Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King

The 'controversial' cover of 'Mine Enemy Grows Older'Every writer who’s ever been featured on Oprah’s Book Club follows in the footsteps of Alexander King. When he published his memoir, Mine Enemy Grows Older in 1958, he was, in the words of a Time magazine reviewer, “an ex-illustrator, ex-cartoonist, ex-adman, ex-editor, ex-playwright, ex-dope addict.” His book probably would have taken a quick trip to the remainder tables–had it not been for a lucky and path-setting break: on the second of January, 1959, King appeared on “The Tonight Show”, hosted by Jack Paar, to plug his book. As Russell Baker put it years later, “After charming millions on the Jack Paar show, Alexander King came up out of the basement and took off like a 900-page bodice ripper.”

Mine Enemy Grows Older is King’s rambling and very much tongue-in-cheek account of his first fifty-some years. Born in Vienna (as Alexander Koenig), King emigrated with his family to New York City in his teens. With a little bit of art training and a great deal of moxie, he worked his way through dozens of jobs, from decorating department store windows and painting murals a Greek restaurant to illustrating radical newspapers.

Cover of Alexander King's 'Is There Life After Birth?'It was as an illustrator that King’s career finally took off. Throughout the 1920s, he was caught up in the convention-flounting wave of Mencken, The Smart Set, and the Jazz Age and became a much-in-demand illustrator for new, unbowdlerized editions by such scandalous authors as Flaubert, Rabelais, and Ovid. He then worked as an art editor, first for Vanity Fair and then for Henry Luce’s transformed Life magazine. Unfortunately for King, he developed a serious kidney problem that led to a doctor’s prescribing morphine as a pain killer.

At the time, morphine was controlled but legally available in pill form from most pharmacies. And like any addictive drug, it also encouraged a thriving black market, with shady MDs writing scrips on demand for junkies like King who could scrape up enough cash. Eventually, King’s addiction led to his being arrested and convicted on federal drug charges and sent to a narcotics rehabilitation hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. He was able to clean up, get back into painting, and reestablish some of his connections with the publishing world in New York, which led to a contract from Simon and Schuster for Mine Enemy Grows Older.

It probably would have ended there had not King’s wry and outrageous banter on Paar’s show. He was just the sort of taboo-breaker Paar’s audience was looking for: funny, opinionated, unconventional, urbane. Frank and April Wheeler of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road would have loved him. Take this account of King’s reaction to being stuck in a room in Lexington with nothing to read by an issue of the Saturday Evening Post:

It was a waking nightmare of the most sinister dimension and variety. My whole past life was insidiously evoked, ruefully demonstrated, and mercilessly indicted. It suddenly came to me that the reason my three marriages had smashed up was, simply, that they had been frivolously ratified on the wrong kind of mattresses; I realized with unshakable conviction that my social and financial calamaties had been caused by my improperly sanitized apertures; and, as I went on reading, it became brutally clear that all through my life I had washed only with soap substitutes, had worn unmasculine underwear, and had never decently neutralized my offensive bodily effluvia.

For seventy-two hours I wallowed in accusations and self-reproaches, and when the nurse finally let me out of my isolation cubicle I was a psychic tatterdemalion.

I remember saying to the doctor who interviewed me that rather than have another such weekend, I would prefer to spend three days on an army cot, lashed to a belching, gonorrheal Eskimo prostitute, who had just finished eating walrus blintzes.

Funny stuff, for sure. Practically every page of Mine Enemy Grows Older is filled with this sort of caustic, ribald bird-flipping humor. For fifteen to twenty minutes on a talk show it must have seemed like revolutionary stuff. By the end of the book’s 374 pages, however, it has grown monotonous and tiresome.

That didn’t stop Simon and Schuster from releasing four more books by King between 1960 and his death in 1965: May This House be Safe from Tigers (1960); I Should Have Kissed Her More (1961); Is There A Life After Birth? (1963); and Rich Man, Poor Man, Freud, and Fruit (1965). All sold well, though each time in diminishing numbers. There was something about King that really appealed to readers and viewers at the time. My grandparents, life-long Republicans and firm upholders of middle-class values, had two of his books on their shelves, and kept them with the small number they moved to their retirement apartment. Nor did it keep Paar and then Johnny Carson from bringing him back for dozens of appearances.

