CALIFORNIA: Sin & Souffl

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From the moment she got off the train in California more than 30 years ago, Lucy Hicks liked Oxnard, and Oxnard liked Lucy. The town was newly rich on sugar beets, and its Chinese and Mexican laborers blew their pay nightly on light ladies, gambling, whiskey and opium. Lucy, a skinny, 6-ft. Kentucky Negro, decided to stay, set out to get a good reputation as a preliminary to getting a bad one. She began cooking for Oxnard's leading families. By the time she opened her first house of prostitution, off Oxnard's crib-bordered China Alley, her genius in the kitchen was the talk of the town.

When the sheriff arrested her one night, her double-barreled reputation paid off—Charles Donlon, the town's leading banker, promptly bailed her out. Reason: he had scheduled a huge dinner party which would have collapsed dismally with Lucy in jail. After that, for three decades, Lucy Hicks trafficked successfully in both sin and souffle.

Landmark. As Oxnard grew (1945 pop.: 18,979), Lucy's lone bawdyhouse expanded into a half-block of frame buildings, each well furnished, neatly painted and with window boxes full of geraniums. In Ventura County she became as well known as Oxnard's huge American Crystal Sugar Co. refinery. Lucy was the more spectacular sight. She wore bright, low-cut silk dresses from which her slatlike collarbones protruded, and she affected picture hats and high-heeled shoes. Her wigs were her pride —she had a long, black, wavy one, a short, straight, bobbed one, and for special occasions a shoulder-length job in red.

Lucy was accepted by easygoing Oxnard as commercially, not personally, involved in the operation of her bordellos. She not only kept on cooking in Oxnard's big houses, but tended children, helped dress many an Oxnard daughter for parties. The town thought little of seeing fat and prosperous Oxnard dames driving to Lucy's house to borrow one of her legendary recipes. When a new Catholic priest came to town, Lucy prepared the barbecue with which the parish welcomed him. She gave generously to the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts and charities, cackling happily: "Jist don't ask where the money came from."

Tears & Champagne. When the U.S. went to war, Lucy gave expensive going-away parties for the sons of prominent families, served the best of champagne. When an Oxnard boy was killed in action, Lucy would visit the bereaved family and bawl like a cow with a thistle in its throat. When President Roosevelt died, Oxnard newspapers carried a paragraph of solemn comment from Lucy as well as from churchmen and other civic leaders.

Strict, wartime regulations which shut down most of the West Coast's bawdy-houses bothered Lucy not at all. Her local fame and her knowledge of town secrets had long since made her just about immune to the law. By V-J day she had purchased almost $50,000 in war bonds.

But last week the Navy traced a case of venereal disease to Lucy's establishment. Despite her protests, her claim that she had never been anything but a proprietor, Oxnard's Dr. Hilary R. Mangan insisted on examining Lucy as well as her girls. A few minutes later the doctor had news the like of which Oxnard had not heard since the San Francisco earthquake.

Lucy was a man.