|Jean and Nancy Webb|
Jean’s desire to be a writer emerged when he was in the fifth grade. Reading a story called “The Lion of Lucerne,” he realized that someone had been paid to write the story. “I can do that, too,” he said, according to his son Toby. Like his grandfather, Jean attended Amherst College, graduating in 1930 and immediately embarked on a writing career. He wrote for magazines, initially concentrating on romance stories. A widely published 1935 newspaper squib declared that Jean was among eight “talented young writers [who] have been plucked from total obscurity to ride the top wave,” noting that famed romance magazine editor Amita Fairgrieve “dug up a young Amherst graduate, Jean Francis Webb, who has become one of the most prolific writers of romantica.” (William Saroyan was another of the select few.) Jean’s first book, Love They Must, “a story of everything that goes on and comes off at a college Prom,” as one review quipped, was published in 1933, when he was just 23.
When he was 25, Jean met Martha “Nancy” Bukeley, who was born in Hawaii to a Swiss-French-English banker who had immigrated to the U.S. from England at the age of 18, and had become so financially successful that in 1928 he purchased a Stradivarius violin for $25,000. Nancy’s mother Lucinda, interestingly, worked an on-air personality in radio in the 1930s, and taught speech at the University of Hawaii and eventually at NYU. Nancy traveled a great deal as a child and attended school in Geneva as well as in San Rafael, California. The foster daughter of the last queen of Hawaii served as one of her childhood nurses. A member of the Junior League, Nancy was deeply interested in theater, and acted and directed for several theater groups. She worked in the advertising department of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin for a year or two before travelling at the age of 20 in August 1935 to New York, where she stayed with a friend from Hawaii on Governor’s Island while continuing to work in newspaper advertising and public relations in the city.
There, in February 1936, she met Jean at a party. “His mother had just passed away,” notes son Toby. “The night he met my mother there was an envelope in his pocket, and on it she wrote her name and telephone number. Inside the envelope was a condolence note on the death of his mother.” The couple were married three months later, the day Nancy turned 21, at the Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan; Jean’s father was best man. Initially the couple remained in White Plains, with a months-long stop in Hawaii where Jean taught writing at the University of Hawaii for a semester in 1940, and then moved to Manhattan. Their first child was named Jean Francis Webb IV, of course, and they had three more sons, the youngest born 14 years after the first.
Jean was a practical writer, churning out “whatever he needed to write in order to put potatoes on the table,” says his son Rodman. Adds Toby, “In the 1930s he was writing mysteries and short stories. In the ’50s it was romances about nurses who fell in love and had to choose between their careers and their hearts. In the ’60s it was gothics, women who were trapped in their houses. Whatever people would pay him to write.” Jean even claimed to have adapted more than 900 movie scripts for magazine use, including “Little Women” and “King Solomon’s Mines.” “There was a magazine in the 1950s called Screen Stories,” Toby says. “It would have the current movies as short stories. All the time I was growing up, Dad would get a script and have to write it into a short story; he would get two or three of these assignments a month. That got me into trouble with my teacher once because I told her that my dad had just published a book called Little Women. She tried to explain to me that Little Women was written by Louisa May Alcott, but I insisted, ‘No my father wrote it.’” As Jean himself explained in an article about his turn to gothic romances, “If you want opportunities in a writing career, you have to gear yourself to switch, and you have to keep many things going. I always have three things in the works. And sometimes I have seven.” (As an illustration of his versatility, he used the article to push a leaflet he’d written called “How to Start Writing at Home.”)
Jean began using the pen name Ethel Hamill, which was his mother’s maiden name, in 1942, and under it wrote 15 or more books. “He used a pen name because it was thought that only a woman could understand romance,” Toby explains. (Ironically, however, some reviewers took the name Jean Francis to be that of a woman’s.) “Later on he used Ethel’s father’s name when he wrote a gothic novel as Roberta Morrison. There is a series of letters his grandfather wrote to him when he was small; he died in a train wreck when my dad was ten. There’s a story about how my dad went out to Denver to visit his grandparents, and one day his grandmother came into the dining room to find his grandfather in hysterics because the grandson was watering the flowers in the carpet with maple syrup. Needless to say, the grandmother didn’t think that was funny at all.”
For her part, Nancy was writing for radio, and was one of the authors of “Chick Carter, Boy Detective,” a radio serial program geared toward children. “She realized that she had to work, too, because dad was not pulling in enough to provide for the family,” Toby recalls. She wrote several books of her own and also contributed to several books written with Jean about Hawaii, including Golden Feathers, a retelling of a Hawaiian legend; the couple also wrote a biography of Hawaiian Princess Kaiulani—a research trip there in 1958 was the family’s first return to the state since 1940—and a history of Hawaii aimed for young readers, the latter because, as Nancy declared, “I felt I was bringing up a passel of kids who knew nothing about Hawaii.” Between writing projects, Nancy was holding down a full-time job working in advertising and public relations in New York.
