Tom Robbins remains Richmond's best-known expatriate, though he lit out from here in 1962. At the old Village Café, prior to its 1992 move across Harrison Street, regular denizens could point to the exact bar stool where they claimed he sat. They perhaps expected at any moment for him to stroll off Grace Street to reclaim his position and order a customary Pabst Blue Ribbon.
And during the first week of October, odds are good that he'll do just that — the bar has changed, but the stools remain the same.
The Most Dangerous Writer in the World
Robbins graduated from Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where for three influential years he was a copy editor. He made lifelong friends while in Richmond, refers to it as his "dream city" and comes for periodic visits.
He's donated his entire manuscript collection to VCU — a trove of handwritten drafts of works that influenced a generation, including his first novel, "Another Roadside Attraction," and his second, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," which features the massive-thumbed, hitchhiking Sissy Hankshaw and co-stars Richmond as itself.
The longtime Washington state resident is returning to the Holy City to participate in and serve as the keynote speaker for the first James River Writers Festival, Oct. 3-4 at the Library of Virginia, organized by Richmond-based writers David L. Robbins (no relation) and Phaedra Hise.
A few years ago, an Italian literary journal dubbed Robbins "the most dangerous writer in the world," because he ardently challenges the reader. Robbins is certainly one of the nation's most-read novelists, with more than 7 million books circulating the world. His latest, "Villa Incognito," came out in May.
Joining the Circus
A metaphor for Tom Robbins' approach to life and fiction can be found in a small incident that occurred sometime around 1960 at Richmond's then-downtown Trailways bus station at the intersection of Ninth and East Broad streets.
As young people hanging around Richmond Professional Institute, Robbins, artist Bill Kendrick and the late Mary Lou Davis ("Queen of the White Pygmies," Robbins called her) would occasionally amble into the bus station wearing stylized clown makeup and urge whomever they found to run away to the circus. Once an apparently destitute couple with children wanted to take them up on their offer.
The moment ingrained itself in Robbins' memory. He's said he went back to his apartment and wept: His absurd joke had collided with grubby, desperate reality.
Robbins explains during a recent telephone interview, "Had we actually been connected to a circus, that would've been such a wonderful experience. Young man and young wife, two kids, obviously very poor, take them along, transform them, bring magic into their lives. But we couldn't do that. And it was heartbreaking." It was the last time the trio tried to recruit for the circus at Trailways.
Distinguished artist and retired VCU professor Bernard Martin, whose friendship with Robbins stretches back almost half a century to their RPI days together and who created the cover for Robbins' book "Skinny Legs and All," recalls another illustrative story.
"Tom and his girlfriend at the time, for a magazine article he was working on, went out and hunted for these mushrooms. The piece recounts their search for mushrooms and how they have this totally unpredictable reaction to them. And the last line is, ‘Many people would say we were poisoned; I say we were entertained.' "
Richmond writer, educator and critic Maurice Duke once referred to Robbins as "Albert Camus in Mickey Mouse ears." The description of the novelist as a French existentialist donning goofy garb seems apt, particularly considering how often critics have complained that he enjoys himself in his writing too much to be taken seriously.
John Marshall, the longtime book critic of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who has met and interviewed Robbins, says the writer has been around long enough to become a kind of "éminence grise." "People think he's always been here, kind of like Mt. Rainier," Marshall says. "He's preeminent among Northwest writers, with Ken Kesey having died not long ago. I can't think of anybody who touches Tom's reputation. For all the hilarity his writing provokes, he's a serious writer, and a fairly serious guy. Few people understand how hard it is to make that kind of humor read so naturally."
Robbins is named for Thomas Wolfe — not the Richmond-born writer of "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "The Right Stuff" fame but the Asheville, N.C., novelist whose cataracts of language fill hulking books like "Look Homeward, Angel" and whose protagonist, Eugene — Wolfe's alter ego — supplied Robbins' middle name. "My mom was a huge Wolfe fan," Robbins observes.
Robbins was the oldest of four children. His father, the son of Baptist ministers, was a power-company executive, and his mother was a nurse and Sunday-school teacher who wrote children's stories for religious magazines. By age 5, Robbins was dictating stories to his mother and expressing annoyance if she changed a word.
