When I went to Atlanta on business, I had no idea I’d end up chatting with a bestselling Southern novelist about the joys of Southern California living. Robert Hicks—born in Florida and now a resident of Tennessee—made the New York Times bestseller list with his very first novel, a Civil War saga called The Widow of the South. His two other novels are also set on Southern soil, immediately after the War Between the States. Hicks is passionate about historic preservation and the city of Nashville, and he has commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin by releasing his own small batch of what he calls Battlefield Bourbon. No question he’s a Southern gentleman through and through.
But when he heard I was an L.A. native, Robert Hicks waxed lyrical about the magic summer he once spent in my neck of the woods. He was twelve years old at the time he enjoyed what he likes to call “my summer in the land of dreams.”
It seems Hicks had an uncle who was a successful architect, a member of the Southern California firm headed by the great Paul Williams. (Today Wililams may be best remembered for his design of the iconic theme building at L.A. International Airport.) The uncle and his wife were childless, but felt an obligation to treat young family members to extended stays in their Beverly Hills home. When Robert arrived, he was taken on a whirlwind tour of the local attractions, like Disneyland and Universal Studios. He dined in style at the original hat-shaped Brown Derby, which his uncle had designed. Then one morning he awoke to find a $20 bill, a map, a bus pass, and a note warning him to stay out of the home of neighbor Ramon Navarro, but otherwise to have fun.
Totally intimidated, young Robert barely budged from the house for several days. Finally he ventured outside, and discovered an attractive woman washing her car in the driveway next door. It was one of TV’s brightest stars of that era, singer Dinah Shore. They launched into a conversation, and eventually she invited him inside for a tunafish sandwich. What he didn’t know was that she was then going through a bitter divorce from husband George Montgomery. For the rest of the summer, she was happy to have Robert’s companionship. They even drove down to Rancho Mirage, where he stayed in a trailer on her property. When he finally returned to Florida, they kept in touch. For the rest of her life, Dinah remembered him on Christmas and on his birthday.
Before that summer was over, he met Ramon Navarro too, but never went inside. And he had other adventures, like a misguided attempt to get to the Watts Towers by bus. He became hopelessly lost, but was “adopted” by an African-American family who took him home for what he recalls as a “bodacious barbecue lunch.”
Robert Hicks’ new novel, The Orphan Mother, is a follow-up to The Widow of the South, just after the freeing of the slaves at the end of the Civil War. Hicks is gutsy enough, as a white male, to take as his central character a black midwife recently freed from slavery. Hicks’ prior novels have been optioned by Hollywood, but never filmed. Given the hue and cry when The Confessions of Nat Turner, a Pulitzer-winning account of a slave revolt by white author William Styron, was due to be made into a major motion picture, I don’t think The Orphan Mother is going to go Hollywood anytime soon.