Novelist. Gwen Bristow, who would come to be referred to as “Carolina’s Best Seller,” was born in Marion on September 16, 1903, the daughter of the Baptist minister and hospital superintendent Louis Judson Bristow and Caroline Cornelia Winkler. She made her writing debut in 1916 in Columbia’s State newspaper as a seventh-grade Taylor School reporter. Although she attended Columbia High School, she graduated at Abbeville, where her father had returned as pastor. After attending Anderson College for a year, she transferred to Judson College in Marion, Alabama, where in 1924 she received her A.B. degree. In 1925, following a year’s study at Columbia University’s Pulitzer School of Journalism in New York, she became a reporter for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. There she met and married Bruce Manning, a newspaper reporter who eventually became a Hollywood screenwriter and film producer. Together they collaborated on the writing of four mystery novels between 1930 and 1932: The Invisible Host (1930), The Gutenburg Murders (1931), Two and Two Make Twenty-Two (1932), and The Mardi Gras Murders (1932).
By the summer of 1934 they had moved to California, where Bristow began to experiment with historical fiction. The result of this was the publication of Deep Summer (1937), her first best-seller and the first installment in her Louisiana Plantation Trilogy. The next two in the series soon followed: The Handsome Road (1938) and This Side of Glory (1940). Her World War II romance novel, Tomorrow Is Forever, appeared in 1943 and in 1946 was made into a film starring Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert. The next two novels, Jubilee Trail (1950) and Celia Garth (1959), became Literary Guild selections. By the time of the publication of the latter book, which is a story of Charleston in the Revolutionary War, sales of Bristow’s books had reached nearly three million copies, exclusive of book clubs. Calico Palace, her last novel, was published in 1970. Bristow’s final book, Golden Dreams, came out in 1980 and was a nonfiction account of the gold rush and the founding of California.
Bristow’s natural storytelling ability, neatly devised and detailed plots, sharply drawn characters, telling eye for landscape and its detail, use of common sense, gift for dramatic effect, and emotional sincerity were the characteristics of her work that critics and reviewers singled out for praise. Margaret Wallace spoke of her “solid and versatile talent as a novelist.” The critic Susan Quinn Berneis claimed that Bristow’s greatest skill was reserved for “the unfolding of American history as displayed around the lives of the people who created it.” And Eugene Armfield remarked that she belonged “among those Southern novelists who [were] trying to interpret the South and its past in critical terms.” Furthermore, her books had universal appeal: various ones were translated into German, French, Italian, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Czechoslovakian, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Bristow died in New Orleans on August 16, 1980. On April 15, 2000, she was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Bristow, Gwen. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Lowry, Julia B. “Carolina’s Gwen Bristow Finds She’s Obliged to Write!” Columbia State Magazine, November 5, 1950, pp. 6–7.
MacNebb, Betty L. “Gwen Bristow: Carolina’s Best Seller.” South Carolina Magazine 12 (July 1949): 8, 10.
Theriot, Billie J. “Gwen Bristow: A Biography with Criticism of Her Plantation Trilogy.” Ph.D. diss., Louisiana State University, 1994.