Love for city blossomed after writer's 1949 return
By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
ST. PETERSBURG -- As the photographer approached, Florence Cole Heckman peered at him through tiny binoculars.
"Don't take my picture," Heckman said in 1980, then 89 with failing eyesight and hearing.
"I used to have a perfect figure: 36-24-36. My hair was golden for a long time. I'm still the vain woman I've always been. I want to write, and people won't want to read it if they think I look like Methuselah."
From December 1979 to November 1980, locals read Heckman's memoirs weekly in the St. Petersburg Times.
Heckman came here in 1915, became enamored with the city and logged her experiences, parts of which were highlighted in this column last week.
This final look at Heckman's memoirs finds her returning in 1917 to a Spartan existence as a teacher and a ticket taker.
While vacationing in New Hampshire, Heckman received an urgent message. "You are the only one I can trust," wrote her brother Ralph, then working at the Portsmouth Navy Yard. "Will you go down to St. Petersburg and take over the management of the garage?"
Heckman returned on a boat that traveled from Boston to Savannah. A train carried her home. "Oh, how good Central Avenue looked to me," she wrote. "The stores, the theaters, the carved coconut heads and fish nets hanging outside the souvenir shops. Back home again."
At the garage, Ralph's mechanic had left. The new repairman was Slim Burnett, who also would quit and take customers with him.
"When I went into the garage office, the only thing familiar to me was the combined smell of oil, grease and gasoline," Heckman wrote. "That familiar odor would haunt me for years to come."
Spanish-American War veterans, retired businessmen and old men in wheelchairs began to spill into the city. They were the tourists during World War I. Most young men had been shipped out, and their censored letters had caused fear and apprehension.
"The discomforts of war began to reach us," Heckman wrote. "Automobile parts grew expensive. Repair jobs became fewer. Our lives had undergone a terrible upheaval. Women's winter coats, which at their highest had sold for $35, sold for $125. Sugar became scarce, then nonexistent. It was the first time we heard the word hoarding. I was hungry all the time."
Heckman provided taxi service for an Armenian rug importer. She rented out six rooms on the west end of the garage. She took a second job as a ticket taker at the Grand Theater for $6 a week.
By Christmas 1917, radiant poinsettias dotting Central Avenue couldn't improve the bleak scene. "We had no pretense of celebrating Christmas that year, and there were many in this city in our frame of mind," Heckman wrote. "The heart had gone out of St. Petersburg."
When Maxwell House Coffee made its St. Petersburg debut about 1918, Heckman received an offer to play piano at the Lyric Theater in Jackson, Tenn., for $18 monthly. Ralph had died of influenza. Heckman left but was disenchanted with Jackson.
"No swaying palms, no salty air, no breath of orange blossoms," she said. "There was instead quite a lot of smoke, grime and cinders."
Heckman would teach in Massachusetts, write at Columbia University and direct theater in Wisconsin. She got married at age 43 in 1934 to writer Royal Heckman, 10 years her junior. The couple settled on a New Hampshire farm and wrote musicals and fantasies.
In October 1949, Heckman returned to St. Petersburg. "Everything had changed," she said. "St. Petersburg was now in its prime."
Heckman noticed new structures had surfaced where many old landmarks had once flourished. Parking was difficult. Sullen Northerners had replaced cheery Southerners, Heckman said. "In 1918, nobody locked a door," she wrote. "In 1949, everybody locked his door."
Yet Heckman found her new St. Petersburg charming and beautiful. She would write and paint here, she decided, and study Christian Science and spiritual matters. She later would establish the Church of Spiritual Philosophy. She would spend her old age here.
Heckman died in 1983. She was 92. Her love for her adopted city lives through her memoirs.
"There is something mystical about the attraction St. Petersburg has," she wrote. "Everybody in the world wanted to live here. And I could not blame them."
-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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