July 16, 1984 12:00 PM

On April 3, 1974 a tornado swept across the neat white houses of Xenia, Ohio and leveled more than half the town. The media descended, but some would say that onslaught was nothing compared with the current commotion in the quiet little town (pop. 24,653) over an octogenarian author named Helen Hooven Santmyer. No sooner had her 1,176-page opus,…And Ladies of the Club (Putnam, $19.95), been selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club main summer selection than scores of journalists rushed to Xenia to interview the 88-year-old author at Hospitality Home East, the nursing home where she has lived for two years. A bronze plaque announcing “This Is the Home of Helen Hooven Santmyer” has been placed outside the house where she grew up, and her oil portrait has been hung prominently in the public library. Still Santmyer is unimpressed. “Ninety percent of the hoopla,” she says, “is because I’m such an old lady.”

And aging fast. The relentless attention hasn’t helped Santmyer’s frail health. She suffers from emphysema, arthritis, blindness in one eye and a cataract in the other. Worn out by her instant celebrity, she struggles to maintain her 83 pounds, naps often and relies more and more on the green oxygen tank at her bedside.

If it’s any consolation,…And Ladies of the Club, Santmyer’s novel about 64 years of life in an Ohio town very much like Xenia, is a smash. A No. 1 best-seller three weeks after publication, the book has already sold 200,000 copies. It is also being adapted for television as a miniseries.

Some reviewers, however, have come down very hard on Santmyer. “The book is relentlessly dull…reading it becomes a chore …” pronounced the New York Times about Santmyer’s multigenerational saga which portrays Republican politics, weddings and county fairs as well as adultery and small-town bigotry. Even Santmyer, who previously had two obscure novels published in the 1920s, says the novel is not a masterpiece. “I don’t think it’s that good,” she says. “And I don’t think it’s that important. To be important a book has got to have something dramatic in it.”

Santmyer began work on her novel in 1965 largely out of boredom. Chain-smoking Chesterfields, she wrote Ladies in longhand in the Xenia home she then shared with librarian Mildred Sandoe, now 84, her companion of 60 years. When the novel was done, Helen sent it off in 11 boxes to Ohio State University Press, which in 1963 had published Ohio Town, a book of Santmyer’s reminiscences.

The university press published Ladies in 1982. But only about 500 copies were sold, mostly to libraries. Then, at the Shaker Heights, Ohio library in 1983, history was made. Grace Sindell, a local matron, happened to overhear a woman say that Ladies was the best novel she had ever read. Sindell borrowed the book, devoured it in two days and then called her son Gerald, an L.A. film producer. He and Stanley Corwin, another L.A. producer, acquired the print, TV and film rights to Ladies from Ohio State. Through agent Owen Laster they sold the book to Putnam for $50,000. The little old lady from Xenia was soon front page news.

The role model for all this was Louisa May Alcott, who inspired 9-year-old Helen to become a writer. Later, as a student at Wellesley College, Santmyer often wrote poetry. Her first job was working for a suffragist group in Boston. During the 1920s Santmyer returned to Xenia to be near her father, a drug salesman, and her mother, and about this time she met Mildred San-doe. Then in 1935 she took a job as dean of women (and later head of the English department) at Cedarville College in nearby Cedarville, Ohio. When Santmyer was ready to move on from Cedarville in the 1950s, Sandoe helped her find a job at the public library. Five years later the two old friends decided to share Mildred’s house. In 1959 they both retired and eventually moved to the nursing home, where they have rooms in separate wings.

Although Santmyer says she’s too old to write any more books, Ladies is not the final chapter of her literary story. Harper & Row is considering reprinting her earlier novels Herbs and Apples and The Fierce Dispute. Then there’s the matter of Santmyer’s alleged work of fiction, Farewell to Summer. A niece remembers such a manuscript, and a nephew-in-law has been assigned the task of finding it among Helen’s papers. The author herself only faintly recalls the title. “It sounds familiar,” says Santmyer, sitting in her lamb’s-wool-lined wheelchair. “But the more I think about it, it must have been lost a long time ago.”

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