Many say the current presidential race is the most uncivilized in modern American history. Civility in public discourse, why it seems to have hit a new low and long-term implications for the democratic process.
Fannie Flagg is well known to listeners of a certain age as a comedian and actor, but she found her true calling as a writer. The daughter of a film projectionist, Flagg moved from Alabama to New York in her 20s to pursue acting. She soon became a regular on TV shows like “Candid Camera” and “The New Dick Van Dyke Show.” But years later, while in a Broadway play, Flagg found she had lost her passion to act. She quit and pursued a new dream: full-time writing. Her second novel, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café,” became a best seller and a blockbuster film. Flagg’s new book covers similar ground. Set partly in the South, it spans decades and features strong, trailblazing women. Diane talks with Fannie Flagg about her latest novel, “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.”
- Fannie Flagg screenwriter, actress and author of the best-seller "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" and "The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from THE ALL-GIRL FILLING STATION’S LAST REUNION by Fannie Flagg. Copyright © 2013 by Fannie Flagg. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Fannie Flagg, the best-selling author of "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" returns with a new novel that spans several decades and three generations. It tells the story of two women forced to reimagine who they are and what they might accomplish.
MS. DIANE REHMIt's titled "The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion." Fannie Flagg joins me in the studio. You are most welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome back to you, Fannie.
MS. FANNIE FLAGGOh, I'm thrilled to be back.
REHMI'm so glad to see you again.
REHMWell, and you know that "Fried Green Tomatoes" is one of my favorite books, one of my favorite movies, but I'm telling you this story is just incredible. Tell us the idea behind the novel.
FLAGGWell, you're so sweet to say that. It's so funny. When I continued writing books, I always wanted to write a sequel to "Fried Green Tomatoes," but everybody in the book, I killed off. I didn't -- and so I thought, I always wanted to do the sequel, and I -- but this book somehow in the universe came to me because of "Fried Green Tomatoes."
FLAGGAnd I'll tell you the story. When the movie came out, I wrote the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes" about my great-aunt who actually had a little railroad cafe. So the little cafe in Birmingham, after the movie came out, became a huge restaurant and sort of a tourist thing for people to come to Birmingham 'cause they say this is where the "Fried Green Tomatoes"...
REHMOf course. Of course.
FLAGGAnd my great aunt had passed away, but she sold it to a lovely family. And they were friends of mine. And one day I just happened to -- and I was in California, and I called the café and spoke to Mrs. McMichael who owned it. And she said, oh, Fannie, I'm so glad you called. She said, there's great gals here today for lunch. I said, oh, who? She said, well, they're the WASPs. I said, what?
FLAGGShe's -- yeah. And she said, you know, they flew military planes during the second world war.
FLAGGIt was 1999, and they were there for their last reunion...
REHMOh, I see.
FLAGG...because at that time -- Diane, they were in their 80s, you know? And there were just a few left. And I said, oh, my gosh, I didn't know that they had that. I said, give them my best, let me buy them lunch. Tell them hello and good -- you know? So I didn't think much about it. They sent -- the next year, I received a book in the mail, and it was written about the WASP that I actually -- one of the ones that were there, and another book.
FLAGGAnd I said, gosh, that'd be great to write about. So I put it aside because I was in the middle of another book and sort of -- I sort of went through it, and I thought, what -- how brave they were to fly those huge military planes. I'm a white-knuckle flyer, you know. I'm scared to even, you know, go on any plane. And they're flying them.
REHMAnd these young women...
REHMAnd they volunteer.
REHMAnd do we know how much they were paid?
FLAGGOh, they were just paid almost nothing.
REHMAnd they got this training to fly these huge military planes.
FLAGGWell, when the war started, a lot of these gals had already had their pilot's license. Some of them were very wealthy girls from Smith and Wellesley, and some, like one of my characters, just learned to fly because they happened to know a pilot like a crop duster or something like that.
REHMAnd some of them were too short, but they stood on their tiptoes.
FLAGGThey stood on boxes. They did everything. They were just unbelievably brave, but like -- as you know, when that war started, everybody wanted to do something. And these gals felt so strongly that they wanted to help the country. And what they did is they wanted to free up military pilots to go overseas, so they could fly planes within the United States. So they would ferry planes back and forth.
