The 36 Lives of Sophie Kerr

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sophie Kerr, child of the Eastern Shore and writer of popular romances, could not have known the effect she would have on the lives of so many writers who would come after her.

How could the woman who wrote 23 novels (titles like Stay Out of My Life, Cora Goes On and Love Story Incidental) -- and more than 100 short stories -- have known the legacy she would create when she left $510,878 to Washington College in Chestertown?

How could she have known her endowment would skyrocket to $2.3 million today and come to fund the largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation?

Could Sophie Kerr ever have imagined students at Washington College would one day speak to an oil painting of her in the library and call her "Saint Sophie" -- despite the fact that she graduated from Hood College in Frederick?

Kerr died of a heart attack in 1965, at the age of 84, and bequeathed much of her estate to the small private college where, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, she received an honorary degree in 1942. Kerr's will specified that one half of the income her bequest generated be used to buy books and bring writers to the campus. The other half, it said, should "be used annually as a cash prize to be known and designated as the Sophie Kerr Prize, to be awarded to the senior student, at graduation, who shall have been chosen as having the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor."

In the three decades since Christina (Clark) Rohde was called to a professor's house a few nights before commencement in 1968 and told she'd won $9,000, 35 other young writers have received checks, the largest of which -- $65,522 -- was given to Sarah Blackman in 2002.

Many spent the prize on travels to Europe. Many bought motorcycles, cars or furniture, and many used the money to pay for graduate school or make a down payment on a first house or cover the bills while they attempted to earn a living as a writer. Only one used a portion to buy herself a Leonard Rosoman painting, and only one to pay blues singer Big Joe Turner to sing at his wedding reception.

Of the writers who have won the Sophie Kerr Prize, one has published a novel, and two a collection of short stories. More have published books of poetry, but only one, 2000 winner Christine Lincoln, has gone on to literary fame.

Some past winners still write every day, some no longer write at all. Some are now teachers and professors, some editors and journalists. Among the winners is an antique dealer, an advertising executive, a surgeon, a photographer, a librarian, a homemaker, a bookkeeper, a comic book illustrator, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and a writer of copy for Victoria's Secret.

Today at Washington College's commencement, another young man or woman -- a fledgling fiction writer, a budding poet, a literary critic wannabe -- will join their ranks. And inside the envelope handed to the 2004 winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize will be a check for $56,169.

How the winner spends the money will be up to him or her.

But if there is one thing the past winners might agree on to tell this year's winner, it would be the thing the benefactor must have known all along: No matter what happens to you, from this day forward, Sophie Kerr will be a part of your life.

Sophie's Purse

It is the rude question but the one that first comes to mind. And no wonder. The prize, in economic good times, pays more than the esteemed Pulitzer Prize.

"I ran right through my money to see what the world is about," said Rohde, the first winner, who now operates a community e-zine in New Jersey.

"Dr. Nicholas Newlin, head of the English Department then, said, 'Don't go home and sit down at the desk and start writing. Go out and live so you'll have something to write about.'

"And I took that advice to heart."

Arthur E. Bilodeau, who won $16,500 in 1978, bought a corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches from Sears and went to Europe for three months with Mary Ellen (Lipinski) Miller, who won $16,000 in 1977. They were dating at the time.

Dean Hebert, who won $27,836 in 1988, used the money for graduate school. Winners before him had been told about their prizes before commencement, so Hebert assumed someone else had won. When his name was announced at the ceremony, he nearly fainted. He spent some of his prize on a 1973 Mustang -- because he could.

In 1972, Robert Burkholder won $13,000, then went straight to graduate school. He has since become a professor of English at Penn State University, but back then he struggled to make ends meet. He splurged on a few suits after he won and even asked the bank for a $1,000 bill to carry around. But he deposited the bulk of the money and didn't touch it until his bride cried one day because the meat she bought cost more than she thought.

Years later, Burkholder returned for a reunion of Sophie Kerr Prize winners. "It was neat to talk to people who had felt a supernatural burden as opposed to an ethical one," he said. "I felt you had been given this money to further your literary career, and I wanted to use it for that."

Lincoln, whose $54,266 prize brought her the attention of Pantheon Books and eventually a $135,000 advance on her first book, used the prize check to pay off debts and live for two years while she focused on her craft. She also bought a Dodge Neon, a car badly needed since she and her son walked everywhere until then.

When Peter Turchi, the only winner to publish a novel and now director of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College outside Asheville, N.C., won $31,000 in 1982, an indignant woman wrote to the newspaper and said there was no good reason for a young person to receive such a sum.

