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L.L. Kirchner’s ‘Florida Girls’ is a history-based thriller

Bill DeYoung

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"Florida Girls" is L.L. Kirchner's first novel. “I like reading things that give me a sense of ‘Oh, I learned something,’ or ‘Oh, I laughed,'" she says. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Webb’s internationally known Poster Girls have appeared from coast to coast, from Maine to Florida. They have been featured on major television and radio shows. The girls have also staged fashion and talent shows in the country’s major theaters and most prominent department stores … The fact that three of Webb’s beauties were entrants in the Miss America contest in Atlantic City and that two of them were close seconds attest (sic) to Doc’s skill at judging feminine pulchritude.

1940s postcard for Webb’s City, St. Petersburg/“World’s Most Unusual Drug Store”

Writer L.L. Kirchner knew a good story when it looked her square in the face. “I saw this photo of these swimsuit models, and I saw that they toured out of St. Pete,” says the St. Petersburg-based scribe. “Which I thought was odd. And even odder still was that it was during World War II. And beyond.

Postcard, 1940s.

“And I thought, what kind of hustlers put together a swimsuit tour during a war, when people couldn’t buy shoes and tires? And gas was rationed. How did they organize this?”

Kirchner was fascinated with the historical accounts of “Doc” Webb, the city’s legendary drugstore magnate, aggressive salesman and master of promotion. Between the late 1930s and the early ‘50s, his “girls” toured the country, via chartered bus, to “sell” the St. Pete sunshine … and, of course, Webb’s City.

“My mind,” she says, “is firing like that all the time. That was an idea that stayed in my brain, and I had also heard that during the ‘20s there was this scheme to attract tourists by kicking up a big fuss about the raised hemlines of bathing costumes.”

She then learned about the notorious Trafficante crime family, which ruled Tampa with an iron fist during those years, taking illegal bets for the Cuban game known as Bolita, bribing politicians and eventually running drugs and more.

She tossed these historical truths into a blender, hit the “puree” button, and with time, lots of research and a liberal application of her finely-honed literary talents, Kirchner had a novel. Florida Girls will be published next week by Lila Books; it’s already in stock at Amazon and other retailers.

It’s the story of Thelma Miles, who arrives in St. Pete on a Greyhound bus during the last year of World War II. Thelma, who’s not as innocent as she appears, auditions for the Florida Girls, a traveling troupe of talents cooked up by Lloyd “Doc” Young and his ambitious, no-nonsense wife Kathleen at their expansive retail establishment, the Sun City Emporium.

The book’s tagline: “Not Everything is Sunshine in Florida.”

That’s because the Youngs are mixed up with the local crime family, the Giancarlos. One of the ways they hope to extract themselves, and pay off their outstanding debt, is through the talented Florida Girls.

This puts Thelma and her new pals Peggy, Helen, Doris, Hattie May and others in the thick of things.

At its core, Florida Girls is a story about strong women making their way through a world dominated – sometimes in less-than-savory or respectful ways – by men (using snappy ’40s lingo all the way).

Thelma, in particular, has an emotional score to settle.

Although it’s her first novel, Kirchner is a veteran author. Her first two books, American Lady Creature: (My Change in the Middle East) and Blissful Thinking: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution, were absorbing, and sometimes howlingly funny, memoirs chronicling her bumpy road to self discovery. One reviewer called Kirchner’s second memoir “Eat, Pray, Laugh.”

She’d figured out “that the constant search to figure out what was wrong with me was the problem. I think a lot of people needed to get that message, because you can spend your whole life, you’re never going to stop finding things that are wrong with you. Sorry. Just stop looking, now.

“It’s really much more powerful to me to focus on the things that I’m doing right, and do more of that. Because life is too long to rake yourself over the coals.”

Kirchner’s experiences as a public storyteller (she’s the longtime host of the “True Stories” events in St. Petersburg) also gave her the courage to speak for Thelma, Kathleen and the other women in her novel.

“I feel I’m more of a fiction writer than a memoirist,” she says. “I find memoir to be extremely challenging because I’m not the queen of the hot take. When something happens to me, I don’t know immediately how I feel about it and how it fits in the scheme of my life. I have to do a lot of processing. Because I don’t want to read somebody’s therapy entry, and I don’t want to present that to people. Because that’s not useful.

“I like reading things that give me a sense of ‘Oh, I learned something,’ or ‘Oh, I laughed.’”

Florida Girls was intended to be a standalone book; however, “when I got to the end, the characters were like ‘We have more to say.’” So she kept writing.

She refers to it as “Book One of the Queenpin Chronicles.” The second yarn about her boundary-busting protagonists, Vegas Girls, will hopefully be out by the end of the year. There will be three books in all (well, so far).

In the meantime, she’s taking her Florida Girls on the road (no bus) with a series of speaking, marketing and bookselling events, including a June 4 talk at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, and an official launch party two days later at Tombolo Books.

“I believe that ideas have life,” Kirchner explains. “Whenever I would tell people about Florida Girls they’d go ‘Oh my God, that sounds great; I can’t wait to read it.’ I’d go ‘I know!’ I don’t want to lose that enthusiasm. It’s important. You need it to sell a book.”

“Doc” Webb – and his fictional counterpart “Doc” Young – would certainly agree.

LL Kirchner website.

RELATED READING: Vintage St. Pete: Webb’s City

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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