TV writer turned novelist finds gold in Gladdy Gold, P.I.

So, after wrapping up a successful 25-year career as a TV writer in L.A. and moving to Marin, what’s the next chapter?

That question loomed for Rita Lakin once the moving boxes were unpacked and she’d settled into her new home in San Rafael.

Sure, she’d volunteer at the local library, go the JCC and spend time with her sons — one a rare book dealer who writes novels, the other a counselor at San Rafael’s Brandeis Hillel Day School. She’d visit her daughter in Eureka, and certainly see her grandkids.

But after decades writing for such popular shows as “Dr. Kildare” and “The Mod Squad,” penning a few plays and co-writing the musical “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s,” which played a trio of cities and appears headed for New York this fall, Lakin was not ready for retirement bliss.

The creative juices still flowed.

So she wrote a “comedy mystery” about Gladdy Gold, detective extraordinare. The trim, quick-thinking Gold and her band of cohorts — sister Evvie and eccentric friends Sophie, Ida and Bella — reside in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. And, although they spend a fair amount of time doing what retirees do — relaxing by the pool, playing cards, enjoying “early bird specials” and yes, even flirting — they rise from their lounge chairs and put their intelligence to work when a spate of deaths plague their condo complex.

This tight-knit, comical group of private eyes make unlikely heroines. Nonetheless, they justifiably earn respect as “senior sleuths to the senior citizen.”

“Getting Old is Murder” was published by Bantam Dell, where editors encouraged Lakin to keep on writing. Her third mystery, “Getting Old is Criminal,” is due out May 1. Her next in the series is slated for publication in next year.

Lakin is modest about her success. “I got lucky with the book,” she says. “I hit the right place at the right time.”

She travels across the country, doing “a lot of speaking to older groups.” Her No. 1 fan club, she says with a grin, is a “Belgian Catholic group” in Green Bay, Wis. “I could get 100 people,” she says proudly.

And while her main claim to fame is Gladdy Gold, Lakin often takes the opportunity as a speaker to expound on “the joys of old age.”

Yet she is coy about her own: “I’ll admit to 67 — you can put it that way.”

She grew up in the East Bronx in “a Jewish-Italian-Irish neighborhood.” When she married and moved to Ann Arbor, where her husband attended the University of Michigan, she taught elementary school in a poor, outlying area where, she believes, her students had never seen a Jew. They asked: “Do Jews have horns like Mama told us?”

Even living in Los Angeles and working in the TV biz during the 1960s through 1980s — where “most of the people working there were Jewish or gay” — writing a Jewish-themed script was verboten, she says. One attempt, Lakin called it “Summer Without Boys,” reflected her childhood days when she and her mother spent summers in the Catskills.

When her script came to fruition, it “was very successful,” she says. “Of course, when they did it, they didn’t play it Jewish at all.”

Another time, she wrote an episode for “Daniel Boone,” based on a fascinating piece of history she’d discovered about kosher-observant Jews in the West. But “when I finally saw it on the air, they’d turned [the Jewish character] into an Irishman.”

Finally, while writing for “The Mod Squad,” she says, “we decided to take a big chance and do something that was Jewish.” The 1969 episode, “In This Corner, Sol Alpert,” focused on a wealthy “slumlord” put on trial in his synagogue’s beit din (rabbinical court) and ordered to make amends after secular law proved powerless.

But with Gladdy Gold, Lakin could let her Jewishness spill out. The characters, after all, are based on her mother, Gladys, her aunts and their friends, who all spent their final years in Fort Lauderdale. Lakin visited them regularly for a quarter century.

“I wanted to write something about them,” she explains. “As they got older and the men died off, the women began making new relationships to take care of one another.” She found them not only “brave,” but “hilariously funny.”

“I decided to do a comedy about growing old. There’s a lot of poignancy.”

With that in mind, she was “thrilled when people said they cried when they read my mystery books.”

She gets “tons” of email and is only sorry that her mother did not live long enough to read her books. Her 95-year-old aunt, however, who now resides in a nursing home, “passes them around to everyone she likes.”

If nothing else, Gladdy Gold and associates epitomize one of the best aspects of growing old, Lakin has realized.

“What I’m doing in my books is what people are doing in their lives.” You can “do anything, say anything, be anything” — however blunt or outlandish — “and nobody pays any attention.”

harris-liz
Liz Harris

Liz Harris is J.'s culture editor. She can be reached at liz@jweekly.com.