"Is there any good reason?" asked Robert Day, a professor of English and creative writing at Washington College who has seen 34 of the 36 winners receive the prize. "Sure there is. It's an investment in young people, an investment in the future. Is the kid worth it? No. Is the kid going to be worth it? Maybe."

The $35,000 that Norman Douglass Prentiss won in 1984 helped him afford graduate school more than once. He earned two master's degrees and a doctorate and is now coordinator for summer programs at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth.

The year Prentiss won was the last year in which winners didn't pay income taxes on the gift. The 1985 winner, Sandy Hiortdahl, now a lecturer at Washington College finishing her doctorate, had to give Uncle Sam a portion of her $30,398.

"It gave me this cushion from other jobs like buying underwear, shopping for seniors -- I did that -- and a bookstore job and a feed store job and a job painting chairs," she said. "Whenever I decided I had had enough, it gave me the freedom to bug off for a month and write."

Surely, Sophie Kerr would have approved of that.

Sophie's Curse?

No past winner knows precisely when the notion of a curse first appeared. Legend says that whoever wins will never write anything this successful again.

Prentiss, who has published poetry since graduation, said: "I think the curse is kind of a joke. Really, the curse is just the publishing world in general, and the writer's life."

Bilodeau tried to be a writer for six months after he won. He worked as a lifeguard and spent the rest of his time typing away on a 100-page novel about a group of friends who work at a McDonald's.

The prize brought him a story in People, a spread in Circus magazine, an agent who had recently sold Alex Haley's novel Roots, a nibble from Ron Howard's movie production company, and a call from The Merv Griffin Show.

The phone eventually stopped ringing, and no one published his novel, so Bilodeau went into the Army and today teaches English at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Occasionally, he thinks about his obligation to the prize.

"I have always had in the back of my mind that I've got to do something to alleviate the guilt. I thought I had to do something to validate the nice folks that gave it to me, to validate taking all of that money."

Still, Bilodeau said, "It's a nice burden to have."

Hiortdahl won her prize for a collection of works: a 300-page novel, a screenplay, 15 short stories, several poems and essays, an entry packet so large it could not fit under the professor's door like the others.

Unlike Bilodeau, she kept writing and has written three novels since graduation. She hopes to sell one some day.

"I felt some pressure in the first five years," she said. "I felt like I should be making more of a mark in the world and that was probably not helpful to my art. Now I feel like I have come back around to what is important about the craft of writing, so I teach writing."

Stephanie Fowler won $62,099 in 2001 and what she remembers is the sudden fame, the letdown, and then the writer's block that lasted for six months.

"I went through this period where I felt like I couldn't write anymore, that I would never produce anything that would be worth that much acclaim. I wouldn't want to call it depression, but a writer's slump."

Her mother helped solve her problem.

"Basically, my mom yelled at me a lot -- my mom is my biggest fan -- and she was like, 'Stephanie, you are only 22. You have so much left in you to write.' She basically kicked it out of me."

Fowler won the year after Lincoln, after Lincoln's collection of short stories was published, after Lincoln appeared on Oprah and in The New York Times.

Even Lincoln, who is now working on the third revision of a novel, felt the pressure of expectation that can come with the prize. She went through a period of writer's block that lasted for a year. She blames 20 or 30 percent of the block on the prize, the rest on the publishing culture and on industry demands.

"The Sophie Kerr is the largest undergraduate literary prize in the world, and when you go on tour that's how they introduce you," Lincoln said. "They say $54,000, and you can see it in everyone's eyes. You become known as the Sophie winner, so they expect so much more from you."

Lincoln said she would tell this year's winner not to let the prize or the pressure take them away from the writing that brought them to Washington College in the first place.

"I would say, 'Whatever is going to come is going to come.' Measure yourself by how you have honored yourself and the process. It sounds hokey but all the attention and fame and the glitter, it's empty. It's like nothing else. It's ironic: That's what you want the most as a writer but when you get it, it takes you away from the writing."

Sophie Lives

After Lincoln won, she went in search of Sophie Kerr.

"I needed to know her. It sounds crazy but I believe you can know a person by their writing. I needed to have a sense of her, this woman who didn't even know me but has changed my life."

Lincoln found in Kerr's short stories, which were published in the best-paying literary magazines of their day -- Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Saturday Review of Literature, McCall's -- a woman she described as "strong and independent and courageous."

Hiortdahl felt a need to connect to Sophie, too. She started collecting her novels, even her cookbook, on eBay. She even used the words "Sophie Kerr" as her computer password.

And because she teaches at Washington College, Hiortdahl occasionally finds herself in the library where all of Sophie's books are under lock and key, and where there's a room devoted to the writer.

