Florence King, the author, conservative essayist, satirist and expert on the American South, died Wednesday at the age of 80 years and one day.
An online tribute by her publisher Jack Fowler memorialized her with both considerable affection and truth about King’s nature as a “crotchety, ginswilling, chain-smoking, off-colored prose perfectionist.”
The word “curmudgeonly” was also used by more than one writer to eulogize the woman who was defiantly independent, had no patience for piety, and despised phoniness. She died at an assisted-living facility in Fredericksburg, Va., the state where she had spent the last 30 years of her life.
Fowler told the The Washington Post she had been suffering from heart and pulmonary problems. She had no known survivors.
Although King wrote for the influential conservative magazine National Review for a quarter of a century and almost right up to her death, she also boasted that she once wrote pornographic novels to earn a fast buck. Calling her “one of the most provocative and uncompromising prose stylists of her generation,” the Post compared her writing favorably to that of journalism legend H.L. Mencken and feminist pioneer Dorothy Parker. But her publisher also recalled her throwing “tantrums” if an editor dared to challenge so much as a comma.
She was ahead of her time in mashing together opposite positions that seemed to only make sense when she espoused them, such as how she identified herself as a “conservative lesbian feminist.”
According to the Post, King once revealed she was haunted by an intense love affair she once had with another woman, who died at a young age in a car accident. She was said to have regretted spilling the beans about her private life, out of distaste for the women’s and gay rights movements.
“Until the mid-seventies, the traditional or classic Lesbian was always a spinster,” King wrote in 1989, “and often a tweedy intellectual, with a stark glamour that titillated men and women alike. This is the woman that feminists destroyed when they pressured the media for ‘positive images’ of Lesbians.” That appeared in an essay in a 1989 collection titled Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye.
“Aging,” she wrote in the same collection, “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.”
Known best for her sharp wit, King was most famous for writing Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady in 1985. The Post described the memoir as the embroidered tale of her coming of age in Washington, D.C. Her father cursed, her mother chain-smoked, and she was told by her elders that the family was descended from Virginian aristocracy.
One of her most widely quoted and sharp-tongued bits of advice appeared in 2004:
“You can’t pretend to be witty because wit is dry, subtle, lacerating, cynical, elitist, and risque — all impossible to fake. 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.”