Three volumes of The Romantic Spirit arranged next to. each other.

The Romantic Spirit: Pre-internet Goldmine

I want you for a moment to imagine yourself in 1983 (easier for some of us than others, I know!). You’ve just finished Jayne Castle’s Candlelight Ecstasy title from the previous year, Spellbound. You need more of Castle’s distinct writing style, but you haven’t seen her name on the new release shelf at the book store in a while. At the checkout counter, you ask about your favorite author, hoping the clerk has heard something.

Today, it would take a few clicks to find the information you need. Not so in 1983! But you’re in luck! The clerk tells you to hold on for a moment, and they turn around to grab a thick trade paperback off the shelf behind them. This may help, they tell you. It’s a brilliant new resource that lists all of the authors you can think of along with their books. The Romantic Spirit, it’s called. In a few seconds you learn that Jayne Castle (real name Jayne Ann Castle Krentz) has also written for Silhouette as Stephanie James, and McFadden as Jayne Bentley. A whole new world of books opens up in front of you as you can now follow your favorite authors as they change name from publisher to publisher.

Three volumes of The Romantic Spirit arranged next to. each other.
My (incomplete) collection of volumes of The Romantic Spirit from 1983, 1984, and 1990.

First published in January 1983, The Romantic Spirit was the self-published debut for an author named Mary June Kay. Appropriately for a book about pseudonyms, Mary June Kay was the pseudonym for three San Antonio women- Mary Hotchkiss (1921-2004), June Manning (1923-2008), and Kay Garteiser. Hotchkiss and Manning were sisters who had retired from federal service and operated a romance-focused used bookstore called The Second Edition in San Antonio. They knew their stock, but didn’t have any printed reference resource for themselves or readers to use in finding, or more particularly, cross-referencing more romances. Garteiser worked with word processors at an accounting firm, presumably bringing the technical know-how to the project.

Lovers of genre fiction have long relied on bibliographies- collectors of science fiction and mystery novels used them to not only show off their own collections of pulp magazine and novels, but also to be able to cross-reference authors, publishers and titles. As romance exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, no one had yet made an effort to gather information about the genre in one place. Mary, June, and Kay were the first to take on this mammoth task.

The book itself is utilitarian and no-frills. After a brief three page introduction by Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk, the books sets straight to business. Authors are listed in alphabetical order, along with their known pen names [in brackets] and real name if known (in parens). Their books are then listed, with the publisher identified and book number if applicable. In some cases, sub-genre information is provided- for example, <RS> for romantic suspense. In the back, numbered lines are listed together, with titles and authors. The information appears to largely be drawn from the published books themselves, though in some cases authors are listed without books; presumably those names were taken from resources such as Romantic Times, which was still in its infancy at the time.

The book was enough of a success that Mary, June, and Kay kept at it for several years. They published updates for 1983-1984, 1985-1986, and 1987-1988 focused only on the books from those individual years, alongside corrected errors or omissions from earlier editions. The original volume earned an award from Romantic Times, presented by Barbara Cartland herself at the 1983 Booklovers’ Convention.

In 1990, Kay Garteiser announced in the pages of Romantic Times that she was retiring from working on The Romantic Spirit due to her health. She passed the torch on to occasional RT reviewer Lisa Miller, also a San Antonio resident, who put out a revised full edition of the book in 1990. The revised volume used the same format as the original, adding books and new entries where appropriate, though it lacks the line indexes of the original.

The Romance Reader’s Handbook (1989)

At the same time as Mary, June and Kay were working on The Romantic Spirit, reviewer Melinda Helfer was writing a column for Romantic Times identifying authors and their pseudonyms, calling herself “The Pseudonym Sleuth”. Helfer began writing the column in 1981, taking an alphabetical approach. By 1989, she had only reached the letter “P”, which tells you the scope of the task. In 1989, Helfer’s work was combined with that of Kathryn Falk and Kathe Robin in The Romance Reader’s Handbook, published by Romantic Times. This spiral-bound volume took a less comprehensive approach than The Romantic Spirit, listing only the pen names and known real name of authors but not their books. Also included was a guide to RT’s “Bookstores that Care” network, a nationwide group of independent bookstores that welcomed romance readers (and generally sold RT as well). The Second Edition in San Antonio isn’t listed- near as I can figure it was gone by then. There’s also contact information for authors and publishers, and a delightful collection of author ads in the back.