FLAGGBut it was still dangerous. It was very dangerous.
REHMYou bet. So now give us an outline of this new novel.
FLAGGWell, it starts with a gal named Sookie, and she lives in Point Clear, Ala. And she is one of those sweet southern gals, and she has a domineering mother.
REHMVery, to say the least.
FLAGGEverybody will recognize that.
FLAGGAnd this poor gal has just married off her last daughter. She has four daughters, and she had married her off. And one she's had to marry twice because she divorced, and she thinks she's going to settle down...
FLAGG...and have some time with her husband, Mr. Earl Poole Jr. And she's so thrilled because her mother is driving her crazy. But she has a nurse for her mother now. And the mother gets in all kinds of trouble because she writes political editorials, and she's always getting sued. So she gets all of her mail just to make sure there's nothing bad that comes through, and she gets a phone call from this man that she doesn't know. She picks up the phone, and this man tells her -- he said, Mrs. Poole, I have a letter for your mother, and….
REHMDo you want to read?
FLAGGI will do that.
REHMRead that portion for us.
FLAGGShe's going, oh, no, you know, what is it about? "What has my mother done now? I can't go through another lawsuit." And so she's talking to the man. "And she said, 'Is this from the Gym Shopping Network? Are they in Texas? Has she ordered more scatter pins? Oh, I hope not. She has over a hundred now.' 'No, ma'am.' 'Oh, well, is it from Barbara Bush? My mother thinks they have a lot in common, and she's always writing the poor woman asking her to come down for a visit.
FLAGG"I said, 'Mother, Barbara Bush is far too busy to come all the way down here just to go to lunch with you.' 'No, ma'am, it's not from Mrs. Bush.' 'Oh, well, is it a telephone bill? Has she called somebody and reversed the charges again? If so, I apologize in advance. We have a wonderful nurse watching her, but she must have turned her back for five minutes. Anyway, I'm so sorry, and tell whoever she's called that we'll be happy to pay for it.'
FLAGG"There was a pause, and then the man said, 'Mrs. Poole, we have a registered letter we are sending out overnight, and I just need to confirm that someone will be home tomorrow who is authorized to sign for it. Sookie's heart stopped. A registered letter. Oh, no. That always meant something legal. Sookie winced as she asked the dreaded question, 'Sir, when you use the term 'we,' are you by chance a law firm?' 'I'm sorry, Mrs. Poole, but I'm not at liberty to discuss it over the phone.'
FLAGG"Oh, God. It must be something serious if the man can't even discuss it over the phone. 'Listen, I'm so sorry. What is your name?' 'Harold, ma'am.' 'Listen, Harold, is it about some editorial she's written? She's watches the news and gets herself all riled up, and she's always spouting off about something. But, believe me, if my mother has made any threats against the government or said anything stupid, I can assure you that she's perfectly harmless. She's just an old lady -- well, harmless as far as not being armed or anything.
FLAGG"'She's just not quite right if you know what I mean. It's a family trait. You just have to know the Simmons. They are all a little off. She has a brother and sister that are really off. You have no idea how much trouble the woman has caused. She's almost 89 years old, and she won't go to assisted living. And she refuses to let us put in a walk-in tub for her, and I worry to death about her falling and breaking a hip.' She sighed, 'I'm sorry to be so upset. It's just that my poor husband and I have just gone through four weddings, and my little birds won't go around to the front yard.
FLAGG"'I'm just being overrun by Blue Jays, and another lawsuit is just not what I need right now. My nerves are all a jangle as it is. Can't you tell me what it's about?' 'I'm sorry, ma'am. I'm not authorized to give out any information over the phone.' 'Oh, please, Harold. Don't drag this out. You don't know me, but I really could go off the deep end at any moment. It's the Simmons' family curse. It hit Uncle Baby overnight, one day president of a bank and the next off weaving baskets over at Pleasant Hill. And Aunt Lily was perfectly fine, and then, for no reason, she shot at the paper boy.
