THE WOMAN WHO WROTE "KITTY”
IN THE Vancouver Island backwoods settlement of Cobble Hill lives Rosamond Marshall who has written some of the sexiest novels on the market today. Cobble Hill, near Duncan, is so far off the beaten track that it is ignored by the retired brigadiers who populate the island’s gentler watering places.
I went in there to meet the 52-year-old author of “Kitty” and “Duchess Hotspur.” These lush romances, which gained instant popularity with servicemen in wartime, have together sold nearly 4 million copies and have continued to hold their own in peacetime.
The glitter and glamour of the historical background of Mrs. Marshall’s novels stand in sharp contrast to her own way of life. Her home is a paint-worn small farmhouse on an uncut field, where rambler roses and shrubs make a shaggy wilderness to the sloping fence. She does her own work in a well-equipped kitchen with the windows looking over wooded land to mist-shrouded Mill Bay and the un tracked Olympic Range.
It. wasn’t always simplicity Rosamond Marshall sought. She was born in New York, daughter of Charles Hull, in 1900, but moved with her family to Europe at the age of 12. She lists Dijon, Vienna, and Munich as places where she went to school and discovered her interest in the ways of mankind through the centuries which was to have such a remarkable effect on her life and income. The 12-year-old studying history at the Lycée de Jeunes Filles in Dijon was laying the groundwork for “Kitty,” which has to date netted her some $200,000.
“What Do I Do?—I Sex It”
rjOSAMOND MARSHALL says today: “I
11started writing those books to give The People history. Their success, I am certain, is due to my thorough historic research.”
Hor publishers may have something to add to this definition
She recalls how once she spent months, and $10,000 in payment for a couple of secretaries and in research, on a “good book.” She was pleased with it but her publishers took one horrified look at it.
They said, “Hey, Ros, there’s no sex in this! You are letting your customers down. They know a Marshall book and expect to get a kick out of it!” Ros adds today, “That’s when my little heart nearly busted. I was so hot on that book. And what do they say to me—sex it up! So what do I do?— I sex it.”
In sharp contrast to her life at Cobble Hill is her married life in Roman society— her first husband was an Italian. You wouldn’t think minding the ponies which her current husband, Sydney Broad, likes to keep, could compare to climbing in the Swiss, French and Italian Alps. A peak there was named for her by her favorite Italian guide with her nickname Nino, which makes the alp “Punta Nino.”
Of her husbands she will say, with a toss of her massive head, there were “quite a few.” There was the Italian nobleman. She has used a Dutch name on some of her children’s books. Marshall probably was an American. “Why talk about past mistakes?” is the way she puts it.
What really brought her to Cobble Hill was California. It seems there’s no peace there.
“Why,” she says, “you get into a rat race of people. There are 30 around your swimming pool every day. That destroys your privacy. Not that
“But why Cobble Hill?” I don’t like people. Don’t get me wrong. I’m completely an extrovert myself. That’s the ham in me.”
“It was like this,” the author says, “I was on tour in connection with the publication of ‘Duchess Hotspur’ and I had a marvelous time. Lots of parties. Nice people. When I got to Vancouver it was lovely. I loved it. But. they said, ‘wait till you see Victoria.’ I came. I caught my first salmon at Mill Bay. Somehow right then and there I decided to settle here to do my next historical novel.”
She fixed me with a guileless eye. “That’s what I call them. Historical novels.”
I was well into one of these novels, reading “. . . memories of the night, stirred his blood . . .” when I got the phone call from Cobble Hill.
I left Percy, the Duchess of Hotspur, a very sexy young woman of the 18th century, to her own devices and introduced myself to her creator. Could I come up to see her? With a photographer?
Painters in and Turkey Out
THERE are painters here,” Mrs. Marshall’s voice said decisively from the wilds of inland Vancouver Island to me in Victoria. “Nobody could come up today. Anyhow, I don’t photograph well any more. I’ve got too big. And old. I claim I was born at the turn of the century, 1900 you know, but really, I’m two years older.
