All Thumbs 

Cult novelist Tom Robbins’ new autobiography sheds light on his experiences in Richmond and with his former employer, the Times-Dispatch.

click to enlarge art27_book_tom_robbins.jpg

Jeff Corwin

In the 1970s and '80s, few authors defined freewheeling, hippie writing better than best-selling Tom Robbins, whose novels "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and "Still Life With Woodpecker" take readers on whimsical and witty romps.

Other than a circle of devoted readers and some local residents with long memories, few people may realize that Robbins has close and devoted ties to Virginia and Richmond — the Fan District in particular.

While Robbins often is associated with Seattle, where he's lived for decades, he spent important formative years at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), at The Richmond Times-Dispatch and at the Village Inn, a bohemian watering hole that was the headquarters for the conservative city's insurgent counterculture from the late 1950s into the '60s.

Robbins loves Richmond and gives the city a luxurious pat in his new autobiography "Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life" (Ecco-HarperCollins). He declines through his book publisher to speak with Style Weekly. "Tom is turning 82 next month and unfortunately isn't doing any interviews while on tour — so that he can conserve all of his energy for his events," Michael McKenzie of Harper Collins, says in an email.  

In his book, Robbins writes: "If charm were a bathtub, Richmond could have floated a hundred rubber duckies and still had room for the entire Royal Navy."

He's mesmerized with the alleys of the Fan District, writing that they "become all the more interesting after nightfall, when they softly resonate with stray disembodied fragments of music (live or recorded), intellectual discourse, dog-bark, couple-squabble, and woo-pitch, not to mention the even less tangible secrets that seem to sweep from the shadowed crannies. …"

Robbins greatly admires RPI, which he says "isn't widely known, though it was Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and the Sorbonne rolled into one for aspiring artists in the southeastern U.S.; and in many ways was the ideal school for incipient bohemians looking for a friendly academic environment in which to pack those tender roots."

Robbins graduated with honors in writing from RPI in 1959. The juxtaposition of the laid-back Fan culture with snooty Richmond of the day offers just the sort of stark contrast that drive the ironies in his eight novels.

When not studying or working on the night copy desk of the stuffy Times-Dispatch, Robins hung out at Fan District bars. One was predominately gay Etons followed by the more diverse Village Inn — both near Grace Street and Hanover Avenue.

The latter bar, Robbins writes, soon became a "word-of-mouth" spot comparable to others in New Orleans and Seattle where "gigless beboppers, itinerant artists, nonacademic poets, free-lance photographers, practicing existentialists, self-proclaimed revolutionaries, dharma drifters" and a host of others could imbibe, discuss and perhaps hook up for the night.

Bill Beville, a drinking buddy of Robbins, recalls that the affable, auburn-haired young man constantly went on mysterious walks of strange neighborhoods. "I drove to a job in Petersburg and Tom wanted me to take him and drop him off at Hull Street Road which was a place no one went," says Beville, now retired. "I dropped him off again and again. I couldn't figure out what he was doing."

Beville found out years later. He saw that in "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," Robbins' second book, the main character, Sissy Hankshaw, who was born with gigantic thumbs that she used to hitchhike from one adventure to another, grew up in a Hull Street trailer park.

Richmond of the day was in the throes of racial integration. That enthralled Robbins, a North Carolina native who briefly attended Washington and Lee University (where he wrote sports stories for student editor and later novelist Tom Wolfe) and served as an Air Force weather specialist.

He struck integrationist themes when he wrote for an early underground newsletter called the Ghost, says Style contributor Dale Brumfield, who's the author of "Richmond Independent Press: A History of the Underground Zine Scene." Robbins did the same when he edited the Postscript, RPI's student publication.

Such activism caused him trouble at the Times-Dispatch where he worked on the copy desk 40 hours a week during his senior year. He actually has kind words for the T-D, noting that "its writing and editing adhered to the highest journalistic standards." But he says the big dictionary used by editors was so out of date that it described "uranium" as a "worthless mineral."

Times-Dispatch editors were equally out of date. Robbins' moonlighting at integrationist meetings at a Unitarian Church brought him catcalls from the copy desk that he was a "nigger lover." He also got in repeated trouble when he chose to place photographs of black artists such as Louis Armstrong and Pearl Bailey in a gossip column by Earl Wilson that he edited.

Like many Southern newspapers during that era, the T-D had unspoken rules that pictures of black people could be used only in a negative context, such as a crime story. Robbins was summoned to the office of the managing editor, John H. Colburn, and told that some readers called to complain that they "couldn't finish their breakfast" after seeing the photo of Bailey.

This presaged the end of Robbins' Richmond adventure. He decided to head to Washington State to pursue Asian studies. After saying his goodbyes at the Village Inn, he eventually ended up in Seattle where the rest — experimenting with LSD, traveling, becoming a cult novelist — is history.

But even as he began a new life on the West Coast, a bit of Richmond's charm helped open doors. What helped him win an entry-level gig as a Seattle Times art critic, he writes, was "a gracious letter of recommendation, believe it or not, from John H. Colburn of the Times-Dispatch." S

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