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.

Video: Romance in Graphic Novels and Comics Panel

On February 18, 2021 I had the great pleasure of appearing on an amazing panel for the Escondido Public Library with Sarah Kuhn, Sydney Heifler, and Johnnie Christmas, talking about two of my favorite things- romance and comics. It was great fun, and I always love hearing really smart people like Sarah, Sydney, and Johnnie talk about what they do best. You can watch the video on the library’s YouTube channel!

Thanks to Jessica Buck for inviting me to take part and to the Escondido Public Library for hosting.

I’m always happy to talk about romance fiction history with library audiences or on podcasts! Send me an email if you’d like me to talk with your group and we’ll figure something out.

Gwynne Forster (1922-2015)

There were a number of people who donated their manuscripts to the Browne Popular Culture Library who I wish I’d had a chance to met while they were alive, but Gwendolyn Johnson-Acsadi, who wrote as Gwynne Forster, is at the top of the list. The North Carolina native with degrees from Howard and American Universities was a talented sociologist and demographer before turning her skills to writing romance in later life. The biographical note for the finding aid to her papers only scratches the surface of how amazing she was. While the original donation of her papers came in the late 1990s, long before my time at BGSU, I was lucky enough to work with her family to make a major addition to the collection in 2019. Those papers show the life of a woman who spent more than 30 years working at the U.N. before retiring to start her own demography consulting business with the love of her life, George, AND serving as chairperson of the International Programme Committee of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when she was in her 70s, that she embarked on a writing career that would last for more than a decade.

I really want someone to write a book about Gwendolyn’s life, including her romance-novel worthy love story. Her daughter-in-law told me that Gwen and George met at a population conference and fell in love, but had a long-distance relationship for years because he lived behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary. He was finally able to emigrate and the two were married twice- once in Nigeria and then again in New York. The couple lived on Roosevelt Island in New York until George passed in 2012. The book almost writes itself!

I could carry on, but I’m trying to keep it short and sweet! So today, I wanted to highlight two things from Gwen/Gwynne’s history that I think are really interesting.

Gwen’s first published book was Sealed With a Kiss, published by Kensington in 1995 as one of the early entries in their Arabesque line. The story she tells is that Walt Zacharias sat down next to her at a conference and asked when she was going to write a book for him. A fruitful partnership was born! (I also recommend checking out this longer interview with Walt where he talks about creating Arabesque)

But as with many writers, Sealed With a Kiss wasn’t Gwen’s first manuscript. In 1991, she submitted a manuscript called Heather’s Prize to Silhouette, about a woman who worked at the U.N. falling in love with a wealthy European businessman. The characters in this initial manuscript were white, as at this point Silhouette hadn’t published any stories with Black characters. Silhouette rejected the book, and the manuscript seems to have gone in the drawer.

Cover of Gwynne Forster’s Reckless Seduction (2012)

Twenty years after first submitting the manuscript, Heather’s Prize finally saw the light, published as Reckless Seduction by Kimani in 2012. This time Heather was named Haley, a beautiful young Black woman rising through the ranks at the United Nations. The book would be Gwen’s last full-length publication, bringing her writing career full circle.

Cover of Gwynne Forster’s Against All Odds (1996)

Now for my favorite. Alongside Gwen’s papers, her family donated copies of all of her books, and many of them are signed. Several of them have more than a signature as they were gifts from Gwen to her husband, George, who was by all accounts her biggest fan. He managed her mailing lists, and also kept lists of publications that he would bug to review her books. We could all use a hype man like George. You can almost imagine his smile when Gwen gave him a copy of her second book, Against All Odds, and he read this:

Inscription by Gwynne Forster to her husband George from a copy of Against All Odds (1996).

To my husband-
my friend, my love
who loves, supports
and encourages me.
I couldn’t do it without you.
Love, Gwen

Sigh. Now it’s gotten all dusty in here.

I did also want to add that one might expect a proper lady like Gwen, writing while she was in her 70s, to keep the content of her books pretty tame. Let’s just say that IS NOT the case. She brought the heat when she wanted to! I’ve certainly read a few of her scenes while blushing.

Gwendolyn Johnson-Acsadi was a trailblazer throughout her life, and brought that spirit to her third career, as a romance author, eventually publishing more than 50 novels and novellas. As one of the earliest Arabesque writers, who continued on with the imprint when it moved to BET and finally its rebranding as Kimani when it was purchased by Harlequin, she’s certainly earned a place in romance history.

