Honey's Back in Town : The Book Is Not Yet Closed on the 'Sexiest Private Eye' Ever to Grace a Cover

Times Staff Writer

During her heyday in the '50s and '60s when she appeared in a series of paperback mysteries and a hit TV show, she was breathlessly billed as "the sexiest private eye ever to pull a trigger!"

On the cover of "Kiss for a Killer," in which she reveals she is "up to my navel in trouble again," Honey West is described as having taffy-colored hair, blue eyes, a "baby-bottom complexion" and a 38-22-36 figure. For protection, she packs a tiny, pearl-handled .22 which she (miraculously, it seems) keeps hidden in a silk garter holster.

On TV's "Honey West" series in the mid-'60s, Anne Francis played a sexually toned down but no less glamorous Honey, complete with bejeweled handcuffs, a transistorized lipstick, that doubled as a two-way radio and--most memorably--a pet ocelot.

The cult classic, starring the still-active Anne Francis, is now being rerun on more than a dozen TV stations around the country, including KDOC-TV in Anaheim, which airs "Honey West" Sunday nights at 10:30 on Channel 56.

"People remember it," said Claudia Draeger, KDOC program director, noting that a lot of viewers have called to thank the station for airing the old show. "Right now it's real camp."

But can "the world's sexiest girl detective" of the '50s and '60s make it in the liberated '80s?

G.G. Fickling thinks so.

G.G. Fickling is the pseudonym for Skip and Gloria Fickling of Laguna Beach, who created the character Honey West years ago for the series of paperback mysteries for Pyramid Books.

"I'd say she could make it even more so in the '80s than in the '60s," says Skip Fickling, who actually wrote the 11 Honey West novels with his wife, Gloria, serving as consultant and "executive editor."

"Just look at what Joan Collins and women of that ilk are doing," observes Gloria Fickling. "Aren't they going over real strong, and doesn't the public go crazy over them? I think the sex appeal factor, in spite of women's lib, is stronger than ever."

The Honey West books have sold about 7 million copies worldwide, according to the Ficklings, and during the peak of Honey West's popularity in 1966, Encyclopedia Britannica deemed her "the leading female fictional character in the world."

But it has been 20 years since "TV's private eyeful" took a powder from prime time and 15 years since the last Honey West book was published.

Spurred on by the renewed popularity of mysteries, however, the Ficklings believe the time is right for Honey to pack up that pearl-handled pistol of hers and hit the comeback trail.

Skip Fickling currently is ensconced in his book-lined home office writing a new Honey West novel, an as yet-untitled mystery involving several murders set in Laguna Beach.

In her '80s reincarnation, "the world's sexiest girl detective" will not have been immune to the passage of time.

The "new" Honey West, according to Fickling, "has gone from being 25 to 45. She's still as sexy as ever but has a little bit more, shall we say, sexual maturity."

Fickling promises, however, that "she'll still be the same old Honey West. She's still got the same vibrant philosophies, the same drive and determination and the same wonderment for life that she always had."

A Cliff-Hanger

The Ficklings, who publish Play magazine, a southern Orange County guide to restaurants, resorts and the arts, live in a cliff-hanging, four-level home. It is, as they aptly inscribed on a slab of wet cement out front after signing with Pyramid Books, "the house that Honey West built."

The saga of Honey West began in 1956 when Fickling was talking to his friend, mystery writer Richard Prather, who had created a successful mystery series based on a private detective named Shell Scott.

"One day," Fickling recalls, "I said, 'Why don't you do a female private detective?' He said, 'I'm too busy. Why don't you try it?' "

It was a reasonable suggestion. Fickling was no stranger to writing.

At age 12, the Lynwood native was writing and selling the advertising for three pocket-size magazines--Pocket Mystery, Pocket Sea Stories and Pocket Aviation--which he sold for two cents a copy at local drugstores. His enterprise, he said, earned him the title of "Youngest Most Successful Magazine Publisher in the United States" in a Life magazine rundown of outstanding Americans in the late '30s. After serving as a gunner aboard a B-17 during World War II, Fickling wrote several mainstream novels and numerous mystery short stories.

Mike and Marilyn

Gloria, who had worked as an associate editor at Look magazine, was a fashion writer for Women's Wear Daily and served as a newspaper stringer for Fairchild Publications.