Ad from The Romance Reader’s Handbook (1989) from Dorothy Garlock, where she wishes her readers “health, happiness, and good eyesight”.

The five editions of The Romantic Spirit, alongside The Romance Reader’s Handbook, are not essential resources for collectors in this day and age. The vast majority of the information about authors found here can be found elsewhere. But- not everything can be found on the internet! There are author listings here that can connect you to authors you may never have thought of as romance authors, such as mystery author Jane Haddam, who wrote romance as Nicola Andrews and Ann Paris. And the bookstore section of The Romance Reader’s Handbook is an exploration waiting to happen all on its own! Or maybe you’re just like me, and a random name pops into your head at 9:30 at night and you don’t feel like looking at a screen. It can be tricky to find all of these volumes, but to me, the joy of a nicely done bibliography is well worth it!

The Romantic Spirit (1983, 1984, and 1990), and The Romance Reader’s Handbook (1989)

Eva Rutland (1917-2012)

The vast majority of category romance writers in the 1980s and 1990s did not create beloved characters or become household names. From their relative anonymity, they turned out book after book, year after year, of happy endings that brought readers happiness. When they pass away or stop writing for some other reason, they often end up forgotten by the reading public. In many cases, those authors were fascinating people in their own right, whose personal stories deserve to be remembered.

There is no more shining example of that than Eva Rutland.

Head shot of Eva Rutland
Eva Rutland (credit: IWP Book Publishers)

Eva Rutland was born in 1917 in Atlanta, the daughter of a pharmacist and a school teacher. Her grandfather, Isaac Westmoreland, was a former slave who worked as a shoemaker to ensure that each of his children attended college. Eva attended Atlanta’s segregated public schools, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, where she appeared on stage with classmate Lean Horne, and went on to Spelman College, where she graduated in 1937. After marrying Bill Rutland, a civilian Air Force employee, the couple moved to Tuskegee, Alabama and Columbus, Ohio before settling in Sacramento, California. While stationed in Tuskegee, Eva underwent an operation that ended up severing her vocal cords, which led to her needing a tracheotomy tube in order to speak.

Rutland was a lifelong writer, with her first story appearing in an Atlanta newspaper when she was 12. While raising her children in Columbus, Ohio in 1952 she wrote the first of a number of pieces for women’s magazines about the experience of raising Black children under segregation. Those magazine pieces formed the basis for her first book, The Trouble With Being a Mama: A Negro Mother on the Anxieties and Joys of Bringing Up a Family, published in 1964.

After her first book, Rutland turned to fiction and began writing stories. She had begun to lose her sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, but did not let that stop her. In a 2011 interview with AARP, Rutland described her early process- she would dictate a story into a tape recorder and then slowly transcribing using a regular typewriter.

Cover of the book Matched Pair
Matched Pair (1988) by Eva Rutland

In 1988, after years of trying, Rutland’s first book was published by Harlequin. To Love Them All debuted in the Harlequin Romance line in March of 1988, just two months after Eva turned 71. It was followed in November 1988 by another contemporary, At First Sight.

A year later, the author whose favorite book was Pride and Prejudice would become the lead author for Harlequin’s new line of Regency category romances. Matched Pair (1989) is a classic “sweet” fake relationship Regency with, not to give it away, a surprising deus ex machine twist at the end. For several years, Rutland would go back and forth between contemporaries for Harlequin Romance and Regencies for Harlequin Regency Romance, until the latter line’s demise in 1993- after that she only wrote contemporary stories. Among her Regency romances is 1991’s The Willful Lady, which I mention mostly because it has one of the most delightful covers in romance history, featuring a man falling down while trying to hold on to a Macaw.

