Laura Jean Libbey was author of sensational dime novel romances for women. In the course of her career, she completed 82 novels, enough one obituary noted, to fill an impressive five feet of shelf space. Some of her stories first appeared in serialized story papers such as The New York Family Story Paper, The Fireside Companion, and the New York Ledger. The stories were later reprinted in dime novel format by publishers of cheap fiction such as George Munro, Arthur Westbrook, and John Lovell. She was so prolific and popular with readers that she had several stories running at the same time in different story papers.
Born in 1862 , she lived most of her life in Brooklyn, New York. There are various accounts about exactly when she started writing, but they are all in agreement that she started very young–around 20 years of age. Although she received little formal education, she was a very astute business woman and negotiated favorable contracts which created enormous profits for herself. She reported that at one point she was earning $60,000 a year from her work. In addition to her novels, she also worked as an editor. From 1891 to 1894 she edited George Munro’s Fashion Bazaar. Her financial records indicate that she received $10,400 a year for her editorial work.
Unlike other popular writers who changed with the times and public taste, such as Metta Victor who published in a variety of genres and whose main genres changed over time, Libbey stuck to one form–one story really–with tenacity. Though she denied using a formula for her stories, each story had the same basic elements. She told the story of a young girl, suddenly adrift and alone in the world who attracts the attention of a suitor far above her in station. After senational mishaps and seperations, the couple is united in the end and the heroine marries at a young age. As demand for her novels declined, she attempted to capitalize on her reputation as romance author with a love advice column for The New York Mail entitled “Cupid’s Red Cross: First Aid to Wounded Hearts.” Her secretary Louis Gold noted that this project was not a success. He said, “the articles, in contents and outlook, were a generation behind their times, and showed a lack of worldly knowledge that could have come only from one who had lived a secluded life” (Gold, 51).
Oddly enough Libbey did not follow her own formula for her heroines and marry young. Apparently her mother forbad her to marry and indeed Libbey, whose her mother passed away in 1896, did not marry until two years after . Libbey was then 36 and married a Brooklyn lawyer by the name of Van Mater Stilwell. Very little is known about her private life except that she had no children and kept a limited number of acquaintances. (Gold reports that in the two years he worked for her she only had one visitor during the day who wasn’t a family member.) Her identity seemed centered on her work as a writer and she was eager to be known primarily in this capacity. Even after her marriage, she insisted that she continued to be known to her public as Laura Jean Libbey.
She died in 1924 after complications from cancer surgery and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Unfortunately she left little behind beyond her novels. She seemed conscious of wishing to be remembered as a writer, as demonstrated through her installation of a grand headstone in Greenwood Cemetery before her death inscribed “Laura Jean Libbey.” Though she hoped to be a celebrity, she protected information about her private life. (She admitted in an interview that she enjoyed visiting her “grave” and listening to what people said about her.)
For those who would like to learn more about Libbely, known archival sources are limited to her business papers at Rutgers University, her journals of a grand tour of Europe and a few letters to Robert Bonner, a publisher, archived at the New York Public Library and three items at the University of Virginia Library.
[NOTE: According to information at the American Film Institute, Libbey's story's were made into at least three films in the 1920s. The titles are A Poor Girl's Romance (1927),When Love Grows Cold (1925), and In a Moment of Temptation(1928). Interesting that her stories continue to have currency so late into the 1920s.]
- Read a Full Text Book: The Project Gutenberg eBook,Mischievous Maid Faynie, by Laura Jean Libbey
- Read an excerpt from Little Rosebud’s Lovers; or a Cruel Revenge (1890), pages 1–9.
- Read in excerpt from Dorothy Richardson’s, The Long Day, the Story of a New York Working Girl (1905), pages 75–91 in which Libbey’s books are discussed.
Sources & Additional Information
“Laura Jean Libbey.” The Book Lover: A Magazine of Book Lore. June/August, 1902: 218.
“Laura Jean Libbey: Biographical Sketch of America’s Most Talented and Popular Authoress–A Pluckly American Girl’s Successful Struggle for Literary Fame.” Fireside Companion. April 19, 1890.
“Talk About New Books.” Catholic World. October 1889: 123-130.
Gold, Louis. “Laura Jean Libbey.” American Mercury, 24 (September 1931): 47-52.
Davidson, Cathy. “Laura Jean Libbey.” American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Edited by by Linda Mainiero (New York: Ungar, 1982), III: 3-5.
Masteller, Jean Carwile. “Laura Jean Libbey.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Women Prose Writers, 1870-1920. Volume 221. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000: 253-264.
Walcutt, Sue. “Laura Jean Libbey.” Notable American Women: 1607-1950. Edited by by Edward James. Cambridge, Mass: Kelknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, II: 402-403.