Rona Jaffe, 73; Pioneer of 'Hot Women's Novel'

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 1, 2006

Rona Jaffe, who touched a cultural nerve with her frank, best-selling novels about professional women seeking love and fulfillment, died Dec. 30 of cancer at a hospital in London, where she was vacationing. She was 73.

Ms. Jaffe began her career as a file clerk at a New York publishing house before leaving to write her first book, "The Best of Everything," in her mid-twenties. The frothy novel delved into the hopes and disappointments of three young women trying to make their way in life while searching for Mr. Right.

When it was published in 1958, "The Best of Everything" was both a scandal and a roaring success, with its candid treatment of the sex lives of single women trapped in the corporate canyons of New York. It was made into a stylish film in 1959, starring Joan Crawford, Hope Lange and Suzy Parker.

The author and publishing executive Michael Korda called it the "very prototype of the hot women's novel." With its treatment of the complicated private lives of a group of women, "The Best of Everything" was in many ways the forerunner of such recent cultural phenomena as "Sex and the City," "Desperate Housewives" and the genre of popular fiction often called "chick lit."

Ms. Jaffe often received lukewarm reviews -- one critic called "Class Reunion," her 1979 novel, "absorbing and embarrassing at the same time" -- but many of her 16 books became bestsellers, including "Class Reunion," "Mr. Right Is Dead" (1965), "Mazes and Monsters" (1981), "The Cousins" (1995) and "Five Women" (1997).

"The Best of Everything" was republished in paperback in 2005, and Ms. Jaffe did a voice-over narrative for the DVD version of the film, which was also released last year.

"It was considered shocking in the '50s," she said of the novel in a July interview with National Public Radio. "It was on the surface such a happy, lovely time, but it wasn't like that at all. . . . And underneath was exactly what's happening today. There were the broken hearts that were looking for love, the lies, the fears -- and that is one of the reasons that 'The Best of Everything' was such a big success."

Ms. Jaffe was born in Brooklyn and grew up in privileged circumstances on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She attended an exclusive girls school and graduated from Radcliffe College at 19. She took her first job with Fawcett Publications in New York and was named an associate editor at 20.

At a meeting with Hollywood producer Jerry Wald, Ms. Jaffe proposed a novel about the experiences of young working women in New York. She quit her publishing job and wrote "The Best of Everything" in five months, publishing it when she was 26.

She knew it would be a success when women who were hired to type installments of her 717-page manuscript called her up to see what happened next to the characters. Most of her later novels followed a similar formula, with a set of upper-middle-class women caught up in romantic entanglements with troublesome men.

Ms. Jaffe never married and seldom spoke of her own romantic life -- "I didn't want any of the ones who asked me, and the ones I asked said no," she told The Washington Post in 1979. Yet she made it clear that she was intimately familiar with the experiences of her fictional characters, with repeated disappointment in love and frequent affairs with married men and other cads.

She rejected the label of "feminist" and believed that women in the 1950s wanted the same things in life that women of later generations were seeking, only with sharper wardrobes and a stricter set of social norms.

"Everything was rules," she told The Post. "It's amazing now to look back and see how no one ever questioned any of them. There we were, reading poetry and writing sonnets and all the while trying as hard as we could to get married."

In 1995, Ms. Jaffe established the Rona Jaffe Foundation, which has presented more than $500,000 in awards to promising young women writers. It is believed to be the only national literary award exclusively for women.

She leaves no immediate survivors.

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