Cover of the book The Willful Lady
The Willful Lady (1991) by Eva Rutland

Of the 18 titles Eva Rutland wrote for Harlequin only the last, 2005’s Heart and Soul, published when she was 88, features a Black main character. In a 2000 profile for the Orlando Sentinel, she says that she had once considered writing an earlier book with a Black character, but had been dissuaded by a friend. During the time Eva was writing for Harlequin, the publisher put out only a handful of stories with Black main characters, so one can imagine a writer who wanted to keep working with the publisher not wanting to mess with success. Even authors like Sandra Kitt and Chassie West, who had in the early 1980s written groundbreaking books with Black characters for the publisher, were mainly writing white protagonists for Harlequin.

It is worth taking a moment here to point out that while we know that Eva Rutland was one of the few Black authors writing for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, we cannot definitely say how many others there might have been. Many authors published under pseudonyms, and would’ve been either implicitly or explicitly told to stick to writing white characters for their books, which may have led them to write very little or later disavow what they did write. We just can’t be certain. Rutland’s status as the first Black author to write a Regency romance for Harlequin is undeniable, however.

Eventually, Eva would team up with Sandra Kitt and Anita Richmond Bunkley to write novellas with Black characters, this time for Signet- 1996’s Sisters and 1999’s Girlfriends. Rutland’s stories in these books- Guess What’s Cooking in Sisters and Choices in Girlfriends– would end up being her only romances to feature Black couples.

In her later career, Eva published the semi-autobiographical women’s fiction story No Crystal Stair for Harlequin’s Mira imprint in 2000, and updated her 1964 book, giving it the new title When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story in 2007. Eva’s daughter Ginger has adapted When We Were Colored for the stage as well. Eva and Ginger appeared on NPR in 2007 to discuss the book and Eva’s career. Eva also recorded an oral history interview with the Center for Sacramento History in 2009, the transcript of which is available through the Internet Archive.

Eva Rutland passed away on March 12, 2012, at the age of 95. She lived a remarkable life despite the challenges she faced, and is well worth celebrating as part of the history of the romance genre.

Men who Write Romance- David Wind

David Wind’s author photo as it appears in Love Lines (1983)

It was not all that uncommon for romance authors of the 1980s to collect pseudonyms like they were baseball cards. The legendary Jayne Ann Krentz has used at least 7 pen names (that I know of) over the course of her 40 year career. Sandra Brown and Nora Roberts have each used at least four different names. 

The reasons vary- until relatively recently, some publishers required authors to adopt a pseudonym that then was owned by the publisher, giving them free reign to continue putting out books under that name long after the original author left. In other cases, authors like Krentz and Roberts have adopted new pen names to signal to readers the type of content the story will contain- for example, readers of Amanda Quick (Krentz) know they’ll be getting a historical, and J.D. Robb fans (Roberts) know they’re in for a futuristic suspenseful ride.

Now best known for writing mysteries and science fiction under his own name, author David Wind used at least four additional names during the early days of his career. His first book, By Invitation Only (1982), was a contemporary romance published under the name Monica Barrie. From there he published a historical, Whispers of Destiny (1982) as Jenifer Dalton, and A Love So Fresh (1984) as Marilyn Davids.

According to an interview Wind gave to Rosemary Guiley for her book Love Lines (1983), he set up his contracts so that he could actually take the pseudonyms Monica Barrie and Jennifer Dalton to any publisher, so long as the books did not compete with each other. In the end, Wind relied more on the Monica Barrie name than anything, publishing at least 20 books compared to just two Jennifer Dalton titles. Wind also mentions a fifth pen name, Marilyn Davidson, as being exclusive to New American Library, but I can’t find any record of a book published under that name. 

Like his fellow author Tom Huff, David Wind seems to have enjoyed the novelty of being a male writer in a female-dominated genre. In addition to his interview with Guiley, Wind wrote regularly for Romantic Times and made conference appearances. In Love Lines he is quoted as saying,

 “It’s usually writers who are ashamed of what they’re doing who don’t want their pseudonyms revealed. I’m not, because I like to entertain people. Writing romances hasn’t stopped me from selling mainstream. Even so, I plan on staying with romances- I enjoy them.”

David Wind in Love Lines (1983), page 240

The last Monica Barrie book with a major publisher was 1987’s The Executives, a Silhouette Special Edition. David Wind turned to independent publishing in the 2000s, and has self-published 30 books on his own. In 2013, Monica Barrie’s 1983 title Cry Mercy, Cry Love was republished independently as well. And that’s where I thought the story got interesting. Let me explain.

