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Obituary

Kate Coscarelli; Started as Novelist at 56

August 27, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kate Coscarelli, whose best-selling fiction was known for its adroit portrayals of strong, mature women coping with life changes in glamorous worlds, died Wednesday at her Century City home.

Coscarelli was 72 and died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, her daughter, Anne Coscarelli, said Thursday.

A late-blooming author, Coscarelli did not begin writing novels until she was 56, after her two children were grown.

Her six novels, which included "Fame and Fortune" in 1984, "Perfect Order" in 1985 and "Heir Apparent" in 1993, drew heavily from her own experiences and social settings, featuring female protagonists who were divorcees, executives, widows of executives, military wives, celebrities and socialites. Her plots involved romance and intrigue, and she was compared to two other popular authors, Danielle Steele and Judith Krantz.

"Kate Coscarelli," wrote critic and novelist Carolyn See, "has her finger on the pulse of the female half of the married nation."

Coscarelli was born Shirley Tyer, the daughter of a railroad worker and a homemaker, in St. Louis. After graduating from Washington University there, she became a stewardess and met her future husband, a West Point cadet named Donald A. Coscarelli, on a flight to Pittsburgh. He joined the Air Force, which moved the Coscarellis to California in 1957. They lived in Los Alamitos and later in Long Beach.

For the next two decades, Coscarelli followed a traditional path, raising children, helping her husband establish an investment business and doing charitable work as president of the Long Beach Civic Light Opera and chairwoman of the Long Beach Heart Assn.

In the 1970s, when her son, filmmaker Don Coscarelli Jr., started making movies at age 19, she leaped in as commissary, costume department, even special effects coordinator, on his low-budget 1979 horror film, "Phantasm."

In 1981 she started to write her first novel, producing a 908-page manuscript about the libidinal adventures and marital crises in the lives of four middle-aged women in Beverly Hills. It was rejected by several publishers until Coscarelli's husband "got indignant" on her behalf and persuaded a top literary agent at William Morris to read it.

The agent, Joan Stewart, told her to cut the book in half, "but don't leave anything out." Three months later, Coscarelli called her back and told her she had whittled her opus down to 560 pages. Stewart had forgotten who Coscarelli was, the author recalled in a 1985 interview, "but remembered all the characters."

After the manuscript was accepted by St. Martin's Press, the publisher suggested that Coscarelli needed a catchier first name. That's when Coscarelli adopted her Aunt Kate's first name.

The book, "Fame and Fortune," made the New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists. Charles Champlin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called it "a knowing account of the inner lives of four women not far removed from the author in age and social status."

Her other novels stayed close to worlds Coscarelli knew well. "Pretty Women" concerned a reunion of military wives 20 years after they had been stationed in Tripoli, Libya, with their husbands. "Leading Lady" chronicled three generations of Hollywood women. Her last novel, "Heir Apparent," was a murder mystery that revolved around the daughter of a California billionaire.

Most of the main characters were "women past the blush of youth" who moved in affluent circles.

"I had a wonderful high school teacher in St. Louis who used to say you had to write about what you know," Coscarelli said. "I had to write about women."

Coscarelli was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1992 but continued to write at the end of her life, completing a yet-unpublished novel while hooked to a respirator.

In addition to her husband, son and daughter, she is survived by four grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held Monday at 10:30 a.m. at Pierce Bros. Westwood Village Cemetery. Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to the Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women with Cancer at UCLA, 200 UCLA Medical Plaza, Suite 502, Los Angeles 90095.

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