If you’ve ever wondered about the lustfulness of lettuce, the punitive powers of radishes or the erotic properties of baked goods, just ask Morro Bay author Vicki León. With her silver bob and sparkling blue eyes, she has a personality every bit as lively as her pun-filled prose.
A self-described historical detective, León searches for clues carved in stone, stamped on coins, painted on walls and scrawled on scraps of papyrus. Her blithe, breezy books recreate the lives of ordinary — and extraordinary — people of the past.
“There’s so much material,” said the 71-year-old, who humorously describes her house as “a frightening place.” “I have hundreds, maybe thousands of files. I have tons of paper, massive amounts of very rare obscure books.”
León’s research takes a saucy turn in her latest book, “The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love & Longing in the Ancient World.” It’s packed with the kind of anecdotes that make for compelling, if slightly off-color, cocktail-hour conversation, as Morro Bay bookseller Linna Thomas can attest.
Thomas, who founded Coalesce Bookstore with Janet Brown in 1973, described León as a sassy, unconventional author whose books command a large local following. During a Coalesce book signing event earlier this month, “We were absolutely jammed with people,” she said. “Vicki is the only person who draws that kind of crowd. … She inspires that kind of loyalty.”
An avid traveler who has gone through seven passports, León first ventured overseas as a newlywed. After graduating from Astoria High School in Oregon in 1960, she married and moved to the Aragon region of Spain, where her husband was stationed with the U.S. Air Force.
When the couple split eight years later, León opted to stay in Europe. She spent a year exploring Greece and its islands, living in a $22-a-month Athens apartment near the Acropolis and working as a film extra and English teacher.
“That’s really where the floodgates opened,” the author recalled. “It was such a passionate country. …. It still had that sense of place.”
Back in the United States, León began working as a travel writer, selling her first article to the now-shuttered Sacramento Union newspaper. She spent much of the 1970s bouncing back and forth between America, Europe and the Middle East, even spending six months at a kibbutz in Israel.
She applied the same free-wheeling approach to education as well as travel. “I don’t want to brag but I have dropped out of some of the best schools in the nation,” León quipped, although her most fruitful classroom experience might have been a Western Civilization class at Sacramento City College in 1973.
“It was halfway through the class when I said, ‘I’d really like to do some independent studies on women of long ago,'” León said. “‘I don’t mean Medea, I don’t mean goddesses, I mean real-life flesh-and-blood women.'” Intending to spare his student, her professor replied gently, “‘Well, Vicki, I don’t know if you’re going to find anything. It’s going to be really hard.’
“Of course, I really got irate at that and said, ‘Will you let me try?'”
While digging through Harvard University Press’s Loeb Classical Library, known for its collection of classical Greek and Latin literature, León discovered a treasure trove of fierce females, including Spartan royal Cynisca, a chariot racer who took first-place titles in at least two Olympic games in the fourth century B.C., and athletes Hedea, Tryphosa and Dionysia, a trio of fleet-footed sisters from Asia Minor whose feats electrified the Roman Empire in the first century A.D.
“There were girls and women who competed all around the Mediterranean at a time when — up until then — people never believed they did any such thing. That was really stunning to me,” said León, who would later dedicate nine books to the subject.
By the time León moved to San Luis Obispo in the mid-1970s, she was a full-bore freelance writer. She cemented her career with the publication of “The Moneywise Guide to California, Plus Reno, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Baja California” in 1982 by Presidio Press. A Los Angeles Times review of the guide compared León to humorist Erma Bombeck, adding, “This lively compendium of facts has more than thoroughness going for it. It’s got style.”
Over the decades, León has written 36 nonfiction titles ranging from travel guides to Hearst Castle and Highway 1 to kid-friendly nature books about dolphins, sea otters and other cuddly critters. But she’s best known for her history books — reader-friendly tomes stuffed with fascinating tidbits about the past.
In addition to four “Uppity Women” books for adults and three “Outrageous Women” books for younger readers, León wrote a compilation — “4,000 Years of Uppity Women: Rebellious Belles, Daring Dames, and Headstrong Heroines Through the Ages,” published in 2011 by MJF Books — that showcases the bold businesswomen, artists, politicians, physicians and others who helped shape history. They include medieval military leader Joan of Arc, 17th century pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read, and Jamaican priestess-turned-freedom fighter Grandy Nanny, who led a group of runaway slaves against the British army in 1739.
León returned her attention to the ancients in 2007 with the book “Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World,” the first in a series published by Walker & Company. Her anecdotes about scribes, sycophants and other working stiffs garnered attention from the likes of Entertainment Weekly and NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
León followed up her hit with “How to Mellify a Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition” in 2010. The book takes its title from the practice of preserving dead bodies using honey, the same sweet, sticky method used to mummify Alexander the Great’s corpse for centuries.
“The Joy of Sexus,” published in January, tackles an even more ticklish subject — love and sex as practiced in ancient Greece, Rome and the rest of the Mediterranean. Drawing from sources including government documents, graffiti and personal letters, many culled from the Loeb Classical Library’s “Select Papyri” collection, the author discusses everything from cross-dressing and gender-bending to buttock worship and breadstick dildos in sections such as “The Birds, the Bees, & the Body Parts” and “Red-Letter Days & Red-Hot Nights.”
As León explains in the book’s introduction, the ancients were earthy, plainspoken folk who saw all forms of romance and eroticism as interconnected. “Men and women alike craved love but feared its power,” she writes, often enlisting both mortal merchants and gods in their quest. “In their ardent drive to feel love and achieve sexual connection, the Greeks and Romans were irrepressible.”
So far, “The Joy of Sexus” has been a hit with readers near and far. Publishers Weekly hailed the book as “a snappy ride into the stunning, sometimes barbaric, and always entertaining sexuality of the ancient world.”
But León isn’t one to rest on her laurels; she’s currently working on a book about ancient medicine.”Once you’ve done that much spadework,” she said, “then you see other topics calling out to you.”