“I’m moving to the beach cottage today,” she rattled on. “One of these days I’m going to build a lighthouse for my workshop, for the elevation you know. I’ve got the wood for it all ready, salvaged from an old ship, and all the fixings, but right now I keep moving. All my books are stacked in piles on the floor.
“The painters are here. People are coming in and I’m going out. The turkey’s out of deep freeze and something has to be done about it. It’s impossible. I’m terribly busy.”
She took a long breath. Then her deep, rollicking laughter rolled out. “I know what,” she said, “I’ll come to see you. And I’ll bring the poodle for the picture. When there’s a dog in the picture people are less likely to look at your face.”
I put the phone down and reviewed what I already had been told about Rosamond Marshall’s writing career. Her first story was published in the New York World when she was three. She dictated and her father took it down. Her first historical novel, with the French Revolution as the setting, was written at 14. In her early 20’s she wrote a dozen light French novels, in French (none of these have been translated to English), and occasional reports for Italian, German and French papers.
A Romantic Texan in 1951
HER FIRST English book published was a children’s story, “None But the Brave,” which was based on the Netherlands revolt in the 16th century against Spain. It came out in 1942 and won the New York Herald-Tribune’s Spring Book Award.
The following year she switched to her sophisticated style and produced “Kitty,” a tale of a London slum child who becomes a lady. It preceded “Forever Amber,” and was made into an extremely profitable motion picture in 1946 by Paramount. Paulette Goddard was Kitty.
With two lusty best-sellers earning her a fortune, happy Rosamond Marshall wants to write in a lighthouse in B. C.
Soldiers overseas read “Kitty” avidly and since the war there has been a steady demand for it. Sales, including the 25-cent reprint editions have now reached 2 million copies.
“Duchess Hotspur” (sold to date 1,800,000) came next.
Mrs. Marshall’s newest book, “Celeste,” which came out in April, has already sold 45,000 copies. She wrote another children’s book in 1946, “The Treasure of Shafto,” which tells the adventures of an English and a Russian lad in their attempt to escape from a Prussian military academy in the 18th century.
Her publishers (Prentice Hall) say she is a phenomenal worker. When she says she will deliver a book on a certain date it usually turns up right on the dot. Her next book, “Laird’s Choice,” set in 19th-century England and Scotland is scheduled for publication February, 1950; in 1951 she expects to have out a contemporary work called “The Romantic Life of Stephen Fuller Austin of Texas.”
Both Mrs. Marshall and her publishers act vague about the monetary returns from her best sellers. But she remarked to me that she thought Kitty had netted some $200,000. The returns from the other books must be comparable.
When Rosamond Marshall walked into my hotel room I was reading “Duchess Hotspur.”
The tall, well-developed woman wore a pearl-grey tailored flannel suit, French hand-made white blouse, navy shoes and bag a perfect match, a single strand of swinging pearls; an eight-carat ruby, engraved with a crest, sparkled on her little finger.
The Daughter Doesn’t Like It
THIS is the place,” she declared, looking from my windows down to Victoria’s harbor. “When the fires have burned out and you are ready to settle down for the steady glow. Here I’ll work, i’ll do serious novels too. But not folksy. I don’t appreciate the folksy sort of thing. And I’m not the kind to do an outdoor novel. Neither am I fond of little peoples’ memoirs. I like, in reading and writing, the adult kind of novels. It’s more sport, don’t you know.”
She grew thoughtful. “I must say, I know how to write the fast-moving stuff. All the time I’m besieged by people who want it. My daughter doesn’t particularly like it. She’s a young girl.” “Why do you suppose your books are so popular?” I asked.
“It’s the research. People love history, and they need it, and they should have it. Nobody else Skives it to them. I bring history to the people. Amd when I say, for example, that an item which 1 quote appeared in a London paper in July 17, 1708, t sure enough did. You can check on it yourself.” She fixed me with a humorous but sharp eye. T do it so neatly it’s real. It comes alive. This, t’m telling you, is the secret of a good historical íovel. And I love history.”
