Larry L. King's "The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas" is currently playing on Broadway, in Los Angeles, in Houston, in Australia, and at the Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore.
"Mister Jim" is hanging up his old .45 caliber thumb-buster and badge this week -- and, presumably, his 1932 model Thompson machine gun, a trunk full of rifles and shotguns, and assorted truncheons and handcuffs. He is likely to miss all that, having been busting the erring since the sun wasn't any bigger than an orange and there wasn't any moon at all.
"Mister Jim" is also known as T. J. Flournoy. At age 79, and after almost 60 years in law enforcement -- the last 34 of them as the high sheriff of Fayette County, Texas -- he is riding off into the retirement sunset.
"I'd a-quit a long time ago," the tough old man said recently, "if it hadn't a-been for all that whorehouse bidness. But I wasn't gonna let nobody run me off."
"That whorehouse bidness" likely is what everyone will remember Mister Jim for, and that fact sticks in his craw like a bushel of brambles.
"Look here," he says, "I set a Texas record for the length of time I served as a sheriff and a deuty -- 47 years. Hell, I'm in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. Everbody in Fayette County knows that. But everywhere else, all people can talk about is that damn Chicken Ranch mess. I'm sick of it and so's my wife. I hope I never hear them words again."
Sorry Mister Jim, but you can nearbout make book that when you go to that Great Lockup in The Sky, you'll share your obituary with some mention of the Chicken Ranch. And I guess I'm as responsible for that as anybody. But who could have known, when I wrote a Playboy article seven years ago about the semi-comic closing of your favorite whorehouse, that it would become a Broadway hit and a big movie in which Burt Reynolds will play a sheriff loosely based on you?
"Biggest damn mistake I ever made," Sheriff Flournoy has been saying for almost three years, "was lettin' them people make a stage play about me."
He made his "big mistake" on a damp, foggy afternoon in January of 1978 at the Cottonwood Inn in La Grange, Tex. That was where he had agreed to meet me. Universal Pictures producer Stephanie Phillips, and Edna Milton, the crusty 50-year-old who had been both working girl and madam at the Chicken Ranch. Miss Edna had been promised $25,000 if she could cajole the sheriff into signing a release so that we might move ahead with "The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas" without having to fret about law suits.
Sheriff Flournoy was nursing a cup of strong coffee at the counter and was uncharacteristically wearing a three-piece suit and a necktie rather than the western-cut khakis he normally favored. Spotting his old friend "Miss Edna" -- that's what she insisted her girls call her -- he uncoiled to his full 6 feet, 6 inches and swept a big cowboy hat off his gray head in a gallant gesture. Then he gave Miss Edna a big hug with a bonus peck on the cheek.
I was relieved to see that the salty old lawman wore no sidearm. The last time I had seen him, during my Playboy woolgatherings, he'd kept a huge hand on his pistol all during a talented cussing he'd awarded me as the due of a prying, lying journalist come to make trouble in his precinct.
I tried to hide behind Miss Edna as Mister Jim inspected me down to the skin pores. "Don't I know you?" he asked, suspiciously. Quickly I said, "Sheriff, I was a police reporter in Texas for several years. Probably met you at some Peace Officers Association meeting."
Stephanie Phillips made her pitch, while the old man traced invisible patterns on a checked table cloth with a big, rough thumbnail.
"I don't know," he said. "I've run off a half-a-dozen outfits that come in here wantin' to make a movie and stir things up again. This little town, it's been lied about and run down plumb across Texas and past over that Chicken Ranch thing. I sure wouldn't want to do anything would embarrass these people again. I wouldn't want my name used, or my town's name, or my county's name."
Stephanie Phillips uttered the appropriate assurances.
The old sheriff looked at the out-of-work madam and said, "Edna, what you think about all this?"
"Well, Mister Jim," she said -- in the understatement of the day -- "It sure would help me if you can see your way clear to sign."
Stephanie Phillips said, "Of course, Sheriff, we'd expect to offer you a consideration."
He stared at her. "You mean money?"
"Yes," she said. "I have in mind $15,000."
The old sheriff didn't even blink. "Give it to her," he said, jerking a thumb toward Miss Edna.
Ms. Phillips was taken aback: "Ah, if you feel you couldn't accept the money personally, Sheriff, then we'd be happy to donate it to any charity of your designation."
"Goddammit," Miss Edna blurted, "didn't you hear him? He said give it to me!"
So Miss Edna made $40,000 that day, even though not officially open for business.
Probably Sheriff Flournoy and the community at large, save for a few picky people comprising the Jesus Bunch, felt she deserved it. In her salad days, Miss Edna had contributed $10,000 to the local hospital, other thousands toward a city swimming pool, and, in short, had ponied up for everything from the Lion's Club broom sale to a fund to buy uniforms for the local Little League baseball team.
