Published: 06:00, 13 October 2019
In the final part of the rags to riches tale of author Lena Kennedy, we see how she faced cut-throat New York lawyers, the nightmares of cancer but mixed with the stars on board the QE2 and even appeared on This is Your Life, as Peter Cook explains.
As the 1960s drew to a close, events for Lena proved both life threatening and life changing. Success as an author remained, as yet, a dream. But the nightmare of cancer proved very real, and she was compelled to undergo a major operation.
To help her get through the illness she began writing in earnest. And she knew that her best chances of recovery would be among the trees, flowers and birdsong of her retreat at Cliffe Woods.
Her first novel, Maggie, was to be based on her own early life in Hoxton. But to add interest, Maggie would have four sons who reflected the social problems of the times.
Although a romantic, Lena was realistic enough to know she needed to give her work a professional edge. She joined a creative writing group, which gave her the opportunity to discuss techniques with other aspiring authors.
Ideas came thick and fast. More stories began to take shape, many of them based on the legends and characters she discovered in and around Cliffe. In the seclusion of her woodland hideaway, she wove fascinating plots painstakingly written down in long hand.
When she wasn’t writing she worked hard on her garden. Bit by bit her health improved, and she grew stronger.
One evening she received an invitation from her friend Maureen, who had occupied a neighbouring shack but had now moved to Essex. It was to attend her writing group at Hainault, and there she met author Celia Fremlin, well known for her crime fiction. Celia agreed to read Maggie. She pronounced it to be very good, which was a much-needed boost to Lena’s confidence.
This had taken many a knock by a succession of publishers’ rejection slips. There was good news when she went for her six-monthly hospital check-up, which showed she remained clear of cancer. The more she wrote the easier it came to her, and she began to work on new titles such as Owen Oliver, Autumn Alley and Kate of Clyve Shore, Clyve being the old English name for Cliffe.
Daughter Angela took the hand-written manuscripts to work with her, so she could type them up in a form more acceptable to publishers. Angela had no doubts about her mother’s eventual success.
So confident was she that she began taking Lena to confront publishers in their offices, rather than sending the work in by post. One of them agreed to look at the work and they waited expectantly. Disappointment followed when he returned the manuscript with a letter saying he had enjoyed reading it, but unfortunately he only published comics.
Always a welcome visitor to the woodland shack was Lena’s Auntie Mary, who had a reputation for being able to tell fortunes. Late one evening she awoke with a start from her armchair doze, to say she’d had the most vivid dream.
All of Lena’s books had appeared to her in a long line on a shelf, with her face and name prominently displayed on the front covers. So disheartened had Lena become by then that she contemplated giving up her writing. “You must go on,” her aunt told her. “You have a destiny.”
It was Joan Littlewood, the left-wing theatre producer, who helped fulfil that destiny at the Theatre Royal, Stratford. She had begun a project to help poor children in London’s East End, to develop through drama. Lena and Angela were invited along by their communist friends Maureen and Jim.
The iconic 70s band The Who helped by donating enough money for two buildings for a theatre club where youngsters could learn about theatre and even meet famous actors. As part of the project a fair and carnival was organised. Lena and her friends arranged a float in which they dressed as characters from the Lionel Bart musical Oliver. They took first prize.
One night in the theatre bar, Angela got into conversation with a man called Terry Oats and told him her mother had completed seven books. He was so impressed that he agreed to read Maggie. But when she read his card, Lena discovered he was a music publisher, not a publisher of novels. Once more disappointment set in.
Lena refused to give up. She joined a new writing group, where many of the members wrote magazine stories. Lena was given a contact for True Romance magazine and sent off a short story entitled The Lonely Road. It was accepted and she was sent a cheque for £30. This was the first time Lena had seen her work in print.
Lena gets her break
By chance Terry Oats came onto the scene again. Lena was talking with her friend Frances, from the Allhallows campsite days, who happened to live near the publisher’s mother. Contact was made, and it turned out that Oats had been trying to get in touch with Lena for two years. He didn’t have her address.
He had given the manuscript of Maggie to an agent friend, John Mann. Both Mann and his wife had been unable to put the novel down and wanted to see it published. He visited Lena in London, and by the time he left she had a cheque for £250 in her hand. He took with him her second novel Autumn Alley.
The next visit was from an American husband and wife publishing team, who told her they thought Maggie was a wonderful novel, and they believed it would sell well in America. Before long Lena was signing a contract with Paddington Press, and was being treated like a celebrity.
Life stepped up a gear. Maggie was reviewed positively by Alan Sillitoe – remember Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – and there was a book launch at which many famous faces appeared. A full-length feature entitled It’s Never Too Late appeared in the Daily Express, focusing on the fact that Lena had successfully published her first novel at the age of 64.
The novel became an international best-seller almost overnight. “Journalists gathered round me for my story,” wrote Lena later. “They were inquisitive about this elderly lady who had somehow made it.” Lena’s dream had come true. Soon she and Fred found themselves aboard the liner QE2 bound for New York to publicise the American version of Maggie. They dined at the captain’s table and met stars such as Telly Savalas.
There followed a round of radio and television appearances and newspaper interviews. Back home she maintained contact with many of her old friends.
“But they viewed me with different eyes now I was a famous lady,” she wrote. “But I always rushed back home to cook Fred’s dinner. I used to talk about having someone in to cook and clean, but I guess we were too old to change the habits of a lifetime.”
Autumn Alley was published. “I was proud to see it everywhere when I did my shopping in Rochester,” she said.
But publishing is a cut-throat business. Paddington Press began to experience financial difficulties. After an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show during a promotion tour in America, Lena was confronted by a lawyer, who told her she would have to appear before a bankruptcy court next morning.
Her former publishers were claiming $75,000 for work they claimed they’d had to do in respect of Autumn Alley.
'I always rushed back home to cook Fred’s dinner. I used to talk about having someone in to cook and clean, but I guess we were too old to change the habits of a lifetime,'
Lena had to face tough questioning from aggressive New York lawyers, but she stood up to them well. Eventually her son Keith, now a successful businessman with his own haulage business, flew with a lawyer to America, to sort out the mess. They struck a deal with the publishers, which wasn’t entirely favourable to Lena. But as she said: “I can always write another book”.
Meanwhile the round of promotional tours continued at a dizzying pace. Lena was invited to a Women of Our Time luncheon, where she met celebrities such as round the world yachtswoman Clare Francis. She made friends with other authors including Julia Fitzgerald, hailed as “Queen of Romance”. By now she was living the dream and travelling the world. She even gave an address at a BAFTA award ceremony.
Of course, she never stopped writing. Fifteen novels flowed from her ever busy pen as well as an autobiography. Eventually she was given what was probably the biggest accolade of all – to be featured on the celebrated This is Your Life programme. The man with the famous red book at that stage was Eamon Andrews.
Despite her celebrity, Lena continued to find solace in her home among the trees at Cliffe Wood.
And fortune took another turn when the bungalow next to her plot came up for sale, and she was able to own a more permanent residence there and still retain the beloved shack, with all its memories.
But cancer had raised its head again. “I wondered if I would beat the illness a second time,” she wrote. Though her specialist had been reassuring, her health deteriorated. But she found solace in her woodland retreat.
Lena died in 1986 aged 72. She lies buried in St Helen’s Churchyard at Cliffe. Both the shack and the bungalow are still there joined by two more houses. The enclave has been named Lena Kennedy Gardens.
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