These days when authors get the rights to their books back (in the case of most category romances, it happens a set amount of time after the last time the major publisher put out a version of the book), it’s not unusual for them to republish the books on their own. In the case of the Monica Barrie books, they are not mentioned on his website, but on a separate one specifically for Barrie. This itself isn’t that unusual- you’ll find separate sites for Nora Roberts and J.D. Robb, for example. It goes back to the idea I mentioned earlier of separating genres to make it easier for readers.

Where I became intrigued in this case was in the author biography, where Monica Barrie introduces herself with a brief description including the mention that she is the wife of David Wind. 

David Wind’s biography mentions that he is married to his wife Bonnie. Both Bonnie and Monica are identified as geriatric social workers. It seems pretty clear that these two are linked in more ways than one.

Image of biography from David Wind’s website

So what does this mean? Is Bonnie responsible for the Monica Barrie books, either as author or co-author, and David is now giving her more credit for the work? Or is this just a bit of fun on David Wind’s part to give Monica a back story? My guess is that it’s the latter, although it wasn’t unusual to have husband/wife teams in the 1980s, and there have been examples of republished novels in other genres suddenly appearing with two named authors where it had originally been one. In academia, we’ve seen the #ThanksForTyping phenomenon for decades, where academics will thank “my wife” for doing  typing, editing, translating, and even research on published works. So it could be a bit of the former as well. 

In the end, it makes no nevermind what the real story is when it comes to David Wind and Monica Barrie. Authors have license to do whatever they like with their pen names and works. But as an archivist and researcher, I’m always digging for the untold or even just slightly obfuscated tales of how things come to be. I can’t help myself! Do you have a favorite example of authors being revealed to be someone, or someones, other than who they wrote as?

Men Writing Romance- Tom Huff (1938-1990)

A short time back, friend of the blog Katrina Jackson raised a question that comes up every once in a while- what’s the history of cishet men writing cishet romance?

It’s a good question, with no simple answer. Most of the cis men whose names I’ve come across use(d) female pseudonyms for their romance books, and historically, only a few have owned up to doing that work. Some have obfuscated this past work by crediting books to their female partners, and some have denied any attribution to them. And in many cases, we’ll never know because the records were sparse to begin with. The rise of self-pub and indie publishing has made this a less common practice today- you pretty easily find men writing historical and inspirational romance using either their own names or male pseudonyms. That definitely wasn’t always the case.

One of the reasons is that the world of paperback originals during the mid-20th century was a mercenary game. Big names aside, working authors- male or female- would write anything for anyone if they thought it would make them a buck, and acquired and shed pseudonyms the way some of us change socks. Sometimes this name-hopping was due to publisher contracts, and sometimes it was a way for the author to keep their distance from work that they may not have wanted to be linked to them. In the case of a publisher-enforced pseudonym, that pseudonym may have then been used by multiple authors over decades (Nancy Drew author “Carolyn Keene” being the most well-known example). All of this means that it can sometimes be nearly impossible to identify or verify who wrote what, so be sure to take everything in these posts with a grain of salt.

Quick side-note: In the world of romance, Harlequin was particularly notorious for its enforcement of pseudonyms. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Harlequin authors were allowed to take their pseudonyms with them to work with other publishers.

To start this exploration (which I now realize is going to take multiple posts!), I want to start in the 70s, with one of the best-known male writers of romance, Tom Huff (1938-1990). Huff began his writing career in the late 1960s, adopting the pen names Edwina Marlow, Beatrice Parker, and Katherine St. Clair to write gothics for multiple publishers. He even put out two under the androgynous moniker T.E. Huff. But in 1976, as the historical romance boom begun by Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers was well underway, Huff jumped from gothics to historicals hoping for success. And he found it. Adopting the name Jennifer Wilde, Huff published Love’s Tender Fury in 1976 for Warner Books and it sold like gangbusters. Reports were that it went through more than 40 printings in its first five years, and if the cover of this edition is to be believed, more than 2 1/2 million copies.

Cover of Love’s Tender Fury by Jennifer Wilde (Tom E. Huff). (Image taken from Goodreads)

A second Jennifer Wilde book, Dare to Love, arrived in 1978, and spent 11 weeks on the NYT paperback bestsellers list. Jennifer Wilde was on a roll, but few knew her true identity.

