“I can’t believe this book was written by a man; no man could know those things about a woman!” said one woman reader of the historical romance novel Love’s Tender Fury upon learning that the author, Jennifer Wilde, was actually a man.
That reader’s reaction was typical.
And such reactions no doubt put a smile on Tom Huff’s face even as they put a deposit in his checking account.
Thomas Elmer Huff, six feet tall, an Army veteran described by friends as unpretentious, soft spoken, and possessed of a Noel Coward wit, wrote twenty-three gothic romance and historical romance novels, most of them under a female pen name.
Tom Huff was born in Fort Worth in 1938. In 1940 he and seven family members lived in a small house on East Arlington Street.
After two years in the Army, he began teaching English across town at Paschal High School.
Huff and his mother moved to 4012 Medford Road in Meadowbrook in 1963.
When Huff was teaching school he noticed that some of his female students during class were reading paperback books, which he confiscated. Curious, he leafed through the gothic romance novels.
“They were just horrible,” he recalled, “and I decided anyone could do better than that.”
So, in September 1968 just four days after the school term began, he quit. Like so many other English teachers before him, Tom Huff walked away from the blackboard and sat down at the typewriter to become a novelist.
In his head was “anybody could do better than that,” which has been the mantra of so many would-be writers.
But Tom Huff discovered that he really could “do better than that.”
In a month he wrote his first gothic romance novel (as Edwina Marlow), The Master of Phoenix Hall. It was published in 1968.
Tom Huff and Edwina Marlow were on their way.
(Amazon writes of The Master of Phoenix Hall: “Orphaned by the sudden deaths of her parents, Angela Todd is barely making ends meet as a seamstress in late-nineteenth-century London—until a mysterious legacy makes her the mistress of a charming seaside cottage. Angela is enchanted by Dower House, but soon after her arrival, her new home is plagued by a band of thieves. The only people she can turn to for help are two men she barely knows.”)
Huff later said, “These books are read mainly by women, and when I first started writing them . . . we were afraid that women would only buy this kind of book if it were written by a woman. So we just picked a name. I’ve had several pseudonyms.”
He wrote under the names “T. E. Huff” and “Tom E. Huff” but also under the pen names “Edwina Marlow,” “Beatrice Parker” (his mother’s maiden name), and “Katherine St. Clair.”
In 1973 Huff wrote the gothic romance novel Nine Buck’s Row (as T. E. Huff).
(Kirkus Reviews writes: “Horrors—Susannah’s aunt, a music hall performer, meets her end on the street slashed by Jack the Ripper which puts her niece in the care of Nicholas Craig, as somber and strict as that other widower, Mr. Rochester. He lives in his aunt’s house at Nine Buck’s Row, shared by a painter who lives upstairs, talks ‘coldly’ if at all and works on his study of sweatshop conditions. Or is he doing something else since he always seems to be off when the murderer strikes? Even if nouns attract the inevitable verb—hearts pound, magpies chatter, idiots blither—the story moves right along wot with Jack the Ripper, well, cutting up in London’s East End.”)
In 1975 Huff’s gothic romance novel Jamintha was published under the pen name “Beatrice Parker.”
Huff wrote gothic romance novels for nine years. In 1976 he adopted the pseudonym “Jennifer Wilde” and turned from gothic romance to historical romance novels. His first Jennifer Wilde novel, Love’s Tender Fury, quickly sold three million copies, spent twenty-six weeks on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, had forty-one printings in its first five years.
Star-Telegram book editor Leonard Sanders wrote of Love’s Tender Fury:
“The story centers on the adventures of Marietta Danver, the illegitimate daughter of an English lord and a barmaid. Reared in squalid surroundings, educated and given a lady’s refinements through her father’s belated benevolence, Marietta is subsequently cheated of her inheritance. Penniless, she becomes governess to a titled family. When Marietta spurns the advances of the master of the house and arouses the jealousy of the mistress, she is accused of theft, convicted and sentenced to exile in the American colonies. Placed on the auction block as an indentured servant to pay for her passage, Marietta is purchased by Derek Hawke, the dashing, mysterious owner of a plantation near Charles Town. Passion vies with cotton as the plantation’s principal crop, yet Hawke manages to resist Marietta’s charms. Marietta and the reader know that Marietta and Hawke are fated, but Hawke has problems of his own. Marietta suffers through the adversities of another 500 pages or more before this love is resolved. Her adventures take her down the Natchez Trace—still a wilderness—to New Orleans and a gambling house and back upriver to Natchez, a stronghold of Loyalists fleeing the outbreak of revolution in the eastern colonies.”
Huff’s second Jennifer Wilde historical romance, Dare to Love (1977), spent eleven weeks on the New York Times paperback bestseller list.
In the 1970s, even though editors in the historical romance genre knew the formula necessary for a successful historical romance novel (one strong female protagonist, one—or more—Prince Charming, one—or more—vile villain, three-dimensional characters, plenty of passion, of course, but not explicit sex, adversity and uncertainty, historical accuracy, a happy ending), it took some literary alchemy to transform that formula into sales gold.
After his first two novels, Tom Huff had proved that he was King Midas.
Huff faced an additional challenge. Most readers of historical romance novels are women. Thus, a male writer, as the voice of his heroine, must convince women readers that the author, too, is a woman.
Tom Huff was a convincer.
His novels were written in first-person from the heroine’s perspective.
“I hate books which depict insipid creatures who never do anything except look sweet and innocent,” he said. “For that reason I like to give my women characters intelligence, independence, and a sense of adventure as well as control over their own lives.”
Tom Huff was not the only man writing historical romance novels under a female pseudonym in the 1970s and 1980s, but he was the most successful. Easily. He and three women—Patricia Matthews, Rosemary Rogers, and Kathleen Woodiwiss—were the top sellers in the genre.
Editors said Huff was a diligent writer who “slaved” over each paragraph and conducted thorough research.
“I don’t take the genre seriously,” he said. “But I take my work seriously.”
“Each book took longer and longer,” he recalled. “I’ve become more painstaking, more professional.” There are, he said, “mandatory heavy-breathing scenes, but I don’t write down to readers. I’d rather take the time and do it good.”
Editors said Huff supported the genre by attending conventions, speaking to groups, and encouraging aspiring writers.
“He was quite proud to be a romance novelist,” said Kathryn Falk, publisher of Romantic Times, a magazine devoted to the genre.
Huff continued to write as “Jennifer Wilde” in the 1980s. Once More, Miranda was published in 1983.
In 1988, twenty years after his first novel was published, Huff earned a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times.
They Call Her Dana, Huff’s eighth Jennifer Wilde novel, was published in 1989.
No doubt Tom Huff and Jennifer Wilde had still more tales to tell, but in 1990 Huff died at age fifty-two.
He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery.
Jennifer Wilde lives on, still selling with her creator’s Midas touch.