Kathleen Winsor

Born - Oct 16, 1919   |   Died - May 26, 2003   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Historical Film

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Kathleen Winsor is the quintessential example of the "one book" author -- in a career lasting from the 1940s through the 1980s, she wrote more than a half-dozen novels, but is known almost exclusively for her first book, Forever Amber, which became a major Hollywood blockbuster of the late '40s and has been reprinted regularly since its publication in 1943. Kathleen Winsor was born in Olivia, MN, the daughter of Harold Lee Winsor, a real estate dealer, and the former Myrtle Crowder. She grew up in Berkeley, CA, and received her degree from the University of California in 1938. Winsor began her writing career as an indirect result of her marriage to Robert John Herwig, a star football player; she attended his games and started publishing articles in the Oakland Tribune that dealt with football from a woman's perspective. She later took a job as a receptionist at the newspaper, hoping to land a reporter's spot, but left after six months. Her great success came about in the wake of a class assignment -- a research paper about the death of Charles II -- that her husband was trying to complete; Winsor chanced to browse through one of his historical sources and became entranced by its description of Restoration England. She began researching the era, eventually reading as many as 350 books, even as she began putting her plot together, running through six drafts in five years before submitting her manuscript in late 1943. It was nine months between its acceptance and the publication of Winsor's story about a courtesan's life and adventures in London during the reign of Charles II, a very racy subject for its era, especially for a mainstream novel from a major publisher. The industry buzz on the book was the most intense since Gone With the Wind seven years earlier -- movie studios were lining up to bid on the screen rights before a single copy had been sold, and that was where the interest began to balloon. Word got out that the Hays Office, which enforced the Motion Picture Production Code (a "self-censorship" process that existed at the time), was actively discouraging studio interest in the book because of its content, based on pre-publication galleys that were circulating. Winsor did speeches and signings across the East and the industrial Midwest when the book reached stores, but Forever Amber's breakthrough came when it was banned in Boston's bookstores by the New England Watch and Ward Society (two years later, it was banned for sale in the entire state of Massachusetts). All of this activity and the publicity it received helped transform Forever Amber into a bestseller, something that could not possibly have happened based on its reviews, which were never better than lukewarm. Most critics dismissed Winsor's lack of skill as a writer, particularly in the area of characterization. Her research had allowed Winsor to achieve a surprising degree of historical verisimilitude, and her imagination had yielded a story that was intensely overheated sexually for its period. The novel, publicized by all of the controversy surrounding its plot and characters, was a welcome opportunity for escapism from the dreariness of the third full year of World War II.

Forever Amber was translated into ten languages within a year of publication, and its film rights were purchased by 20th Century Fox for 200,000 dollars, one of the highest fees ever paid for screen rights to a novel. At the time, Winsor was also rumored to be in line to play the role of the heroine in the planned movie, but neither this notion, nor her consultation on the finished film (which went through an early production phase in which a quarter of a million dollars worth of shooting was junked), ever came to fruition. The movie Forever Amber, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Linda Darnell and Richard Greene, was finally released in 1947, three years after pre-production began. Shot in Technicolor and running 140 minutes, it was one of the most ambitious films of its period. Although most critics didn't take it seriously (David Raksin's music was the soundest aesthetic element of the picture), it was a major commercial success. In typical Hollywood fashion, the movie had been made on the basis of the book's notoriety, but the Hollywood Production Code of the period prevented Fox from keeping the book completely intact. Forever Amber would be Winsor's sole claim to fame as an author -- even as she began to write a second book, she was involved in promoting perfume named for the book, and later married clarinetist and band leader Artie Shaw. Her subsequent books, including Star Money (1950), The Lovers (1952), America With Love (1957), Wanderers Eastward, Wanderers West (1965), Calais: A Novel (1979), and Robert and Arabella: An Erotic Fable of Bittersweet Kismet (1986), never had remotely the impact of her first novel, which was still being reprinted 60 years after its initial publication.