If I’m honest, I’ve been a little out of practice when it comes to talking to groups lately. That’s why I was so chuffed that Kharma Kelly and the programming team at the Inclusive Romance Project reached out to me to talk a little romance history recently. As I was talking with a group focused on opening up the genre to underrepresented groups, I spent a lot of time talking about the ways in which marginalized romance authors and readers wrote themselves into the narrative. If you weren’t able to make it to the event, you can watch the replay!
If you’d like to dig in a little more, you can check out the Black Romance Author Timeline, and here are the links I mention at the end of the presentation:
I’d originally planned to do a reel or two on the Harlequin NASCAR line, a weird and under-remembered early 2000s partnership between two iconic brands. While your first instinct might be to think that this was some oddball attempt to woo male readers, it really seems to have been more synergistic than that; at the time NASCAR had a growing female fanbase who their studies showed were more likely to be readers than their male counterparts, and Harlequin had a readership who enjoyed new plots, not to mention their desire to sell more books. After a pair of Pamela Britton NASCAR themed books in 2005 sold well, the companies agreed to a more formal partnership in 2006, with NASCAR’s logo appearing on the covers, and book sales happening both on their website and at race events. The Harlequin NASCAR was in the mold of traditional Harlequin Romances, so closed doors and no drinking or drugs were the rule. The series lasted for about five years and 91 books, wrapping up in 2010.
And all that is fine and interesting, but it’s not why I’m here today. Scrolling through the list of authors, I came across a name I’d never seen before. Ken Casper was listed as the author of Speed Bumps, published in May 2007 and book 14 in the series. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I hit the brakes so hard I spun and the roof flaps deployed. To the best of my knowledge, male names had disappeared from Harlequin covers in 1959 with Edgar Wallace’s The Man at the Carlton, after which the publisher began its exclusive romance reprinting deal with Mills & Boon. Clearly more research was necessary!
According to his 2021 obituary, Ken Casper was a New York native whose Air Force career took him around the world until he finally settled in San Angelo, Texas. He retired from the Air Force in 1997 as a Colonel. In San Angelos, he tried his hand at writing a few years before retirement. He wrote that his critique partners challenged him to write a romance story, and when his early efforts earned him a prize, he submitted it to Harlequin. A Man Called Jessewas published as a Harlequin Superromance in October 1998. Like many of the men who’d written romance before him, Ken adopted a pen name (K.N. Casper) that didn’t immediately give away his gender.
Ken published 15 more Superromances between 1998 and 2005, many of which used his adopted home of Texas as a setting. With the publication of Speed Bumps in 2007, he switched to using his real name on his Harlequin titles, a practice that he used for the next 8 books with Harlequin as well as the 7 indie published romances and mysteries at the end of his career.
Ken Casper didn’t get rich off romance or sell millions of copies or get a book made into a movie. But like all category romance authors, he did the work and acknowledging that work matters. Since the 1990s, the romance community has often leaned on the idea that “romance is by women, for women”, but people like Ken Casper, David Wind, and Tom Huff serve as reminders that genre within the romance genre has always been more complicated than that.
I did make an Instagram reel about Ken Casper and not the NASCAR series, in the end. Enjoy, and give me a follow if you liked it!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
(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.