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'. . . And Ladies of the Club' : Helen Santmyer Dies; Wrote '84 Best-Seller

February 22, 1986|TED THACKREY Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Helen Hooven Santmyer, whose 1,334-page novel ". . . And Ladies of the Club" was the surprise best-seller of 1984, died Friday at Xenia, Ohio, where she had lived for the last five years.

She was 90 and had spent more than half her life working on the book--her fourth published work--between various jobs during her more active years and, finally, in her room at Hospitality Home East, the rest home where her life finally ended.

Nursing supervisor Sylvia Rosenlieb said Miss Santmyer died peacefully in her sleep early Friday morning. She leaves a niece, Mrs. John Williamson. Friends of the family said funeral ceremonies will be private and interment will be at the Woodland Cemetery in Xenia.

". . . And Ladies of the Club" portrays activities of a women's club in a small Ohio town from 1868 to 1932, using activities of the organization as a means of relating the town's political, cultural and social changes.

It was not an immediate literary or financial success.

Few Copies

First published in 1982 by Ohio State University Press, the book sold only a few copies--mostly to libraries--but Hollywood writer-director Gerald Sindell heard about it from his mother, a resident of Ohio who thought it might make an interesting miniseries.

In partnership with former book publisher Stanley Corwin, Sindell acquired world rights to the book from the university press and subsequently sold hardback, paperback and finally book club rights (to Book of the Month Club) for more than $500,000--a large portion of which went to the elderly author.

The book hit the best-seller lists and stayed there, making an instant celebrity of its elderly author--and giving rise to a number of myths, some of which she found irritating.

"I keep hearing that it took me 50 or 60 years to write that book," she said. "Well, that is absurd!

"It may have taken me 50 years or more to get it done, but I didn't do it all at once, for heaven's sake! I did it whenever I had a moment, and mostly I didn't have a moment. I had a living to make. . . ."

Taught School

Born Nov. 25, 1895, in Cincinnati, Miss Santmyer was the eldest child of drug salesman Joseph Santmyer and received degrees from Wellesley and Oxford, before moving to New York to work for Scribner's Magazine. She later returned to Ohio, first to teach and later to serve as reference librarian for the City of Dayton.

Her first novel, "Herbs and Apples," was published while she was at Oxford, and her second, "The Fierce Dispute," was brought out by Houghton-Mifflin in 1929. Neither book enjoyed a large sale, and neither did her third effort, "A Portrait of Xenia," which was a compilation of articles dealing with the life of the small town to which she subsequently retired--to work full-time on her fictionalized women's club history.

Miss Santmyer admitted that her last--and largest--work was undertaken partially in response to the negative picture of small-town life painted by Sinclair Lewis in "Main Street."

"But it wasn't just a response to that," she said. "I wanted people to see the way people really were--and what was good about living in a smaller town. If I accomplished that, I suppose you could call the book worthwhile. . . ."

News Media

As to its financial success, however, Miss Santmyer credited the attention of the news media.

"If they hadn't pushed it," she said, "I don't think it (the book) would have gone more than one printing. It's not the kind of thing that interests most people--and a big part of the interest is because I'm so old, I know."

Miss Santmyer never married but said that was by choice.

"Never wanted to, really," she declared. "I had plenty of boys I went out with. But I didn't marry them and I'm not sorry. I've enjoyed life very much. I'm not one of your weeping, resentful old maids. I had a fine time!"

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