And then in 1981, something rather rare happened. Huff had become friends with Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk, and in the second issue of her brand new periodical, he revealed himself to be Jennifer Wilde. While he told Rosemary Guiley in Love Lines that this had always been something of an open secret, this revelation could have been career suicide- what if women decided to stop reading his books because he could be seen as “inauthentic”? What if he were to now get pigeonholed as a romance writer, unable to get work writing anything else?

Instead of running from his association with romance fiction, Huff leaned into it. He made public appearances, and even took part in a 1981 article in Life Magazine about romance authors, with photographs by Mary Ellen Mark that truly have to be seen to be believed. He’d go on to publish six more books as Jennifer Wilde before his death in 1990, all of which sold well. For a time, he even wrote the “men’s column” for Romantic Times, and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the magazine in 1988.

Tom Huff had just turned 52 when he died of a heart attack on January 16, 1990. His works have been republished numerous times since his death, including a series of very confusingly attributed Open Road Media editions. This one for Marabelle, the only book he wrote under his full name, is listed as “Jennifer Wilde writing as Tom E. Huff”.

Huff’s revelation as a male author inspired several other to do the same. Next time, we’ll turn again to Rosemary Guiley’s 1983 book Love Lines to learn more. Stay tuned!

This post by Forth Worth history blogger Mike Nichols is a goldmine of biographical information about Tom, including pictures from his high school yearbook! Definitely take a look.

No Quarter Asked first edition cover

Towards an Accurate History

Or, Why I’m Always Carrying on about Janet Dailey.

If you follow me on twitter,

  1. I’m sorry.
  2. You’ve likely heard me banging on about inaccuracy and Janet Dailey’s first book, No Quarter Asked.

So what’s that all about, anyways? Well, it’s a story about misinformation, half-truths, and what’s missing from the study of the genre. Intrigued? You are? Strange birds.

Alright, sit down, this may take a second. According to lore, Janet Dailey began her writing career somewhere around 1974 when her boss and husband, Bill dared her to write a book like the Harlequins she enjoyed reading. Dailey took the challenge, banged out No Quarter Asked, sent it off to Mills & Boon in London for reasons I’ve never heard adequately explained, and had her manuscript accepted with, according to her, no changes. A publishing miracle if I’ve ever heard one.

But this is where the story gets hazy in some tellings. According to Paul Grescoe’s book The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance (1997), it was 1976 when the Boon brothers, who were based in London and held a stranglehold on the content of Harlequin and Mills & Boon despite being fully part of Harlequin Enterprises by this point, decided to break with tradition and publish an American author, putting out No Quarter Asked as Harlequin Presents 124. Dailey’s official publisher bio uses this date, as did the New York Times obituary published upon her death in 2013. Coincidentally, Kensington is still publishing new books by Dailey, and her family runs a Facebook page in her name that’s written as though she hasn’t been dead for almost a decade. It’s a trip. But I digress.

You see, the problem is that Paul Grescoe is wrong. And so was Janet Dailey when she repeatedly told reporters that her first book came out in 1976.

Huh? How’s that possible?

Good question! You see, the agreed part of the story is that Dailey did in fact send her first manuscript to Mills & Boon in 1974. We don’t know if they did request any changes (Mills & Boon’s editorial practices were notoriously lax), but Mills & Boon turned around and published No Quarter Asked in 1974.

No Quarter Asked first edition cover
Cover of Mills & Boon first edition of No Quarter Asked (1974) by Janet Dailey. (image via Goodreads)

In fact, Dailey would go on to publish 7 more books for Mills & Boon before her work was shipped to Harlequin as part of the Presents line in 1976. Dailey was in fact the first American woman (who we know of at least) to write for Mills & Boon since the company’s founding in 1908. A not insignificant moment for American romance authors!

