By Erika I. Ritchie The Orange County Register
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A new documentary details how Gloria Fickling and her late husband, Skip Fickling, developed TV's first female detective, "Honey West." It also takes a look at how the character transformed women's roles in television, laying the groundwork for such shows as Cagney & Lacey, Charlie's Angels and Police Woman.
Gloria Fickling's "29th" birthdays have been mostly private for decades, but when a marquee announcing 'Honey West: The Gloria Fickling Story' went up recently at the now-closed Laguna South Coast Cinemas, hundreds showed up at her party.
The petite brunette wore a floral dress and floppy-brimmed hat to celebrate what was actually her 91st birthday with about 250 people at Seven Degrees. A cake with 29 candles and dozens of other cakes were spread around the room.
But Fickling had more than her birthday to celebrate.
The party included a screening of the new documentary that details how she and her late husband, Skip Fickling, developed the character of Honey West. Their 1957 book, "This Girl for Hire," was the first in the detective series that broke new ground with a female private eye and eventually led to the first female TV detective, portrayed by Anne Francis.
Fickling said she is astonished how the character she and her husband created is still relevant.
"I didn't think it would be successful" 60 years later, she said. "Who thinks so far ahead?"
Nick Jerge, who produced the 30-minute documentary and attended the party, said the Ficklings were ahead of their time in creating Honey West.
The couple wrote the books under the pseudonym G.G. Fickling so the author wouldn't be seen as male or female.
Jerge first became aware of the character from his mother, who repeatedly used Honey West as a reference to things she had sleuthed out.
"She kept saying 'Honey West knows,'" said the 32-year-old producer, who operates Honey West Entertainment as a component of Vinger Productions.
"Then one day she told me to Google it. I went to look and it was like a love affair. This is the female equal to James Bond. She's confident, goes in the door first and is always three steps ahead."
In the 11-book series, Honey West gets into the private investigations business after her father's unsolved murder.
Dubbed the sexiest private eye to pull a trigger, she tracks killers around Southern California, taking advantage of her physical appeal to help in her investigations.
The books launched the 1965 TV show starring Francis, whose typical sleuthing gear included a tight black jumpsuit, sunglasses and a pet ocelot named Bruce. It won a Golden Globe, got an Emmy nod and earned the award for best TV series from the Mystery Writers of America. But it only lasted one season.
The documentary explores how the character transformed women's roles in television, laying the groundwork for such shows as Cagney & Lacey, Charlie's Angels and Police Woman.
"What Honey West represents has never been more relevant," Jerge said, pointing to the recent release of the blockbuster Wonder Woman. "People are clamoring for this. People are intrigued by strong female characters."
Fickling said her husband, who died in 1998, a few days shy of his 73rd birthday, patterned the character of Honey West after her, but made her blue-eyed and blond like Marilyn Monroe. He wanted Honey West to be the equivalent of Mike Hammer as a female detective.
"Her bravado, her great spirit, that's what Skip saw in making me the role model," she said. "The first time I met him I was crawling backwards out a window wearing a rainbow-striped two-piece bathing suit."
Fickling's friend Sande St. John put together the Sept. 1 documentary screening and birthday bash.
"Gloria has always had great self esteem, total lack of prejudice," St. John said. "She has the ability to achieve her dreams through hard work and never giving up. She has a positive attitude. And she is as dazzling and light-footed as she has always been. "
Even at 91, Fickling is out on the town most nights at such social events as First Thursday Art Walk and restaurant openings kicking up her heels.
She and her husband moved to Laguna Beach in 1950. In the early years, Fickling worked as an assistant fashion editor for Look Magazine and then for Women's Wear Daily. Later she started writing restaurants reviews and fundraising for the arts and local non-profits, both of which she continues to do.
The road to publishing success wasn't easy, Fickling recalled.
The couple had a difficult time getting an agent in Los Angeles. Then she took charge.
"I said, 'Let's go to New York and find a publisher.'"
Thirty days later, they had an agent.
Jerge considers the documentary a special tribute to Fickling. But he and partner Lynda De La Vina are also interested in doing a feature film about Honey West and wanted to gauge interest in her.
"This is something we wanted her to cherish," he said about Fickling. "Motion pictures take a long time. We wanted this to be her moment."
Aside from the documentary, memories of Honey West remain
At a recent end-of-summer party thrown by locals at Heisler Park, Fickling said she was approached by a woman who told her that when she was a young girl, she and her friends would pretend to be Honey West.
"What made Honey West phenomenal was that she was a real person," Fickling said. "Honey West changed the lives of women everywhere by standing up to men but still being a woman. She was real and other women thought they could be like that."