How Barbara learned to cope with losing the love of her life
The bestselling author and multi-millionaire reveals how working on a prequel to A Woman Of Substance has kept her strong. By Hannah Stephenson
How do you come to terms with losing the love of your life after more than half a century together?
This is the dilemma bestselling novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford has been facing since losing her husband of 55 years, TV producer Robert Bradford, who died from a major stroke in 2019.
“After Bob’s death, I couldn’t write for about six months. I was devastated,” says the Leeds-born author, whose most famous book, A Woman Of Substance, was adapted into a hit TV series starring Liam Neeson and Jenny Seagrove, and whose novels have sold more than 90 million copies worldwide. “My mind wouldn’t work on anything except my grief.”
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Bob, as he was known, looked after his wife’s business interests, including her record-breaking publishing deals and the production of the TV adaptations for her books – so the partnership was both personal and professional.
“He managed my career, he made the publishing deals and came up with new marketing ideas. When I met him, he was a Hollywood producer so he produced 10 of the books as movies. We were interlinked in every possible way.
“He’d always said to me, if anything happens to me first, please keep your job, your career and keep writing. It will keep you busy but it’s a solace to you, so I just got on with it.”
She kept a vigil at his bedside for a week at a New York hospital until he slipped away. It was there that she had the idea for her latest book, A Man Of Honour, the prequel to A Woman Of Substance. It starts five years before the original and follows the fortunes of Blackie O’Neill, who leaves County Kerry for Leeds to build a better life, and meets kitchen maid Emma Harte: “I had a whole childhood ahead of me and Blackie’s life, thoughts and ambitions. In some ways, he and Emma were very alike. I said to myself, you can’t write another book about Emma Harte, but I didn’t really know much about her best friend Blackie. I left the hospital and looked at A Woman Of Substance and that was it.”
Like her strong-willed heroine, Taylor Bradford, 88, is tough. She continued working in their luxurious Manhattan home during the pandemic. “Being busy does help to take your mind off it. It’s taken me two years to realise that he’s not going to walk in at any moment. It’s not been easy. We had a very good marriage.”
Historically, she has often written about strong, ambitious female characters, which is in some way a reflection of herself, she agrees.
“I just said to a friend, ‘I’ve become Emma Harte’. I’m now having to look after Bob’s assets, talking to accountants and stockbrokers and making decisions. My friend said I probably learned a lot from Bob without realising it.”
She’s among the world’s richest authors, which is some achievement for the Yorkshire lass from Armley, Leeds, who joined the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post before going into journalism.
Her family always had a strong work ethic. Her mother Freda worked as a nurse and a housekeeper, while her father Winston, who had lost a leg in an accident, was largely unemployed during Taylor Bradford’s childhood.
“I felt that if you weren’t working all the time, God was going to strike you down. I grew up as an only child with a quiet, reticent mother, but she instilled in me a lot of my ambition,” she has said.
She met her husband on a blind date in 1961 when she was 28, and they fell in love at first sight. They married in 1963 and Taylor Bradford moved to New York to live with him. She started and ditched several novels while pursuing her journalistic career – until she hit the big time at the age of 46 when A Woman of Substance was published, making her an overnight success.
Today, she is still a workaholic, she admits. After she’d had her Covid jabs, she wasn’t going to let life pass her by, even though some acquaintances voiced their surprise at her venturing out:“I grew up in a war, with bombs dropping on me. Do you think I’m scared of Covid? I think Americans can’t deal with catastrophe. They’re not used to it.
“In Europe, we lived through two world wars within 20 years. You’ve got to live through wars and disasters to be a grown-up. And I don’t know what this word ‘woke’ means, so please don’t tell me. I’m the least politically correct person you’re ever going to meet. I’m a bit of a maverick, you know.”
But there is still grief behind the glamorous veneer, especially when she comes home to an empty apartment: “I immediately turn on the television for some noise. During the day the phone is ringing, I’ve got housekeepers there and everything is busy, but at night it’s bad. Being alone, you’re one person instead of two. It’s a big loss not having him.”
Yet, even in her 80s she keeps a strict regime with her writing, rising early and doing full days: “I’m better working during the day. I get dressed and go to my office. I’m very disciplined. You can’t write 39 books – 35 major novels and four novellas – if you are not disciplined. I was born that way, to be a workaholic. That’s in my system.”
She’s lived in New York for many years and returns to the UK a lot – but has no plans to come back for good. She and her husband didn’t have children, so she doesn’t have a huge wider family here.
“My life is there, besides which, Bob is there. I feel him in the apartment and I have a big life there. And I can’t leave him behind.”
‘In my Thirties I realised I had to write fiction’
Barbara had a Damascene moment while working as a journalist before she decided to dedicate her life to the creation of fiction: “I was in my late thirties. I thought: what if I get to 55, and I’ve never written a novel? I’m going to hate myself. I’m going to be one of those bitter, unfulfilled writers.”
She was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours list for her contributions to literature. Her original manuscripts are archived at Special Collections in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University beside those of the Brontë sisters. In 2017, Bradford was recognised as one of 90 “Great Britons” to commemorate the Queen’s 90th birthday.
