Born: November 25, 1895
Died: February 21, 1986
Ohio connection: Birth
Born on November 25, 1895, Cincinnati-native Helen Hooven Santmyer was the daughter of Joseph Wright and Bertha (Hooven) Santmyer. As a youth she loved to write, penning her stories in a makeshift office that her mother prepared. After recovering from an attack of typhoid fever, she entered Wellesley College, graduating in 1918 with a B.A. in English literature and composition. Between 1919 and 1921, she worked for Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York as the secretary to the editor of Scribner’s Magazine. Briefly returning in 1921 to Xenia to care for her ailing mother, Santmyer taught English at the local high school for a year and then became an assistant teacher in the English Department at Wellesley. After three years she went abroad to study at Oxford where she published her first novel, Herbs and Apples (1925), before her graduation in 1927. In the character of Derrick Thornton, she presents her alter ego: a driven, single-minded young woman aspiring to be a famous novelist. Bent on writing a breakthrough novel that would secure her fortune and notoriety, Thornton is ultimately forced to renounce her ambition to care for her younger siblings upon the death of their mother.
In 1929, Santmyer published her second novel, The Fierce Dispute. Set in a fictitious Ohio town, the seemingly gothic story featured three cloistered women who ostracized themselves from their community by dwelling – like Dickens’ Miss Havisham – amid the smoldering decay of their ruined finery. After an abortive effort to live in California to become an essayist, Santmyer returned to Ohio in 1936 to assume the post of Dean of Women at Cedarville College. During her seventeen years there, she also became the head of the English Department. After suffering a series of debilitating illnesses, Santmyer resigned in 1953 and subsequently worked for the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library system as an assistant in the Reference Department. Deciding to devote her energies exclusively to writing, she retired in 1960, resuming work on the collection of essays that she had begun while in California. Submitted for publication in 1963, the collection, published by the Ohio State University Press under the title Ohio Town, won the Florence Roberts Head Award for excellence in Literature.
At the age of sixty-nine, she began work on …And the Ladies of The Club, the 1,300 page epic that would ultimately be published in 1982. A chronicle of the experiences of four generations in a rural Ohio town, the manuscript was delivered to her publisher in eleven boxes. The book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-seven consecutive weeks, holding the number-one position for seven. After selling more than 162,000 hardcover copies, the book then sold an additional million copies when it was released in paperback.
Santmyer’s last novel, Farewell Summer, published posthumously, details an ill-fated love affair between a high-spirited young woman and her cousin, whose amorous attentions dissuade her from taking the veil.
A Republican in politics, Presbyterian in religion, and a left-handed writer, Helen Hooven Santmyer traveled, gardened, and collected antiques to fill her leisure hours.
She died in Xenia, Ohio, at the age of 90 on February 21, 1986.
Florence Roberts Hood Memorial Award, Ohioana Library Association, 1964, for Ohio Town; Ohioana Book Award in Fiction, 1983, for … And Ladies of the Club; named to Women’s Hall of Fame of Greene County, Ohio, and State of Ohio, 1984; honorary doctor of humanities, Wright State University, 1984; Ohio Governor’s Award, 1985.