Rest in Peace, Florence

by Jack Fowler

Can a non-believing misanthrope rest in peace? I hope so.

For odd and comical reasons, all related to National Review, and my having lived for a few years in Fredericksburg, Virginia, my former neighbor, Florence King, and I became friends. Good and lifelong.

Hers came to an end today, this morning, a day after she turned 80. Florence’s final years were tough ones — she battled a number of ailments (essentially alone but for Nick, her incredibly kind and attentive neighbor) which accumulated and compounded and took their slow toll. After various hospitalizations and their aftermath — during which she continued to write, brilliantly — about a month ago she told Nick and me that the time had come for her to move into an assisted living community, which is the last place you’d expect to find a world-class curmudgeon (and she was that). But Florence was physically beaten, and living alone — as she had done all of her adult life — was no longer an option. Living with others did not last long. Maybe the company of others just wasn’t meant to be.

How did Florence come to National Review? I hope my friend John O’Sullivan will tell that story.

How did she survive NR, and vice versa? A miracle, or several. Some of her editors have the scars to prove that they stepped on an unseen landmine. You see, Florence was a perfectionist: She took many, many hours to crank out a 1,000-word column. Which meant: Editing was an act of violence. She could go to DefCon One in a second over a comma. And did.

There was plenty of egg-shell walking, and angry faxes, even a quitting or two, but the drama was all worth it, and it all worked out. In large part due to the respect she had for John and Rich Lowry, and of course, Bill Buckley, who loved — loved! — that the back page of his fortnightly was graced by the Misanthrope’s Corner for many happy years.

I have been fed by Florence. Drank with Florence. Heard her tantrums. Was bawled out by her. Was pleaded to by her. Was dragged into her harebrained schemes (involving cell phones, oxygen tanks, threatened relocations, lugers — the shooting kind). Had the pleasure of her accepting apologies (“A man should never apologize!” she told me more than once, anticipating my forthcoming emasculation). Listened with mouth agape when confronted by the occasional make-your-head-spin conspiracy. Shipped her boxes that could be filled with light bulbs, Spam, and Pringles.

I could write a book. But won’t. Lots that happened between us was quite private and personal.

But Florence — now she could write a book. In fact, she wrote several. But for her many fans, not enough. All she did write were terrific. If you only have time for one, read Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady.

Florence King was one of the premier writers of the 20th century. In particular, as a book reviewer, she was unrivaled. And was there a better scourge of multiculturalism than the crotchety, gin-swilling, chain-smoking, off-colored prose perfectionist who fired off verbal mortars from a nicotine-and-tar patina-d apartment on Caroline Street? I don’t think so. She is an important part of the history and fiber of this institution known for harboring great writers. Her thousands upon thousands of adoring fans — many of whom she counted as pen pals (she loved getting letters from her readers) — will agree.

One private thing: Florence was spiritual — at least that she felt the spirit of a few departed souls, especially her famous Granny. That led her to think, maybe . . .  A few months back she asked me to pray for her, and I did, and she was happy to know that rosaries on Bill Buckley’s old beads were being said for her. It gave her comfort, and maybe there were other consequences. But tonight I will say another prayer for her, and I hope you will too, because if you were someone who derived great enjoyment from reading Florence King, know that, at the end, she sought peace, and if we can help her rest in it, we should.

She signed off every missive not with “Truly” or “Sincerely” but with . . . Dewars. Dewars Firenze!

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