Helen Hooven Santmyer

Highlights of a Life

“I have no plans for the money… but it’ll be awfully nice to have it.” —Helen Hooven Santmyer

Born in 1895 in Cincinnati, Helen Hooven Santmyer knew she wanted to be a writer when, at the age of nine, she finished reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Nearly 80 years later, Santmyer’s name would appear on best-seller lists throughout America.

Having discovered reading as her greatest joy, young Helen devoured every book she could find, including her father’s medical textbooks. Unlike her friends, Santmyer was allowed to read books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which other parents deemed unsuitable for children.

Santmyer’s mother, an educated woman named Bertha (maiden name, Hooven) Santmyer, encouraged Helen’s literary interests; she fashioned a study of sorts in the family’s spare room, installing bookshelves and a writing desk.

Helen’s father was Joseph Wright (a former medical student, traveling salesman for a drug company, deputy county auditor for Greene County, Ohio, and manager of a rope manufacturing company). In the early 1900s he settled his family in Xenia, the southwestern Ohio town that provides the setting for much of Santmyer’s work.

Helen is best known for the widely acclaimed novel …And Ladies of the Club, published in 1982. In the media blitz that followed the book’s release, there were numerous reports that it took Santmyer 50 years to write the 1,334-page novel. Along the way, Santmyer wrote four other novels and one collection of essays, most of which reflect her love and admiration of Xenia.

In the six decades between her first notes and the concluding chapter of …And Ladies of the Club, many events intervened. Santmyer left home to study at the prestigious Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Her professors recognized and nurtured Helen’s gift for writing. What’s more, they disciplined her abilities and taught her how to appreciate poetry as well as prose. Santmyer was one of the earliest females to be named a Rhodes Scholar, traveling abroad in 1924 to study at Oxford University. In 1925, she published her first novel, Herbs & Apples.

In her first job after college, Santmyer worked for a suffragist group in Boston. “They considered a day lost when they hadn’t succeeded in getting into jail,” said Santmyer, a staunch Republican for most of her life. “My own approach is to avoid getting into jail.”

Armed with a degree from Wellesley, Santmyer set her sights on a publishing job in New York. Like other educated women of that time, she settled for a clerical assignment: secretary to the editor of Scribner’s magazine in Manhattan. After two years, she returned to Xenia to work as a high school English teacher. Her trial run with big city life had lasted three years.

Another reason Santmyer returned to Xenia in the late 1920s was to care for her parents. From 1935 to1953 she served on the faculty at Cedarville College in Ohio, where she was Dean of Women and head of the English Department.

Her next job was reference librarian at the Dayton Public Library. While she never married, Santmyer found her lifelong companion while working at the library. Four years her junior, Mildred Sandoe was a librarian with whom she worked in Dayton. The couple lived together for nearly 30 years.

In 1962, Santmyer published Our Town, a collection of essays depicting her early experiences in Xenia. It won the Ohioana Book Award in 1965. Shortly after that, Santmyer began to devote serious time to writing …And Ladies of the Club. Some biographical accounts say that writing Ladies was Santmyer’s angry reaction to Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), an unflattering novel about small-town life.

…And Ladies of the Club takes place in the fictional Ohio town of Waynesboro. Men who survived the Civil War have returned home. Some of the wives form a literary club in effort to enrich their lives culturally. The title of the book refers to members of this club, through whom the town’s political, cultural, and social changes are related.

…And Ladies of the Club chronicles the events in the lives of these women, their husbands, children, and grandchildren. Although Waynesboro and its citizens are fictional, the action that takes place is based on a historically-authentic timeline between 1868 and 1932.

Loaded with 11 boxes of handwritten ledgers, Santmyer approached the Ohio State University Press to publish her manuscript. Twenty years prior, she had established a history with the small publisher, which released her 1962 book, Our Town.

The OSU Press agreed to publish … And Ladies of the Club in 1982, but only a few hundred copies of the $35 book were sold. Public libraries acquired most of the available inventory. But thanks to a patron at the Shaker Heights Public Library, the novel won a second chance at commercial success. Grace Sindell declared Ladies the best novel she’d ever read, and contacted her son, a producer in Los Angeles.

Calls were made from one heavy-hitter to the next, each recommending the book for widespread distribution. At the end of the day, deals were underway for a TV miniseries, as well as a 150,000-copy first printing with Putnam. In 1984, …And Ladies of the Club was re-released as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. In an interview from her nursing home in Xenia, Santmyer quipped, “Ninety percent of the hoopla is because I’m such an old lady.”

Helen Hooven Santmyer lived for two more years after becoming famous. She died from chronic emphysema on February 21, 1986.

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