As "Whorehouse" came to prominence, however, Sheriff Flournoy lived to regret his cooperation. Newsmen from near and far bedeviled him. Tourists sought him out for autographs and asked him to pose for pictures. And everyone asked a vexing question: Why had he permitted a cathouse to openly operate?
"That place never hurt nobody," he would snap. "It was operatin' here when I was a young man and way longer." The old sheriff insisted that the bordello cut down on sex crimes, was an economic asset to the community, paid welcome taxes as "Miss Edna's Ranch Boarding House," and aided law enforcement: I don't know how many times I caught thieves and knob-knockers and worse because of that place. They'd get to drinkin' and braggin' to them girls out there about some crime they'd pulled and it'd get back to me in 30 minutes. I pulled a-many a crook outta that place in handcuffs."
When Marvin Zindler, the crusading TV newsman from Houston whose pressures in 1973 had closed the place, revisited La Grange 18 months later to do a follow-up story he ran into a mad, bad old lion.
The sheriff pulled the younger man from his car, flang him around a bit, ripped off his silver hairpiece and stomped it, and in general made the newsman feel unwelcome three broken ribs worth. "That man just went completely wild," Zindler would later say. "He whooped like a wild Indian." Zindler sued. Much to Mister Jim's dismay, his lawyer urged an out-of-court settlement.
"But that little ------- never got a nickel outta my pocket." Sheriff Flournoy makes clear. "My people down here in Fayette County raised that settlement money right down to the last dime."
Knowing that Mister Jim was too proud to take charity, the local folks hit on an ingenious scheme: They auctioned off artifacts belonging to him. An old badge brought $2,000; one of his soiled cowboy hats went for $450, and so on. Civic clubs sold bumper stickers saying "I'm A Friend of Sheriff Jim" and the community ladies held bake sales. Damn-Marvin-Zindler's-Soul-To-Oklahoma, the settlement money was raised.
Zindler should have known not to mess with Mister Jim past a certain point. Years ago, when a bank robber died of lead poisoning while trying to rob a Fayette County bank, Mister Jim put the corpse on public display and convinced local officials to turn out school so that La Grange's impressionable youngsters might see at firsthand why certain crimes did not pay.
They tell a story of when Mister Jim once sent a deputy to arrest a real bad -- and the deputy came back without a prisoner because the culprit had thrown down on him with a shotgun. Mister Jim allegedly (1) fired the deputy and (2) drove out to the offender's place and shot him square betwixt the eyes. Maybe that story is just a case of Texas brags. I never risked finding out: What if Mr. Jim had decided to demonstrate?
During Depression days, when Bonnie and Clyde were cutting a lawless swatch through the Southwest, Mister Jim convinced county commissioners to buy him a Thompson machine gun that split bullets at the rate of 600 per minute. "Never got to use it on them," he many times has mourned. He did, however, have the satisfaction of leading to the capture of Raymond Hamilton, a member of the Bonnie and Clyde gang, and saw him sentenced to 99 years for having the temerity to rob a bank in Mister Jim's jurisdiction.
Jim Flournoy began as a prison guard, then shifted briefly to warring on ticks for the Texas Sanitary Livestock Commission. As a Texas Ranger in the 1920s and 1930s, he concentrated on cattle rustlers in the Big Bend Country along the Mexican border. He loves to recall those old days when life was simpler, when he rode horseback in the mountains, slept under the stars, and didn't have to worry about meddling newsmen.
Except for winking at the operation of the Chicken Ranch, Mister Jim has always been a stickler for enforcing the law. "Many is the time," he has said, "that we've busted somebody for carrying just one marijuana cigarette. They say they're gonna legalize it. Maybe so, but it ain't legal yet." Flournoy handled his last big case a few months ago when he found three dudes operating a methamphetamine factory in an old farm house and captured dope and paraphernalia he claimed to be valued at $30 million.
Though he growls and snorts when "Whorehouse" is mentioned -- "I wouldn't walk across the street to see the damn thang" -- Jim Flournoy finds himself in full agreement with one sentiment expressed by his stage counterpart, Ed Earl Dodd.
"You know, this damn job ain't no fun no more," the stage sheriff complains. "There was a time when law'n order meant somethin'. But now you got to read folks their rights to 'em 'till you go half blind, and fill out a stack of damn papers and showdog couldn't jump over."
"That's sure the way it is," Mister Jim enthused when that passage was read to him. "Hail, it's got to where you don't hardly dare arrest a bank robber without you catch him carryin' the cash and two guns. F.B.I. and everybody's always messin' with you about so-called civil rights. I'd a-quit this office several years ago, but then that Chicken Ranch stuff come up and two fellers announced to run against me. I just decided, by God, to stay and show 'em I couldn't be pushed around."
Ed Earl Dodd couldn't have said it better, Sheriff. Enjoy your retirement out there on your chicken -- ah, excuse me -- your cattle ranch there in Fayette County.