She was only five feet tall, but Jacqueline Park was a big personality with outsized ambitions who put her stamp on films, television and popular fiction. Her multifaceted talents propelled her from her birthplace, Winnipeg, to Ottawa, Toronto and New York, where she inspired a couple of generations of screenwriters at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. There, she was the founding chair of the Dramatic Writing Program, which counted Oliver Stone and Spike Lee among its graduates.
Her books mixed historical personages with vivid characters of her own invention. She had many friends in the present, but through her copious research for her hefty trilogy – the third volume to be published posthumously – she also moved imaginatively among a circle of remarkable women who had lived in the Italian Renaissance.
"I encountered an amazing group of women in the late 15th century. I was entranced by them," she told this writer in 1997, when she was 72 and her first novel, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, had just been published. (In fact, she had published a murder mystery under another name decades before, but hated anyone knowing about it.)
"Isabella d'Este [Marchesa of Mantua] is witty, smart, absolutely modern. She gave a speech to welcome an emissary to her father's court in Latin when she was still a child," she said.
The novel's heroine is the fictional Grazia, the Marchesa's Jewish secretary who is under intense pressure to renounce her ancient faith, abandon her family and become a Christian. This would enable her to marry the Christian nobleman who is smitten with her.
Jacqueline Park died in Toronto on Jan. 27 at Hazelton Place, a retirement residence. She had been frail since breaking her hip in a fall.
The novel, which Ms. Park worked on for a decade, purports to be a secret book written by Grazia for her son, Danilo, to instruct him in the secrets of the heart. At 743 pages, it is a tapestry of human vices and virtues, close calls, black-hearted servants, a wicked stepmother, banishment, betrayal, a beautiful and resourceful heroine, a handsome knight, a forbidden passion, deus ex machina rescues, a wise husband who can cure all ills, a siege, a captive – in fact, all the irresistible elements of a fairy tale.
The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi became a bestseller after Indigo founder Heather Reisman made it the first of her Heather's Picks, throwing a launch party for it in her Rosedale home and piling copies near the cash registers of her stores. The sequel, titled The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi, appeared 17 years later, dedicated to Ms. Reisman. The author was by then 89, and had lost much of her eyesight, but she was determined to push on with the help of assistants.
The sequel follows the picaresque adventures in the 16th century of Grazia's son at the court of Sultan Suleiman, the Ottoman emperor. The Sultan takes the golden-haired Danilo under his protection and Danilo, who has fallen in love with the Sultan's daughter, accompanies the Sultan on a military campaign where the young man saves his life. But in the end, our hero – victim of a conspiracy – must flee Istanbul for Venice.
The books were translated and published to positive notices in Germany, France, Italy and, most recently, Turkey. The Italian newspaper la Repubblica praised her richness of detail in a long 1998 review. The actress Julianna Margulies optioned The Secret Book, but no film was ever made because the period setting would have made it prohibitively expensive.
Becoming a successful author was the third act in Ms. Park's long, eventful life.
She was born March 10, 1925, as Jacqueline Rosen, the only child of Douglas Rosen, a jeweller, and Goldie Diner Rosen. Her extended Winnipeg family had roots in the Canadian West. Her grandfather had been a Russian Jewish immigrant who had taken part in the Klondike Gold Rush and became a successful hotelier.
Her mother enrolled Jackie in dance classes at an early age and she was singing and dancing in Winnipeg beer halls by the age of 4. When Jackie's father's business failed in the Depression, the family moved into the Royal Alexandra Hotel, where her father ran a bookmaking operation on the second floor.
Precocious and self-confident, she enrolled at 14 at the University of Manitoba studying economics.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Winnipeg became the site of the British Commonwealth air-training program. Eaton's set up a social centre for the servicemen, and the teenage Jackie immediately auditioned to sing there with a jazz band. At 15, she was entertaining the troops on their way to Europe.
"Young men came from all over to Winnipeg under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, to train as paratroopers," Ms. Park later recalled. "They were going off to be killed the next month. You couldn't say no to them. It was wild."
In her final year of university, the student newspaper assigned her to interview a visiting celebrity – the Scottish-born documentarian John Grierson. It proved a life-changing encounter.
Mr. Grierson was then building the National Film Board (NFB) from a staff of zero to 800. He hired a few experienced English directors to train the newly hired then criss-crossed Canada, offering jobs seemingly to every intelligent man or woman he met. He offered Jackie a job if she would make her way to Ottawa, where the Film Board was then located in a former sawmill.
