Vivian Stephens Helped Turn Romance Writing Into a Billion-Dollar Industry. Then She Got Pushed Out.

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If it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the near impossibility of visiting Vivian Stephens in person, I’m not sure I would have been so attuned to her voice. It is gay and mellifluous; she always sounded delighted to hear from me, a reaction most reporters are not accustomed to. But there was something else: she answers questions about herself not in sentences or paragraphs but in pages, and sometimes even chapters, as if she’s been keeping the whole story of her life in her head, just waiting for someone to ask about it. That voice matches an official photograph from her earlier days, when she was a star editor of romance novels at Dell, then a division of Doubleday, in New York. She was uncontestably beautiful, with a broad, toothy smile and a sly intelligence behind her eyes, a spray of freckles over her cheeks, and an Afro that, befitting the publishing world, was neither too corporately short nor too aggressively political. She is propped up on one elbow and leaning in toward the camera. She looks game for anything. Stephens is 87 now, under self-imposed lockdown in one of those amenity-rich mid-rise apartment complexes that have sprouted all over Houston, this one just north of Hermann Park, in the Binz area. Her one-bedroom unit is cluttered with papers and stacks of books on nearly every surface. There are many romance novels, yes, as well as more-cerebral tomes such as A Nervous Splendor, a history of Vienna in the late 1880s. Family photographs, some dating back almost to that time, populate a small table in a living room corner. The most captivating photo, though, is the black-and-white one Stephens has pushpinned to the wall above her computer. Taken in 1964, it shows her poised on the steps of New York’s Lincoln Center wearing a sleeveless sheath dress, hands on her hips, ready to take on the world. Even now, she is vibrant and active. She spends her days talking with friends all over the country. She looks forward to her 83-year-old sister Christina’s daily phone check-in (“Yes, I’m still here”), fixes vegan meals from scratch, meditates, coaches a few long-distance writing clients, watches televangelist Joel Osteen, thinks through that memoir she still intends to produce, makes notes on novels she hopes to write, and surfs the web for information on aging and nutrition for her blog. “Aging is the next great adventure,” she told me with an almost evangelical certitude. Photograph by Rahim Fortune Photographs from Vivian Stephens’s childhood in Houston and her publishing days in New York, including a 1964 image of her posing on the steps of New York’s Lincoln Center (bottom right). But I was calling about the past, not the future. Specifically, an email she had received in May from Alyssa Day , the president of the Romance Writers of America , an organization based in northwest Houston, not too far from the white and wealthy exurb of Champions. Stephens had been instrumental in […]

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