FLAGG"'Thank God she didn't hit him, or we could all be sitting in jail right now.' 'As I said, Mrs. Poole, you will be receiving the letter in the morning.' 'Oh, Harold, can't you just open it up and read it to me now? I don't need to know all the details, just how much she's being sued for. We just went through our entire retirement account for a down payment for a house for our daughter Le Le and her husband. He's perfectly nice, but he plays the zither for a living.' 'Oh.' 'Yes. That's what we said, but she loves him. So what can you do? Anyway, we are mortgaged up to the hilt.
FLAGG"'Can't you at least tell me how much my mother is being sued for, so I can be prepared? I won't tell anyone, I promise.' 'I'm so sorry, ma'am, but I don't have the authority to do that. I was instructed to locate the current mailing address and send it on. That's all. This is not even my department. I'm just filling on.' 'Oh, I see. Well, couldn't you just take one quick little peek and tell me if it's over a hundred thousand dollars?' Then she heard his muffled voice obviously whispering behind his hand.
FLAGG"'Mrs. Poole, the wife and I just married off our daughter, so I know what you've been through. Don't worry, she's not being sued.' 'No? Oh, thank God. Oh, bless you, Harold. I don't know why, but with mother, I always assume it's going to be bad news. But then again, it could be good news, right?' Harold didn't say anything, so Sookie's mood suddenly brightened.
FLAGG"'Hey, wait a minute, did she win a contest or something? Are you from the Publisher's Clearinghouse? Should I have her over here at the house in the morning dressed and made up or anything? I need to know because she'll want to have her hair done. Will there be photographs or news people?' 'No, ma'am.' 'Oh, well, can you give me just a little hint of what to expect?'"
REHMShort break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Fannie Flagg is my guest this morning, one of my favorite authors with a brand-new book. It's titled "The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion." And you're going to hear what it's all about as we continue our discussion. We will be taking your calls, your email, postings on Facebook or tweets. Fannie Flagg, there was one tiny last paragraph to that telephone call.
FLAGGYes. "'Will there be news people?' 'No, ma'am.' 'Oh, well, can you give me a little hint of what to expect?' There was a long silence on the other end. Then Harold said, 'Mrs. Poole, all I can say is, you are not who you think you are.' And then he abruptly hung up."
REHMAnd therein lies the tale.
FLAGGLies the tale.
REHMIsn't that fun?
FLAGGOh, it's -- I hope so.
REHMWell, it is because what it does is set up a track for finding out without letting her mother know that she's looking. That's very important to her.
FLAGGYes. And, you know, I had -- it's the funniest thing, Diane. Somebody sent me a DNA test from National Geographic, you know, where they trace your...
FLAGGAnd I found out something that I never knew because my thing came back, and they said, your background is Finnish. I was so stunned because it never -- I never knew that.
REHMBut you know your skin is so fair, your eyes are so blue -- there you are.
FLAGGBut I didn't -- it was so funny. I always thought that I was Irish or English, you know. And just that little twist threw me a little bit. It made me think about myself in a different way, and I started looking at myself. I said, well, you don't look Scandinavian. So I thought, what would it be like for someone my age, you know, grown? You've got your life behind you...
FLAGG...and you find out you lived your entire life, and you had something really you didn't know about yourself.
REHMBut this is far more important because it starts her off on a search. And finding herself not only who she is, what she is, what her historical background is, and then the people with whom she connects in the process. And that's where the WASPs do begin to come in.
FLAGGYeah. Yes, because she traces herself. The only clue she has is she finds out that she is in fact Polish, Catholic, and is -- her family are from Pulaski, Wis.
REHMAnd here she is in the Deep South with a mother who...
FLAGGTotally Protestant, all South, and the mother just has told her all of her life that the Simmons were this old southern aristocracy family. You know, and they -- she has grown up hearing that. And all of a sudden, she's not who she thinks she is. And the fun is her trying to find out who she is.
REHMWhat about the similarities between your grandmother and Sookie?
FLAGGWell, actually, my grandmother -- it was so funny, Diane. Coming to see you, I was driving through the embassy places, and my grandmother had, I guess, would call it kindly illusions of grandeur. And she came here, and she drove by the British embassy. And she said, well, now that's where I belong, having tea. And so Sookie's mother is very much like my grandmother.