Robbins comes from the mountains of western North Carolina, not far from Wolfe's hometown. "We left Blowing Rock and moved to Burnsville, where I spent my ninth year. I remember going to the courthouse by myself at night — these were more innocent times — to see Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys." Shortly thereafter, he worked a summer season at the Barnes and Beers Traveling Circus.
The family moved from North Carolina to Virginia's Northern Neck when Robbins was a teenager. Members of Robbins' family remain in the region, including his sister, who lives south of Richmond.
He has had at least three marriages — Robbins doesn't speak much of his personal life, and friends respect his privacy. He is also the father of three sons. Rip, the oldest, lives near him in Washington. He dedicated "Cowgirls" to Fleetwood Star, and "Villa Incognito" is inscribed to Kirk.
Robbins' devout Christian parents tried to direct their dreamy and mischievous son, first to Hargrove Military Academy in Chatham, then to study journalism at Washington & Lee University in Lexington. "Tommy" Robbins wrote for the W & L sports page, whose editor, during Robbins' short tenure, was the soon-to-be-famous celebrity journalist Tom Wolfe. Robbins managed to get booted out of the college, and in 1956 or so he went hitchhiking. In some ways, he hasn't stopped.
Bookstores and Bars
During the early 1950s, Robbins was living a New York City beatnik idyll when he was drafted by the Air Force, which based him during peacetime in Korea and Japan. The experience provided him with his first glimpses into Eastern philosophies.
A few years later, Robbins arrived to take classes in aesthetics and art history at RPI. It was his sort of college. As Martin recalls, "RPI had no fraternities, no sports. It was bookstores and bars."
One of the bars Robbins frequented was the Village Café. At Richmond's arch-columned, stain-glass-windowed Bohemian cathedral, its booths burnished by the patina of a million cigarettes, Robbins fell in with a group that included artist Kendrick, the late painter William Fletcher Jones and Bernard Martin.
Richmond was something of a circus itself. Robbins became acquainted with regulars like Emily King, dubbed "The Mona Lisa," and Doris Cyrek. "Oh, Mona Lisa and Doris," Robbins sighed. "They were the Village. They were like the lions in front of the New York Public Library."
There was Hawaiian Joe, who worked at The Village, a sour-faced fellow who'd sit in a booth and idly play his guitar. Little Eddie, an almost midget-sized deaf-mute black man who read lips, tended bar wearing a white suit. Thomas M. Rutherfoord III acted on the New York stage and got occasional small movie roles. Rutherfoord recited lengthy passages from "Hamlet." And his trademark fedora slid farther back on his head as nights at the Village and parties in Fan District apartments drew on. Another patron of the Village, Mary Byram Jones, widow of Fletcher Jones, recalls that Robbins "had these boyish good looks. He always had really good-looking girlfriends. Some of them," she adds with a chuckle, "were really volatile."
The Very Air an Aphrodisiac
During those days and nights in the Fan, Robbins had a good time, but he also kept up with his classes, wrote for RPI's student newspaper Proscript and worked 40 hours a week at the Richmond Times-Dispatch as a copy editor.
He's been away four decades but insists this hasn't diminished his genuine love for the city.
"There hasn't been a month where I haven't dreamed of Richmond at least once," Robbins says. "So in a way, Richmond is the city of my dreams. It's been a consistent backdrop of my consciousness, and there is so much about it that I miss. I have seeped it into the cells of my being, really."
He acknowledges that during his periodic visits he's overwhelmed by the city's beauty and charm. Whenever he returns, he says, it takes him a few days to remember why he left.
"I hope that most of us have had the experience of being in love," Robbins explains, "only to realize that as strong as your passion is, that person is not good for you, he or she doesn't fulfill your needs. You may go the rest of your life loving and lusting after that person, but if you have any maturity, you realize and understand that it just can't work. I needed far more at the time than Richmond could've given me."
Yet Robbins still rhapsodizes about the city: "The antebellum houses, the wisteria dogwood honeysuckle fragrances that make the very air an aphrodisiac, the cobbles and carriage houses, the way spring just suddenly arrives in all her full majesty on Monument Avenue." He pauses and sighs. "Richmond has the best alleys in America. I used to roam them for hours and hours and at night."
