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.

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) (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, 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).

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.)

Spines of books Black romance authors past and present

A Black Romance Author 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 as a newbie to the genre- Joyce McGill, Sandra Kitt, Elsie Washington, and more. 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 the list of Black romance authors continues to grow to this day.

UPDATE: 04/13/2021- 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.

UPDATE: 2/2/2022- I’ve added Ann Allen Shockley’s Loving Her (1974) to the list. I’d been meaning to get my hands on a copy to better understand whether it would be considered more of a romance or women’s fiction, but either way it warrants inclusion as a groundbreaking lesbian text, so my own reading backlog shouldn’t keep it off the list.

UPDATE: 2/23/2022- After some recent discussions and reflection, I’ve renamed this post as “A Black Romance Author Timeline” so as not to conflate Black authors with Black Romance. Black Romance is a book written by a Black author, with Black main characters and a happy ending. It does not include interracial romance, which is its own entirely valid thing. My goal here is to highlight Black authors who have written Black and/or interracial romance stories because of their importance to the genre as a whole.

UPDATE: 7/19/2022- I’ve added the list of books published by Leticia Peoples at Odyssey. This info came from Rebecca Romney of Type Punch Matrix, and I’m incredibly thankful for this, since it’s previously been hard to identify all of the titles from this short-lived but important publisher.

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.
  • 1974: Ann Allen Shockley- Already a groundbreaking librarian and archivist of Black literature at Fisk University in Nashville, in 1974 Shockley wrote Loving Her, a novel about an interracial lesbian couple. First released by Bobbs-Merrill in 1974, it was reprinted by Avon in 1978. Prior to its release, few widely-published novels had portrayed Black lesbians, let alone in a positive light.
  • 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 Barbara Stephens, 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. Odyssey would publish just 11 books total before closing shop around 1993. Those books were (thanks to Rebecca Romney for sharing her bibliographic work on this!):
  • Yamilla, Mildred E. Riley, June 1990 [historical]
  • Rooms of the Heart, Donna Hill, June 1990
  • Midnight Waltz, Barbara Stephens, February 1991 [sister of Vivian!]
  • Indiscretions, Donna Hill, March 1991
  • Dark Embrace, Crystal Wilson-Harris, September 1991
  • My Love’s Keeper, Rochelle Alers, October 1991
  • A Sheik’s Spell, Eboni Snoe, February 1992
  • Fallen Angel, Francis Ray, September 1992
  • Akayna Sachem’s Daughter, Mildred E. Riley, October 1992 [historical]
  • Promises of Summer, Terry Hurt, October 1992 [YA]
  • Love Everlasting, Sandra Kitt, February 1993
  • 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.

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.