Bertrice Small, a convent-educated writer whose dozens of bodice-ripping romance novels titillated readers for decades, died on Feb. 24 at her home in Southold, Suffolk Co., N.Y., leaving her 57th novel unfinished. She was 77. The cause was renal failure, her agent, Ethan Ellenberg, said.
Nobody would have guessed that “Lust’s Leading Lady,” as Romantic Times magazine labeled her, traced her writing career to St. Mary’s, a school for girls run by Anglican nuns in Peekskill, N.Y. But that was where she found inspiration for her first published novel, in the family lore recounted by her classmates from Turkey. It was also where she discovered that before a teacher named Sister Mercedes had entered the convent, the nun was known as Ivy May Bolton, one of Bertrice’s favorite childhood authors.
“She imbued in me a great love of history,” Ms. Small said of Sister Mercedes in a 1980 interview with The New York Times, “and she didn’t think it was funny that when I was 13 years old I was writing an epic romance in rhyme” — even if that romance was a risqué one, about an Inca princess who leapt to her death from Machu Picchu rather than succumb to the advances of an evil Spanish conquistador.
As a virtuoso in navigating the fine line between passionate romance and sophisticated smut, Ms. Small preferred to describe herself simply as “a nice lady who lived in the country and wrote books.”
She was born Bertrice Williams in Manhattan on Dec. 9, 1937. Her parents, David Williams and the former Doris Steen, worked in the business side of television broadcasting. They named her Bertrice for her grandfather, Albert, who died just before her birth.
After St. Mary’s, she attended Western College for Women in Ohio but dropped out and transferred to a Katherine Gibbs secretarial school. She found jobs as a secretary and sales assistant for an advertising agency and in 1963 married a photographer, George Sumner Small IV, who was about 15 years her senior. They were together for 49 years until his death in 2012 at 89. She is survived by their son, Thomas, and four grandchildren.
Ms. Small’s first historical romance was published by Avon Books in 1978, the year she turned 41. The novel, “The Kadin,” was rooted in stories that a St. Mary’s classmate had told about her grandmother’s experiences as a member of the harem of the last Ottoman Empire sultan.
Ms. Small pursued provocative themes and events in Elizabethan England, Renaissance Florence and other locales, weaving with purple prose a sensual fictional tapestry peopled by strong-willed heroines, lustful princes and virginal maidens, their carnal encounters often managed between kidnappings and escapes.
“The most incredible urge overcame him,” Ms. Small wrote. “He wanted to lift her dripping from the tub, and kiss her cherry-red lips! He wanted to pull the pins that secured her black hair atop her head and let it fall over her wet shoulders, where he might bury his face in the soft, fragrant mass of her tresses. Then he wanted to carry her to the dark security of the bed space he had only recently vacated, and make love to her until she cried with the pleasure he would give her.”
A friend and neighbor, Andrea Aurichio, said of Ms. Small, “She wrote about sex, she didn’t talk about it,” adding: “She didn’t have any literary pretensions, either. People would call her a pornographer, would say, ‘You just write dirty books.’ She would say, ‘Yeah, I bet you don’t watch television either.’”
Ms. Small had been treated for blood and bone cancer but had hoped to complete her 57th novel, Ms. Aurichio said.
The winner of numerous awards for romance writing, Ms. Small would work from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week, at her Long Island home, producing about three pages a day, enough for several historical, fantasy or erotic paperback novels a year, many under series names like The Pleasures, Skye’s Legacy and The O’Malley Saga.
She acknowledged that the literary world dismissed ribald romance novels, but she defended them, telling a blogger named Veronika: “I find it interesting that romance, written predominantly by the female of the species, gets criticized, but the other fiction genres, which are either all or half written by the male of the species, is not. Hmmm. Can you spell jealousy?”
Feminist sensibilities also surfaced when reviewing a book about harems, a favorite leitmotif of hers, in The Times Book Review in 1989. “One interesting fact for those unfamiliar with the harem system,” she wrote, “is that although a woman might be kept fairly restricted, a clever woman — using whatever weapons she had at hand: brains, beauty, a little of both — could advance through the corporate ranks of the harem hierarchy into a position of supreme power. That sounds very familiar.”
Why, she was once asked, has her romantic fiction endured while feminism has flourished?
“With women’s liberation, a great deal of romance, I think, has gone out of our lives,” she replied. “It’s very hard for many men and some women to adjust to the fact. Although you may want equal pay for an equal day’s work, you still want your hand kissed and the door held open.”