I remembered reading in “Celeste” the phrase: ‘Yes, he liked money and the freedom money gave.” asked if this had a personal application.
“I’ve worked hard all these years,” she answered. ‘Now I want to build my house and my life. What vould you do? Here I have the means at my inger tips. Two hundred thousand dollars is a ;ood chunk for one book. It was something like hat for ‘Kitty,’ can’t remember figures much. I isk you, what would you do?”
We went down for the photographing with this problem unsolved, through the sedate rose gardens and down the lush green lawns of the Empress Hotel. A big, shiny, green Lincoln Continental was parked by one of the rose gardens. A miniature French poodle made much fuss at our approach. Mrs. Marshall called out to it happily, “Here comes your Mama, Bobo.” This was Beau Regard, with lengthy linage, whose fiancee Fifine had been left at home because her temperament always upsets Bobo.
Mrs. Marshall said she had two other dogs at home, at Cobble Hill, and I said I’d like to see them. “Well,” she said reluctantly, “all right.”
When 1 drove out the next day along the Island Highway northward to Cobble Hill, it poured thick, mistyblue, British Columbia rain. The road climbed sharply, lurching often around precipices over rugged tidal flats of the sea gulfs. The fir rose majestic and forbidding toward the hills, wrapped in undulating cloud.
The scene didn’t remind me a single bit of either “Kitty” or “Duchess Hotspur.” These, despite their English scenes, had left a somewhat tropical impression. Quotes like: “Now my
little one,” laughed Tom, spreading his arms wide, “let me see you escape, this time.” Not a single quote about a pine tree.
The rain rat-a-tatted on the roof of • the car. The hills closed in. The road had danger signs. I thought imagination was a fine thing.
MacTavish on the Telephone
We got lost at Mill Bay and asked for the way at a store. “Yes, indeed,” said the storekeeper with a curious look at me, “up that-a-way and don’t turn at the white barn, but her place is behind it.”
I looked at the inevitable rack of pocket-fitting novels. “Have you a copy of ‘Kitty’?”
“Sold out,” he said. “Can’t keep them in stock.”
Lost again, I stopped at the next crossroads store.
“Would you telephone Mrs. Marshall’s house?” I asked. “I’d like her to know I’m on my way.”
The pleasant woman behind the counter tried the phone. “MacTavish is on it,” she said pleasantly, “if you have half an hour to spare you could wait.”
“Is Mrs. Marshall on a party line?”
1 asked, movie contracts, 4 millioncopy sales and such bell-ringing in my ears.
“Sure,” she said.
I went out into the rain again. Cobble Hill is a straggling agricultural community with a population of about 250; nobody’s really counted beyond the voters’ list. The side road to which I was directed was dusky with overhanging trees and the rain.
Down the sodden, lush road, a soaked man in overalls and store teeth turned up to offer direction.
“Why,” he said, “you just passed it. It’s the little one behind the barn.”
“Kitty” Was in Khaki
“You know Mrs. Marshall?” I asked.
“Sure, work for her sometimes. Wife does too.”
“I expect they need much help.”
“No. Don’t entertain much. Seems as though they weren’t taking root here. They were talking of building but the pile of bricks has been there as long as they have. And they don’t mix much.”
“Have you read her books?” I asked.
“Sure,” a flashing grin. “Read one in the army. ‘Kitty’ that was. Most of the people around here have too.”
“And do they like them?”
“Depends on who you are talking about.” He lurched off into the downpour.
The wooden gate had a “No Trespassers” sign on it and our rented car slipped on the soft, muddy track.
It ended in a small farmhouse set in a straggly garden of rose bushes, arbutus trees and the wealth of B. C. flowers. The grass was uncut, still parched from a recent drought. On a small screened veranda four dogs were pretending to be a crowd.
