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Phyllis Whitney Died Feb. 8, 2008
Prolific romance writer Phyllis A. Whitney dies
Los Angeles Times
Article Last Updated: 02/17/2008 01:38:32 AM PST

Phyllis A. Whitney, the grande dame of American gothic fiction who contributed to the rebirth of the genre in paperback and who wrote more than 70 mysteries and novels for readers of all ages in a career that spanned six decades, has died. She was 104.
Whitney died Friday of pneumonia at a Charlottesville, Va., hospital, said her daughter, Georgia Pearson.

The best-selling author's "Thunder Heights" is considered the first of the modern paperback gothic romance novels, according to "13 Mistresses of Murder," a 1986 study of mystery writers.

The book came about after an editor with Ace Books saw his mother reading "Rebecca" (1938), one of British novelist Daphne du Maurier's more famous works, "and thought there might be a market for the same kind of books," Whitney said in "13 Mistresses of Murder." The cover of the paperback featured the now-familiar element of a woman fleeing a foreboding mansion.

Editor Gerald Gross marveled at the consistent reprint success of "Rebecca" and looked for a novel that resembled it, according to "The Cultural Studies Reader" (1993). He settled on "Thunder Heights" and released it in 1960 as the first in a new gothic line aimed at women. The category experienced swift success.

Whitney's suspense stories set in exotic locations were known for their "dauntless damsel in distress" formula, but she bristled at the term "romance writer." She argued that female writers of detective stories that featured chaste romance failed to get



the credit they deserved.
"I wish I could think of a suitable name for the kind of writing I do," she wrote in a 1981 article for the Mystery Writers of America. "We're read by millions ... yet we've never become quite — legitimate. 'Gothic' doesn't do it — too restrictive ... 'Romantic suspense' sounds terribly sappy. Though we may have to accept that term for want of a better."

In 1941, she published her first novel, "A Place for Ann," a book for young adults. Whitney was 94 when her final romance mystery, "Amethyst Dreams," set on an island off North Carolina, came out in 1997.

Her 73 novels sold millions of copies and have been published in more than 30 countries. She wrote 39 adult suspense novels, 20 juvenile mysteries and 14 novels for children.

The fourth book she wrote, "Red Is for Murder" (1943), was her first for adults. Writing for grown-ups paid so poorly that she didn't attempt another adult novel for 12 years, Whitney once recalled.

When she wanted to tackle racial issues in a children's novel, her editor turned her down, so Whitney found another publishing house for "Willow Hill" (1947). The story of a young white girl and her high school friends dealing with integration became one of her most popular children's books.

The Mystery Writers of America gave Whitney its prestigious Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in 1988. The group also awarded her two Edgars for her juvenile novels "The Mystery of the Haunted Pool" (1960) and "The Mystery of the Hidden Hand" (1963).

"The girls in my books are out solving their own problems," Whitney told Parade magazine in 1975. "They've always been women's-libbers because ... I've always done what I wanted to do."

Phyllis Ayame Whitney was born Sept. 9, 1903, in Yokohama, Japan, the only child of American parents Charles and Lillian Whitney. Her middle name means "iris" in Japanese.

Her parents' story was a romantic one that Whitney credited with influencing her fiction. The couple dated when they were young but did not marry until after Lillian had been widowed and Charles Whitney sent for her from Japan.

Her father, who was in the shipping and hotel business, moved the family to the Philippines and China. After he died when she was 15, her mother returned with her to the United States but soon died.

Whitney moved from San Antonio to Chicago to live with an aunt and graduated from high school at 20. She had fallen behind while attending missionary schools in Asia.

Writing had intrigued her since she was 12, and she began selling short stories to magazines while working in a bookstore. She also became a children's book editor for the Chicago Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In 1925, she married George Garner and had her only child. The couple divorced in 1945, partly because he wasn't supportive of her writing career. By then, Whitney was regularly writing books and teaching at Northwestern University and New York University.

The second time she married, in 1950, she got it "right," she often said. Lovell Jahnke was a Mobile Oil executive with whom she traveled the world. The trips were both her hobby and necessary research.

"I found that I have to have a fresh background every time," she told Virginia's Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1991. "I like to write about beautiful places, interesting places to me."

After her husband died in 1973, she moved from New Jersey to Long Island, N.Y. At 84, she commissioned a grandson-in-law to design a home in Faber, Va., where she lived the rest of her life near her daughter, who survives her. Whitney's other survivors include two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

She credited her long life to an interest in nutrition that she developed 50 years ago. Whitney cut sugar from her diet and took 86 vitamins and minerals a day. At 88, she said antioxidants could no longer keep premature aging at bay, but they "make your brain work."

Until recently, she was working on her autobiography, which remains unfinished.

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