Cover of Harlequin Presents edition of No Quarter Asked (1976) by Janet Dailey (image via Goodreads)

What Janet Dailey was not, despite her claims to the contrary, was Harlequin’s first American author. Prior to 1964, when Harlequin began exclusively reprinting Mills & Boon books, the company regularly published American authors of romance and other genres. The very first Harlequin title in 1949 was in fact a reprint of The Manatee, by American author Nancy Bruff. And earlier on this blog, we talked about Auburn, New York’s Lucy Agnes Hancock who in 1955 was responsible for fully 1/3 of the titles Harlequin published that year.

This raises two questions- how did all this become so twisted, and why does it matter? Let’s take each in turn.

From the very start, Janet and Bill Dailey styled Janet as the All-American Girl. They framed her early books as an attempt to write a book about every state in the US, and often posed with the Airstream trailer that they used to travel the country to soak in the atmosphere of the place Janet was writing about. Bill put Janet in front of reporters at every opportunity, making her American romance’s first superstar author. If most Americans had never even heard of Mills & Boon, where was the benefit in mentioning the weirdly named British company? In the mid-70s, every romance reader in the US and Canada knew what a Harlequin was to the point of near-ubiquity. I can see them making the calculus that it was easier to go with what people knew when talking about her origin story. And given that it’d been a decade since the Canadian publisher had put out work by an American, where was the harm in claiming the mantle of the first American. It’s all-around good marketing.

If it was the Daileys driving this misinformation, why does any of it matter? In 1976, it didn’t matter. Romance was an ephemeral genre unworthy of more than the occasional mention in the media or academia. But academic study of the romance genre has grown exponentially since then, which brings us back to Grescoe.

Paul Grescoe’s book is a corporate history written by a journalist. It isn’t an academic text, nor does it claim to be authoritative. However, it still stands as the most recent monograph-length writing about the company. Romance researchers, most of whom are performing textual analysis of romance texts on shoestring budgets during time borrowed from other academic tasks, don’t have much time to do original historical research and so will turn to the most authoritative text they can find.

When it comes to the history of Harlequin, Grescoe is that source. Quotes about the company from his book are found in Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, John Markert’s Publishing Romance, Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls, and many more. The Regis book is particularly influential in the academic space, with its long view of the history of the genre and groundbreaking identification of elements that compose the structure of a romance novel. Unfortunately, Regis directly quotes Grescoe’s incorrect 1976 date when discussing Dailey. Given the reach of this book into the classroom, that means this erroneous information can make it into papers and dissertations without being questioned. A game of academic telephone down the lane begins until the error becomes, however unintentionally, canon.

A Natural History of the Romance Novel, by Pamela Regis (image via Goodreads)

The story of No Quarter Asked is not, in the big picture of romance fiction, that important. But it should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers of the genre, and for those reading that research. Misinformation always starts small and innocuous, until it is repeated frequently enough that it is either accepted as fact or causes significant confusion for those seeking the truth.

The academic community around romance fiction has long been almost exclusively focused on the text and the work the text is performing, so much so that it has left historiography to journalists and random archivists on twitter (ahem). This is, I think, a grave error. As a commercially focused genre, romance fiction is never just the text on the page. It is the author, the editor, the cover designer, the publicity staff, and above all the publisher. Romance fiction must be placed also in its historical context. For example, can we really discuss the phenomenon of The Flame and the Flower in 1972 without also discussing the changing laws and mores around censorship at that moment? (that’s a blog post for another moment)

I urge the romance scholarship community to engage with and support projects that relate to the history of the genre. We’ve got to be able to relay an accurate history before we get into debates about historical accuracy.

No Quarter Asked first edition cover
Cover of Mills & Boon first edition of No Quarter Asked (1974) by Janet Dailey. (image via Goodreads)

(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)

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.

Lucy Agnes Hancock (1877-1952)

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) (image via Pintrest)

From that point on, Hancock published around 1 novel each year, all in hardcover, and mostly with nursing-related themes. The dust jacket cover art for these editions is pretty great, and makes the subject nurses look like go-getters who are also quietly glamorous, such as this Triangle edition of Pat Whitney, R.N.

Dust jacket for Pat Whitney, R.N. by Lucy Agnes Hancock (image via Amazon)

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:

General Duty Nurse by Lucy Agnes Hancock
Cover of 1953 Harlequin edition of General Duty Nurse by Lucy Agnes Hancock (image from National Library of Medicine collections)

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.

