Writer’s 18th-Century Love Affair
Ciji Ware laughingly confessed that she could not remember her subject for that afternoon’s broadcast on “The Wink & Bill Show” on KABC Radio. She said this while walking at a fast clip through a rose garden, heading back to the books on 18th-Century England that line her desk at the Huntington Library in San Marino where she is one of three novelists to have research privileges.
Ware, who is the health and life-style commentator for KABC Radio, had already written a 90-second radio spot and would broadcast it from home, but she had to call the station soon to give them a “lead in” to the broadcast. She did not seem worried or harried about forgetting her subject. It would come to her. There would be time. She would get it done.
“It’s a real juggling act,” she said of her life.
In addition to her involvement with her husband, Tony Cook, and her 17-year-old son Jamie, Ware, who has been with KABC Radio for 12 years, also finds time for a regular round of speaking engagements and appearances. Until baseball season started she was hosting and producing “Ciji Ware’s World of Books,” a KABC Radio talk show with novelists.
And in March her first work of fiction was published. “Island of the Swans” is an 18th-Century historical novel based on the life of the Duchess of Gordon, a Scottish woman and confidante of kings and queens. The book, published by Bantam Books, is doing well, Ware said. Bantam has printed 500,000 paperback copies and has shipped out almost 400,000 of them. Ware has already started work on her next book, another 18th-Century novel set in London’s theatrical world. She had started her day with a 6:40 a.m. broadcast on birth control pills and surgery from her Beverly Hills home for “The Ken & Bob Company.” Then came the 45-minute drive to the Huntington Library where she does her book research.
Not until she got home shortly before “The Wink & Bill Show” broadcast and looked it up did she remember her subject of the day: news of a study on children born late in the year. The study counseled parents not to enroll their children early for their first year of school.
It would turn out to be a typical, frenzied week for Ware. All told, she delivered 10 original 90-second spot broadcasts for KABC, spoke at a luncheon meeting of the Town Club in Pasadena on the process of writing a historical novel, signed copies of her book over tea at the Tudor House in Santa Monica and, dressed in a gown made from 12 yards of Clan Gordon taffeta, attended the MacLeod Scottish Rant, or ball, in South Pasadena where she gave a reading from her novel.
Born in Pasadena
Corlis Jane Ware (her brother shortened it to Ciji in childhood) was born in Pasadena 47 years ago and moved with her family to Carmel in 1954. She was graduated from Harvard in 1964 and majored in Renaissance History, but she spent more time in musical comedy and ended up as the first female dance captain of the Hasty Pudding Club. “I was not what you would call a brilliant scholar. I wish I’d been an 18th-Century history and lit major.”
Her interest in that century came later. She developed a career in radio and television, reporting and producing, often on consumerism or public affairs and wrote for magazines. She married and then separated from her first husband after the birth of their son, Jamie. They have amicably worked out joint custody, she said, although that experience led her to write a handbook on joint custody, “Sharing Parenthood After Divorce,” in 1984. She also won a local television Emmy in 1977 for a program on children whose own parents kidnap them during custody disputes.
She has Alex Haley to thank for the new direction in her already busy life. After Haley’s “Roots” was published, Ware was one of many Americans inspired to look into her own background. Earlier, Ware’s great-grandmother, Elfie McCullough, had told her stories of their Scottish roots.
Ware started her genealogical research here, made a few trips to Scotland and kept coming across tantalizing references to the Duchess of Gordon, also known as Jane Maxwell, including one discovery that a remote McCullough married into the Maxwells of Monreith, Jane’s family.
Jane Maxwell was an impoverished aristocrat who was in love with two men who loved her. She married one of them, had a daughter by the other, clung to her independence and was fascinated by the male world of politics. In her early research, Ware discovered that Maxwell had been an informal adviser to William Pitt, King George III and Queen Charlotte, and that she had been a patron of poet Robert Burns. Profoundly influential in arenas usually closed to women, Maxwell was at the same time an ambitious mother who married off her daughters well, tapping into the United Kingdom’s short supply of dukes.
Famous in Her Day
She was, Ware said, “as famous as Jane Fonda in our day” but had all but disappeared from history by the time Ware found her.
At first, Ware thought of writing Maxwell’s biography, but instead chose to fictionalize her life. “I’m a storyteller who has to be accurate about the details. I’m not a historian,” Ware said. But she was careful to base her Maxwell character on what actual historical letters revealed. “I never put in anything I knew to be untrue and took intelligent guesses based on my research,” she said.
Oddly enough, it was Ware’s personal experience of such seemingly 20th-Century concerns as divorce, child support and custody that made her feel connected with Maxwell. “Early on I discovered her parents had separated and the mother and girls were struggling with no money in Edinburgh. The mother was writing begging letters to the father saying ‘the children have no shoes.’ I thought, ‘God, nothing has changed,’ ” Ware said. Saying she identified with Maxwell, Ware added, “I think she always felt fragmented, as so many woman do, between the needs of family and her own desire to chart a course for herself based on her talents. It’s a modern dilemma.”
Sitting on a bench under a shade tree in the rose garden at the Huntington, Ware reflected on the recent changes in her life. “The change really started when I began working on the book. I drove over here three or four times a week. I was cloistered in this beautiful place, facing the quiet. It was a time to be a lot more reflective. There were no deadlines except the ones I imposed.”
“Island of the Swans” is only the beginning. She has another three historical novels in mind, all set in the 18th Century. She is at work on one on the world of the theater, knows the characters for the novel after that, and said she will set the third in the Hudson Valley.
A Boisterous Age
She said she loves the 18th Century “because it really was a boisterous age.” She added, “Certainly women in an educated echelon were very much a part of the culture, using their talents more than in the 19th Century. It was the time of the enlightenment, of political and social ferment. . . . It must have been a really exciting time.”
“Islands of the Swans” is making the rounds to producers, and Ware says there is some interest in turning her book into a mini-series. If a deal is struck, she said, her husband, who is a screenwriter and free-lance journalist, would be involved in the production.
The recent speeches and appearances Ware has made to promote the book aren’t that much of a change for her. Ware’s life was already very public and active.
Although she calls her life fragmented, there are times when all the fragments come together. And it happened one morning last week at Dodger Stadium.
There she was shortly after sunup on the day of the Dodgers’ home opener, and she was broadcasting live from home plate with the rest of “The Ken & Bob Company.” She was wearing a blue Dodger jacket with “Ciji” emblazoned on the back and she was far removed from Scotland, the Duchess of Gordon and the 18th Century. A high school band was practicing, she said, and some of the parents were in the stands.
A woman called out to her, “Hey, Ciji, I read your book.”
Beaming as she recounted it, she went on: “I said to myself, ‘This is the best thing. It is so rewarding. So satisfying.’ ”