In 1951, the same year their youngest child was born, the family moved into a pre-Revolutionary barn in South Salem, New York, which was a bit of an adventure, Toby suspects, driven by financial considerations. Rodman recalls, “We piled into a van and drove past the hay that was being emptied out of the barn to make room for us, and into the front door of the barn and unloaded our belongings. We then started to remodel. If you are going to do that, it would be good if you knew a little something about carpentry, but my father did not have a clue. It meant that the boys had to learn carpentry very well.”
Rodman continues, “We would get things just by happenstance. A friend was dining in the Oak Room at the Ritz. It was about to be torn down, and he had all the oak paneling delivered to his home. His wife was less than pleased, but my father was more than happy to take it. So the oak paneling from the Ritz made the walls of the living room. The barn still stands, something of a monument to creativity.”
With Nancy working a day job in the city, Jean was the primary caretaker of the four boys. “My mother was doing all things to hold the family together,” Toby says, “but dad was the affectionate center of the family. He would get us up and get us breakfast. And he was there when we got home from school. Of course, when we came home we couldn’t bring friends inside because dad would be writing and couldn’t be disturbed.”
Fifty miles from Manhattan, upper Westchester County was not exactly a cultural wasteland, as prominent artists of the times—including painter Lawrence Beall Smith, writers Dick and Francis Lockridge, and romance novelist Faith Baldwin—were neighbors. “They were wonderful social people with a great circle of friends,” Toby notes, including Robert Benchley Jr., writer Joseph Campbell, and Bill Blass. “I knew I was living in an unusual household,” he says.
In many ways—intellectually, educationally, socially, emotionally—a rich family, when it came to finances they were a bit more strapped. This dichotomy gave the family a reputation of being a bit unusual. “We lived and hung with wealthy folks, but we were living in a barn, so we always seen as eccentric,” Rodman says. “Sometimes people would worry about us and come talk to my parents about whether the boys were being cared for correctly. So we had all the advantages of difference, and, I suppose, all the disadvantages of difference. I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages quite startlingly over time.”
One of Jean’s characteristics that added to the family’s originality
was the fact that he eschewed certain forms of technology. “He was technically
very Luddite,” Toby laughs. “We gave him an electric typewriter, but he still
typed with two fingers and would not change.” Jean also avoided learning to
drive a car, which presented something of a problem for life in the country. “He
was basically a hermit,” Toby recalls. “There was a local library he could walk
to, but not much else.”
In 1971, after 20 years in the barn, when their youngest was well out of the house, Jean and Nancy sold it and headed to Manhattan. “They both wanted to move back to the city,” Toby explains, adding that they moved to 242 East 72nd Street. “They lived there until they died in 1991.” In New York, Jean initially felt a bit like an outsider. To get him back into a New York social circle, Nancy suggested that he join the Mystery Writers of America. It was a good match, he was a popular member, and eventually he became chair of the committee that chose the best true crime book for the annual Edgar Allan Poe award. To raise funds for the MWA, he and Nancy edited Plots and Pans: recipes and antidotes from the Mystery Writers of America. Unfortunately, when she was 75, Nancy broke her hip and never walked again. “We tried to get her moved into assisted living, but they absolutely would not be apart,” Toby says, noting that she died less than six weeks after Jean’s death. “They were a wonderful team.”
While Jean did write six nurse romance novels, Toby states that the genre was not Jean’s favorite. “He was prouder of the gothic mysteries and the plotting they involved than the nurse books,” he says, adding that Jean also enjoyed writing nonfiction: “He loved the chance to do the history books; he loved the research.” This interest may also be evidenced in Jean’s nurse novels, which, though he never wrote any pure science fiction, can sometimes read like a futuristic glimpse into medicine, particularly in Aloha Nurse. Jean also clearly spent a fair amount of time researching cutting-edge medical treatments that his nurse heroine could participate in. “I don’t remember any doctors among their social circle,” Toby says, “so he either thought this stuff up, or dug it up at the local library.”
Another remarkable quality about Jean’s books is his amusing and sly writing style; he regularly tosses off phrases like, “You, nurse, there’s more starch in your face than in your uniform,” and, “Sit here and contemplate the rewards of sin. I’ll case the joint.” Jean skewered pretentious standards in life as well: “Our family’s favorite picture of him is one in which he was trying to look mysterious; he had on a sports jacket of black and gold paisley,” Toby says. “He was campy in real life.” If Jean never tried to create Literature with a capital L, he certainly created an enjoyable and engaging body of work, including six nurse novels. “I have few illusions as to the rare literary quality of my work,” he once said, “but I try to write each entertainment to the best of my ability.” Lucky for us, he succeeded.
Candy Frost, Emergency Nurse (also published as Nurse on Horseback) - 1952
A Nurse Comes Home (also published as Nurse Elizabeth Comes Home) – 1954
Runaway Nurse - 1955
A Nurse for Galleon Key – 1957
Aloha Nurse - 1961
The Nurse from Hawaii – 1964
now available again