The 'safe' cover of 'Mine Enemy Grows Older'My theory is that King’s was a safe form of revolt. He mocked convention, but he didn’t exactly offer an alternative–nor did he suggest that people grab torches and set fire to police stations. He was like a Brother Theodore who could write. He introduced America to the term, “raconteur” and opened a door for other talk show guests–including Truman Capote. After a long day at the office and an evening of westerns and sitcoms, a bit of King’s “acid appraisals of modern art (‘a putrescent coma’), advertising (‘an overripe fungus’) and people in general (‘adenoidal baboons’)” (to quote Time’s obit of King) was a refreshing bit of outrage before turning in for the night.

Simon and Schuster were happy to exploit this sense of dabbling in forbidden fruit. After “The Tonight Show” appearance, the publisher released subsequent printings with two covers–a “shocking” one (above) featuring one King’s Dali-esque paintings and, to prevent any awkward glances, a conventional one (right) with a safe grey cover.

King still has a few fans, as you can see from the reviews posted on Amazon. For me, his books, like his art, is colorful, vivid, but ultimately superficial.

Other Opinions

Gerald Frank, New York Herald Tribune, 7 December 1958

This is a scandalous, wonderful, and strangely moving book. The publishers, for want of a better word, describe it as an autobiography. Actually it is less autobiography than memoirs, less memoirs than a series of immpressionistic self-portraits and wildly hilarious anecdotes done so vividly that the book all but leaps in your hands.

Bernard Levin, The Spectator, 4 December 1959

Alas, funny though the anecdotes, or some of them, are, this is the emptiest book to appear for many a year, and even if it were not written almost entirely in the same breathless, sweaty prose, it would still be a waste.

Raymond Holden, New York Times, 4 January 1959

The reader who has a strong stomach and is not irritated by the author’s verbal juggling and sometimes painful name-calling will be made either happy or morbidly excited…. [T]here are sandwiched in between its horrors some anecdotes and personal narratives of rare subtlety and humor. Whether one regards this as autobiography or fiction (the two are not really so far apart), it is at once a story of degradation and depravity and a sensitive and often kindly commentary on human life.

Locate a Copy

Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1958

15 thoughts on “Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King

  1. I was one of the younger members of Alex’s Greenwich Village group or set from 1955 to 1958, when his book was published and took off. The group consisted of painter DeHirsch Margolies, composer and music critic Charles Mills, poets Howard Hart and Philip LaMantia as well as Margie King, Alex’s wife. Possibly author and social worker William Dangaix Allen, my friend and neighbor, was somehow involved too.

    All of us young people would gather round Alex’s bed to listen to his quite wonderful stories, and we urged him to write them down. This was difficult for him to do lying down, so I suggested that he speak into a recording device and then have a secretary type it up for him so he could make corrections. This he agreed to try, and indeed it was I who lent him a wire recorder. Later when MINE ENEMY GROWS OLDER was finished, he confided to me that he had to revise the typescript 39 times because of stylistic difficulties arising from recording rather than writing everything down.

    Does anyone know if Margie King is still around?

  2. Thanks for the post. It must have been a trip to hear King play out his stories. Your comment about working from the tapes makes me curious to try another of his books, assuming that it was written and not recounted. That might just be the fundamental problem with “Mine Enemy”–it’s a monologue gone on too long.

  3. “Does anyone know if Margie King is still around?”

    She was still going strong as of August 2009:


    “That might just be the fundamental problem with “Mine Enemy”–it’s a monologue gone on too long.”

    You might prefer “I Should Have Kissed Her More.” It’s thematically unified around a central conceit of speculating about the women who might attend his funeral, thus his stories are more fully developed as a whole in each chapter, rather than meandering around as they do in MINE ENEMY and MAY THIS HOUSE BE SAFE FROM TIGERS. I love both of them as picaresque looks at an interesting life, but I acknowledge the justice of your comments above. IS THERE LIFE AFTER BIRTH is lesser King.

