Helen Hooven Santmyer waited almost ninety years to publish the book of her dreams. When she did, not even she was prepared for the public's overwhelming response.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and raised in Xenia, Santmyer grew up in a Civil-War-era home that originally belonged to her maternal grandparents. Santmyer describes her childhood there as active, happy, and carefree; it became even more enjoyable when she traded in her sneakers for schoolwork and began learning to read. After reading Little Women in grade school, Santmyer decided to become a writer; her mother fully encouraged the little girl's dreams and set up a makeshift office for her at home.
Upon graduating from high school in 1913, Santmyer set her sights on college. Though she applied to and was accepted at Wellesley (in Massachusetts), Santmyer had to defer when she came down with typhoid fever. Finally, a fully recovered Santmyer began her college career in 1914. She graduated with excellent grades in 1918, earning a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Composition.
Santmyer left college ready to take on the world; her first job, as a suffragette in New York City, was not all she expected, though, so she found clerical work at Scribner's magazine. There, she met many famous authors of her day, though she frequently felt unimpressed by many of them.
In 1921, Santmyer returned to Xenia to tend to her mother, who was sick. She stayed for one year, working briefly as an English teacher at Xenia High School. She left and took a position at Wellesley until 1924, when, realizing a lifelong dream, Santmyer found herself packing for studies at Oxford University in England. She graduated from Oxford in 1927, but not before publishing her first novel, Herbs and Apples, in 1925.
Again, Santmyer returned to Xenia, where she started work on her second novel, The Fierce Dispute, which was published in 1928. Shortly afterward, Santmyer moved with her family to California, where she began writing a series of essays about her hometown. She set the project aside, though, when she returned to Ohio for a job as Dean of Women and head of the English Department at Cedarville College.
While teaching, Santmyer contracted the first of many lifelong debilitating illnesses; though she eventually recovered, she decided to leave her post at Cedarville in the mid-1950s. Santmyer spent the last six years of her nonwriting career as a librarian in Dayton.
Finally, in 1959, without the distractions of a career to hold her back, Santmyer resumed work on the essay collection she'd begun while in California. With encouragement from close friend, travel companion, and housemate, Mildred Sandoe, Santmyer submitted Ohio Town for publication in 1963. It was immediately published and, one year later, won the Florence Roberts Head Award for excellence in literature from the Ohioana Library.
Only then, after 69 years, did Helen Hooven Santmyer finally start writing the epic story that would set her place in American literary history. It took her between five and ten years to write "the story of four generations of ordinary life in a rural Ohio town," and, after sending it in eleven boxes to her publisher, another year and a half to cut it down.
Finally, in 1982, when Santmyer was eighty-seven years old, the Ohio State University Press published …And Ladies of the Club - Santmyer's 1300-page epic. One year later, a fateful chain of recommendations led publishing giant G.P. Putnam's Sons to purchase the rights to the book. Under the new regime, …And Ladies "stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 37 consecutive weeks and held the number-one position for seven. The Book-of-the-Month club made Ladies its main selection and sold more than 162,000 copies, and a paperback edition sold more than a million copies."
Santmyer, a humble Midwestern woman turned overnight success, was bombarded with interview requests from major television networks and magazines. Santmyer was happy about the attention to her work, but didn't always understand it: "I think it's the kind of book most people are not interested in," she said. "Part of the interest is because I'm an old lady."
In 1986, having fulfilled her childhood dreams of becoming a writer like Louisa May Alcott, Helen Hooven Santmyer died in Xenia. Her last, aptly named, novel was published posthumously in 1988 - Farewell Summer.