Dorothy Uhnak died last month, by her own hand, at the age of seventy-six. Never heard of her, Blogospheroids? Uhnak was one of the first women police officers in New York, and one of the first crime novelists to create a strong woman hero, police officer Christie Opara. The Bait won the 1968 Edgar for best first novel. She was one of the writers who opened the door that Muller, Grafton and I walked through more than a decade later.
When The Godfather was a runaway bestseller, Michael Korda approached Uhnak to write a competing blockbuster from the police perspective. She succeeded admirably with Law and Order in 1973. She wrote slowly; her last published book came out in 1997.
Two years ago, Carolyn Heilbrun, another door opener for women, also committed suicide. She was close to eighty, in good health, with many friends and admirers, who are still trying to puzzle out her death.
I didn’t know Professor Heilbrun well, but well enough to know how much I owed her for supporting my career. I know she was deeply concerned about the invisibility of older women, a topic she explored in Writing a Woman’s Life. She resigned her named chair at Columbia University because she was frustrated at the impossibility of her male colleagues attending to her views. But I still can’t make sense of her death.
I never met Dorothy Uhnak. I don’t know if she, too, felt invisible, unattended to, as she got older. I don’t know if she felt a dwindling of her powers, or if the market had left her behind.
I’ll be sixty next year. I struggle constantly with depression, with a sense of being out of step with the times, the market, with my own voice. When my literary godmothers give up the struggle, I’m terrified about what lies ahead.