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Mary Lee Settle, 87; Novelist and PEN/Faulkner Award Founder

October 02, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Mary Lee Settle, an author noted for richly detailed historical fiction who won a National Book Award and founded the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, has died. She was 87.

Settle died of lung cancer Tuesday at a hospice in Charlottesville, Va., said her son, Christopher Weathersbee.

Settle received the book award in 1978 for her ninth book, "Blood Tie," along with a cool reception from some in the New York literary world. Settle, a native of Charleston, W. Va., blamed it on the literary establishment's "anti-Southern bias" and a public attitude that she said valued personality over achievement.

She struck back two years later by creating a competing prize for American fiction that remains rooted in what she called "a community of writers." Enlisting her writer friends, she established the PEN/Faulkner Award, which is judged by writers, not industry insiders.

With a $15,000 grand prize, the award is this country's most lucrative major fiction award.

"By the sheer force of her personality, she imagined a community of writers and readers meeting to honor good books. Her spirit is central to PEN/Faulkner today," Susan Richards Shreve, a novelist and member of the award's board, said in a statement.

Before "Blood Tie," a novel about rootless British and American expatriates in Turkey, Settle was best known for the "Beulah Quintet," five novels that trace America's revolutionary roots from 1649 England to 20th century West Virginia. The "Quintet" consumed 28 years of her life. The last of them was "The Killing Ground," published in 1982.

Settle "must always be taken seriously, which can be said of lamentably few American novelists, and in 'The Killing Ground' her tough intelligence is a formidable presence," the Washington Post said in its review.

She was born July 29, 1918, the daughter of Joseph Edward and Rachel Tompkins Settle. Her father was a civil engineer in charge of worker safety at coal mines, and she once joked about her "genteel hillbilly" childhood in Kentucky and West Virginia.

At her father's insistence, she attended Sweet Briar College in Virginia instead of Barnard College in New York City after he saw a solitary black person on a tour of Barnard's dorms. She fictionalized the experience in her novel "The Clam Shell," published in 1971.

After two years at Sweet Briar, Settle horrified her family by dropping out in 1938 to work as a model and actress in New York City. She married Rodney Weathersbee, an Englishman.

When her husband returned to Europe to fight in World War II, Settle enlisted in the Women's Auxiliary of the Royal Air Force. That experience was recounted in her 1966 autobiography, "All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman Second Class 2146391."

After returning to New York, she briefly worked at Harper's Bazaar as an assistant editor, which led to her decision to dedicate herself completely to writing.

While staring at a layout on "Bronte Country," she realized that author Emily Bronte died when she was 29. Settle was then 27. She marched down the hall and quit to "plunge into the precarious world of writing."

From 1945 to 1949, she wrote six unproduced plays and four film scripts, and paid the rent by working as a journalist.

"When I was dead broke in England, I sold myself to Women's Day as Mrs. Charles Palmer, etiquette expert," Settle said in 1987. "I had two pairs of blue jeans to my name. The editor lent me her black dress and pearls ... for the picture and invented an artificial background" that included a debutante daughter.

In reality, she was living in a barn in Cornwall with no electricity and no heat with her second husband, poet and journalist Douglas Newton, and her son from her first marriage, which had ended in divorce.

Her first published novel was "The Love Eaters" (1954), about a small-town theater company. More than 20 books followed, including the nonfiction travel and memoir books she dubbed "tweenies," because she worked on them between novels.

By the time her second book came out, Settle was writing furiously. "I decided if failure hadn't stopped me working, I wouldn't let success stop me," she told the Washington Post in 1987.

After once again returning to the U.S., the vociferous liberal vowed to leave the country if Richard Nixon were elected president, and she kept her word. From 1969 to 1974, she lived in England and Turkey.

Settle eventually found herself on the Bard College campus in New York as a teacher and remained 12 years. She also taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Virginia.

In 2001, she finished "I, Roger Williams," a historical novel about early life in the American colonies that The Times called "a beautiful work of art."

A trip she took soon afterward, when she was in her early 80s, became "Spanish Recognitions," a travel memoir and her last published book.

At the time of her death, she was working on a fictional biography of the young Thomas Jefferson.

Her "outsized personality" helped her cultivate a wide circle of friends, said Starling Lawrence, who became her editor at W.W. Norton about four years ago.

"She had tremendous intelligence," he said. "I used to say that if she ever had any more marbles than when I knew her, I didn't want to know. That was all I could take."

Settle's second marriage ended in 1956. In 1978, when she was 60, she married William L. Tazewell, an American writer and historian. He died in 1998.

In addition to her son, Settle is survived by a granddaughter, grandson and four great-grandchildren.

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