Larry L. King, playwright of ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’ dies at 83

AP Laserphoto/AP LASERPHOTO - Larry King, a pioneering journalist and playwright of “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” dies at 83.

Before he became known the world over as a playwright, Larry L. King was a reporter, a Capitol Hill aide, a raconteur, a brawler and a full-time Texan. He helped define the freewheeling New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, partly with an article he wrote for Playboy magazine in 1974 about the Chicken Ranch, a house of ill repute in southeast Texas.

A few years later, Mr. King and several collaborators refashioned his article into a musical comedy about a brothel that operated for years under the averted gaze of the law. “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” ran on Broadway for almost four years and has been in almost continuous production since. In 1982, it was made into a Burt Reynolds-Dolly Parton movie — which Mr. King loathed.

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Mr. King, who had lived in Washington since the 1950s, died Dec. 20 at Chevy Chase House, a retirement facility in the District. He was 83. He had emphysema, his wife, Barbara Blaine, said.

He was the author of seven plays and more than a dozen books, including memoirs, a novel and collections of articles and letters. In 1982, he won an Emmy Award as the writer and narrator of a CBS documentary, “The Best Little Statehouse in Texas,” that looked at the legislature’s behind-the-scenes horse-trading.

Mr. King also was known for his outsized personality, full-bore drinking and an ability to tell outrageously droll stories in a profanity-laced drawl that was almost indistinguishable from his writing voice.

“His certain knowledge of his origins informs his point of view and his prose style,” New York Times book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in a review of Mr. King’s 1971 memoir, “Confessions of a White Racist.” “And this confidence in his roots is what makes Mr. King’s writing so alive, dramatic, warm, and funny.”

But it was “The Best Little Whorehouse” that propelled Mr. King from journeyman writer to accidental fame as a playwright. He happened on his most famous story after a crusading Houston TV reporter, Marvin Zindler, exposed the Chicken Ranch as a den of prostitution. Over a two-day period, Zindler said, he counted 484 men arriving at the unmarked building outside La Grange, Tex.

By the 1970s, the Chicken Ranch had been an open secret in Texas for more than 50 years. It derived its name from a Depression-era practice in which customers sometimes paid with chickens or other farm products.

In his Playboy article, Mr. King noted that “veteran legislators” were no strangers to the Chicken Ranch and could have found their way from the state capital of Austin “without headlights even in a midnight rainstorm.”

The madam of the Chicken Ranch, Edna Milton Chadwell, who died in February, was a no-nonsense field general who would not allow profanity, violence or drinking on the premises. “Miss Edna” was also one of the leading philanthropists in Fayette County, contributing to the local hospital and sponsoring a baseball team.

Despite protests that the Chicken Ranch did little to harm the morals of Fayette County — “I ain’t never got no complaints,” the sheriff said — legal authorities had little choice but to shut down the bordello in 1973 and send Miss Edna and her “girls” looking for another line of work.

For Mr. King, the story had all the right ingredients: sex, clashing egos, official hypocrisy and a gaggle of colorful Texas rascals. He and producer-director Peter Masterson adapted the Playboy article for the stage. The music was by Carol Hall and the choreography by Tommy Tune — both Texas natives.

“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” opened on Broadway in 1978 with a no-name cast. It received lukewarm reviews, but audiences loved it, and “Whorehouse” ran on Broadway for 1,584 performances.

“It’s not Shakespeare,” Mr. King once said, “but hell, it’s fun.”

In a 1982 book, “The Whorehouse Papers,” Mr. King described his frustrations with the creative process of the theater, writing that his play was “tinkered with, danced on, sang at, barked and snarled at, chopped up, tricked up, and camped up until I can hardly recognize the . . . thing.”

He was even more apoplectic about the way his story was treated when it was made into a movie. He thought Reynolds was wrong for the part of the aging sheriff and gleefully traded insults with the movie star, tweaking him about his vanity. The feud escalated until Mr. King challenged Reynolds to a fistfight.

The confrontation never took place, but Mr. King was not invited to the film’s world premiere.

Lawrence Leo King was born Jan. 1, 1929, in Putnam, Tex. His father was a farmer and blacksmith.

Mr. King, who had early dreams of being a writer, worked in oil fields in his teens and dropped out of high school to join the Army. He later spent one semester at Texas Tech University before leaving to work for small newspapers in New Mexico and Texas.

In 1954, he moved to Washington as an aide to Rep. J.T. Rutherford (D-Tex.). After Rutherford lost his seat in 1962, Mr. King worked for Rep. James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.), who later became speaker of the House.

Although Mr. King quit his Capitol Hill job in 1964 to concentrate on writing, he kept one foot in Texas politics. In 1978, the same year “The Best Little Whorehouse” reached Broadway, Mr. King co-wrote the best-selling autobiography of Bobby Baker, a onetime adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson who went to prison on corruption charges.

In 1966, Mr. King published a novel, “The One-Eyed Man,” about racial prejudice at a Southern college, to modest reviews.

He found greater success as a magazine writer and was among the vanguard of “New Journalists” — including Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Gay Talese — who wrote with novelistic flair and deeply individual voices. In a 1966 Harper’s magazine article about Rep. Joe R. Pool (D-Tex.), Mr. King coined a phrase later applied to other politicians: “The only way you can lose this election, Joe, is to get caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman.”

Mr. King flaunted his reputation as a hard-drinking renegade and took special delight in unmasking charlatans and fools. He often wrote about Texas, music, sports and the scars of the South, and several of his stories have been reprinted in anthologies.

He contributed to dozens of magazines but was perhaps most closely identified with Harper’s, which was edited by Mississippi-born Willie Morris from 1967 to 1971. In 2006, Mr. King published “In Search of Willie Morris” a book about his brilliant, elusive and troubled friend, who died in 1999.

“I worked with him, drank with him, laughed with him, cried with him,” Mr. King wrote, and “loved him and admired him and once had a drunken fistfight with him over which of us owned the affections of a certain fickle socialite in Washington.”

The first of Mr. King’s three marriages, to the former Wilma Jeanne “Jean” Casey, ended in divorce. His second wife, Rosemarie Coumaris Kline, died of cancer in 1972. (Mr. King wrote touchingly about her in his 1986 memoir, “None But a Blockhead.”)

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Barbara S. Blaine of Washington; three children from his first marriage, Alexandria King of Albuquerque, Kerri King Mitchell of Plano, Tex., and Bradley King of New York; two children from his third marriage, Lindsay King Arnoult of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Blaine C. King of Washington; and two grandsons.

“Whorehouse” was nominated for a Tony Award and made Mr. King financially secure, but he sometimes found it a struggle to get his later plays produced.

“The Night Hank Williams Died,” about a onetime high school football star with dreams of being a country singer, received the Helen Hayes Award for best new play after its premiere at Washington’s 125-seat New Playwrights’ Theatre in 1988.

The production featured Mr. King in an acting role.

“There are times when uttering his lines and handling props prove to be one task too many,” Washington Post theater critic David Richards wrote, but “there is often an artless truth to his efforts that is touching. His ravaged face and lumbering physique convey the toll of a lifetime spent in drab places.”

A heavy drinker for years, Mr. King gave up alcohol in the 1980s but continued to be an often-cantankerous presence in the literary circles of Washington and Austin.

He was often confused with the radio and television talk-show host Larry King, particularly when making dinner reservations. One Washington restaurant settled the problem by asking them, when reserving a table, to identify themselves as either “Larry King ‘Radio’ ” or “Larry King ‘Whorehouse.’ ”