Dorothea Benton Frank, Whose Novels Depicted Strong Women, Dies at 67


Dorothea Benton Frank, a gregarious Southern novelist whose career started on a dare — that she could write a book that would earn enough money to buy back her family house in South Carolina after her mother’s death — died on Sept. 2 in a hospital in Manhattan. She was 67.

Her daughter, Victoria Frank Peluso, said the cause was myelodysplastic syndrome, a group of bone marrow disorders. She lived in Montclair, N.J., and Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

Ms. Frank’s 20 best-selling novels, which usually featured strong, complex women and families in conflict, evoked her upbringing on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, in the South Carolina Lowcountry. They also appealed to a female audience seeking good beach reads.

“Not only am I a Southern writer — and we have Southern writers in this world — but we also have our own country,” she said in an audio interview on the website of HarperCollins, her publisher, in 2006. “We are more willing to show our heart and we have a bit earthier humor. We are postured and bawdy at the same time and we really revere our ancestors.”

She demonstrated that reverence when her mother, also named Dorothea, died in 1993, leaving behind the beloved family house, called Vagabond Villa. While her sister and three brothers wanted to sell it, Ms. Frank did not. She could not see others living in what had been her last enduring connection to her youth.

Her plan was to buy out her siblings with money borrowed from her husband, Peter Frank. He refused her request, insisting that he did not wish to spend the rest of his life on the house’s porch listening to her family tell the same stories over and over.

“I said, ‘O.K. Well, I’ve got news for you, Bubba,’” she recalled her angry response when she was interviewed by The New York Times in 2008. “‘I’m going to write a book and I’m going to sell a million copies and I’m going to buy Momma’s house back. And you can’t come in.’”

His response: “Let’s see you do it.”

She took on the writing challenge with just a little bit of experience. She had attended a creative writing course at Bloomfield College in New Jersey and studied enough romance novels to believe she could write just as well.

“She was just brewing to be an author,” Ms. Peluso said. “Events just put that in motion.”

With the publication in 1999 of “Sullivan’s Island: A Lowcountry Tale,” Ms. Frank made good on her dare: It sold more than one million copies, earning her more than enough to buy her mother’s house. But it had already been sold, and she and her husband bought another one on the island instead.

“Sullivan’s Island” is about Susan, a middle-aged woman in Charleston whose visits to her childhood home on the island help her regain her self-esteem after divorcing her cheating husband and dealing with the upheavals of her past, including her abusive father.

“My old station wagon rolled slowly across the causeway,” Ms. Frank wrote, lending her experiences to Susan, who narrates the book, “liberating my daughter and me from the starched life of the peninsula to the tiny dream kingdom of Sullivan’s Island. Black magic and cunja powder swirled invisibly in the air. The sheer mist became the milky fog of my past.”

Nineteen more books followed “Sullivan’s Island” annually, including “Queen Bee,” which rose to No. 2 on The New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list earlier this year.

Loquacious and sassy with a comedian’s stage presence, Ms. Frank told an audience at the Louisville Free Public Library in June about how she developed “Queen Bee.”

After writing about so many philandering spouses, rotten teenagers and awful in-laws, she said, she used her newfound interest in honey bees to build a story around a single schoolteacher named Holly who lives on Sullivan’s Island where she keeps bees and lives with her cranky mother.

“Holly’s telling the bees all the time what a pain in the neck Momma is, Momma’s screaming for Holly,” she said, “and meanwhile, the woman across the street drops dead.” She added: “That’s up to page 5. I haven’t really told you anything. There’s a lot going on.”

Dorothea Olivia Benton was born on Sept. 12, 1951, on Sullivan’s Island. Her father, William, died when she was 4; her mother, Dorothea Cecilia Blanchard, was a homemaker who raised her children with the two men she married after Mr. Benton’s death.

Explaining how she grew up in a “Southern Gothic novel,” she once told the Johnson County Public Library in Indiana: “My mother and her mother before her were unapologetic Camilles when it suited them and Steel Magnolias, too. They loved us all with the ferocity of a couple of lionesses enjoying a good julep, but they also knew the value of a swoon.”

After graduating from the Fashion Institute of America in Atlanta, she became a buyer for Kerrison’s Department Store in Charleston and then an executive for a sportswear line in New York and San Francisco. After marrying Mr. Frank, an investment banker, in 1983, she left the fashion industry, had two children and raised money for various charities.

The unexpected shift to writing novels suited her storytelling talents. She likened her book-a-year publishing pace to the arrival in a station of one train after another.

Her daughter said that her mother rigorously followed outlines.

“There was a method,” Ms. Peluso said by phone. “She used to say that if you had no outline, you’d let the characters control the story. And you can’t do that.”

In the last four years, Ms. Frank published “All Summer Long” (2016), “Same Beach, Next Year” (2017), “By Invitation Only” (2018) and “Queen Bee.”

In its review of “Queen Bee,” Publishers Weekly wrote that “this laugh-out-loud-hilarious novel with a wistful edge will satisfy anyone who wants to see flawed people getting second chances.”

In addition to her husband and daughter, Ms. Frank is survived by her son, William; a grandson; her sister, Lynn Bagnal, and her brother, Michael Benton.

At her appearance in Louisville earlier this year, Ms. Frank mischievously referred to the creatures that were inspiring her post-bees book.

“My next book is about birds of prey — and how they compared to all the girls I went to high school with,” she said, as the audience laughed, which made her giggle. “Everywhere I go, when I say that, everybody cracks up like this, so it’s a good idea to write

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