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Taylor Caldwell, Controversial but Popular Novelist, Dies

September 02, 1985|TED THACKREY JR. | Times Staff Writer

Taylor Caldwell, the best-selling author whose more than 30 historical and romantic novels made her the darling of booksellers--and the bane of critics both literary and political--for nearly half a century, has died at her home in Greenwich, Conn.

Medical Examiner Dr. Hugo Virgilio said Ms. Caldwell, 84, died Friday of pulmonary failure caused by advanced lung cancer.

She had been almost deaf since 1967 and had suffered two strokes that deprived her of the ability to speak. Ms. Caldwell's health had been in decline for more than five years, members of the family said.

"But she never stopped working, never stopped trying, never gave in," said Robert Prestie, her manager and fourth husband, who was with her at the time of her death.

"She was always game for a fight," added J. J. Harris, a friend and former editor.

It was an ending entirely in character for a woman whose life had been a constant, and largely successful, battle against the odds.

Over the years, Taylor Caldwell's literary output had led opponents to call her everything from "feminist revolutionary" to "right-wing hack" while earning her a fortune from book sales that evoked the words "miracle" and "Godsend" and "master storyteller" from publishers and the reading public.

Her private life was no less contentious.

Taylor Caldwell was a lifelong and self-acknowledged hypochondriac; her first and third marriages ended in divorce; her works were ignored and unpublished until she was 38 and the wealth generated by her success finally led to a bitter legal battle with her elder child.

"Nobody ever helped me. Nobody ever gave me anything. Nobody ever left me anything. Everything I have, I earned myself," she told an interviewer in 1976.

And that seemed to be accurate.

Janet Miriam Holland Taylor Caldwell was born Sept. 7, 1900, in Manchester, England.

"I never had a childhood, never had an adolescence," she said in later years, adding that she did not recall any open--or, indeed, covert--show of affection from her parents, who saw to it that her schooling began when she was 4.

"There was no nonsense about kindergarten or finger painting or hot lunches," she recalled. "And believe me, within six weeks you had to know how to read and write. . . ."

Yet there was a certain pride in her recounting of that era--and an admission that this learning, far from being a burden, became her prime absorption in the years that followed.

When she was 6 her father, a commercial artist, moved the family from England to Buffalo, N.Y., the city that was her home for the next seven decades, and Janet (the name by which she was always known in private) began to write books.

"I illustrated them too," she said, "and the very first was a fairly lurid tale of seduction in the time of Nero--you know, the kind of thing I still like best--copiously and luridly illustrated. My father read it, an early critic, looked at the drawings, picked up the whole armful and disappeared in the direction of the furnace.

"But I didn't care.

"I've always lost interest in anything I write as soon as it's done. I went right on to the next book and kept turning them out at the rate of nine or 10 a year pretty much until the time of my first marriage."

Going to Work

That was when she was 18; she wed William Fairfax Combs, whom she later described as "shiftless" because she was required to contribute to the support of the family (she had one daughter, Mary Margaret, by Combs) through a succession of jobs as a stenographer and court reporter.

That marriage continued, however, until 1931, when Ms. Caldwell (who had been taking night courses at Buffalo University) finally obtained three bits of paper she called "my passports to freedom."

One was her bachelor of arts degree, one a decree of divorce from Combs and one was a certificate of her marriage to Marcus Reback, who had been her boss at the U.S. Immigration Department office in Buffalo.

"That began the happy years. For a while," she said.

The Rebacks were not rich, but they could afford to let the wife and mother spend what little free time she had (another daughter, Judith Ann, was born to the second marriage) in literary pursuits. Nonetheless, it was 1939 and Janet Caldwell Reback had "dozens" of unpublished books behind her before she received her first check as a novelist--and acquired the name by which she would be known to the reading public.

Seemed Too Masculine

Scribners liked "Dynasty of Death," her huge and somewhat contrived first published novel about the doings of the munitions-making Barbour and Bouchard families, but found it difficult to believe that it had been written by a woman.

"Too masculine," said editor Maxwell Perkins; besides, publishers of the era felt that the public simply did not buy books by women. So Perkins came up with a solution that was both technically honest--and intentionally deceptive.

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