Kathleen Winsor, whose “Forever Amber,” published in 1944, was a prototype for the modern blockbuster, died Monday at home in New York City. She was 83 and had been in frail health for several years. No cause of death was reported.
A first-time novelist when she wrote her sweeping bestseller, Winsor had spent five years researching the bawdy tale set in 17th century England. Her first husband, Robert John Herwig, was away for most of that time, serving with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II.
To give authentic flavor to her fiction, Winsor said, she read 356 books about Restoration England, including the reign of Charles II, the plague that swept the country in 1665 and the Great Fire that devastated London the next year.
“People like to read about the past,” she said. “It has no threats for them.”
The book’s main character, Amber St. Clare, won the hearts of female readers for her feisty resilience, her sexual prowess and her survival skills. She was the illegitimate daughter of royals who was raised in a remote village but later romanced her way into court society, where she became the mistress of King Charles II.
Enthusiastic reviewers praised the story for its relevance, comparing Amber’s fortitude during the plague and fire with that of the women who held hearth and home together through the blitzes of World War II. Critics found the work “vulgar and trivial.”
Winsor wrote six drafts before she was satisfied with the results. She was 25 when the book was published and later said she had big plans for it from the start.
“When I was 18, I wrote a list of things I was going to do with my life,” she said in an interview with P.M., a New York City-based newspaper published during the 1940s. “One of them was that I was going to write a bestseller.”
Born in Olivia, Minn., in 1919 and raised in Berkeley, she attended UC Berkeley and married Herwig, a star of the football team, while they were students.
Her book made her a wealthy woman. She earned a $50,000 advance from her publisher, Macmillan Co., and received $200,000 for the movie rights.
It also made her the center of controversy. “Forever Amber” was banned in 14 states, starting with Massachusetts, where the attorney general counted 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies and 10 abortions and recommended an adding machine for anyone who hoped to keep track of Amber’s many suitors.
The Hays Office, the morality board for the movie business, condemned the book, hoping to block a Hollywood rendition.
Criticism only encouraged sales. “Forever Amber” sold 100,000 copies its first week in bookstores. Twentieth Century Fox purchased the screen rights within a month of the book’s publication. Otto Preminger directed the movie, released in 1947, with Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde in the leading roles.
Gossip columnists suggested that Winsor’s personal life was the inspiration for the heroine of her novel. The author was married four times. Her second husband, big band leader Artie Shaw, had his own long history of spouses. Winsor followed Ava Gardner on that list.
Soon after her divorce from Shaw, Winsor married her lawyer, Arnold Krakower. But it was her fourth husband, Paul A. Porter, the former head of the Federal Communications Commission, who appears to have been her favorite. They married in 1956 and remained together until his death in 1975.
“As far as I was concerned, it was the end of the world,” Winsor told the Chicago Tribune after Porter’s death. She has no immediate survivors.
Winsor wrote eight novels, but only the first made a lasting impression on the publishing world. It went out of print in the 1970s, too tame by modern standards, but was reprinted in 2002, this time as a Penguin Classic.
“My agent, a very bright woman, told me before ‘Amber’ was published that no matter how many other books I write, this is the one people will remember,” Winsor said in 1986. “She was right. It only happened once.”