SUSAN VREELEND • 1946- 2017
AUTHOR’S LOVE FOR ART EVIDENT IN BOOKS
BY JOHN WILKENS
In 1971, a young high school English teacher named Susan Vreeland visited the Louvre and exited with a pledge to make art her life’s companion — “to fill my mind with rich, glorious, long-established culture wrought by human desire, daring and faith.”
Once filled, her mind spun out a string of novels about artists, several of which became New York Times best-sellers, and made her into one of San Diego’s most admired authors.
Mrs. Vreeland, a University City resident, died Aug. 23 after heart surgery. She was 71.
“She was an educator before she was a writer, and she was always teaching,” said Susan McBeth, whose San Diego-based literary event company, Adventures by the Book, featured Mrs. Vreeland several times. “Her joie de vivre was almost childlike in its purity.”
Born in Wisconsin, Mrs. Vreeland grew up in North Hollywood, where trips to the library with her father, an aviation production manager, introduced her to the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, to the short stories of Guy de Maupassant, and to the power of words.
“I was a too-sensitive child,” she would later write, “unable to distinguish between truth and fiction, prone to night-
SEE VREELAND • B4
mares, gouged by cruelty.” Parental attempts at soothing her — “It’s only a story” — carried little weight then and would strike her as ironic later, after her own literary career took hold.
From her mother came a love of the visual arts, passed down through relatives who painted portraits and landscapes.
The family moved to San Diego and shortly after, when Mrs. Vreeland was 12, a neighbor going out of town on a trip asked her to water the plants. The neighbor was Harriet Haskell, an English professor at San Diego State. Her house had art books, pottery and weavings, and they filled the young visitor with a sense of exotic wonder that decades later she turned into one of her first published short stories.
At SDSU, Mrs. Vreeland surrounded herself with books, majoring in literature and minoring in library science. In 1969, she started teaching English and spent 30 years in the classrooms at Madison and University City high schools.
She also started writing newspaper and magazine articles about art, culture and travel and eventually penned 250 of them. But the idea of writing a whole book intimidated her until a friend suggested she take it one step at a time: “Can you write a chapter?”
Her first novel, “What Love Sees,” came out in 1988 and told the story of Forrest and Jean Holly, a blind couple who raised four children on a ranch in Ramona. It was turned into a TV movie in 19 9 6 .
“Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” which traces a purported Vermeer painting across the centuries and through the lives of the people who owned it, was published in 1999, while the author was battling lymphoma. It was a Times best-seller and later a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie.
“True to the spirit of Vermeer, Vreeland uses art as a vehicle for capturing special moments in the lives of ordinary people,” Booklist said in its review. “True, too, to Vermeer’s legacy, she creates art that brings a unique pleasure into the lives of ordinary readers.”
Six more books followed, including “The Passion of Artemisia” in 2002, about an Italian Baroque painter; “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (2007), about Renoir; and “Clara and Mr. Tiffany” (2011), about the artist behind the leaded-glass lamps. All were Times best-sellers. Her books were translated into more than 26 languages.
“Her fans always packed the house for her and she adored them as much as they adored her,” said Julie Slavinsky, director of events at Warwick’s, the La Jolla bookstore. “She was gracious, smart, charming and funny. Nobody brought art and artists to life like she did.”
Mrs. Vreeland believed that writing started with seeing, and that seeing meant paying attention. One of her guiding quotes came from the writer Henry James: “Try to be a person on whom nothing is lost.”
In a 2014 interview with the Union-Tribune, Mrs. Vreeland said, “Writers have to be observant. Every nuance, every inflection in a voice, the quality of air even — they all get mixed up in this soup of the story developing in our minds. We can’t ignore these little intuitions, because sometimes that’s where you find treasures.”
She had a quirky sense of humor. McBeth, from Adventures by the Book, remembered a trip to Paris in September 2015 arranged in connection with Mrs. Vreeland’s book “Lisette’s List.” At the Rodin Museum, on a bench in the garden outside, the author playfully arranged couples from the tour group into embraces that mimicked “The Kiss” sculpture. Pictures were taken.
“Pretty soon there was a whole line of strangers,” Mc-Beth said. “They wanted to do it, too.”
Her last public event was in July for “A Paris All Your Own,” a collection of essays, including one of hers, about the City of Light. When people found out Mrs. Vreeland was going to be there, the dinner sold out, McBeth said. A second dinner was added. It sold out, too.
“We’ve lost a literary treasure,” McBeth said.
Mrs. Vreeland is survived by her husband of 30 years, Kip Gray.
Services are pending.
Susan Vreeland’s passion for art, travel and culture came together in her books, many of which were New York Times best-sellers.
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