YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Sylvia Wallace, 89; editor, novelist, wife of writer Irving Wallace

October 26, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The prevailing sentiment of the nation in the 1950s -- that a mother belonged at home with her children, not in the work world -- convinced Sylvia Wallace to give up her career as a high-powered editor of a Hollywood fan magazine.

A few years later, when her husband's writing had earned him fame and wealth, it seemed to her that she had surrendered her identity, becoming Irving Wallace's wife.

For decades, Wallace left the literary aspirations to her husband and hoped that her children would do the same.

But then her son, David Wallechinsky, grew up to be a writer and Wallace, late in life, decided to ignore her husband's huge success and become a novelist too, publishing works of her own and others in collaboration with her family.

"What I feared so for David -- that he would feel dominated by Irving -- was actually my own feeling," she told an Associated Press reporter in 1980. "... I said I didn't want David to follow that act. Actually, I didn't want to follow that act."

Wallace, the matriarch of what has been called the publishing world's most prolific family, died Oct. 20 of natural causes at her house in Brentwood. She was 89.

An estimated 1 billion people have read the books of Irving Wallace -- who died June 29, 1990 -- making him one of the world's bestselling authors. But in the beginning of their life together Sylvia Wallace, not her husband, was the famous one in the family.

She was born in New York City on Feb. 18, 1917, and grew up in the Bronx, living behind the candy store her parents owned. After graduating from high school at age 16, Wallace landed a job in the mailroom of Dell Publishing.

By the time she was 23, Wallace had risen to the editorial department and was sent to Los Angeles to become Dell's West Coast editor -- the youngest in company history, said Wallechinsky, a noted Olympic historian and author of several books on the Games.

She met her future husband when the then-struggling writer began freelancing for Modern Screen, a fan magazine that was popular in the 1940s and '50s and owned by Dell. In a diary, Irving Wallace recalled meeting "this beautiful blonde girl, blue eyes, tilted nose, flawless complexion, good body, shapely legs. After our first meeting there was no question whom I wanted to marry."

They married in 1941 and later had two children, Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace, of Los Angeles, who survive their mother, along with grandsons Elijah and Aaron.

Shortly after the couple married, America got involved in World War II and Irving Wallace enlisted in the Army Air Forces. After the war ended they traveled extensively, financing their trips through magazine writing.

Through her work at Modern Screen and later as West Coast editor of Photoplay magazine, Wallace met Hollywood stars and power brokers.

"She had great exposure to famous people," said Wallechinsky, who uses his father's original family surname. "She was very powerful because the fan magazines at that time were quite powerful.... The studio system was so much stronger."

Life in Hollywood also influenced her political views. Early on, she opposed the Vietnam War -- not because she was anti-establishment, Wallechinsky said, but because she knew hype when she heard it.

After the birth of her second child, the pressure to remain at home with the children was too much and Wallace left her career as an editor, Wallechinsky said. The transition was not an easy one.

"My mother found herself suddenly going from being the successful career woman, who employed lots of people, to being referred to as Irving Wallace's wife," he said. "That really bothered her a lot."

Over the years Wallace remained in the background, working as her husband's researcher and editor and managing business affairs. Bestsellers such as "The Word," "The Man," "The Chapman Report" and "The Prize" earned Irving Wallace popularity among readers.

Though she encouraged him to become a lawyer, Wallechinsky became a writer. Wallace later conceded: "If there is anything to genes, our kids never had any other choice."

After Wallechinsky became a writer, Wallace revived her own writing life.

In 1976 when she was 59, Wallace's book "The Fountains" was published, followed four years later by "Empress." In both novels she drew on her Hollywood experiences, dealing with elite people or those in the public eye, Wallechinsky said. "Empress" is the story of a young movie star who becomes the empress of a nation.

Wallace also collaborated with her family, including her daughter who also is a writer, to pen "The Book of Lists #2" and "The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People."

With her decision to write, Wallace was not trying to compete with her husband or copy his work, she told The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto in 1980. She was still the wife of a famous author, but stepping out on her own made her feel better about herself.

"I don't aspire to his recognition, I aspire to my own," she said.

Los Angeles Times Articles