Jacqueline Park became a bestselling author with The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi at the age of 72. Seventeen years later, she’s published The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut novel
Taking a break from writing one recent afternoon, Jacqueline Park eases herself into a recliner, tucked into a corner of her Yorkville apartment, to pose for a photograph.
“Tell me, which makes me look better?” she says, putting on and then removing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. Someone remarks she looks lovely either way. “Yeah, I know. But really?” The room – a reporter, a videographer, her publicist, her researcher and an assistant – erupts in laughter, but Park, 89, is unmoved. “Everyone wants to know how it feels to be this old. I want everybody to know that you don’t necessarily lose your vanity. I think if you don’t keep yourself up on the outside, you probably don’t keep yourself up on the inside.”
She decides to wear her glasses; Park sees better this way. About 21/2 years ago she was diagnosed with macular degeneration, leaving her blind in one eye and her vision impaired in the other. Her researcher and writing assistant, Alpesh Mistry, sits at a nearby table, parsing a section of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, possible material for a future novel. (“I started by fixing her computer, and then quickly she realized I can do research,” says the 26-year-old, who acts as Park’s eyes and fingers. “One thing led to another.”)
“I write longhand, which nobody can read, including me, and then we puzzle over it together to get some kind of draft on the computer,” Park explains. “It’s a really slow way to write a big book.”
Park’s latest big book, the 491-page The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi, was published earlier this week by House of Anansi Press. It is a sequel to her debut novel, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, an international success published almost two decades ago. Yet writing is but a small part of Park’s uncommon life, one that has spanned from Depression-era Winnipeg to Bonfire of the Vanities New York, from working at the nascent National Film Board as a teenager to becoming a bestselling author at the age of 72. Park is as unlikely a writer as you’ll find in Canada and one who, despite being four months shy of the start of her tenth decade on this planet, is still going remarkably strong.
“My children think that I am too old to work,” she says, then mimics one of her two daughters: “‘What are you doing this for, Ma? Are you crazy? You don’t have to do this. You’re supposed to be enjoying your life. These are your golden years.’” Park looks decidedly unimpressed. “I said, ‘How would I do it?’ She said, ‘Well, you could go on a cruise.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s like a life in hell.’ Can you imagine the rest of your life going on cruises?”
The only child of Russian-Jewish parents, she was born Jacqueline Rosen in 1925 in Winnipeg, a tough town soon made tougher by the Depression. When her father, a jeweller, went broke, the family moved into the city’s Royal Alexandra Hotel. “My father had a deal with the hotel,” she recalls. “I subsequently discovered that the deal that my father had is that he was running a bookmaking establishment on the second floor.” Yet Park reflects on those years almost wistfully, as if she enjoyed a Manitoban version of Eloise in the Plaza Hotel. “It certainly wasn’t a hardship on me. They let me run the elevators. I would go downstairs and I would work the switchboard. It was a big playpen for me.”
Park had been enrolled in singing and dancing lessons by her mother, and, by the time she was 5, she was performing at local beer halls on weekends, something she continued to do while studying economics at the University of Manitoba, where she enrolled when she was only 14. (One of her partners was Monty Hall, who later rose to fame as host of TV’s Let’s Make a Deal.) Then came the Second World War. RCAF Station Winnipeg was a key base in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, a home away from home for pilots and navigators from around the world. “You can imagine what the streets of Winnipeg were like on the weekends when they had their time off. All these beautiful young men in uniforms just cascaded into Winnipeg. It was one big party.” Park auditioned for – and won – a job singing for the troops. “I sang at the servicemen’s centre every Saturday night in Winnipeg, and we were broadcast on the CBC coast to coast.”
There was a time Park figured she’d be an entertainer for the rest of her life, but her life changed gears during her last year of school. When John Grierson, a Scottish filmmaker who’d recently established the National Film Board of Canada, visited Winnipeg, Park wrote about him for the student newspaper. At the end of the interview, he offered Park a job.
