Kathleen Winsor

Author of the racy bestseller 'Forever Amber'

Thursday 29 May 2003 00:00

Kathleen Winsor, writer: born Olivia, Minnesota 16 October 1919; married first Robert John Herwig (marriage dissolved 1946), second 1946 Artie Shaw (marriage dissolved 1948), third Arnold Krakower (marriage dissolved), fourth Paul A. Porter (died 1975); died New York 26 May 2003.

"Adultery is not a crime, it's an amusement." Amber St Clair, the sexual adventurer created by the writer Kathleen Winsor as the rambunctious heroine of her historical romance Forever Amber, is fond of such amoral remarks. They helped ensure that Winsor's début, published in 1944, both achieved notoriety and became a bestseller as perhaps the first bodice-ripper of modern fiction.

Within a week, the racy 972-page novel had sold 100,000 copies in America and within a couple of years three million people had bought the book - despite, or perhaps because of, its being banned by 14 US states. It became a bestseller in 16 countries, including Britain, where its publication in 1945 coincided, paradoxically, with the popularity of the film Brief Encounter, that ode to repressed passion and sexual renunciation.

For the next 25 years, Forever Amber was a kind of rite-of-passage reading for teenage girls everywhere. The romance is set in the libertine years of Restoration England and starts with Amber at 16, pregnant and penniless on the streets of London. However, within a couple of hundred pages she is the mistress of Charles II. Amber runs through lovers so briskly that one reviewer suggested the reader might want to use an adding machine to keep track.

The Attorney-General of Massachusetts, in explaining his reasons for banning the book, said that he had counted 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions, 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men and 49 "miscellaneous objectionable passages". He added: "The references to women's bosoms and other parts of their anatomy were so numerous I did not even attempt to count them." The book was publicly burned in that state. (The novel did not titillate every reader: when the ban was reversed the appeal judge said the book had put him to sleep.)

Even before a film deal had been done, the Hays Office, the self- appointed morality board for the film industry, condemned the book. The film version went ahead, with Linda Darnell as Amber and Cornell Wilde as her true love, and was a big hit on its release in 1947. (A relative of Winsor said that the writer, "the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen," was the natural choice to play Amber.) The novel outsold every other US novel of the 1940s and Winsor, dubbed America's most notorious novelist, made more money from this single book than any other writer of the time.

Kathleen Winsor was born in 1919, in Olivia, Minnesota. It may have been hype for the novel, but she claimed English ancestors who moved to America as early as 1630. She grew up in comfortable circumstances in Berkeley, California and graduated from university there.

She married while still a student. She had been asked by a California paper to write American football stories from a woman's point of view. The story goes that her husband, a fellow student, Robert John Herwig, was working on a paper on Charles II; Winsor read one of his research books and became fascinated by the Restoration instead.

Herwig went off to war in the Pacific and during his five-year absence Winsor studied the period, reading 365 books on the subject, making watercolour sketches of houses, furniture and costumes, and writing some five drafts of the novel. She reckoned she spent 4,967 hours on it. Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year was a major source and her account of the Great Plague was much praised for its apparent verisimilitude. Other sources included Defoe's Moll Flanders and Roxana and Gay's Beggar's Opera.

"I can't say I was surprised when it was accepted," she said many years later. "It seemed only justice after five years of effort." However, the book she delivered was more than two and half million words long - the publishers reduced it to a fifth of its length, and set aside a $20,000 promotional budget: a small fortune in those days.

Winsor was the first to point out that, while sex helped sell the novel, her writing was by no means explicit.

I wrote only two sexy passages, and my publishers took both of them out. They put ellipses instead. In those days, you could solve everything with an ellipse.

She divorced her husband in 1946. Her success combined with her striking good looks ensured she became part of the celebrity circuit. She was described as "one of the great ornaments of New York" - she lived in New York most of her life - although she also received hate mail branding her "a sexy tramp". She next married the bandleader Artie Shaw. Ironically, two years earlier he had condemned his then wife, Ava Gardner, for reading a "trashy novel" - Forever Amber. Winsor's second marriage didn't last either but she quickly met her third husband, Arnold Krakower - he was the lawyer handling her divorce from Shaw in 1948. Her fourth husband, Paul A Porter, was also a lawyer.

Winsor wrote a number of other contemporary and historical romances, including The Lovers (1952), Robert and Arabella (1986), Calais (1980) and Star Money (1950). She always intended to write a sequel to Forever Amber to be called "Amber in America" but it never appeared. She found it hard to repeat the success of Forever Amber, even though she recognised that readers "like to read about the past because it has no threats for them".

Peter Guttridge

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