Thursday, January 21, 2016

Florence King

While I was recovering from the shingles Santa put down my back, Mom fell ill with pneumonia, which turned into a plethora of other symptoms. She has been hospitalized since January 2, and is on her way to a short-term stay in a nursing home. While she recovers, family and friends will be orchestrating a move to a new home for the two of us that is set up more for her present needs.

With all of this tumult, I missed the sad news of Florence King's death on January 6, one day after her 80th birthday. For about three decades now, King has been in the top three of my favorite essayists. I am a devoted fan. How devoted? Her column, "The Misanthrope's Corner" ran on the back page of The National Review for many years. I subscribed to The National Review for just that one page and read only that one page and suffered the mailing lists I ended up on. I'm sure you can imagine.

Did I understand everything Florence King would rant about? Not always. Did I agree with her? Often I did not. Did I enjoy her writing? Yes, always. Am I going to miss her like hell? Again, yes, always.

 Oh my God, the writing! Brilliant, steel-sharp, honed to a fine and lethal edge. She has often been compared to H.L. Mencken and Dorothy Parker. I can see that, but Florence King had a perpetual wild hair, a contrarian streak the size of a football field. There was no one like her.

My favorite story about Florence King, which she told on herself in With Charity Towards None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy (my favorite book of hers, second only to her richly comic memoir Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady) is about the time she read a favorable review of her work, but found it so horribly written that she wrote to the author of the review, chewing her out for not writing a proper review. Although she said that her action raised eyebrows in the publishing world, she defended herself by saying that she was in good company, comparing herself to Carlton Fisk, citing  the time that he chewed out Deion Sanders (a player on the team playing against Fisk's) for not hustling to first base after a pop-up.

Although she was a proud and an avowed misanthrope (according to her obituary in The National Review by longtime friend Jack Fowler, after years of living alone, she only lasted one month in an assisted-living facility. I am not surprised for she remarked in With Charity Towards None:"I'd rather rot on my own floor than be found by a bunch of Bingo players in a nursing home." ) Florence King was gracious to her fans and if they wrote to her, she would sit down and reply. I was lucky enough to get two of these replies. In the first case, I wrote in response to one of her columns, talking about how much I agreed with her that Gone with the Wind was  masterpiece and Scarlett was jaw-droppingly bad. She wrote back on a blank postcard, thanking me for my note and saying that Scarlett was "...plagiarism's first cousin, once removed."

The second time, years later, I wrote an excited letter, burbling about how I had finally FINALLY found a copy of The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale, a 1940s novel that King claimed was her favorite. (I wrote about finding that book here.) King replied, and it was a two-page typewritten letter that time. I no longer have the letter, but it was warm and gossipy and included a juicy tidbit about an incident in the novel being based on an actual incident between Nancy Hale and novelist John O'Hara.

Florence King wrote about a wide variety of subjects in her column. This one about Lizzie Borden, from the early 1990s, is one of my favorites.

Goodbye, Miss (the appellation she preferred) King. I salute you, I thank you for years of entertainment as well as education about what it means to write well, and comfort myself with the thought that you and Herb and Mama and Granny are all together again.


Unruly Reader said...

Well, crap. I went through my whole life without knowing Florence King, and now that you've introduced me, she's gone. As usual, I'm late to the party. But glad for the introduction, nonetheless.

*Dang*, that Lizzie Borden piece is amazing!

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

How wonderful that she wrote back to you! Even though you don't have the letter anymore about her favorite book, that's a lovely memory.