Once she graduated, her parents allowed her to go. Because the NFB was so short-staffed, she could try her hand at almost anything: writing scripts, editing film, mixing music tracks, even directing documentaries.
After three years at the NFB, where her British colleagues had degrees from Oxford, she decided she needed to continue her education at the University of Toronto. She had the good luck to be able to study with Harold Innis, the brilliant professor of political economy.
She met Gursten Rosenfeld, a fellow student who became her first husband, and did not finish her graduate degree. They married and had two daughters, Ellen and Sara, but Jackie Rosenfeld, as she was then called, had no intention of being a stay-at-home mother.
When CBC television began operations in 1952, she found work reading drama scripts, most of them mediocre; she knew she could do better. She worked as a story editor, then began to sell scripts to the drama department, first to a Don Harron series based on Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town, then to General Motors Theatre and other programs.
She also took part on camera in Court of Opinion, an early CBC panel show with Lister Sinclair and Pierre Berton.
"I was in the right place at the right time," she later said.
Her marriage did not last. After a separation, it was dissolved in October, 1961. Many years later, Ms. Park told an interviewer that being a divorcée in Toronto with two children then "was no picnic. You have no idea – your character became questionable. New York was different: Nobody cared."
She fled with her girls to New York, where she was offered a job by the Ford Foundation to write documentaries about education. At the same time, she continued to supply scripts for the CBC. Ben Park, who worked for NBC and later was a pioneer in the use of video, came into her life around this time.
"They had an incredible romance. I don't think she was divorced yet when they met in New York. He pursued her," recalled Toronto developer Howard Cohen, a cousin of Ms. Park. They married in December, 1962, and were together for 36 years until Mr. Park's death.
About a decade later, Ms. Park landed a job at the film school at NYU, overseeing the film and television writing classes and teaching Introduction to Dramatic and Visual Writing, a required course.
"She was terrific, one of the best teachers I've had – always entertaining and informative. Her lectures were peppered with examples from Shakespeare and Chekhov. She pulled everything in and that made it beyond interesting," recalled Michael Manzi, who had been her student in 1974 and travelled from New York to speak at her memorial.
"The key film for her was Citizen Kane and her key text was Aristotle's Poetics. We watched Citizen Kane, an attempt to do classical tragedy on film. She wanted us to consider whether it succeeded as tragedy, which is about a person who falls from a great height."
Ms. Park wanted her students to see that tragedy on film is not viable in modern times and that leaves us with the genres: comedy, horror, sci-fi, romance and the western.
"She was very adamant that as a screen writer you have to know the genre you are working in," he said. "She taught craft. You can't teach someone to be an artist, but you can teach craft."
In 1980, she obtained a $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to set up a dramatic-writing department that brought together all writing programs: theatre, television, film, even radio. Mr. Manzi served as her assistant. She later resigned as department chairwoman, but remained a professor until she retired in 1995 and moved back to Toronto.
About a decade earlier, she began to study art history, having discovered that as faculty, she could enroll in any NYU course free. It opened the Renaissance world to her. "I was sucked in," she said.
While reading The History Of The Jews Of Mantua, she was led by a footnote to a pair of 15th-century letters, reprinted in an obscure Italian journal. Incredibly, the journal, which was published in Bologna in 1923, was available on microfiche in the New York Public Library.
The first letter was written by Isabella d'Este to a Jewish woman named Pacienza Pontremoli, imploring her to convert to Christianity and marry a Christian nobleman of the court. The second, Pacienza's reply, shows the young woman terrified of offending the great lady, but standing by her faith.
The moment she read these letters, Ms. Park knew she'd found "the beating heart" of the novel she wanted to write. Pacienza/Grazia became the book's narrator.
In the course of research trips to Italy with Mr. Park, she befriended Gilbert Reid, fluent in Italian, then head of the Canadian Cultural Centre in Rome, who helped her in Italy and later in Toronto.
Ms. Park ran out of time and left it to Mr. Reid to complete the final book of the trilogy. The Son of Two Fathers will be set in Venice and involve the historical Mendes family of Jewish bankers. In it, Danilo – himself of irregular parentage – will discover he has a son.
It will be published in 2019 by House of Anansi Press with both Mr. Reid and Ms. Park's names on the cover.
Jacqueline Park was buried in Winnipeg next to her beloved father. She leaves her two daughters in New York, Ellen Rosenfeld and Sara Arnold; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.