Image of author Gwynne Forster (Gwendolyn Johnson-Acsadi) holding two of her books.
Gwynne Forster (Gwendolyn Johnson-Acsadi)

Lucy Agnes Hancock (1877-1962)

The nurse romance- the story of a woman committed to caring for others finally finding love for herself- has long been a popular sub-genre, going back to the early part of the 20th century. Today, Harlequin publishes these stories though its Medical Romance line, but for many years they were simply integrated into the Harlequin Romance line. The company’s love affair with nurses can be traced back to 1953 and the publication of General Duty Nurse (Harlequin #235) by Lucy Agnes Hancock, one of two nurse stories by the author Harlequin published that year. Just 2 years later in 1955, Harlequin published 8 books by Hancock, fully 1/3 of their output for the year. But who was this budding romance superstar?

Lucy Agnes Hancock was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1877 (I haven’t been able to find an exact date). At some point in her early life, the Hancock family moved to Auburn, New York, where Lucy would live until her death at the age of 84 or 85 in 1962. Hancock appears to have worked for International Harvester for at least 25 years, though again, exact dates are elusive. Her first novel, Gay Pretending, was published in 1936, when Hancock was 60 years old.

Cover of Gay Pretending by Lucy Agnes Hancock (1936)

From that point on, Hancock published around 1 novel each year, all in hardcover, and mostly with nursing-related themes. Let’s all take a second and admire the cover art on some of these early works, because they’re stunning:

Original hardcover editions of Nurse in White (1939), North Side Nurse (1940), Nurses are People (1941), and Pat Whitney, R.N. (1942)

From its founding in 1949, Harlequin had primarily been a re-printer, as many paperback houses were at the time. Given this and Lucy Agnes Hancock’s popularity and prolific back catalog, it’s not surprising that in 1953 they reissued 1945’s General Duty Nurse as Harlequin #235, with a cover highlights the love triangle held within:

Cover of 1953 edition of General Duty Nurse, Harlequin #235

Between 1953 and 1957, Harlequin published or republished 17 books by Lucy Agnes Hancock. In 1958, Harlequin and Mills & Boon reached an agreement that made Harlequin the exclusive North American distributor for M&B titles and their exclusively Commonwealth author list, effectively shutting out American authors. Hancock appears to have published three books for another publisher in 1958 that appeared only in the UK, but I haven’t been able to confirm that they were new works and not just retitled earlier works.

Harlequin editions of books by Lucy Agnes Hancock: Nurse Barlow (1954), Resident Nurse (1955), District Nurse (1955), and Calling Nurse Blair (1954).

Lucy Agnes Hancock passed away on April 29, 1962. Harlequin revived several of her works in 1980 as part of their Harlequin Classic Library, and several have been republished more recently under the Medical Romance line (though they are not currently available).

Harlequin Classic Library editions (1980) of books by Lucy Agnes Hancock: General Duty Nurse, Nurse in White, and Staff Nurse.

Though not the first or most popular or most prolific writer of nurse romance, Lucy Agnes Hancock holds a special place in romance history as the one who made the sub-genre popular at Harlequin.

The biographical info I’ve been able to find on Lucy is from the Vintage Nurse Romance Novels blog. You can learn more about the popularity of the nurse romance as well as its impact at the excellent Angels and Handmaidens: Beyond Nurse Stereotypes digital exhibit from University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.

A Black Romance Timeline

I want to start by saying that this will not be a static post. I’ve been piecing together the history of Black authors in romance for something close to five years and I feel like I’m constantly turning up something new. My goal with this post is to get the names, titles and publishers down in one spot, and then keep going back to edit. After all, we have to start somewhere.

It was a conversation with Beverly Jenkins back in 2017 that got me started trying to find all the threads of Black romance history. She mentioned names I hadn’t yet come across- Joyce McGill, Sandra Kitt, Elsie Washington, and more. The collections at BGSU include the works of these authors, but I wasn’t able to find much about them in my first glances through the annals of romance history. As an archivist, missing information is something I cannot abide! So I dug, and dug, and continue to dig. While this post goes up to Kimani Romance’s creation in 2005, rest assured that Black romance continues to grow to this day.

