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Southern Scandals

Memories of anti-Semitism inspire TV writer Loraine Despres' first novel.

by Naomi Pfefferman

November 29, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Author Loraine Despres

Author Loraine Despres

TV writer Loraine Despres dreamed up her award-winning debut novel, "The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc," (William Morrow, $24) after a creative writing class stirred her memories of growing up Jewish in Amite, La.

Despres recalled the bullet holes in her bedroom wall, courtesy of the night the anti-Semitic "Just Our Kind" gang tried to run her family out of town in the early 1900s. "They galloped into the yard of our white, columned house yelling, 'Prepare to meet your maker!'" says Despres, who'll speak about her book at the National Council of Jewish Women on Dec. 4. "Fortunately, my great-grandmother was a good shot."

Another family story was the time a neighbor walked into her grandfather's store after spying his wife with another man in a nearby bar. "He bought a gun, walked back to the bar, and shot them dead," the author says. "My grandfather felt so guilty that he vowed he'd never sell another handgun on credit."

Over time, Despres' reminiscences began congealing into a story -- a fictional love triangle set at the dawn of the civil-rights movement in an anti-Semitic hamlet just like Amite. The author envisioned the illicit lovers as Sissy LeBlanc, a 32-year-old housewife stuck in a sham marriage; and Parker Davidson, her tall, dark and Jewish high school sweetheart, just returned to town. Despres decided that the first time Sissy sees Parker again, she'd notice that "his shrink-to-fit jeans had shrunk just right."

"Sissy began to bother me after that," confides Despres, who now lives in Beverly Hills with her husband, a TV producer. "She kept coming to me at night. I'd be lying in bed, and I'd have to get up to write down what she said."

Like the fictional Parker, Despres had parents who admonished her not to embarrass them in front of the town gentiles. "We played down our Jewishness, but I still felt like an outsider," confides the author, who attended Christian Bible schools because there wasn't a synagogue for miles.

It wasn't until she was 12 and her family moved to Chicago that Despres enrolled in Hebrew school and learned about Judaism. Eventually, she studied theater at Northwestern University, moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and began writing for "Love Boat" and "Dynasty." She says she went to work for "Dallas" because "I was Southern, and the show had no Southern writers. They were all New York Jews."

After penning the show's famed "Who Shot J.R.?" episode, Despres taught screenwriting at UCLA, but tired of the genre by the late 1990s. "I didn't feel like I had any ideas anymore," says the author, who instead became determined to write her first novel.

As "Sissy" took shape, Despres decided to head each chapter with a different rule from the "Southern Belle's Handbook" -- which is what she had ironically titled the compendium of helpful hints and rules her aunt and grandmother had tried to instill in her.

Despres' "rules" include tart tips like "When deciding whether or not to have sex, a Southern Belle does exactly what she wants, while perpetuating the illusion that, although this might not be her first time, it's certainly the first time that ever mattered." She believes her rules have helped out "all those Yankee readers who are beautiful, worked-out, but miserable because they don't know how to handle a man." Yet she insists her "handbook" is not to be confused with the 1995 self-help book, "The Rules," also for single women, by the Yankee Jewish authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. Those rules include tips like "Don't talk to a man first." "But a Southern woman does what she pleases," Despres sniffs.

For information about Despres' appearance at the National Council of Jewish Women, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, call (323) 852-8518.

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