry. Says he: “I saved Barb from a life of sin and shame working for that right-wing bastard.”
Larry’s own flight from Texas conservatism and religious fundamentalism came early. Raised in the west Texas oil fields around Midland where his roustabout dad “never worked for more than $1.40 an hour,” King left high school during his junior year. (He later immortalized his father in 1974’s My Old Man and Lesser Mortals.) He “ran wild, drinking and getting into trouble,” and also started reporting for small papers like the Hobbs (N.Mex.)Flare. He first came to Washington in 1954 as legislative assistant to a Texas Congressman and briefly worked as an LBJ advance man during the 1960 preconvention campaign. His political experience led him into magazines, and his memorable pieces for the Texas Observer, Atlantic and Harper’s, among others, helped define what is now known as the New Journalism.
His personal life was less successful. King and first wife Jeanne Casey divorced in 1963 (their three children now range from 29 to 23). Second wife Rosemarie Coumaras died of cancer in 1972. He owed $16,000 in back taxes and thousands more for advances on uncompleted books. Only King’s 1974 Playboy article on the Chicken Ranch, which became his best little moneymaker ever, paid the debts.
Today King’s chief bad habit is rooting for the Washington Redskins (“Every time they play Dallas I fall out with half my friends”). And though he still interrupts his writing in his Capitol Hill town house for lunch with old pals, he goes home afterward. “Larry saw that he had never really spent time as a father with his older children,” says Barbara. “I think now he wants it to work.” Adds King: “I know more about Lindsay in 21 months than I did about my other three kids while they grew up. I’ve been given a last chance at having a family and doing it right.”
And that’s easier now. “I’m not struggling financially,” says King, who is moving into “a big-ass house” in D.C. in December. He’ll have two new books out soon: a Christmas fable called That Terrible Night Santa Got Lost in the Woods and The Whorehouse Papers, which reconstructs that saga from King’s original reportage through his foray into Hollywood. Movies? After his recent experience, he promises “never again.” That goes for magazines too. “I put in 15 years of writing articles,” says King. “I don’t think that starving-in-the-garret bit helps. Besides,” he snarls, “I’m tired of deadlines. It’s someone else’s turn now.”