CLEARWATER — Thirty-five years before Heidi Fleiss, the FBI raided a Miami bordello fashioned after a Moorish castle and frequented by wealthy and famous clients.
The owner, a woman who called herself Madame Sherry, spent a year in jail. Upon her release, she crafted her revenge: a tell-all memoir with author Robert Tralins. The Florida attorney general banned the book as obscene, which was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.
Mr. Tralins enjoyed the controversy created by his book, Pleasure Is My Business. The author of at least 251 titles had accomplished daring feats through his James Bond-like hero, Jack Lund, defeating terrorists, drug lords and leaders of occult groups.
He had sowed vicarious wild oats with 1960s titles like Win With Sin, Operation Boudoir and Invasion of the Nymphomaniacs under the pen name Sean O'Shea and with racy illustrations on the covers.
He was guided by an unswerving independence, raising a family through only his writing income and living aboard a sailboat for many years. He hobnobbed with science-fiction writers Piers Anthony and L. Ron Hubbard. His nonfiction about the paranormal led to a Fox television series, Beyond Belief.
He sailed to Clearwater in 1989 on his live-aboard boat, the Sonya Lee, then moved into a Belleair Bluffs home in 2000. He loved the Tampa Bay area, which he said reminded him of Miami in more innocent times. Though none of the action in his novels took place in Clearwater, Signal: Blackbird follows Lund as he searches through Haiti for "Crabby Bill," a character modeled after the local restaurateur.
"He wrote a lot of things that were considered smut or very trashy and are now considered kitsch," said grandson Keith Tralins, including "a lot of early lesbian pornography."
On closer inspection, however, Mr. Tralins' own life was free of the burdens that cost other writers their careers, and often, their lives. He was not a big drinker or a spendthrift, had few bad habits and did not struggle with depression, his family said. "At the end of the day, he lived this adventuresome life, but he ended up at home with his wife and kids," said Keith Tralins, 37, a writer and video game producer who lives in California.
Mr. Tralins was already a well-known local figure in Miami when Pleasure Is My Business came out in 1961. The state had seen nothing like it. Its revelations included voyeurism through one-way mirrors; the patronage of the king of Egypt; and a demure socialite the book calls "Miss Greenaway," who, after a few stiff drinks in the "castle," engaged in hours of sex with multiple men.
The Florida attorney general banned the book, which he called "obscene, lewd … degrading, sadistic, masochistic and disgusting" — among other things.
But in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ban — as well as a similar ban on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer — citing the obscenity standard authored earlier that year by Justice Potter Stewart: "I know it when I see it."
Mr. Tralins, who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, "laughed about it because he never got better press," his grandson said. The notoriety also got him writing gigs for radio hosts Arthur Godfrey and Larry King.
He saw himself as a righter of wrongs and a defender of society's scapegoats.
"He was fascinated that people who were perceived as low were really human and had been kept down," his grandson said. "He was also obsessed with the two-facedness of the wealthy and powerful. Most of his writings, even though they are pulp and have a kitsch factor, are really all about that."
Each of his interests usually resulted in a string of books, often with suggestive subplots. His admiration for African-Americans undergoing civil rights struggles, for example, inspired titles like Black Stud, Black Pirate and Slave's Revenge.
His interest in unsolved crimes, piqued by an uncle's murder in a grocery store, gave birth to a magazine in the late 1970s, the National Crime Reporter, which encouraged readers to submit tips — an idea well ahead of television shows like America's Most Wanted.
But it was his fascination with the occult, bolstered by a great-uncle's disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle aboard the U.S.S. Cyclops, that brought Mr. Tralins one of his greatest successes. Having seen some of his books, such as Weird People of the Unknown, Supernatural Warnings and Children of the Supernatural, Fox television producers decided to base a television series on unexplained events. Beyond Belief : Fact or Fiction debuted in 1997 with James Brolin as host and ran through 2002.
Mr. Tralins grew up in Baltimore, the son of a grocer. As a boy, he hung around a corner used book store frequented by the novelist John Dos Passos, played an expert game of chess and dreamed of being a writer.
He fought as a Marine in World War II, worked in a shipyard and taught himself how to type. In 1989, Mr. Tralins moved to Clearwater with his wife, Sonya, who had leukemia. He wanted to be near his son, oncologist Alan Tralins. Sonya died soon after.
Mr. Tralins continued to write, even as his prostate cancer worsened. He was nearly finished on a serious work of historical fiction, Israel Dance, which had consumed at least 30 years.
In recent years, he resisted any suggestion that he move out of his home.
"He was an independent person," said another grandson, Dr. Kevin Tralins. "He was determined to stay that way, and he did."
Mr. Tralins died Thursday, at his home. He was 84.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.