Lucy Agnes Hancock passed away on April 29, 1952. 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).

1980 edition of General Duty Nurse
Cover of 1980 Harlequin Classic Library edition of General Duty Nurse by Lucy Agnes Hancock (image via Amazon)

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.

(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)

UPDATE 11/19/2022: According to Find a Grave, Hancock actually died in January 1952. This would mean that all of her Harlequin titles were published after her death, which I’m a bit confused by. I’m going to do more research on this later, but for now I’m changing the death dates listed in this post at least.

Cover of Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles (1980).

Collecting Romance: A Very Fortunate Find

Every collector of anything has that short list of items in the back of their mind that they’d instantly pay any price for if they find it in the right circumstances. Sometimes it’s something well known and rare like a missile-firing Boba Fett or a Billy Ripken error card, and sometimes it’s something a bit more obscure, like the anti-drug Spider-Man storyline that was printed without the Comics Code seal in 1971.

The collecting of romance novels has historically been a little different. Readers have collected entire lines or accumulated all the works of a particular author. Others have simply never gotten rid of any romance they ever read, resulting in time capsule storage rooms like the one in this tiktok video. Still, a few rare things float out there drawing excitement whenever they appear. Nora Roberts completists might yearn for a copy of Rhapsody Romance Magazine no. 8, containing her simultaneously acknowledged but disavowed story Melodies of Love. Fans of Johanna Lindsey will search long and hard for a first printing of 1985’s Tender is the Storm with its controversial and revealing cover.

But other romances are collectible because of what they represented when they were published. Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles is one of those books.

Cover of Entinwed Destinies by Rosalind Welles (1980)
Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles (Elsie B. Washington), 1980

Written by journalist Elsie B. Washington under the pen name Rosalind Welles, Entwined Destinies was a collaboration with Candlelight Romance editor Vivian Stephens, 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.

I have searched for the Candlelight edition of this book for at least five years, but it rarely shows up in any of the usual places. And when it has, the prices have frequently been too rich for my blood, sometimes reaching over $100, or the copies have been in poor condition and not worth it. There may be a few reasons for this scarcity- Vivian Stephens has said that the actual print run was closer to 30,000, small for a romance at the time, and other sources have indicated that it was mostly distributed in “urban market”, suggesting that any remaining copies would be geographically clustered, making it unlikely you’d run across it today at the local used bookstore. Also, many of those existing copies may already be in the hands of collectors reluctant to part with such a significant text.

You can imagine how thrilled I was to come across the book on AbeBooks a few weeks ago. The condition was listed as “good”, which isn’t terribly helpful, and there was no image of the book, but the price was less than $100, so I gambled. Imagine my surprise when it arrived and it was the nearly pristine copy pictured above. It shows almost no signs of wear and was likely never even read. A truly fortunate find that I’ll treasure forever. The cover image is worth zooming in on here:

Cover image for Entwined Destinies (1980)- art by Joel Iskowitz

The simple vignette by artist Joel Iskowitz sets the scene in London and gives us magazine correspondent Kathy in an embrace with oil tycoon Lloyd. As innocuous as it seems, it marked the first time a category romance publisher had featured a Black couple on the cover. Harlequin wouldn’t catch up until Sandra Kitt’s Adam and Eva, purchased by Vivian Stephens during her short time with the company, four years later.

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– it’s well worth the 15 minutes to watch!

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.

Quick note: If you read my 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.

Marilyn Morgan, R.N.

Rubie Saunders (1929 – 2001)

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.

Young Miss Header April 1969
Table of Contents from April 1969 Young Miss magazine showing Rubie Saunders as Editor as well as the author of a profile of Lucille Ball. (image via tumblr)

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.
Cover of Marilyn Morgan, R.N. (1969) by Rubie Saunders (image via Goodreads)

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 via Goodreads)

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.

Nurse Morgan Sees it Through
Cover of Nurse Morgan Sees it Through (1971) by Rubie Saunders. (image via Goodreads)

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 Marilyn Morgan, Cruise Nurse (1971) by Rubie Saunders. (image via Goodreads)

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!

(note: this post was edited on May 3, 2021 to remove images taken from the Browne Popular Culture Library twitter account, at their request.)