Bebe Moore Campbell, 56; best-selling novelist wrote on racism, mental illness

Times Staff Writer

Bebe Moore Campbell, a best-selling author who wrote with compassion and candor about social issues from the African American perspective, died Monday. She was 56.

Campbell died at her home in Los Angeles of complications from brain cancer, her publicist Linda Wharton Boyd said.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 29, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Campbell obituary: The obituary of author Bebe Moore Campbell that appeared in Tuesday’s California section reported that she is survived by a son, Ellis Gordon III. He is her stepson.

In her novels, she took up such topics as racism and the problems of mental illness. Her closely observed details about characters engaged in complicated relationships led reviewers to compare her to such literary masters as Anton Chekhov and Edith Wharton.


Several of Campbell’s novels are set in Los Angeles, including “Brothers and Sisters” (1994), which explores the strained aftermath of the city’s 1992 riots. The novel’s main character, a black woman banker, is torn between her commitment to a white co-worker and the black man she accuses of sexual harassment.

“This book is about succeeding and surviving, even being happy in a society where every card seems stacked against you,” novelist Carolyn See wrote in a review for the Washington Post.

See called Campbell one of the most important African American novelists of the 20th century and regularly included “Brothers and Sisters” in a course she taught about writers of the American West.

Another of Campbell’s novels set in Los Angeles, “What You Owe Me” (2001), is a saga of two women who launch a cosmetics empire and the struggles that follow.

The book is “a meticulously reinvented landscape of 1940s Los Angeles,” noted a Times review in naming Campbell’s novel one of the best books of 2001.

“Bebe was a passionate voice for Los Angeles,” novelist Paula L. Woods said Monday. “She wrote about the historical and social forces that make us rub against each other and spark. Her heart was in the African American community.


“There will be a gap without her. Already, you feel that absence.”

As a novelist Campbell was attracted to strong female characters, caught up in a life-changing drama.

In “72 Hour Hold” (2005), a woman struggles with family members and the healthcare system when her grown daughter becomes mentally ill.

Campbell also wrote about mental illness in an unusual children’s novel, “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry” (2002), about a little girl whose mother is unbalanced and erratic.

“It was courageous of Bebe,” to write the book, said James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won bookstore in Los Angeles, where Campbell regularly attracted “out-the-door” crowds when introducing her newest novel.

“The book is a way of expressing to children what they need to know, “ Fugate said. The little girl in the story learns to call a grandmother or an aunt for help if her mother is not well.

Campbell was open about the fact that there was mental illness in her family but was not specific about the details.


“Bebe put her compassion and sensitivity into the writing,” Woods said.

Campbell’s first book, “Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two Career Marriage” (1986), was nonfiction.

She also wrote a memoir, “Sweet Summer, Growing Up With and Without My Dad” (1989), about her young life as the daughter of divorced parents. She would spend the school year with her mother in Philadelphia and summer with her father, a paraplegic, in North Carolina.

Her journalistic articles appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Ebony magazine and elsewhere.

Along with her best-selling author’s status, she received an Image Award for Literature from the NAACP for her 1992 novel “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine” about the segregated Deep South.

Born Elizabeth Bebe Moore in Philadelphia, she received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Pittsburgh before she began a career as a schoolteacher.

She married Tiko Campbell. The couple settled in Washington, D.C., and had a daughter, Maia Campbell, before the marriage ended in divorce.


Campbell later married Ellis Gordon Jr., and they settled in Los Angeles. They had one son, Ellis Gordon III.

In addition to her husband and two children, she is survived by her mother, Doris Moore, and two grandchildren.

Funeral services are pending.

Contributions in her name can be made to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at NAMI Urban Los Angeles, 4305 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90008; or to the United Negro College Fund, 8260 Willow Oaks Corporate Park Drive, P.O. Box 10444, Fairfax, VA 22031.