FLAGGAnd Sookie's relationship to her mother was very much like the relationship that my mother had with her mother.
FLAGGAnd I can remember my mother saying -- and I bet every woman has heard this -- when I would say how much I love my grandmother, my mother would be very kind. She would say, well, just be glad she's your grandmother and not your mother. Have we heard that before?
REHMWe've heard that before.
FLAGGSo it's -- but it's about -- it's hard growing up with a domineering mother, you know. And I think that has -- what has caused Sookie to be so rather shy and not have much self-confidence. And so I think that's basically where I got it. I observed that women that have domineering mothers tend to have to fight a little harder to find who they are.
REHMDid you have domineering mother?
FLAGGNo, I had -- I didn't. I was lucky. My mother was very, very sweet. And if anything, I wish she had done more. You know, my grandmother used to say, you know, to her, oh, you need to get out and do more. And my mother was much more of a housewife type than my grandmother. My grandmother was very out in the world and of that generation that just did a lot.
REHMFannie, you had certainly ambitions to be an actress.
REHMAnd you followed that dream. You went to New York. You did what you wanted to do not only on television but in stage productions. What was it that was inside you that finally made you say to yourself, I'm done with this, I really, really want to write?
FLAGGDiane, I always, my whole life, wanted to write -- it was so funny. I don't know where it came from, but I, as you know, was very dyslexic. So I thought I couldn't be a writer. I thought all writers had to be English majors. And so I went in to show business because it was all I could do. I tried to be a waitress.
FLAGGAnd I got fired because I couldn't spell what I was supposed to write down. And they fired me because I'd get nervous, and they couldn't read my writing. So I just -- I don't know where it came from, but I just always felt more comfortable observing people. I just love to look at people. My favorite thing in the world is to sit and watch people, you know.
REHMI do the same thing...
FLAGGYes, you do.
REHM...in the morning looking out this beautiful window.
FLAGGOh, and I just -- at the point that you're speaking of, I was on Broadway doing "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." And I came to work one day, and I just was not happy. And I thought to myself -- it was so strange. I thought, I'm taking a job away from someone who would just love to be here. And I just stopped and quit show business and pursued writing. And I'm so glad I did because it was like, all of a sudden, I realized that's where I should have been all my life.
REHMHow did you feel when you finished "Fried Green Tomatoes," the screenplay?
FLAGGI was -- I personally was thrilled with it. And I was so lucky because, Diane, as you know, so many of my friends are writers, and their films are nothing like their book.
FLAGGSo I was blessed in that I got the great actresses to play those roles, and I thought that the director did a beautiful job.
FLAGGAnd what meant the most to me was that it brought a lot of people together. A lot of people took their mothers to that film, their best friends to that film. And women's friendship is so important, you know. My mother had wonderful women friends. And they help you get through life.
REHMAs do I.
REHMIt's so, so important.
FLAGGAnd it just means the world to me. And it meant the world to me that I could write about these particular women in this book because they just didn't get enough credit. And I just feel like somehow I want so much for people to realize how brave these girls were.
REHMNow, people have loved hearing you read. Why don't we turn to page 116 where Sookie goes to the Chamber of Commerce in Pulaski, Wis. to find out about her biological family? One sixteen.
FLAGGOne sixteen. Well, she decides that she really is nervous about it, but she has the town where her mother came from. And she was very concerned that she needed to find out anything about their background that might affect their children, like their health and everything.
FLAGGAnd so she thinks about it for months. And so finally, she says -- "Sookie finally got up her nerve and called the information and got the number for the Pulaski, Wis. Chamber of Commerce. She grabbed a small paper bag just in case and started -- she started to hyperventilate. When she dialed area code 920 and the number answered, a woman, with a very blunt and definite accent that was alien to Sookie said, 'Hi. This is Marianne. Can I help you?'
FLAGG"'Oh, hello, you don't know me. But I'm calling to inquire about a family there named Jurdabralinski.' 'Who?' She spelled the name for her. 'Oh, yeah, the Jurdabralinskis, the gas station family.' 'Pardon me?' 'They used to run the gas station in town.' 'Oh, I see. Well, do you happen to know if the family was healthy?' 'Healthy?' 'Yes, any history of diabetes, heart problems, any mental issues, cancer or alcoholism?'
