Shirley Jean Abbott Tomkievicz (1934–2019)
aka: Shirley Abbott
Shirley Jean Abbott Tomkievicz, a magazine editor and writer, achieved her greatest fame for her three volumes of memoirs, which detail the story of her family history and her own coming of age in Hot Springs (Garland County): Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South (1983), The Bookmaker’s Daughter: A Memory Unbound (1991), and Love’s Apprentice: The Education of a Modern Woman (1998), all written under the name Shirley Abbott. Critics lauded her books as well-written examinations, not only of her own life, but of the South in an age of transition. Even after becoming a resident of New York, Abbott continues to write about Arkansas for a wide audience in magazines and newspapers. She once commented, “I learned to respect and love history from being born a Southerner. To come from a definable place and to seek understanding of that place are incentives for the writer’s imagination.”
Born in Hot Springs on November 16, 1934, Shirley Abbott was the only child of Alfred B. “Hat” Abbott and Velma Loyd Abbott. A good student, she graduated from high school as class valedictorian in 1952 and went on, with the help of scholarships, to Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman’s University), where she majored in English and French. She graduated cum laude in 1956, was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Grenoble in France in 1957–1958, and spent a year at the Columbia University Graduate School of French, again on scholarship.
At the end of her senior year at Texas State College for Women, Abbott was chosen by Mademoiselle magazine to be one of twenty young women guest editors for their College Issue on the basis of an essay she submitted. The city of New York and the world of letters captivated her. In 1958, she returned to New York. Today, she has homes in the city and in Massachusetts.
On September 12, 1964, she married illustrator Alexander Tomkievicz. They were the parents of two daughters, Katharine and Elizabeth.
Abbott began her career as an editor, writer, and historian in 1959 when she was hired by Horizon magazine as a fact checker. In 1973, she was appointed Horizon’s editor-in-chief, a post she held until the magazine closed three years later. Abbott wrote articles for Smithsonian, Lear’s, Gourmet, Harper’s, American Heritage, Southern Living, McCall’s, Glamour, and Boston Review, as well as for newspapers. In addition to the people and history of Arkansas, she wrote about food, historic properties, and museums. As an editor, she trained herself in medical writing and later worked for University Health Publishing in New York City, primarily on the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Womenfolks, Abbott’s first published memoir, recounts the history of Abbott’s mother, her Ouachita hill-country family, and her marriage to “Hat” Abbott, a street-wise, Indiana-born man who made his living making book in the gambling houses of Hot Springs. The Bookmaker’s Daughter, which was a New York Times Notable Book, takes up the life of Abbott’s father. Although a troubled and difficult man, her father was also a self-taught student of classical literature and encouraged his daughter’s reading. (This book was reprinted by University of Arkansas Press in 2007.) In Love’s Apprentice, Abbott writes about family and societal expectations for young women, particularly in the realm of romance, and how this influenced her own development into a mature woman.
Abbott was frequently asked to return to Arkansas to speak, primarily on Hot Springs in the Leo McLaughlin era, as well as her life as a writer. She was given the Arkansas Library Association’s Arkansiana Award in 1985 for best published work on Arkansas. She also wrote the foreword for Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2000. In 2005, Abbott received the Porter Prize, which is presented annually to an Arkansas writer of recognized literary excellence, for her nonfiction works, and, in 2008, she published her first novel, The Future of Love.
Abbott died on April 8, 2019, at her home in Portland, Oregon.
For additional information:
Abbott, Shirley. The Bookmaker’s Daughter: A Memory Unbound. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1991
———. Love’s Apprentice: The Education of a Modern Woman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
———. Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983.
Bader, Eleanor J. “Shirley Abbott: Feminist Daughter of the South.” The Progressive Women’s Quarterly 22 (Spring 1992): 31–40.
Dishongh, Kimberly. “Shirley Jean Abbott Tomkeivicz.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. May 25, 2008, pp. 1D, 7D, 9D.
Shirley Abbott Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Shirley Abbott Vertical File. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Thompson, J. J. “Abbott: A Southerner on Her Own Terms.” Arkansas Gazette. April 19, 1991, p. 1E.
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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I have just finished Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South. I LOVE the book. I can relate to it so much. I grew up in western North Carolina and still live here. The words used by my elders, I so remember, and miss to some extent. I was raised Freewill Baptist, and so much of my past from church I could identify with. Great read, from one southerner to another southerner. The book brought back a lot of memories.
My admiration began with The Bookmaker’s Daughter, read while I was still a resident of my beloved New York City. Now I’m eighteen years back on the family farm in east Texas where there is little farm and no family relations.
Tonight I resumed reading Womenfolks with interest and identification, only to find that page after page had turned-down corners. Yet its meaning seems new.
How I love sharing the feelings that Ms. Abbott’s experiences repaint from my unrealized life. I’d love to talk with her over a cup (no–a pot) of coffee!