UPDATE: 04/13/2020- I’ve added Anita Bunkley’s 1989 publication of Emily, The Yellow Rose of Texas to the list. Bunkley went on to become a successful mainstream romance author, but self-published this first book. This predates Beverly Jenkins’ historical Night Song by 5 years, so it’s significant. Given the rejection of Black romance by major romance publishers, there are likely other self-published authors I’m not aware of (in fact, I know there are) during the last half of the 20th century who belong on this list. I’m going to try and add them as I find them.

This list is in rough chronological order. It is NOT COMPREHENSIVE! Please let me know if there are names and publishers I’m missing and I’ll be happy to update it!

  • 1969- 1971: Rubie Saunders– Saunders wrote four books between 1969-1971 chronicling the life and loves of Nurse Marilyn Morgan, R.N. The books were published by Signet/New American Library under their Nurse Romance line.
  • 1980: Elise B. Washington– Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pen name Rosalind Welles, penned a single fiction work, 1980’s Entwined Destinies, published by Dell’s Candlelight Romances under the guidance of editor Vivian Stephens. The book received significant media attention, including a review in People Magazine that declared it the “desegregation of the romance rack”.
  • 1982: Lia Sanders- Friends Angela Jackson and Sandra Jackson-Opoku teamed up to write The Tender Mending under the pen name Lia Sanders for Vivian Stephens’ Candlelight Ecstasy line in 1982. The title was the first Candlelight Ecstasy to feature a Black couple on the cover. The book was promoted as part of Ecstasy’s “ethnic romance” push, led by Stephens and meant to include more diverse voices in the romance genre. Shortly after the first few books in this effort were published, Stephens moved to Harlequin to start the publisher’s American line, and Dell dropped all of the ethnic romance authors.
  • 1982: Tracy West- Acclaimed mystery author Chassie West began her publishing career in 1982 with Lesson in Love for Silhouette’s First Love line of YA romances. The book was the first in the line to feature a Black couple. While West wrote several other titles for First Love, they all featured white couples.
  • 1984: Heartline Romances*- In 1984, Los Angeles publisher Holloway House, who specialized in books and magazines aimed at the Black community, announced the start of their Heartline Romances books, their attempt to capitalize on the Romance Wars raging among all of the major publishers at the time. This entry earns an asterisk because as Kinohi Nishikawa points out in the book Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground, most of the Heartline writers were Holloway House’s male staff writers writing under women’s names. Nishikawa suggests that two of the credited authors- Yolande Bertrand and Felicia Woods- may have been Black women, but the biographical information on both is scant.
  • 1985: Sandra Kitt– In 1984, Sandra Kitt became one of the few known Black writers for Harlequin. Her second book for the company, Adam and Eva, was published in 1985 and was the first title by the publisher to feature a Black couple.
  • 1980s: Doubleday Starlight Romance- Doubleday’s Starlight Romance line featured contemporary romances by several Black authors over the course of the 1980s, including Sandra Kitt, Valerie Flournoy, Rochelle Alers, and Angela Vivian (Angela Dews and Vivian Stephens). The line was sold primarily to libraries, and was not sequentially numbered as many lines were, making it hard to find much information about it.
  • 1989: Anita R. Bunkley- In October of 1989, Anita R. Bunkley self-published her first novel. Emily, the Yellow Rose of Texas is a historical romance set in the 1830s, about Emily D. West, the mulatto woman purported to be the subject of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas”.
  • 1990: Odyssey Books- Leticia Peoples began independent publisher Odyssey Books as a way to fulfill what she saw as an unmet need in the market for Black romance. The company lasted just a few years, but launched the careers of authors such as Francis Ray and Donna Hill, and included previously published authors such as Rochelle Alers and Sandra Kitt.
  • 1992: Joyce McGill- Once again we run into Chassie West, who wrote adult romances under the name Joyce McGill for Silhouette’s Intimate Moments line. Her 1992 romantic suspense title Unforgivable was the first adult Silhouette title by a Black author, with Black main characters.
  • 1994: Arabesque- Walter Zacharias, founder of Kensington Publishing, created the Arabesque line in July 1994 under the company’s Pinnacle imprint. The first line dedicated to Black authors telling stories of Black love, legendary editor Monica Harris opened the line with books by established authors Sandra Kitt (Serenade) and Francis Ray (Forever Yours).
  • 1994: Beverly Jenkins- The same month as the launch of Arabesque, Beverly Jenkins made her debut with the historical romance Night Song, published by Avon. Jenkins has gone on to publish more than 50 titles in both historical and contemporary settings.
  • 1994: Maggie Ferguson- Looks are Deceiving by Maggie Ferguson was the first Harlequin Intrigue written by a Black author. Ferguson wrote four books for the line.
  • 1995: Brenda Jackson- In 1995, Arabesque published Brenda Jackson’s first book, Tonight and Forever. In 2002, Delaney’s Desert Sheikh became the first Silhouette Desire book to be written by a Black author. Jackson has been incredibly prolific over the course of her career, publishing more than 100 books.
  • 1995: Genesis Press- Begun in 1995, Genesis Press published some original romance titles but specialized in reprinting out of print titles by Elsie Washington, Donna Hill, Gwynne Forster and more. The company also printed the 1999 edition of Kathryn Falk’s book How to Write a Romance for the New Markets, which was the first edition of the book include segments written by Black authors. Genesis Press suffered financial woes and filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
  • 1998: BET Books- In 1998, Robert Johnson’s BET purchased the Arabesque line from Kensington. While Kensington continued to publish the books, BET provided the promotion, and adapted several books into TV movies that aired on the BET network.
  • 2000: Dafina- Because of an agreement Kensington signed when selling the Arabesque line, they were prevented from publishing Black romance. When that provision expired, they started the Dafina line. The line continues today and has published authors like Donna Hill, Cheris Hodges, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Kianna Alexander among many others.
  • 2002: Shirley Hailstock– From 2002-2003, Shirley Hailstock served as the first Black president of the Romance Writers of America. Hailstock was one of the original Kensington Arabesque authors, with her first novel, Whispers of Love, appearing in September 1994.
  • 2006: Kimani Romance- In 2005, Harlequin purchased BET’s publishing arm and formed Kimani Press as a new arm to publish romance, women’s fiction, and non-fiction aimed at Black readers. Kimani Romance was the first dedicated Black romance line to exist at a major publishing house. Kimani Romance was discontinued in 2018.