FLAGG"'Oh, geez, hun, never heard anything about that. My mom went to school with a couple of the Jurdabralinski gals. And, as I recall, there were four girls and a boy, and the two other girls were twins.' 'Twins? Oh, really? For heaven's sakes.' 'Oh, yeah. And one of the girls became a nun, and they were all healthy as far as I know.' 'Do you know if any of them are still around?' 'Oh, let me see. I think Tula Tuwenski (sp?) was a Jurdabralinski before she married Norbert.
FLAGG"'But they moved over to Madison. Are you a relative?' 'Oh, no, I'm just a college student doing some research on old Polish families.' 'Well, we sure got a lot of them in Pulaski. Now I can find out more about the Jurdabralinskis for you, where they are, and so forth. But it'll take a few days. We're awfully busy here this week. We got the Polish Polka Days going on. And we're up to our ears in activities with the parade and all.'
FLAGG"'Oh, well, I won't keep you then. I'll call back next week.' 'Give me your name, hun.' 'My name?' Sookie panicked. 'Oh, it's Alice, Alice Finch.' 'OK then, Alice, I'll talk to you next week then.' She hated to lie to the woman, and she was sure she didn't sound like a college student. But she had to protect her real mother and Lenore as well. As she was quickly finding out, one deception begets a hundred others. At least she had gotten a little information.
FLAGG"The woman said that the Jurdabralinskis were healthy as far as she knew. That was all the information she really needed. Her hands were shaking as it was. What if her mother was the one who became a nun? Then she really wouldn't want me showing up. And if she found out that her child had not been raised Catholic, she wouldn't like that either. She had enough information, too much really. She was afraid to call back. Who knows what else she might find out?"
REHMFannie Flagg, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Fannie, your ability to act comes through in your reading. I hope you're going to read this book on tape.
FLAGGYes, I did already.
REHMGood. Oh, I'm so glad because so many of our listeners love to listen to books on tape.
REHMMany of your novels have been set in the South. You were raised in Birmingham. Tell us about your childhood there.
FLAGGI was an only child, and my father and my grandfather were both motion picture machine operators. And I saw too -- as they say, I saw too many movies.
REHMI loved movies growing up.
FLAGGI do, too. So I grew up in the movies and we lived in a little apartment. It's so funny because most people assume that people from the South, you know, lived in -- but I lived in a little, tiny apartment in Birmingham, which, as you know, is a large industrial sort of iron, coal, and steel city. And I did have a wonderful childhood in those -- growing up in those beautiful movie theaters. And, of course, this was in the '40s and the '50s, so the movies then were so much fun.
REHMOh, my gosh.
REHMYou're absolutely right. I grew up in the same era. And going to the movies with my mother was my greatest satisfaction. Yeah.
FLAGGMe, too. Oh, it was just fantastic. And everybody was happy. And, you know, I remember all the comedies and...
REHMAnd the musicals...
REHM...and the Esther Williams spectaculars. Yeah.
FLAGGSpectaculars and Doris Day.
FLAGGAll those wonderful people. And I just -- I sit back, and I think about that time. And I think we grew up in the Golden Age, I think.
FLAGGWe're so lucky.
FLAGGI wouldn't take anything for growing up back then.
REHMAnd that clearly set you on a path. Did you know then watching those movies that you wanted to someday be part of something like that?
FLAGGI think I -- I think I did. It's so funny, Diane. I had a, you know, the stage mothers. I had a stage father.
FLAGGHe was so funny. He was hilarious. He was a funny, funny person. And he had wanted to go into show business. And he, of course, didn't. He was in the Air Force during the Second World War. And he came to California and fell in love with it and wanted to move there. And my mother wouldn't go with him. So he always longed to -- want to be in show business, so he pushed me a little bit, which was great. And it was very unusual back then for men to push women into a career.