"I used to talk to Sophie -- and I wasn't the only one. You could go there and sit quietly and there's this large painting of her, and I used to go in. To me it was like, 'Saint Sophie, I am the deserving one, I need this money.'

"I still go in and now I say, 'Thank you.' I glance up at her and nod. If the painting could wink, I think the painting would wink and say, 'We're good.' "

When Fowler, who now works for her family's ambulance service, was asked to speak to a group of Caroline County businesswomen, she was moved to speak about Sophie's effect on her and her life.

When Miller had an opportunity to spend the night in Sophie's house, in the days when the old farmhouse in Denton was open as a bed-and-breakfast, she did.

When the first winner, Rohde, was asked to have lunch with Sophie's relatives in Manhattan, she went. In return, the family gave her a gift she still has these 36 years later, a pair of black satin opera gloves embroidered with rhinestones that were once worn by Sophie.

Some winners have kept other souvenirs. One saved the check stub; another has thought of vanity plates that would say "Sophie's Car." Nearly all kept the newspaper stories written about them and some have kept in touch with other winners.

Dean Hebert, who went back and read a few of Sophie's stories, got an idea for a comic book and called up fellow winner Michele Balze, who won $26,767 in 1989, because he knew she was an artist as well as a writer.

Balze liked his project and now they're working together.

"You could say the prize changed my life," said Mary Ruth Yoe, who also went back and read a few of Kerr's novels. Yoe, who won $14,000 in 1973 and now edits the University of Chicago alumni magazine, spent two years after she won studying in Scotland. While she was there, she bought a painting so she would have something tangible to remember Sophie. She later named one of her daughters after a friend made while studying in Scotland on Kerr's dime.

Although most of the past winners have spent their prize money, and their 15 minutes of fame are long over, some say the spirit of the prize lingers: the pat on the back, the permission to be a writer.

"I think it has always retained a significance for me," said James Dissette, who won $12,000 in 1971 and is now a freelance photographer, graphic artist and the editor of a monthly publication on the Eastern Shore. "I don't think any writer would ever say it means nothing to them because inside, I think it's one of those milestones. For me it's one the bright lanterns along the way."

Rohde, the first winner, would agree.

"I didn't have plans to be a millionaire or to have any great career, to reap a whirlwind of profits," she said. "I just knew whatever I was doing I would be writing, and that was fine with me."

Perhaps the real legacy, some prize winners say, is not the money or the fleeting fame, but the books and the scholarships and the interaction with living writers -- Gwendolyn Brooks, Grace Paley, William Stafford, Toni Morrison, Richard Wilbur, John Asbury, Edward Albee, Katherine Anne Porter, Joseph Brodsky, Derrick Wolcott, J.M. Coetzee among them -- whose visits to the campus were paid for by the other half of the bequest's income.

Sophie Kerr fueled a writing program that has thrived, no matter who wins the prize.

That, winners -- and even losers -- might agree, is Sophie's greatest gift.

The scoop on Sophie Kerr

Separating fact from fiction about Sophie Kerr:

Fact: Kerr was 19 when she sold her first story to The Country Gentleman magazine.

Fiction: Sophie Kerr graduated from Washington College.

She actually graduated from Hood College but gave her endowment to Washington, allegedly because the president promised that his students would never dissect cats.

Fact: A picture of Sophie's cat always appeared on her Christmas card.

"Miss Kerr was impeccably dressed and had a trim figure," according to her New York Times obituary. "Usually in her elegant house she kept a beautiful black cat, and at one time two."

Fiction: Sophie Kerr wrote only fiction.

She adapted one of her stories into a play. Big Hearted Herbert opened Jan. 1, 1934, on Broadway and ran for 154 performances. The play later was made into a movie.

Fact: Sophie Kerr co-authored the cookbook The Best I Ever Ate.

Fiction: Sophie Kerr was always a fiction writer by trade.

Kerr began her career as the woman's page editor for the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph, and she became editor of the Sunday supplement for the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times.

Fact: Sophie Kerr was married for four years to a civil engineer named John Underwood. The marriage ended in divorce in 1904, but she continued to write under her married name until the 1940s. She never remarried.

Fact or fiction? Sophie Kerr was a successful writer.

"Kerr's writing did not touch upon enduring themes that broaden, deepen, or sharpen a reader's sense of human experience," wrote Philip Luther in the Dictionary of American Biography. "But her fiction did provide readers with a satisfying escape from the everyday world. On these terms her writing was polished, professional, and memorable for its humorous interludes."

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