Elsie B. Washington (1942-2009)

I’ve written a lot about Elsie B. Washington over the past several years, on social media and elsewhere, so I’m not going to highlight a single Twitter thread here. Today I wanted to focus on some of Elsie’s media appearances that I think add to her story. If you need a starting point on Elsie Washington, I recommend looking at the exhibit I created for the Browne Popular Culture Library to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of Washington’s only work of fiction, Entwined Destinies (Candlelight Romance 575).

Written under the pen name Rosalind Welles, Entwined Destinies was a collaboration with Candlelight Romance editor Vivian Stephens (more on her at a later date!), and was acclaimed as the first time a Black author had written a category romance with Black characters. The book received a considerable amount of press and a reported 60,000 copy print run, but it’s nearly impossible to find a copy of that original printing today. Two reprints exist- a UK edition and an edition published in 1994 by Genesis Press- but those are difficult to find as well.

Quick note: If you read last week’s entry about Rubie Saunders, you’ll recall that Saunders published earlier, which muddies the waters a bit on Entwined Destinies‘ claim of first. There are arguments to be made on both sides, but let’s suffice it to say that Entwined was definitely the first of the 80s American romance boom.

Like Rubie Saunders, Elsie Washington was a pioneer in the magazine industry. After graduating from City College of New York with a journalism degree, she went to work for the New York Post before becoming one of the first black reporters at Life Magazine. From there she moved on to become and editor at Newsweek, which is where she was working when she wrote Entwined Destinies.

Washington combined her identities as journalist and author several times. She covered the first Romantic Times Booklover’s Convention in 1982 for Newsweek, and was interviewed for the weekly radio version of the magazine, Newsweek On Air (she appears around the 54:00 mark):

The following year, Elsie B. Washington again reported for Newsweek about the Booklovers Convention (again around the 54:00 mark), this time traveling with other conference goers aboard what was known as The Love Train, an Amtrak train that went from California to New York City. The train ride and ensuing conference was filmed for a documentary titled Where the Heart Roams, which was released in 1987. Washington appears in the film and can be seen about halfway through the extended trailer for the film on the PBS POV website.

After leaving Newsweek, Elsie Washington moved on to Essence Magazine, where she served as editor into the 1990s. But she retained her connections in the romance world. In the mid-90s, she appeared on a New York cable access show with Vivian Stephens, Rochelle Alers, and Donna Hill.

In addition to her work at Essence, Elsie Washington published a non-fiction book in 1996 titled Uncivil War: The Struggle Between Black Men and Women. I’ve also found evidence that Washington was behind a zine called African-American People during the 1990s, but I’ve never seen a copy- if you have, let me know!