A Nice Scandinavian Blonde
Robbins makes it clear that he didn't leave Richmond in an angry huff — he drove a Plymouth Valiant. Nor had the Times-Dispatch shown him the door, as is part of the Robbins myth. He found it himself, thank you very much.
To Robbins in the early 1960s, Richmond was "conservatism rooted in fear." However, "here and now in Richmond magazine," he lays to rest the apocryphal rumor that he had some terrible conflict with the Times-Dispatch or a row with the people with whom he had worked.
One of his jobs at the newspaper was editing syndicated writer Earl Wilson's "Showtime" entertainment gossip column and selecting photos to illustrate it. Shortly after he chose trumpeter Louis Armstrong ("I thought, ‘Who could object to Satchmo?' "), he was called into the office of managing editor John B. Colburn and told there'd been "complaints" about the prominent placing of a black person in the entertainment section.
"I don't think Mr. Colburn cared," Robbins says, "but he was telling me what was related to him." That he'd rankled somebody's sensibilities appealed to Robbins. When he later chose Nat King Cole, he heard about that, too. In a final farewell gesture, very late and before it could be pulled ("I was a little crafty," he says), Robbins placed an image of Sammy Davis Jr. with his then-bride, May Britt, "a nice Scandinavian blonde."
Despite Robbins' occasional eccentricities, Colburn wrote him a letter of recommendation. Seattle, Robbins says, was the farthest he could go with what money he had, and Robbins arrived there with no great plan, no job and $100 in his pocket. He got an $85 hotel room on Friday, and on Saturday morning walked with his Times-Dispatch recommendation into the offices of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Robbins started work on the copy desk on Tuesday, and he's lived around Seattle ever since.
The Northwest Icon
Robbins was in Seattle for the World's Fair Exposition in 1969, where the future was heralded by the Space Needle and a summer-long exhibition of works by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. The show, says Robbins, "stood the town on its ear. Things changed after that. Culturally, it was never as isolated again after that one exhibition."
Seattle and Robbins came into their artistic selves simultaneously. Drawing on his Richmond education in aesthetics and art history and other experiences of New York City's museums and its gallery scene, Robbins became a widely published critic. He started a biography of Jackson Pollock but then abandoned it for fiction.
Robbins' appeal as a novelist, observes Martin, is that of the American cultural outlaw; he's the Waylon Jennings of the nation's literature. The loyalty of Robbins' readership reminds Martin of those devoted to the country music stars of his — and Robbins'— youth: Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. Robbins long ago chose his path and has remained resolutely dedicated. "In my nearly 50 years of knowing Tom," Martin says, "I've never yet met an artist who was so uncompromising in the pursuit of his goals."
That's a substantial difference from pursuing celebrity. Robbins is famous, but that happened almost by accident. "Another Roadside Attraction" at first got little attention and unfavorable reviews. The paperback version, though, was far more affordable and portable to the karmic vagabonds who began experiencing it. They viewed his stories as coming from them. Describing Robbins' readers, Salon.com writer Tracy Johnson observed, "They want to climb inside the books, light up a joint, and join the fun."
Robbins says he looks forward to coming back to Richmond to speak with hopeful writers. He welcomes their questions, although he counsels that each approach to a work is unique. While Robbins travels and researches for each book, he says he doesn't plot his novels and he doesn't know their ends until he writes them.
Robbins says: "People need to be told their lives aren't as limited as they think they are, the world is a wonderful and weird place, that consensual reality is flawed, no institution can be trusted — no institution — love does work, all things are possible, and we could all be fulfilled if we had the wisdom to not take ourselves so seriously."
In Robbins' case, life has imitated art, but then, as he says, what else would it imitate?
And he's certainly joined the ranks of the venerable. Robbins' age varies per telling — official sources list it as 71. A few years ago in Italy, during a rare press conference, he asked gathered journalists to guess his age, and one promptly responded, "48." So, Robbins says in a later interview, "in Italy, I am 48."
In a faxed response to the query, Robbins writes, "Since my mother was an amnesiac, and since all records of my past have been destroyed by my enemies in the Norwegian Secret Service, determining my ‘true' age is not an easy matter. My U.S. passport lists my age as 67 — and Richmond magazine might as well follow the State Department's example. However, I guarantee that anyone who meets me face-to-face at the writers festival will assume your publication has erred and exaggerated my years on this ball of clay."
Perhaps, then, he is timeless.