REHMFannie Flagg, her new novel is titled the "The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion." Short break here. When we come back, your calls, your comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Fannie Flagg is with me. And, of course, you know her from many of her books, my favorite being "Fried Green Tomatoes." She now has a new one. It's titled "The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion." Obviously, Fannie, people are loving hearing you read. Margaret in Grand Prairie, Texas says, "I haven't laughed so much in weeks. I really needed a lift." Here's a tweet from Myrna, "Great radio, lovely story."
REHMAnd here is a message from Kate at Texas Woman's University who says, "I'm thrilled to hear Ms. Flagg's story incorporating the story of the WASP. I've been working on a nonfiction book on the women following them from their youth to the present and can assure you that she is quite right. They are amazing. Even today, your listeners might like to know there are nearly 200 of the women still with us. And some of us are building them a float for the 2014 Tournament of Roses Parade.
REHM"And people can go to www.WASPFloat.com to learn more."
REHMIsn't that terrific?
FLAGGOh, so they're going to be on television.
REHMHow about that?
REHMI'm so happy for them. Now let's go to Joe who's in Bethany Beach, Del. Hi, Joe, you're on the air.
JOEHi, Diane. I love you so much. I just love you so much.
REHMOh, thank you.
JOEI'm just calling -- a little nervous -- but I just wanted to say that I loved Fannie Flagg since "Match Game," and she wore the fried eggs on the T-shirt. I don't know if you remember that.
FLAGGYes, I do, honey. I do.
JOEI'm also a southerner. I'm from actually Murfreesboro, Tenn.
JOEAnd I ran to New York back in the '80s and wanted to be an actor and ended up being an artist. And I met all the celebrities, all the people. I was a horrible waiter as well and ended up making handmade cards on the street in SoHo. This was back in the '80s. And I picked up a job with Sesame Street. And what I'm calling for is that I had enough of New York and went back to the South.
JOEMy mom and dad were doing antiques, and I was just cutting and carving things. So they said, well, make a crab. And I made two crabs. One said soft shell crabs. The other one said, we have crabs. And about a year later, someone called my mom and dad and said, you're not going to believe this. This is hanging at the end of the Whistle Stop in the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes." So I was like, what?
FLAGGOh, how fabulous.
JOESo I just wanted to call and thank you for starting a new chapter in my life as an artist. I've been doing carvings and things since that. But anytime anyone wants to know anything about me, I just said, it's hanging from the Whistle Stop at the Inn. It says, we have crabs...
FLAGGOh, how fabulous.
REHMHow about that. I'm so happy for you, Joe, and I'm glad you called today.
REHMI want to ask you about the title "The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion." Why don't you read that portion for us?
FLAGGOK. And then I'll tell you how I came up with the title. You'll love that.
REHMOK. All right.
FLAGGOK. Well, first of all, this is the beginning of the Second World War. And all the men in the town left, of course, and so all the women had to do everything. And so we come up with the all-girl filling station, and this is in Pulaski, Wis. "That spring when the station got busy, Gertrude and Tula came up with an idea of their own to help speed up customer service. They presented it to their older sister Fritzi, and she approved.
FLAGG"After that, the minute they carpooled in, Tula and Gertrude, wearing cute little caps and short skirts with fringe on them, would fly out of the station on roller skates. And while Fritzi was filling the car with gas, they would clean all the windows, the lights and the tag in less than two minutes. And sometimes if the boys inside the car were cute, they added extra little twists and twirls and skated backwards as they cleaned.
FLAGG"Mama watched them out of the window one day and later said to Fritzi, 'Don't you think all that skating around is a little too show-offy?' 'No, I don't.' Mama laughed. 'No, you wouldn't. And it brings in the customers like crazy. Well, whatever you think, Fritzi. I didn't know what we would have done without you. If anything happens to me or papa, I can die happy because I know you'll take care of the girls.' 'Sure, mama.' 'But I worry about you sleeping in the station all night. Are you sure you want to do that?' 'Sure, I'm sure. Don't you worry about a thing, mama.'
FLAGG"Fritzi didn't tell mama, but being on roller skates at a gas station could be dangerous. One day, Tula had shot out of the station to the tune of "A Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" with a rag in her hand and had hit a grease spot. To everyone's amazement, she skidded underneath a big 18-wheeler truck, came out the other side and ended up all the way across the street. Without missing a beat, she had skated back across the street to the station and finished cleaning the window of a Packard."
