Author Kathleen Winsor was born in Olivia, Minnesota, on 16 October 1919. When she was very young, the family relocated to Berkeley, California, where Winsor attended the University of California and was graduated in 1938. At the age of 17, she married the first of her four husbands, campus football star Robert Herwig. After finishing college, Herwig joined the Marines, and Winsor took her place as the typical serviceman's wife.

A GLANCE AND AN IDEA

It was a casual glance at Herwig’s senior thesis that sparked her interest in the English Restoration period. Winsor’s curiosity led her to read numerous books on the subject; she later claimed to have read over 356 books about English history.

With no prior writing experience, she began work on a novel in February 1940. Winsor’s research was apparently meticulous; her notes and papers, which have been preserved, reveal copious notes, hand-made maps, and at least five drafts. She even kept track of the number of hours she spent researching and writing.

When the book was at last finished, Winsor submitted a manuscript of over 2500 pages to Macmillan (who had published Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind). Macmillan sensed another best-seller, and assigned a team of editors to turn the unwieldy manuscript into a novel of under a thousand pages.

The novel, entitled Forever Amber, was published in 1944. Macmillan launched a huge publicity campaign, spending $20,000 on promotion and often featuring the author herself – described as a “raven-haired beauty”. The novel told the story of Amber St. Clare, a poor illegitimate daughter of a nobleman who, by any means necessary, rises to the heights of Restoration society (and King Charles II’s bed). It helped launch the historical romance genre and was the first of what would today be called “bodice-rippers”. Winsor’s vivid yet controlled descriptions of her heroine’s amorous adventures left just the right amount to the imagination.

FAME AND CONTROVERSY

Naturally, wartime America was hardly ready for such a book. Forever Amber drew howls of protest from all sides of society. It was of course banned in Boston, denounced by Hollywood’s priggish Hays Office, and damned by Catholic churches all across the country. From the publisher’s, and perhaps the author’s point of view, all the publicity was just the sort of advertising money couldn’t buy. The novel sold over 100,000 copies in its first week of release, and would go on to sell over three million copies.

The author herself came in for criticism as well. Critics of the day couldn’t consider that an untrained, unknown “author” could produce such a book. Winsor’s research was dismissed, and scandal sheets of the day followed and reported her every move. Florence King, writing about Winsor in her essay “Rock-em, Sock-em Feminism”, remarks that “ … women endowed with beauty and brains are a double-barreled threat, and she was made to pay.”

Not surprisingly, Hollywood beckoned and a movie was made in 1947. There were rumours that Winsor herself would play the lead, but the part went instead to Linda Darnell. The story was naturally altered a bit to fit sensibilities, and an alternate ending (in which Amber is made to “pay”), was tacked on. Even so, the movie was a hit with audiences but not with “decency societies”, who screamed even louder.

Winsor, however, reveled in the notoriety. She made no secret of the fact that Forever Amber was written partially to make her name and make her rich, and she developed quite a taste for the lifestyle that fame brought. She divorced Herwig and married bandleader Artie Shaw, himself a known collector of spouses. A few years later, Winsor divorced again and married her divorce lawyer, Arnold Krakower. Detractors accused her of mimicking her fictional heroine (after all, one of Amber’s more famous lines was “Adultery is not a crime, it’s more an amusement”).

After the success of Amber, Winsor wrote a few more novels, none of them approaching the same popularity, with the exception of Star Money (1950). This was ostensibly a work of fiction, though the autobiographical tone was undeniable. It’s about a Navy housewife, Shireen Delaney, who becomes famous after writing a best-selling historical novel. Star Money, while a good story, is notable for its many quotable lines, for example:

"Most people haven’t got enough imagination even to imagine that anyone else has."

"I’ve always thought that men were superior to women – except me."

"More people would be like me, if they could get away with it."

The critics’ response to Star Money was no less savage than before. As with Amber, though, the reading public took little notice and the book was moderately successful. Winsor’s later novels (the last appearing in 1986), though well written, never brought her the attention of her previous works. It seemed her fans were only interested in Amber – a planned sequel, Amber in America, was never written.

A QUIET LIFE

A final marriage came in 1956 to another lawyer, Paul Porter. She settled into the life of a Washington (DC) hostess and was content to play that part, rarely mentioning her previous fame as a novelist. Winsor lived a quiet life with Porter, and they were together until his death in 1975. Even though she continued writing, she was never again a literary figure.

Kathleen Winsor moved to New York shortly after she became a widow, and lived there until her recent death on 19 June 2003. Forever Amber has recently returned to print (2002) and is now regarded as a classic of modern literature.


SOURCES

King, Florence, “Rock-em, Sock-em Feminism” in The Florence King Reader. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996.
Homberger,Eric, Kathleen Winsor. The Guardian. June 2003. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,3604,969747,00.html>
The London Telegraph, Proud Writer of a Bawdy Bestseller. The Sydney Morning Herald. June 2003. <http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/06/18/1055828378515.html>

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