Heeding Prather's suggestion to write a female private detective himself, Fickling didn't take long to develop the Honey West character.

"I first thought of Marilyn Monroe, and then I thought of Mike Hammer and decided to put the two together," Fickling recalled, noting that the memorable moniker came just as easily: "We thought the most used name for someone you really like is Honey. And she lives in the West, so there was her name."

Fickling was certain he had created a sure-fire winner, scrawling in his diary on the fateful day he gave birth to Honey West: "I just created the character that I think someday will be read by millions and millions of people."

In fact, he said he was so enthusiastic about his creation that he wrote the first book "This Girl for Hire" in only 25 days.

The selling of Honey West, however, was not as easy as the writing.

Hit Stone Wall

The Ficklings originally tried to interest an agent in the character but hit a stone wall of resistance to the idea of having a woman protagonist in what was then strictly a man's world of private detective fiction.

So they decided to market their female private eye themselves, flying to New York City and making the rounds of the publishing houses where, as it turned out, they were met with the same resistance.

"It was a knock on every door procedure," Gloria recalls, adding, "We covered Manhattan."

But in what sounds like a cliche plot twist, Fickling said: "It took us 30 days, and on the last day, when our money had run out, we got the phone call (from Pyramid Books)."

The first Honey West mystery thriller sold about 250,000 copies, according to Fickling. (The two Gs in the G.G. Fickling byline, stand for Gloria Gautraud, Gloria's maiden name. The sex of the author remained purposely vague, Fickling says, so readers would not know that Honey, the novels' first-person narrator, was actually a man.)

Honey West's popularity as a fictional detective was riding high in 1964 when the character was first introduced to TV audiences on a segment of "Burke's Law." The "Honey West" TV series debuted on ABC on a Friday night in the fall of 1965.

Not Completely Happy

To celebrate the occasion, the Ficklings threw a big bash for several hundred friends at the Hotel Laguna where they had set up four television sets to watch the show.

Although they say they were thrilled to see Honey fleshed out on the little screen, they weren't completely happy with the TV version of their heroine.

"They hoked it up more than we'd like," Gloria said. "The books were a lot more sophisticated than the series."

The Ficklings say the TV Honey was less feminine than the print version. And the "lone wolf" character of the novels was toned down considerably in the TV version in which she was given a partner named Sam Bolt, an Aunt Meg who shared her apartment and a pet ocelot.

"The ocelot is a just a gimmick," scoffs Fickling. "That's one thing we don't need. In fact, to tell you the truth, Anne (Francis) didn't like the ocelot a bit. It kept nipping at her."

(For TV trivia collectors, the Ficklings reveal that Bruce the ocelot actually was a female whose real name, coincidentally, was Honey.)

The series spawned a Honey West doll, Honey West comic books and the Honey West Girl Private Eye Game. "TV's private eyeful" also helped spur book sales, and the Ficklings made two promotional tours around the country.

Won a Golden Globe

"Honey West" won a Golden Globe award, an Emmy nomination and the Mystery Writers of America's award for Best Television Series of the Year.

Despite its popularity, the show did not return the next year because, the Ficklings say, of an upheaval in management at ABC, which axed the show after only 30 episodes.

(For Laguna trivia collectors, the Ficklings opened a Honey West teen-age nightclub across from Main Beach in the late '60s. The walls of the short-lived club were decorated with framed Honey West book covers and production stills from the TV show.)

In keeping with America's love affair at that time with spies and secret agents, Fickling eventually turned private eye Honey West into secret agent Honey West, "espionage's sexiest operative . . . a karate-chopping spy queen who always gets her man--one way or the other."

But by the early '70s, the golden girl began to fall on hard times. A Honey West movie script Fickling wrote went unsold. And what appeared to be the last book in the series, "Stiff As a Broad," was published in 1971.

"It seems like in the '70s the interest in her sort of dropped completely out," Fickling said, "but all of a sudden there's this sort of resurgence of interest in Honey West."

For Honey's planned comeback, Fickling said the character will return to being a private eye. She'll also have a new base of operations. Formerly operating out of Long Beach--she inherited the detective agency after her father turned up in an alley with a bullet in his back--Honey will now be based in the town where she was born.

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