Forgotten authors No.37: Kathleen Winsor

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The Independent Culture

Authors are prone to notoriety. Any printed display of opinion is bound to raise questions, and then there's the matter of censorship. In this case, censorship in America – something Kathleen Winsor (1919-2003) discovered the hard way. Winsor was a smart, energetic sports columnist who subsequently became fascinated by the Restoration period. After years of research, she produced a sprawling fifth draft of a novel around 2,500 pages long. Her publishers hacked it down to a more manageable size, just under 1,000 pages, and it appeared in 1944 as Forever Amber. The epic was a love letter to London, a bodice-ripping romp through plague and fire, taking in the society chatter and politics of the times. There were a few mildly titillating passages, and the book was generally well received by critics, who saw parallels between the enduring Restoration wives and their wartime counterparts. It didn't hurt that the attractive author, then 24, was seductively photographed for her press releases.

No one had foreseen that it would be banned. When the Massachusetts attorney-general cast a magnifying glass over the text, he found more than 70 references to sexual intercourse and 10 scenes in which women undressed in front of men. Critics grimly accused the book of glorifying the superficial life of a courtesan. State after state followed suit, blocking the blockbuster and pronouncing it pornography, and soon Winsor found she had created a national scandal. Naturally, it became the bestselling novel of the 1940s, and was transformed into a pretty dreadful Otto Preminger film, bowdlerised by the Catholic League of Decency to include an ending in which the heroine is punished for her sins.

Winsor's own sin was to write something that was sexy and fun in a time of finger-wagging conservatism. Instead of wartime austerity, she offered something more appealing, notoriously announcing that "Adultery is not a crime, it's an amusement."

Scandal and success combined to destroy Winsor's first marriage. She then married the band leader Artie Shaw, and when that relationship failed, she wed her divorce attorney. In her next novel, Star Money, she wrote a thinly disguised biography about becoming a bestselling author, but despite being billed as the new fiction from the author of Forever Amber, it was indifferently received. Winsor continued to write until 1986, but none of her fiction made any impact. It can fairly be said that the success of her first novel upset the balance of her life.