Florence King, a columnist, author and professional misanthrope who was a constitutional crosspatch about all manner of things – in particular those things that smacked in the slightest of what she decried as touchy-feely late-20th-century liberalism – died last Wednesday at her home in Fredericksburg, Va. She was 80.
Her death, announced by the conservative magazine National Review, to which she had long contributed, took place not long after she had moved to an assisted-living community in Fredericksburg. It is reasonable to assume, however, that in moving there Miss King did not ultimately attain her stated goal of living “in a place that does not call itself ‘the community with a heart,’ ” as she once wrote, “where all the young people leave and the rest sit on a porch with a rifle across their knees.”
Read by conservatives and liberals alike for her arsenical wit, Miss King – to the end of her life, she was emphatically “Miss” – was known for “Misanthrope’s Corner,” the column she wrote for National Review for more than a decade until her nominal retirement in 2002.
She was also renowned for “Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady,” a well-received, somewhat fictionalized 1985 memoir in which she plumbed the depths, and the shallows, of her genteel upbringing.
Miss King’s body of work – she wrote five other books, as well as book criticism for Newsday, The New York Times and other publications – is an unalloyed testament to the aspects of modern culture that set her teeth on edge.
Reviewing her 1995 anthology, “The Florence King Reader,” in The New York Times Book Review, for instance, Terry Teachout wrote: “This book contains enough cattiness per square inch to supply an entire city for at least three years. It is also snide, cruel, intolerant, insensitive – and very, very funny.”
The cultural boils Miss King sought so vigorously to lance included:
Political correctness; feminism (“Feminists will not be satisfied,” she wrote, “until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians”); environmentalism; the antismoking lobby; lack of breeding (“No matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street”); gay liberation; far rightism; far leftism; mild to moderate leftism, and democracy (“I believe in a Republic of Merit in which water is allowed to find its own level, where voters, like drivers, are tested before being turned loose”).
Miss King, who defined herself by a much shorter, tidier list, was, in her own account, a monarchist; a discreet, tweedy, long-celibate lesbian; an erstwhile pornographer; and “slightly to the right of Vlad the Impaler.”
The daughter of an English father who was a mild-mannered dance-band trombonist and a mother who defied her genteel Southern socialization by smoking furiously and swearing even more furiously, Florence Virginia King was born in Washington on Jan. 5, 1936.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from American University, whose campus, she later wrote, “resembled a swamp wafting deadly vapors of marriage fever.” As a student, she had romantic relationships with both men and women; after college, she trained briefly for the Marines before entering graduate school at the University of Mississippi.
There, she wrote in “Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady,” she had a deep love affair with a young woman who was killed in a car crash soon afterward.
Miss King left graduate school after she discovered she could earn $250 an article writing putative first-person stories for pulp magazines like Uncensored Confessions. (Her first: “My God! I’m Too Passionate for My Own Good!”)
She wrote more than 100 before taking a job in the 1960s as a feature writer with The News & Observer. After she left the paper, she wrote erotic novels under a series of pseudonyms. Her first book under her own name was the nonfiction title “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen” (1975), an anthropology of the region for benighted Yankees.
“The cult of Southern womanhood,” she wrote, endowed the Southern belle “with at least five totally different images and asked her to be good enough to adopt all of them. She is required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy and scatterbrained – all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact that she succeeds.”
Miss King made headlines in 1995, when, writing in The American Enterprise, a conservative magazine, she accused the liberal columnist Molly Ivins of having plagiarized passages from “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen” in a 1988 article in Mother Jones magazine.
“If we had the right kind of laws in this country, I’d challenge her to a duel,” Miss King, a gun collector, said at the time.
Ms. Ivins apologized publicly, and no blood was shed.
Miss King’s other nonfiction books include “He: An Irreverent Look at the American Male” (1978); “Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye” (1989); “Lump It or Leave It” (1990), whose jacket shows her cheerfully wielding a handgun; and “With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy” (1992). As Laura Buchanan, she wrote the 1977 bodice-ripper “The Barbarian Princess.”
From 2007 to 2012, she wrote a new column, “The Bent Pin,” in National Review.
Miss King leaves no known immediate survivors, a state of affairs that may well have been Shangri-La for a woman who, as she once wrote, “cannot understand why solitary confinement is considered punishment.”
Over the years, some critics took Miss King’s writing to task not for its ideology – the ideology, it was widely understood, went hand in glove with the work – but for its rhetorical excesses.
“She is sharp, no doubt about it,” the novelist and journalist Mary Cantwell wrote in The Times Book Review in 1982, reviewing Miss King’s satirical novel “When Sisterhood Was in Flower.” “Too bad she tends to blunt her points by pushing them too hard.”
But even a blunt instrument, Miss King made plain, admirably served her desired ends.
“I don’t suffer fools,” she once told an interviewer, “and I like to see fools suffer.”
King on King
Florence King wrote for The News & Observer for a little more than two years in the early 1960s, mostly writing wedding announcements and covering club meetings. In October 1993, the paper printed an article she wrote about being interviewed. Here is an excerpt from it:
Interviews have always bothered me regardless of which side of the notebook or microphone I have been on.
When I worked for The News & Observer in the ’60s, I was the only opera buff on the Woman’s Page, so I got to interview Rise Stevens and Dorothy Kirsten. It was a thrill to meet them but an agony to interview them because I don’t like to question people. I just don’t. I think it’s rude. The journalist’s rationale, “I’m just doing my job,” was no comfort. Asking one question after another made me feel like a nosy neighbor or a pesky child and I found it embarrassing.
I thought being the interviewee would be different, and at first it was. I put myself on automatic pilot and sailed along, but after a couple of book tours the gears got stripped and I got irritated. I stopped touring but continued granting interviews at home, thinking maybe that would be different, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was worse. An intimate setting inspires more, not fewer, questions; interviewers can ask to see family pictures and old report cards, opening up several new avenues of inquiry, and once you produce them, they want to borrow them.
The home interview also brings out the amateur shrink in many interviewers. What does the arrangement of the furniture mean? What does it signify? What does it symbolize? Is the sofa placed there because she subconsciously wants to shut people out?
Listen, it doesn’t mean a damn thing! What employed people never understand is that an office-in-the-home quickly degenerates into a home-in-the-office; writers never put things in suitable places because we can’t. It’s that simple, and it has nothing to do with whether my father loved me enough.
In a 1989 interview with a News & Observer reporter, Miss King, who called herself a spinster and an old maid, said she considered herself a feminist – though she had no desire to be linked to the feminist movement and its leaders. “My whole life is a feminist statement. I’ve never been married. I’ve never taken money from a man. I take my own car to the shop. If that’s not feminism what is?”