Southold novelist Bertrice Small helped redefine a genre

Author Bertrice Small. (Credit: courtesy photo)
Author Bertrice Small. (Credit: courtesy photo)

More than three decades before “Fifty Shades of Grey” set hearts racing, longtime Southold resident Bertrice Small was redefining the romance genre with erotic fiction like the Skye O’Malley series, her tale of a raven-haired female pirate who commanded her own fleet.

Ms. Small, who died Feb. 24 at age 77, was “a legend,” author Eloisa James said last year before presenting her with the Romance Writers of America’s 2014 Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. 

“In [Ms. Small’s] words, ‘Without us, and the phenomenon we created, romance would still be confined to Harlequins and dear old Barbara Cartland,’ ” Ms. James said. Her speech is available on YouTube (watch the video below).

Born in Manhattan on Dec. 9, 1937, Ms. Small was a member of “The Avon Ladies,” a small group of female writers credited with taking the romance novel from stodgy to steamy in the late 1970s.

“She was our prolific local author,” said Caroline MacArthur, director of Southold Free Library. “She donated every one of her books to the library. When I heard about [her death], I was definitely saddened.”

On her website,, Ms. Small told fans she had been an avid reader since childhood and that she had written her first published book, 1978’s “The Kadin,” on a yellow legal pad.

“It took me two years to research and write “The Kadin,” she wrote. “…It sold quickly and I haven’t stopped since, which everyone tells me is a good thing. LOL!”

Local author Bertrice Small's books occupy two shelves in the adult fiction section of Mattituck-Laurel Library. (Credit: Rachel Young)
Local author Bertrice Small’s books occupy two shelves in the adult fiction section of Mattituck-Laurel Library. (Credit: Rachel Young)

Over the course of her career, Ms. Small wrote 56 novels and was featured on virtually every bestsellers list: The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

In addition to Romance Writers of America, she was a member of The Authors Guild and Percussive Arts Society. In 2008, RT Book Reviews named her a “Pioneer of Romance.”

As evidenced on her website’s blog, Ms. Small was also a doting “Grammi” to her four grandchildren, all of whom live in Southold. In addition to them, she is survived by her son, Tom, also of Southold, and her cats, Sylvester and Delilah. Ms. Small’s husband, George, died in 2012.

“When her husband was alive, they would come to the library all the time,” Ms. MacArthur said. “He was a big reader.”

Kay Zegel, director of Mattituck-Laurel Library, said Ms. Small was “very approachable.”

“She was a library user and supporter of this library,” Ms. Zegel said. “She was also very generous with sharing her information. Years ago, she spoke here.”

Ms. MacArthur remembers being “wowed” by Ms. Small the first time the author introduced herself at the Southold library 16 years ago.

“She was a really interesting person,” Ms. MacArthur said. “I always enjoyed talking to her. She had that life force about her, you know? That life force some people have. It’s the end of an era, definitely.”

Ms. Small’s family received visitors March 1 at DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home in Southold. Funeral services were held March 3 at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Mattituck. Interment followed at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y.

Memorial donations may be made to East End Hospice or North Fork Animal Welfare League.

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