REHMBravo. Truly, truly that is wonderful. So you have this all-girl filling station.
FLAGGYes. Well, it's -- you know, it was so fantastic that the women -- this is -- I think this started the resurgence of the women's movement because these women had to do things that they never would have done. And the title -- I have to tell you the title -- I was thinking -- because the WASP, when I first knew of them, were having a reunion there in Birmingham. But I wanted to say, how would a girl that didn't have a lot of money and who had a plane already, how would she learn to fly and -- or to know how to work with motors?
FLAGGAnd I was thinking about this, and I was walking on a golf course one day. And I asked this guy -- I said, let me ask you something. Why do these players keep hitting the balls in the wrong -- over in my yard? And he laughed. And so we started talking. And I was telling him I wanted to write about the Second World War when everybody in this country was pulling together, and we were all -- nobody was fighting with one another, you know, because I was sort of missing that time.
FLAGGAnd he said, yeah, he said, you know, that was a good time. And he said, my mother -- yeah, I remember my mother during the war. And I said, oh yeah. And he said, yeah. He said, she was a member of an all-girl filling station.
REHMHow about that.
FLAGGWell, Diane, the minute he said that, my hair stood up on my head, and I went, you're kidding. She had -- there was a filling station, motors. These gals would have to know this stuff, right. And so he said, yes. And I said, do you have a picture of her? He said, I don't, but my sister might. So he send me a photograph of these four gals standing in the snow in International Falls, Minn. holding hands in front of this filling station. And it just set me wild.
REHMOh, how marvelous.
FLAGGIsn't that wonderful?
REHMJust a great story.
FLAGGSo things come out of the universe when you really want them.
REHMAll right. To Bill in Sarasota, Fla. You're on the air.
BILLHello, Fannie Flagg.
BILLThis is a voice from your past. You talked about the tiny apartment that you lived in in Birmingham.
BILLAnd my name is Bill Shea, and I lived next door to you.
FLAGGBill, my gosh, you darling thing. How are you?
BILLI'm just fine. Now, I wanted to ask you on the air -- and I could be wrong about this -- but did your father not select your name Fannie Flagg because you could not use your birth name?
FLAGGBill, you're absolutely right. I was in the theater, and you have to join Equity. And my real name -- this is hilarious -- is the name of a movie star.
FLAGGPatricia Neal. And so at the -- I said, oh, daddy, I'm in big trouble. I've got to come up with a name within an hour. And he said, well, he said, your granddad worked the Vaudeville spotlight, and there used to be a lot of comedians that came through Birmingham. They were named Fannie. And he said, take that. It'll be a good luck name. And so then we called all around town, and a friend of mine came up with Fannie Flagg. And I thought, well, that's the silliest name I could think of. And I have it forever, Bill. So there you go.
FLAGGBut Bill knew me as little Patsy Neal, didn't you, Bill?
BILLThat's right. I knew you as Patsy Neal.
REHMWell, Bill, I'm...
BILLI have one more thing that I would like for your listeners.
BILLFannie Flagg, you talked about your mother whose first name was Marion.
BILLBut your mother was a stunning-looking woman.
REHMAnd Fannie is...
BILLAnd you look like her.
FLAGGThank you so much.
REHMAbsolutely. Fannie is herself a stunning-looking woman.
FLAGGOh, sweetheart, I'm just thrilled to hear from you.
REHMIsn't that nice...
REHM...to hear from old friends? Let's go to Ogden, Utah. Hi there, Peggy. You're on the air.
PEGGYI should say, hey, Diane and Fannie.
PEGGYFannie, thanks ever so much for the book and movie "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe." It is such a -- those are such favorites of mine.
FLAGGOh, I'm glad.
PEGGYAnd I wanted to tell you that my friend and I even diverted part of our driving trip to Savannah, so we could eat at that movie restaurant (unintelligible). And they were out of fried green tomatoes.
FLAGGOh, how -- oh, that's no good.