They escaped through a tear in the screen as Rosamond Marshall, in a green slack suit, white Swiss-designed sweater, and a pin of beaten gold and rubies, came swinging out on the porch. Her young face, under the crisply curled grey hair, was cheerily welcoming.
The dogs ran barking, bouncing and gallumping about as she said, “This place is really a mess. I couldn’t even get down to the beach cottage with this rain.”
She captured the dogs, hoisted them over the screen and waved at the closed-in portion of the porch where the poodles were now yipping from the chairs and leaning against a card table which swayed under a typewriter. “That’s where I work,” she said.
The small living room was bare but for painters’ paraphernalia.
“We are going to cut a picture window here,” she said, “and paint the place green. Come along to the kitchen.”
I thought of the description of a private railway car in “Celeste” as I stepped into the small pale-blue-androse kitchen, dominated by a magnificent Bendix, filled but not working, a modern sink, a dishwashing machine, and a modern stove more full of gadgets than a trans-Atlantic Constellation.
It had read like this: The deep settees were covered with sand-colored brocade, the easy chairs in leather. An upright rosewood piano, polished to a high lustre, curtains of deep green, a wine-colored velours rug so soft and downy underfoot! There were pictures on the walls, oil paintings of seascapes, and a graceful sailboat, leaning in a stiff wind. There were ferns growing in handsome étagères. “It's beautiful,” Celeste exclaimed. “The dressing room too! Imagine a silver washbasin. I adored those faucets made like swans' heads—the water comes out of their beaks . . .”
I sat down at the plastic clothcovered table in the narrow kitchen nook.
The Treasures of the Past
At my request Mrs. Marshall brought out a picture of her daughter, Sandy (“She’s trying to get a job in Chicago.” Last year she got a job in Seattle. It cost me $250. She is a sweet, serious girl.”) and a copy of “Kitty,” completely pasted over with clippings.
A dried gardenia, brittle with pressing, fell out from the book. “That’s the first corsage I ever got at a publishers’ party,” she said.
She stored at it thoughtfully. “Now,” —slowly—“now I wade in orchids. Like spinach.”
I remarked on the various criticisms about “Kitty.”
“Oh, that,” Mrs. Marshall said, “I don’t worry about that any more. I always say when 3 million people read a book it surely proves something. The critics are just irked I can make so much more money than they can. They haven’t the brains to see I’m making history available to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the treasures of the past to hand.”
She beamed at me, hands on hips.
“How,” I said, “do you go about writing these things?”
She had no trouble defining it. There are writers and there are storytellers, she said, and she was in the latter category. She didn’t plan out a plot first, she just went at the idea—boom! By the time she is two thirds way through a book and is certain of the outcome her interest begins to lag.
A Husband From Hollywood
“When I’m first writing the story I can hardly wait to get at it again. I hate people who try to keep me from getting up in the mornings. I like to start at 6.30 a.m. and keep right on till 1 or 2.”
Mental discipline is her advice to anyone aspiring to write. Stick at the thing. Read the Bible, Shakespeare, Oxford Book of Verse, and Homer. She’s got four translations of Homer.
“I’ll still be trying to write a great book when I’m 90,” she says. “I know my failings. They aren’t lack of imagination, or depicting incident and character. It’s just that every writer must perfect his craftsmanship all of the time. And there’s another thing I want to do—I’ve tried it again and again but flopped—write a good play.” She paced the kitchen floor while her husband and manager, ex-Hollywoodite, dark, witty Sydney Broad, came and arranged a lunch. “I’m really not admitting I’m married to him,” Ros says, “I’ve had so many failures and I want this one to stick. So we are on a five-year plan. Stay married for five years, I say, and then admit it. The time’s almost up.”
Rosamond Marshall, who is some part of her exotic characters and also very much a person in her own right, chuckles: “I’m very sincere. I don’t tell many lies about myself any more. I don’t care now what anybody says.” ★