She was still in her teens when she moved to Ottawa. (She’s still surprised her parents let her go: “[My father] thought Grierson would take care of me. He didn’t know that Grierson, after four in the afternoon, couldn’t take care of himself.”) Arriving at the NFB headquarters, she presented herself to Grierson, “who I think really didn’t remember hiring me.” She spent the next few years researching and helping to produce propaganda films in aid of the war effort then, after a short stint in Chicago, moved to Toronto, where her parents were now living, to pursue her MA in economic history at the University of Toronto. (The scholar Harold Innis was her mentor.) In 1960 she moved to New York to write a series of documentaries for the Rockefeller Foundation, where she met her husband, Ben Park, who worked at NBC. Eventually she was offered a job in the film department at New York University, which had established the Tisch School for the Arts in 1965. (“In my first graduate class, Oliver Stone was my student,” she says.) A professor emeritus, she retired in 2006 and moved back to Toronto.
It wasn’t until she was in her 50s that Park began to write fiction.
“I grew up in a world where novel-writing was a boy’s club,” she says. “To write for television [was] not audacious, because there’s someone above you telling you what to change and what to do – you’re not really responsible for the material. But to write something for which you alone are responsible and can be blamed for the whole thing? I wasn’t prepared for that. But I thought, ‘Oh, to hell with it. I’m old now, I have nothing to lose, I’m going to write a novel.’”
She spent three years researching and a decade writing the novel that became The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, about the life and times of a Jewish scribe serving as private secretary to the real-life Isabella d’Este in Renaissance Italy, a novel that began after Park found letters between d’Este and her Jewish lover in the archives of the New York Public Library. Besides her husband, who died not long before the novel was published, Park “wrote 1,400 pages and never showed it to anybody,” she says. “I didn’t know if I could do it. Forget any hopes I might have had of success – I had never written anything longer than 125 pages!”
Her former agent, Molly Friedrich, recalls it took years of trimming before she sold it. “The main crisis with that book was getting anyone to commit to reading 1,400 pages,” she says. “Every time Jackie showed up at my office the manuscript would be a couple of hundred pages shorter.”
A lean 600 pages, the novel was published by Simon & Schuster in 1997. In Canada, it was Indigo’s first-ever Heather’s Pick. (“The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi so compelled me I can still remember where I was when I read it,” recalls Indigo founder and chief executive officer Heather Reisman, describing it as “a love story that reminded me so much of Gone With the Wind, except set in the time of the Medicis.”) Not long after the novel was published, Park says, “I realized there was more to the story that I wanted to tell. And then I realized that I couldn’t because I’d killed her off.” Years of reading how-to-write-fiction guides had convinced her that at the end of a novel an author has to either “bury or marry” the protagonist; she decided on the former. Still, she left herself an out. “I have these years in television and film, and, you know, one of the rules is always leave room for a sequel. So I left her son alive.”
The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi, which is dedicated to Reisman, leaves Italy behind for the Ottoman Empire, and follows the journey of Danilo, Grazia’s son, as he makes his way from Istanbul to Baghdad and back again in the company of the legendary sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, with whose daughter, Saida, he falls in love. She finished the manuscript last year, though it was uncertain whether she’d see it published: Last fall, while visiting her daughter in New York, she blacked out. “I remember getting on an airplane,” she says. “I remember waking up and I was in Toronto, in Mount Sinai Hospital. Then I found out two weeks had gone by.” She’s currently living in a retirement home, but has made a remarkable comeback, all things considered. She’s already written four chapters of Son of Two Fathers, the trilogy’s conclusion. Next to her recliner, under the window, are banker’s boxes and file folders stuffed full of notes for the next books, with subjects ranging from “palm reading” to “amulets and talismans.” (This, she cautions, is only about half her research material; the rest is at her old apartment, though, considering her health, she worries that “I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to go back.”) She also hopes to write the story of her family, “if I ever get out of the 16th century,” though she dismisses the idea of writing her own memoirs.
“It seems to me, and I’m not being disingenuous, that I’ve lived a very fortunate life. I’ve had a lot of happy accidents,” she says. “I made my own choices and I’m living with them. I spent a lot of time with my family that I would have spent – when I look at the lives that other writers have that I know – working instead. I’m not sorry for that decision. … I don’t regret that.” It’s a clichéd question, but one I ask anyway: Any regrets, then? She smiles: “It’s too soon for me to say that, because it’s not quite the end.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Royal Alexander Hotel in Winnipeg. In fact it is the Royal Alexandra Hotel.