Phyllis Whitney's Way With A Romance Yarn Makes Her Queen of the Gothic Novel
A nondescript one-story house in Bellport, Long Island is the last setting you would expect to find America’s Queen of Gothic Romance. But grey haired and demur Phyllis Whitney sits at her desk there every morning between eight and eleven, cranking out romantic yarns which thousands of readers snatch from the paperback bookstands as soon as the ink it dry on the page.
Author of fifty-five adult and juvenile romantic suspense novels, Phyllis Whitney is a Mistress Supreme of the gothic formula: beautiful young woman from impoverished but respectable family becomes mistress to a wealthy family, usually inhabiting the castle on the English moors or an estate on the banks of the Hudson, and usually cursed with a mystery. The widow's noble son, usually arrogant, solves the mystery, defies his noble background, woos—and of course marries—the governess in a G-rated happy ending.
But the gothic formula has been changed a little by Ms. Whitney to modern settings and almost modern women. "The governess situation has been used up. Never again!" she resolves. Her latest, Spindrift, which spun its way to the New York Times best-seller list for three months, is the story of a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown, fighting to reclaim her young son from her mother-in-law. Her next, The Golden Unicorn, will revolve around a woman writer for a news magazine, dominated by the journalistic family, patterned after—who else—the Hearsts.
With a wave of her hand Phyllis dismisses the possibility that the Women's Movement will bulldoze over "gothic mania." "After all," she insists, "the gothic heroine is the original liberated woman, working when no other women worked, an adventuress." But, she admits, "I don't think I could stand half the men I write about." It all started with dominating male Max de Winter (Dark Lord of Manderly) in the Gothic classic Rebecca. "But my girl doesn't take it forever, she eventually stands up to the bad although she is quite willing to succumb in the end. But then, who isn't?"
Gothic readers choose the Whitney books for their pure escapism and frequently fantasize about writing their own romantic novel. But Phyllis warns that this wouldn't be easy. Up at six in the morning, she puts in a solid three hours of writing, and then spends the rest of the afternoon researching settings. She takes notes and photographs of any possible new locations. She once dragged a reluctant London hotel manager to the roof so she could photograph the setting for a possible midnight chase scene. But she never once visited Newport, Rhode Island, to research the setting for Spindrift. Confined to the house because of a knee injury, she did it on information and photographs sent from the Newport Library.
Phyllis began her writing career as a love pulp confessions magazine writer, and was catapulted into Big Time paperback sales only in the gothic boom of the sixties. Paperback houses quickly bought the rights to all of her hardcover books written in the previous twenty years.
If there is a clear reason for her limited critical acclaim it might be that most of the critics that review her books are men, "especially those blasted New York critics." There has never been a movie made from a Whitney book—she admits her plots are not the stuff that movies are made of these days. "Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is not my type of heroine."
When Phyllis Whitney is not writing gothic novels, she reads other gothic novels. "I love 'em, although there is nothing as bad as a bad gothic romance—usually a poor quality knockoff of the Whitney style." The quality of which she is obviously the best judge. —Lucinda Fleeson