As for the future, Barbara, will keep writing books, while a TV company has optioned the seven books in the Emma Harte saga and the prequel, with a view to creating a 10-hour mini-series. Never one to let go of the reins, she’ll keep a firm hand on development. Her late husband would be most proud.
Barbara bought handkerchiefs and vase for parents on selling first story
Taylor was born in Leeds, Yorkshire to Freda and Winston Taylor. Before her birth, her parents had had a son, Vivian, who died of meningitis. She would later describe her mother as having “put all her frustrated love into me.” Winston Taylor was an engineer who had lost a leg serving in the First World War.
Barbara would later fictionalise her parent’s marriage in her 1986 novel, An Act of Will. She and fellow Yorkshire writer Alan Bennett attended the same nursery school in the Leeds suburb of Upper Armley. As a child during the Second World War Taylor Bradford held a jumble sale at her school, and donated the £2 proceeds to the ‘Aid to Russia’ fund. She later received a handwritten thank-you letter from Clementine Churchill, the wife of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Barbara’s biographer, Piers Dudgeon, uncovered evidence that her mother, Freda, was the illegitimate daughter of Frederick Robinson, 2nd Marquess of Ripon, a local Yorkshire aristocrat. Freda’s mother had been a servant of the Marquess. Dudgeon informed his biographee that her grandmother had had three children by the Marquess, and after some hesitation, she allowed Dudgeon to publish the book.
Although initially angry at Dudgeon’s discovery, she later said that “I came round. There’s no stigma now.” Taylor Bradford’s grandmother would later spend time in a workhouse. She herself would later explore the workhouses of her ancestors in the ITV television series, Secrets of the Workhouse which broadcast in 2013.
Barbara Taylor met her husband, American film producer Robert Bradford, on a blind date in 1961 after being introduced by the English screenwriter Jack Davies. They married on Christmas Eve in 1963, and the couple moved permanently to the US. She has been an American citizen since 1992.
Young Barbara Taylor decided to be a writer at the age of ten after she sent a story to a magazine. She was paid seven 7s 6d for the story, with which she bought handkerchiefs and a green vase for her parents. Taylor Bradford left school at 15, and after a spell in the typing pool of the Yorkshire Evening Post, became a reporter for the newspaper. As a reporter at the Post, she sat alongside Keith Waterhouse. She moved to London at age 20 and would become fashion editor of Woman’s Own magazine, and would later work as a columnist on the London Evening News. She later had a column on interior decoration that was syndicated to 183 newspapers. Her first efforts at fiction writing were with four suspense novels.
‘There’s a lot I don’t like about getting older’
In her youth, Taylor Bradford read Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, and Colette. She considers Irish historian and author Cornelius Ryan as a literary mentor. He encouraged her writing and was the first person (other than her mother) to whom she had confided her literary ambitions. Her favourite contemporary authors are PD James, Bernard Cornwell and Ruth Rendell.
Barbara’s wealth has been estimated at between £166–174m and this immense fortune, has fed two persistent rumours, that she owns 2,000 pairs of shoes, and, two, that the lake in her former house in Connecticut was heated for the benefit of her swans. She addressed the rumours in a 2011 interview, tracing the shoes rumour to a joke, and the heated lake to the fact that the previous owners of the house had installed it.
Taylor Bradford recently told the Guardian: “At 16, I started my first job in the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post and became a reporter after secretly slipping stories on to the subs’ desk. I was the only woman in the newsroom. My mother told me: ‘Keep your head down and don’t flirt at work. Your attitude towards men will dictate their attitude towards you.’
“The red-haired rebel Keith Waterhouse took me under his wing at the Post. It was a Tory-owned paper, and he walked the corridors singing The Red Flag.
“Peter O’Toole, a fellow reporter, had a real thing for me. He was lanky and dishevelled. I refused to go to the movies with him, but he still edged up to me whenever the newsroom went to the pub. Years later, Keith and I were at an event where the producer Sam Spiegel introduced the star of his new movie. Out walked the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, dressed as Lawrence of Arabia. I never got over Peter’s transformation.”
Moving in glittering celebrity circles she said of her encounter with perhaps the most handsome 007: “I told Sean Connery he’d have to lose his Glaswegian accent and take elocution lessons if he wanted to be an actor. When he became James Bond, I never got a chance to tell him how wrong I’d been.”
On the loss of her husband she added: “It was devastating because he hadn’t been ill.
“We were married for nearly 56 years and together for 58. He had a stroke in the night. His last words were, “I love you.” I’m so glad I told him, “I love you too, darling.” A week later he was gone.”
She added on reflecting on reaching the grand age of 88: “ I try not to be a burden to people, I’m too strong and independent for that. There’s a lot I don’t like about getting older, but I don’t look my age because I take care of myself. I go to the hairdresser twice a week, don’t smoke, never drink alone and have a personal trainer.”
A Man Of Honour by Barbara Taylor Bradford is published by HarperCollins, priced £16.99. Available now.