by Tim Gilmore, 3/24/2023
The cover of Mickey Spillane’s 1972 novel The Erection Set featured his wife Sherri from the side, posing nude, one leg in the air. Spillane did anything he could to burnish his image as a tough guy who wrote tough books, crime novels featuring the rogue detective Mike Hammer. Hammer brawled and talked smack and chased skirts. Spillane was 46 when he married the 23 year old night club singer Sherri Malinou. Mickey didn’t mind when fans confused him with Mike.
Whenever the censors came after his books, the writer showed up to make the most of the free publicity. Mickey and Sherri were upfront about her posing nude for his book covers to increase sales. So when the Conservative Citizens Council of Jacksonville, Florida complained about Spillane’s newest novel and head librarian Harry Brinton pulled it from the shelves, the best-selling author came to town.
Warren Folks said he’d walked through the Haydon Burns Library at Ocean and Adams Streets, wearing his plaid sportscoat and straw fedora, and spotted what he called “a sexually mixed group of teenagers,” reading Spillane’s novel together. Folks wasted no time setting his newest organization to work.
Folks was a white supremacist, a Jacksonville barber, who ran for office from the 1960s through the ’90s. He ran for City Council and House of Representatives and Senate. When he lost his Senate race to Arnett Girardeau in 1988, Folks said the race had been stolen and referred to himself as Senator-Elect halfway through the ’90s.
When he protested Spillane’s book in ’72, however, Folks was mostly known as a culture-warrior who’d burned Martin Luther King’s effigy downtown and argued that if public schools were going to allow white and black students in the same classrooms, the government should offer white parents vouchers to send their kids to private schools.
When Folks “discovered” Spillane’s novel, he immediately set up an appointment with City Council President Jake Godbold, six years before Godbold first served as mayor. Newspapers reported the two men held a “head-knocking session over the matter” on Friday, October 27th.
Folks said when he’d passed the teens reading Spillane’s book, they’d dropped it and fled, so Folks picked it up and began underlining offensive passages. He called the book “hardcore pornography” and brandished a library copy at the council president like he might bludgeon him with it, demanding that Godbold call the whole City Council together on the spot for an emergency session.
The Conservative Citizens Council had perused the book together. Folks’s group wanted to know what other ways Jacksonville’s public library system was “poisoning the minds of young people.”
Librarian Harry Brinton defended the library system, saying library staff did not screen all books and that nobody could read every book the library ordered. Spillane was popular, so the library ordered his books when they came out.
So Folks told Godbold he wanted a halt in all funding for the public library system until all books in Jacksonville’s libraries had been screened. Godbold scoffed. He accused Folks of creating a scene for political exposure, noting the segregationist barber had launched a write-in candidacy for state legislature in the upcoming election.
Meanwhile, Mickey Spillane was on his way. Newspapers reported that “tough-talking Mickey Spillane” had arrived in Jacksonville with his “blonde bombshell of a wife” and made a flashbulb-popping appearance at the downtown library. The book cover model wore a modest but sleeveless long dress and the writer wore a mesh polo shirt fronted with shoelace-style threads. The shirt was tight on his biceps and the laces tightened when he pushed his chest forward.
Spillane loved provoking these kinds of fights. He’d once mocked critics by asking how his novels could contain as much sex as they claimed when the female characters always got killed so early. Spillane smiled and told reporters that he enjoyed political Culture Wars, which always helped book sales. “I get a kick out of these idiotic maneuvers with political overtones,” he said.
Jacksonville was special, Spillane said. He’d received no other complaints about the book. Those who objected were “not condemning me or my book, but the reading habits of the American public.” When Spillane’s first novel, I, the Jury, came out more than 20 years prior, he said, “It was considered a sex novel. Now it’s called a psychological drama and is required reading in some colleges.”
Then Mickey Spillane, chest hair protruding through the laces of his mesh polo shirt, took on Warren Folks directly. Spillane joked about how he frequently made fictional characters of real people and said that if Folks thought this book was bad, well, “Wait until he sees the next one!” The cover for Spillane’s 1973 novel The Last Cop Out would feature his wife’s bare buttocks, complete with tan lines, one hip thrust to the side.
Folks, Spillane said, was clearly “not a very well-read man.” Spillane recommended Folks read much more sexually controversial (and more literary) novels like Philip Roth’s 1969 Portnoy’s Complaint, about a sexually frustrated young Jewish man who’s obsessed with his mother and masturbates to a variety of props, most infamously a piece of raw liver, or Gore Vidal’s 1968 Myra Breckenridge, written from the point of view of a transgender rapist. The movie starred Raquel Welch.
By the end of November, The Erection Set arrived back on the Jacksonville public library shelves. Only one member of the Board of Library Trustees voted against reinstating Spillane’s novel. Roy Lord, vice president of the Murray Hill branch of Barnett Bank, said reading the book “brought a different feeling in my mind. It was most repulsive. I have never had such an experience in all my life.”
Methodist Pastor A.J. Reddick said he would object to Spillane’s language if it were not for the fact, he said, that “I would give my life for the right of any individual to express himself.”
Rabbi Sidney Lefkowitz said, “There is no such thing as immoral words, decent or indecent. There are words that are not properly used. The morality is found within the individual. It does not extend to what another person feels.”
Folks asked Justice of the Peace Morton Kesler to issue a warrant for librarian Harry Brinton’s arrest for peddling obscenity, meaning Spillane’s book, to minors. Folks called the public library system “smut hawkers.” Kesler refused.
When Mickey Spillane came back to Jacksonville on Thursday night, September 6, 1973, as the featured speaker at the Gator Chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association at Strickland’s Town House Restaurant on Philips Highway, he led with the question, “Getting ‘Banned in Boston’ means prestige, but whoever heard of getting banned in Jacksonville, Florida before it happened to me?”
Spillane called Folks “my ole adversary” and said he wanted to thank him for helping out with book sales. The Jacksonville book ban had made news around the world. Sales of the novel had climbed to 1.3 million and Spillane received news clippings from Germany, Italy, South Africa and Israel.
“I’d be happy to do it again when my new book, The Last Cop Out, comes out,” Spillane said. “I’m investigating to see if I can get Warren to do a repeat performance.”