When I read of the death of writer Florence King on January 6, I was reminded of what a mourner is supposed to have said at the funeral of Mark Twain: “Today is the first day you have made us sad.”
No doubt there were those who found Miss King’s offbeat, right-wing and politically incorrect humor offensive and infuriating. (By her own admission she was a misanthrope with opinions “slightly to the right of Vlad the Impaler.”) But there were many more, myself included, who found her side-splittingly funny.
I first encountered Florence King in the mid-1970s when I picked up a copy of her book, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. I was a native of New Jersey who was then living in Nashville. Although my first-hand acquaintance with the South and Southerners was slight, I could tell instinctively that her caricatures, however outlandish, were grounded in reality.
For example, the Southern belle: “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.”
There is also a chapter on Southern homosexuals titled, “He’s a Little Funny, but He’s Nice.” Miss King, a self-described discreet, tweedy, long-celibate lesbian, once again knew her subject. According to her, every little Southern town has a Town Fairy, but he’s safer in the gothic recesses of the rural South than you might suppose. “The women of the town serve as Town Fairy’s private bodyguard,” she explains. “Southern women usually adore gay men, who offer a relief from the Hotspur element in Southern heterosexual males. Women also can identify with Town Fairy, in a way, because he behaves like the classic belle every Southern woman wants to be…God help any man who ever lays a hand on Town Fairy in anger. The ladies of the garden club would take up their pruning shears and call a charge.”
As a closeted gay man, living under the threat of being beaten up by good ole boys or harassed by the local constabulary, Miss King’s observations made me a little more at ease about living in the Bible Belt, as well as making me laugh out loud.
Curiously, or perhaps predictably, Miss King was notably unsympathetic to the feminist movement. Rather, she found in its excesses a rich vein for satire which she mined gleefully in her 1982 novel, When Sisterhood Was in Flower. Humorless crusaders for women’s rights ground their teeth over her hilarious parody of a feminist TV talk show in which a host named Polly Bradshaw interviews a Ms. Grace Garrison-Talbot, president of the Birth Bucket League of America.
Garrison-Talbot makes her entrance rolling a large clay urn on its rim, like a spare tire. This, she explains, is the birth bucket, used for centuries by women before they fell under the iron hand of male gynecology. Using the birth bucket, women charioteers were able to give birth at pit stops during the races.
Of course, Garrison-Talbot continues, mothers had to provide something soft for the baby to land on. Ancient Egyptian women used crocodile dung. “Remember, though, it must be fresh dung.”
When host Polly Bradshaw asks if it is possible to get fresh dung from the zoos, Garrison-Talbot turns grim: “The zoos have been totally unsupportive…We’ve tried to get our dung through the proper channels but we met with mockery at every turn. My car was even defaced. Someone wrote ‘baby sitter’ on the windshield and a male veterinarian referred to me as the ‘ding-dung lady.’”
Miss King was even able extract humor from as unlikely a source as the grisly details of the Lizzie Borden murder case. In an article written in August of 1992 to commemorate the centenary of Lizzie’s being “very unkind” to her stepmother and father, she explored the question of how Lizzie was able to hack her two victims to death with an axe and yet not have a drop of blood on her when she appeared shortly afterwards. Some students of the crime believe that Lizzie committed both murders in the nude. Miss King dismissed this line of reasoning with, “Murder is one thing but…”
Instead, Miss King endorsed the theory that Lizzie committed the murders in a light summer dress. She proceeded to lose the blood-stained dress by hanging it under a heavy winter woolen one, “and then banked on the either-or male mind: the police were looking for a summer dress, and men never run out of hangers.”
But own my favorite Florence King witticism, which I have quoted for many years and expect to quote for many more—always with proper attribution—is this: “I don’t mind being called perverted and unnatural, but I’d just die if anybody thought I was a Democrat.”
This world will be a quieter place without her, but also a lot less fun.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.