  4. When I was a teenager, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Alexander King on Jack Paar and reading his books. The books may not hold up — I feel it would be somehow churlish of me to reread them and find out — but the fond memories certainly do.

  5. I was a teenager in the early 1980s when I found a copy of Mine Enemy Grows Older in a local second-hand bookstore. I was intrigued by the two dustjackets but failed to pick it up that visit. When I went back for it, it was gone.

    Years of searching yielded nothing until about 15 years later, when I found another copy on the internet and snapped it right up.

    MEGO turned out to be one of the most entertaining and satisfying reads of my life – right up there with some of literature’s greatest. I find it hard to believe how thoroughly forgotten this book and its author are. I cherish the hope that some enterprising young editor at one of the major publishers decides to champion King and bring his work back into print (as has happened fairly recently with Yates).

  6. Eileen–Thanks for the comment. It’s certainly an entertaining book, although as I noted in my review, my own assessment is that the entertainment is so relentless that it grew tiresome for me after several hundred pages.

  7. Margie is still around, and she is as beautiful as ever (I just saw her last week). She is married to Seymour Barab and lives in Manhattan.

  8. @Nancy I don’t know if you get responses to this post emailed to you, but I would love to talk to you sometime! I’m Alex’s great-granddaughter, and few living people in my family knew him very much.

  9. Alexander King is a brilliant curmudgeon . What little of him I have read has me longing to read far more .

    The literary legacy he has left is a reminder that the best curmudgeons are *NOT* those of the earthy, crusty, hardboiled sort, but instead, the best sorts of curmudgeons are those of an idealistic , ethereal sort , who are mad at the world as it is , pissed off at the world, due to how so much of the human race settles for the mediocrity of a middle ground between good and bad . From what yours truly has gathered from the somewhat picemeal reading of the works, Alexander King was the sort of curmudgeon of a more ethereal sort .

    I have wanted to read the memoirs titled , ‘Is There Life After Birth?’ , for what is getting to be a while now . The title alone is brilliant .

  10. Just wanted to say to Nancy, I’m 68 and remember vividly how entertaining and colorful Alexander King was on Jack Paar’s show. I was ‘way too young to stay up that late but for some crazy reason, my parents let me. My evening was made every time Alexander came on. In a way, his manner of expression and tales of his life became “the way grownups thought and was what they found funny” so I did too, wanting so badly to be a grownup myself. I have all his books in hard cover and cherish them very much. I’m just re-reading “May This House…” and enjoying it again. Nothing would make me happier than some publisher “finding” Alexander King’s works and making him known and appreciated once more. I know nothing about how or of what he died but miss his talent .

    Best of luck to you but then, you already have the luck of being related to this great man.

  11. I read May this house be safe from tigers and also Mine enemy grows older when I was about 15 years old, and enjoyed it sufficiently to have kept the title of the latter book in the back of my head for the next 50 plus years. I recall that Alexander King wrote about his addiction to morphine in a very matter-a-fact and humorous fashion but not much else.
    From time to time I’ve looked in libraries and elsewhere for Mine enemy grows older, and have now tracked it down via a combination of AbeBooks and the Internet. I’m planning to reread these books as well as other books by Alexander King to see if the magic is evanescent or enduring.

  12. I was in high school when I first saw Alexander King on the Parr show and I immediately became a fan. He and Margie had a TV show in SoCal in the early to mid 1960’s. I watched that too and read and enjoyed all of his books. I also had a portfolio of prints of his some of his artwork, which I did not appreciate much. One thing that inspired me especially was his loving tribute and translation of Viennese poet Peter Altenberg’s “Evocations of Love”, which King also illustrated with gentle sketches. This is a collection of beautiful, sentimental prose vignettes of life in Vienna prior to WWI. Most of his books I read in paperback, or from the local library. This one I have in a boxed edition, which I treasure.

  13. As a boy in rural East Texas outside Houston. I loved King the storyteller on Parr, through my life I have been drawn to those who told great stories. The writing was secondary but to a boy being faced with a non college educated family in blue collar America, Alex King offered a window to a different world, even if he made it up. TV may have been a wasteland but it gave me a peep into other possibilities —it helped me to get on with what has been a very productive life. Thanks for all those not thanked including Alex King

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