Elsie B. Washington passed away in 2009. With a single book she left an indelible mark on the romance genre, something few can say.

Rubie Saunders (1929 – 2001)

(original June 2020 Twitter thread)

One of the great things about writing these blog posts as an independent scholar is the ability to say “I don’t know”. I don’t know much about Rubie Saunders. There is precious little written about her, but she certainly left a mark.

A 1950 graduate of Hunter College, she joined Parent’s Magazine Enterprises after graduation, rising to the editorial staff of the company’s teen magazine Calling All Girls (later Young Miss and YM) in 1955, finally serving as the magazine’s editor from 1963 to 1979. In the 1970s and 1980s Saunders edited several books of etiquette for boys and girls, and two guide books about babysitting. Her 1979 book Baby Sitting: A Concise Guide was even illustrated by the legendary Tomie dePaola.

Calling All Girls from 1964 and Young Miss from 1978, both edited by Rubie Saunders.

Rubie was a board member of The Feminist Press at CUNY, and after her retirement from the publishing world became a member of the New Rochelle, New York school board, eventually serving as that board’s president.

What I’m really interested in is the only four book-length works of fiction Rubie Saunders published. All four feature Nurse Marilyn Morgan, R.N. and were published as part of Signet’s Nurse Romance line. In fact, I first came across Rubie Saunders’ name in an online exhibit titled “Angels and Handmaids: Beyond Nurse Stereotypes” curated by Katie Stollenwerk for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Special Collections.

Marilyn Morgan, R.N., published 1969

Saunders’ fiction was groundbreaking- I’m not aware of any other Black authors writing romance fiction for major publishers by 1969 when her first book was published, and never with a Black main character. After the fourth book was published in 1971, it would be nine years before a major publisher would put out a romance by a Black author with Black characters.

Cover of Nurse Morgan’s Triumph, published 1970 (image from UWM digital exhibit)

The Nurse Morgan books are not romances as we recognize them today. Marilyn usually has several paramours through the course of the book, but always chooses her career in the end. Atypical for now, but not necessarily for 1969.

Cover of Nurse Morgan Sees It Through, published 1971

Rubie Saunders passed away in New York City in December 2001 at the age of 72. A literary festival in her name is held in New Rochelle every year, honoring her work in the community. But Saunders is all but forgotten in the romance circles.

Cover of Nurse Morgan, Cruise Nurse, published 1971

Biographical information about Rubie is scant, and I’ve never been able to find any interviews she did about her work. I did find enough to scrape together a wikipedia page about Rubie, but there’s certainly more to be written. I got most of the seeds for my research from this Tumblr post by romance blogger Maria Slozak. If you want to know more about nurse romances, this blog is a great resource.

There’s got to be more out there- if you know of anything, let me know!

Romance Fiction Has a History.

From 2016-2020, I was the Manuscripts and Outreach Archivist for the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University. During that time, I was able to do deep dives into one of the library’s most unique aspects, its collections related to romance fiction. I know of no other collection that documents the history of this wildly popular genre so completely. It was a collection begun with great ambition in the 1990s that had fallen by the wayside because no one quite knew what to do with it.

Over the past 50 years, romance has gotten relatively little attention from academia, and much of it mirrored the derisive approach of mainstream media towards the genre. This has started to change on both counts, with the development and growth of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) and its journal the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (JPRS), as well as an increase in the number of journalists like Kelly Faircloth and Carly Lane-Perry who are able to approach romance as readers themselves instead of as outsiders.

While academia has begun to warm to romance, it has primarily been in the area of literary criticism, leaving publishing history and lives of authors for the most part untouched. As I spent more time with the Browne’s collections, it became clear to me that the history of the genre was an essential piece to understanding its cultural impact. So I began to dig.

As I came across interesting pieces of history or facts about the lives of romance authors, I began to share them through the library’s twitter account using the hashtag #RomanceHistory. While hashtags and twitter accounts are great, they’re also ephemeral. This blog will serve to take some of the posts and research I did using the #RomanceHistory hashtag and put them in longer form.

It’s my hope that this can serve as a jumping off point for more research into the history of romance fiction. Or maybe it’ll just make for interesting reading, that would be fine too! I’ll also try to share additional resources as I come across them. Who knows where this will end up? But let’s find out together.