Florence King, a curmudgeonly writer whose pen was gleefully dipped in acid, and whose essays and books ripped apart pious myths about Southern women, feminism and the false-front friendliness of modern life, died Jan. 6 at an assisted-living facility in Fredericksburg, Va. She died one day after her 80th birthday.
Miss King had heart and pulmonary ailments, said Jack Fowler, publisher of National Review, the influential conservative magazine that was her journalistic base for 25 years.
Miss King, who once wrote pornographic novels for fast money, was a punctilious prose stylist who became an essayist and pretense-flaying satirist along the lines of a latter-day H.L. Mencken or Dorothy Parker.
She was an unapologetic elitist — “You can’t have excellence and democracy,” she said — and defiantly independent. She once described herself as a “conservative lesbian feminist.”
For many readers, regardless of political persuasion, her saving grace as a writer was a tart, well-tailored wit that made her one of the most provocative and uncompromising prose stylists of her generation.
“You can’t pretend to be witty because wit is dry, subtle, lacerating, cynical, elitist, and risque — all impossible to fake,” she wrote in a 2004 essay. “Humor, on the other hand, is broad, soothing, positive, inclusive, and smutty — to make sure everybody gets it. Pretending to be humorous is easy and a great many people are doing it.”
Miss King’s best-known book, “Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady” (1985), was an embroidered memoir of her coming of age in Washington, where she was reared by a British father, a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking mother and a maternal grandmother with fond recollections, real or imagined, of an aristocratic heritage in Virginia.
Writer Carolyn See, reviewing the book in the Los Angeles Times, called it “so original, so odd, so wonderful, so bizarre and finally so heart-wrenching that it can’t easily be summed up. . . . This is a stunning book, a masterpiece.”
In “Confessions,” Miss King described her intellectual and sexual awakening with unsparing yet wry self-revelation, including her thwarted attempts to lose her virginity to “a faceless fallen boy.” She also recounted an intense love affair with another woman, who died at a young age in a car accident.
Miss King seemed haunted by the loss, but years later she regretted revealing so much about her private life, saying she didn’t want to be associated with movements concerned with women’s or gay rights.
“Until the mid-seventies, the traditional or classic Lesbian was always a spinster and often a tweedy intellectual, with a stark glamour that titillated men and women alike,” she wrote in an essay in “Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye,” her 1989 collection. “This is the woman that feminists destroyed when they pressured the media for ‘positive images’ of Lesbians.”
Miss King so often defined herself by the things she disliked that she titled one of her books “With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy” (1992). It was not merely an act. Fowler, her publisher at National Review and a onetime Fredericksburg neighbor, recalled that Miss King could throw “tantrums” if editors tried to change so much as a comma in her copy.
In an online tribute, he described her, with considerable affection, as a “crotchety, ginswilling, chain-smoking, off-colored prose perfectionist.”
She continued to write for National Review until shortly before her death. Some of her best writing appeared in her many book reviews, with scathing asides slipped into her sentences like stilettos.
Her essays ranged widely from politics to British royalty to Southern mores to episodes from her daily life. In 2004, she described a visit to a variety store with an over-friendly clerk.
“Encouraged, the cashier let loose with a hearty guffaw and stepped up her efforts. ‘Looks like it’s curtains for you!’ she told a woman buying a curtain rod. To a woman buying three paring knives she said, ‘Gonna cut up, huh?’ Then it was my turn. I put my pancake turner on the counter and braced myself.
“ ‘Ready to flip out?’
“ ‘Any minute now.’ ”
Florence Virginia King was born Jan. 5, 1936, in Washington. Her father played trombone in dance bands, and her mother worked as a telephone operator.
Miss King received a bachelor’s degree in history from American University in 1957. She left graduate school at the University of Mississippi when she learned she could earn $250 a story for trueconfession magazines. Her first was called “My God! I’m Too Passionate for My Own Good!”
She taught history at a high school in Suitland, Md., and was a file clerk before working as a reporter at the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., from 1964 to 1967. She moved to Seattle in 1972 and, three years later, published her first book under her own name, “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen,” a comic guide to life in the South.
In 1995, Miss King accused Texas journalist Molly Ivins of having plagiarized passages from her works. “I’m a gentleman,” Miss King said at the time, “and . . . if we had the right kind of laws in this country, I’d challenge her to a duel over this.” (Ivins apologized, and there was no legal action.)
Miss King lived alone in Fredericksburg for more than 30 years and had no immediate survivors.
As a child, Miss King grew up surrounded by formidable women. In an essay from “Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye,” she recalled the example set by her grandmother:
“Living with Granny taught me that aging does not make women powerless objects of pity but colorful and entertaining individuals, and on occasion, fire-breathing dragons that wise people don’t cross.”