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Taylor Caldwell - a short biography

Taylor Caldwell was one of the most prolific and widely read American authors of the twentieth century.  In a career that spanned five decades, she wrote more than forty novels, many of which were New York Times bestsellers. 


Caldwell captivated readers with emotionally-charged historical novels and family sagas such as CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS, which sold 4.5 million copies and was made into a television miniseries in 1976.  Her novels based on the lives of religious figures, Dear and Glorious Physician, a portrayal of the life of St. Luke, and Great Lion of God, a panoramic novel about the life and times of St. Paul, are among the bestselling religious novels of all time.

Born Janet Miriam Holland Taylor Caldwell in 1900 in Manchester, England into a family of Scotch-Irish descent, she attended an academically rigorous school at the age of 4, studying Latin, French, history and geography.  At six, she won a national gold medal for her essay on novelist Charles Dickens.  On weekends, she performed a long list of household chores, attended Sunday school and church twice a day.  Caldwell often credited her Spartan childhood with making her a rugged individualist.


In 1907, Caldwell, her parents, and her younger brother immigrated to the United States, settling in Buffalo, New York where she would live for most of her life.  She started writing stories when she was eight years old and completed her first novel, The Romance of Atlantis when she was twelve, although it was not published until 1975.  Marriage at the age of eighteen to William Combs and the birth of her first child, Mary Margaret – Peggy – did not deter her from pursuing an education. While working as a stenographer and a court reporter to help support her family, she took college courses at night.


1931 was an eventful year for Caldwell. She graduated from the University of Buffalo, separated from her husband and later divorced him, and met Marcus Reback, her boss at the U.S. Immigration Department office in Buffalo. Her divorce and subsequent marriage to Reback allowed Caldwell to dedicate herself full-time to writing and despite the arrival of her second daughter, Judith, Caldwell’s unpublished manuscripts continued to pile up.


At the age of 38, she finally sold a novel, DYNASTY OF DEATH, to a major New York publisher. Convinced that a saga of two dynasties of munitions manufacturers set during the half-century leading up to World War I would be better received if people thought it was written by a man, Maxwell Perkins, her editor at Scribner who also discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, advised her to use only part of her name – Taylor Caldwell – as her pen name.  DYNASTY OF DEATH became a bestseller in 1938 and the saga continued with THE EAGLES GATHER in 1940 and THE FINAL HOUR in 1944.  Inevitably, a public stir ensued when people discovered Taylor Caldwell was a woman.


Over the next forty years, Caldwell often worked from midnight to early morning at her electric typewriter in her book-crammed study, producing a wide array of sagas (THIS SIDE OF INNOCENCE, ANSWER AS A MAN) and historical novels (TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN, CEREMONY OF THE INNOCENT) that celebrated American values and passions.


She also produced novels set in the ancient world (A PILLAR OF IRON, GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING), dystopian fiction (THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, YOUR SINS AND MINE), and spiritually-themed novels (THE LISTENER, NO ONE HEARS BUT HIM, DIALOGUES WITH THE DEVIL).


Apart from their across-the-board popularity with readers and their commercial success, which made Caldwell a wealthy woman, her long list of bestselling novels possessed common themes that were close to her heart:  self-reliance and individualism, man’s struggle for justice, the government’s encroachment on personal freedoms, and the conflict between man’s desire for wealth and power and his need for love and family bonding. 


The long hours spent at her typewriter did not keep Caldwell from enjoying life. She gave elegant parties at her grand house in Buffalo.  One of her grandchildren recalls watching her hold the crowd in awe with her observations about life and politics.  She embarked on annual worldwide cruises and was fond of a glass of good bourbon. Drina Fried recalls her grandmother’s confiding in her: “I vehemently believe that we should have as much fun as is possible in our dolorous life, if it does not injure ourselves or anyone else.  The only thing is—be discreet.  The world will forgive you anything but getting caught.” 


Despite hearing problems, Caldwell didn’t stop writing until she suffered a second, debilitating stroke at the age of 80.  Her last novel, ANSWER AS A MAN, was published in 1981 and hit the New York Times bestseller list before its official publication date.  She died at her home in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1985.


Taylor Caldwell and her husband, William Stancell (right), welcome her Doubleday editor Lee Barker to their home in the Beaches area in this 1972 photo.   




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