You Just Never Know…

For me, a research rabbit hole can come from anywhere or anything. It can start with a line in a newspaper article, the off-hand mention of a name in a YouTube video, or even a book in the free bin. The free bin is where I came across one of my favorite serendipitous research subjects, Roberta Leigh. It was a 1969 U.S. printing of her 1968 book Pretence, and boy howdy does it stand out in a crowd.

Cover of US Harlequin edition of Pretence, by Roberta Leigh.
Cover of Pretence by Roberta Leigh

The vibrant color! The level of detail! The strange inclusion of the hero’s behind! There’s no way I couldn’t snap this up and try to learn more. This was an era when Harlequin was only republishing Mills & Boon authors, so I knew Roberta Leigh had to be British, but that was all I knew. It turned out there was more to her than I could’ve ever imagined.

Roberta Leigh was the assumed name of Rita Shulman Lewin (1926-2014). Born in London to Russian Jewish immigrants, Rita knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer, and published her first novel, In Name Only, at the age of 24 in 1950, having adopted the pen name Roberta Leigh. She continued to write for Mills & Boon over the next decade but in 1957 expanded her work to include children’s television, writing and producing the marionette-based shows The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy for ITV. Most of the episodes of these two shows are lost to history, but this video provides an entertaining look at their production.

In 1963, Leigh had a huge hit with the show Space Patrol, a futuristic science fiction show that again used marionettes, predating Thunderbirds by two years. In addition to writing and producing the show, Leigh wrote the show’s electronic theme music. By this point, Leigh had stopped writing for Mills & Boon and was producing television full-time. She was one of the Directors of National Interest Pictures, making her the first woman in England to control her own production studio. All in all, Leigh produced something like 275 TV shows and short films before the market for marionette-based TV began to dry up and she returned to writing romance in 1972.

Roberta Leigh was incredibly prolific as a romance author, writing more than 100 titles under the Leigh name as well as Rachel Lindsay, Janey Scott, and Rozella Lake. According to her obituary in the Telegraph, in 1977 Leigh wrote 24 books in total, at times dictating 2,500 words an hour to two secretaries (Barbara Cartland used a similar method). Her last book was published in 1994, but it was reported she was still working on manuscripts around the time of her death in 2014.

One last fun fact about Roberta Leigh- in 1963, she lent her voice to the audio version of the sex education book The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born!

Today we’re used to knowing every last biographical detail about our favorite romance authors- who is/was a lawyer and who is/was a librarian, etc. So it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, authors were a mystery, no matter how amazing they were in their other identity. And you just never know what you’re going to find out, or when.

Published by Steve Ammidown

I'm a mercenary archivist interested in genre fiction, physical and digital usability in archives, and telling the stories held within the records.

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