PEGGYI wanted to ask you, as someone who has a southern accent herself -- I'm from Atlanta -- have you ever found that having a southern accent has been a hindrance to you?
FLAGGWell, you know, I'm so glad you asked me that question. I'm telling you, honey, I went to -- I was in the Miss Alabama Pageant to try to get a scholarship because I didn't have enough money to go to college. So I won a scholarship in the Miss Alabama Pageant to the Pittsburgh Playhouse. And I went up to Pittsburgh, and I was just so southern. And I stayed there for a year, and they were -- they -- the man that ran the playhouse said to me when I left that year, he said, honey, you're a sweet girl. You're a nice person, but you're not going to work in show business with that accent, darling.
FLAGGAnd why don't you just, you know, find something...
REHMGive this up.
FLAGGAnd I said, oh, OK. And what was so hilarious is that I'm the only one from that graduating class that has worked because of my accent. I think it was so different when I started doing, like, "The Johnny Carson Show" that it set me apart a little bit. So I kind of have to say I think it worked in my favor. And I had tried -- I tried so hard, honey, not to have it. And I tried to speak like that, and I would get off the plane from Pittsburgh having had all those speech lessons. And I would say, hello, mother, hello, father. I said, I'm so glad to be home. I'm just so happy to be here. And it was all over.
REHMIsn't that too much?
FLAGGYeah, so thank you for the phone call.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There's one more passage, and that begins on page 230. It's about Fritzi's letter to Sophie.
FLAGGYes. Fritzi is the oldest daughter, and she is the first to go into the WASP. And she is much of a daredevil. Her little sister Sophie is a little shy and a very pretty, sweet little girl. And she, like most of the girls that could fly, wanted desperately to be a flier. And Fritzi finds out about it, and this is the letter she writes home. This is from Long Beach, Calif.
FLAGG"'Dear Sophie, I hear from home there are still some rumblings about you threatening to sign up for the WASPs. Hum. I know you didn't ask for my advice, but you're getting it anyway. Here's the deal. It ain't easy. Once you get to Avenger Field, you will be sharing a room with six other girls and a bathroom with 12 others. No privacy. They will work you until you drop. The instructors here are strictly Army and tough. And if you don't wash out and do start delivering planes, it's worse. You are up before dawn and head out in the cold, so you can get to the airport, ready to take off at first light.
FLAGG"You will most likely be flying in an open cockpit in snowstorms, sleet, and rain, or in weather so hot you're a baked potato when you land. And not to be crude, but these planes are designed for men with a built-in tube. And once you're up, there's no way we can wiggle out of 40 pounds of heavy flying suits and a parachute and go to the bathroom. And on those four- and five-hour trips, this can be hell. Once you deliver, you are on your own to get back to base.
FLAGG"Now because they don't want any talk about fraternization, they won't let us hop a ride back on a military plane with the guys. So we have to go commercial or any way we can. And here is my other big worry -- guys. As good looking as you are, you are bound to be swamped by every guy here wanting to date you. We are outnumbered by the guys about 5,000-to-1, and I'm not sure you're ready to handle that.
FLAGG"Gertrude, your sister is a big gal, and, as you know, I have a big mouth. So we can take care of ourselves. But knowing you, you're a sucker for a sob story. In other words, I don't think this is the place for you. You've always been on the delicate side, and I am not sure you could even get through the physical training.
FLAGG"I know you want to help out, but there are a lot of other things you can do. You mean too much to mom and pop and all of us. And if anything ever happened to you, I would never forgive myself. OK? I've had my say and told you the worst, and you have to make your own decision. But at least you have been warned. Love you kid, Fritzi.'"
REHMFannie, that is just such a beautiful letter, but it also outlines the hardships that those women went through.
REHMDo you think that at some point they will have all the recognition they deserve?
FLAGGI think at some point they will. They must. And it won't be soon enough, but I would like for their children and grandchildren to know how fabulous they were.
REHMAnd we must tell people that your book has been sold to...
FLAGGI can't really say.
REHMOK. But expect a movie from this one, "The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion." Fannie Flagg, congratulations.
FLAGGThank you so much.
REHMIt's so good to have you here.
FLAGGIt's so wonderful to be here with you.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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