1924 – 2022
Sally Watson was born in Seattle on January 28, 1924. She was the eldest child of five, born to William and Dorothy (nee Taft) Watson. Her childhood house was perched atop a hill in Seattle and she remembered that from her bedroom window she could look down over a mile of rooftops to Lake Washington. Though she lived and traveled in other parts of the world, she never forgot the beauty of Seattle and Bainbridge Island.
She was a month away from her 18th birthday when Pearl Harbor was attacked. In 1944, she joined the WAVES (women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve), studying radio engineering in Astoria, Oregon. After the war, she briefly attended Colorado State College of Education and then used the GI Bill and her savings to complete her undergraduate degree at Reed College, where she discovered a love for learning and discourse and found friends and professors who were kindred spirits.
After she graduated from Reed in 1950, Sally spent some years living and working in various places on the West Coast. At one job in 1952, she helped with fan mail at MGM. She remembered seeing a very young and unpretentious Debbie Reynolds walking around the studio lot in jeans, bringing her lunch in a paper bag, but MGM was not a natural fit for Sally. She much preferred the intellectual stimulation of helping to lead Great Books discussion groups, making lifelong friends in the process. Later, she spent five years collaborating with her mother to create the innovative Listen and Learn Phonics program.
In 1953, Sally heard about a friend who published a story in a children’s magazine and decided on the spot to write a book for children. She sat on the edge of her bed with the typewriter balanced on a tiny table, completing the first draft in three weeks and the second draft in another three. Highland Rebel was the story of a spirited young girl living in Scotland in 1745 during the Jacobite rising. Unusually for a first-time author, Holt, a major publishing house, accepted her book without revision. It was published in 1954 and was highly successful. Also, unusually for a book at that time, the front cover portrayed a confident and strong girl wielding a sword. The next year, Sally published Mistress Malapert, about a girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to work with Shakespeare at the Globe. The books she wrote throughout the Fifties and Sixties always featured strong, opinionated heroines who rebelled against the restrictions placed on females by society. Sally’s first series of books, set in England and America between the 16th and 19th centuries, featured characters who were related by family. Some of the books contained a printed version of the complex genealogical chart Sally originally hand-wrote in calligraphic script. They are known as the Family Tree series.
When Sally visited the young country of Israel in 1957, she was so struck by what she observed of that valiant and determined nation creating itself that she wrote To Build a Land about children from around the world made refugees and orphans, traumatized by WWII, who learned to make a new life together on a kibbutz. She wrote two more books about Israel: Other Sandals (1966) and The Mukhtar’s Children (1968). Many years later, she reworked To Build a Land and self-published it as a book for adults called The Return of the Exiles (2014)
After she became a successful author, Sally used the proceeds from her books to travel the world with her mother and with friends, collecting memories and impressions she would
always treasure. In 1964, she moved to England, buying a cottage in Hampshire. While in England, she learned to make beautiful scenes painted with enamel on copper which she sold at craft fairs. She took up judo, becoming a black belt in her forties. She was a proud member of MENSA, happy to find others who shared her intellectual interests. She adored literary nonsense and satire, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Shakespeare, and could repeat many verses from memory. She loved classical music and was a synesthete, seeing music as shapes and colors.
Sally left England for the California sunshine, moving back to the US in 1987. She bought a little house in Santa Rosa and created a beautiful garden with fruit trees and a fish pond, making sure to include her favorite blue flowers, fulfilling the requirements to become a master gardener. She joined a local group which fed and fostered feral cats, and she cherished many rescue cats in her own household, giving them long and happy lives and lots of love.
Sally’s books had gone out of print in the Seventies and library copies were being sold at exorbitant prices. Devoted fans around the world still loved them and lobbied for them to be reprinted. In 2002, a small independent press (Image Cascade) decided to reprint almost all of her books. A special tea was held at the Sonoma County Central Library in Santa Rosa to celebrate. New fans read her books for the first time and lifelong fans were able to complete their collections. When fans created a listserv devoted to her writing, Sally herself decided to join it (learning to use email in her eighties) and loved exchanging thoughts directly with her readers.
Sally wrote many books in California, including a series set in ancient Egypt, more books in her series about English history, and two memoirs, among others. Even though she had been published by major houses, she was unable in a new publishing era to find an agent or a publisher. As a writer, she was compelled to create the books that came to her and it became clear that self-publishing was the only way to get her later books out to readers. In this unfamiliar milieu, Sally had to be her own editor, agent, and publicist. She worked meticulously, proofreading her manuscripts over and over, trying to get every detail just right. Even though she wished her books could be published traditionally, she had a glorious time writing them and getting to know her new characters. She had long been a loner, with a few select, very good friends, but in her last decades, she connected with fans and was amazed at having made so many new friends late in life.
Like the heroines of her books, Sally cared little for societal expectations. She said that from a very young age, she had no desire to marry or have children: “I wanted to have adventures!” With her books, she nurtured generations of female readers (and male readers fond of good writing and exciting escapades) who learned about courage and unlimited possibility from her indomitable characters. As she neared her 98th birthday, Sally mused often on what a wonderful life she felt she’d had. She’d done just as she liked and said her life had been “gorgeous.” As a young woman, Sally performed with a team of Highland dancers, and she recalled the glory of hearing the music while leaping high above the ground, saying it felt like flying. Freed from the infirmities of mortal life, she dances once more.
Sally died peacefully on March 11, 2022. Although she outlived most of her family and contemporaries, she leaves behind a cousin, nieces, and nephews. She is survived by her writing, her beloved cat Saffron, and by many friends who miss her dearly.
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