In Memory of Kate Duffy

When I first met Kate Duffy, it was at RWA in Dallas in 2007, and I was 8.5 months pregnant. I waddled everywhere, and I was, literally, a torpedo. I gave birth 6 weeks later. Like any good pregnant lady at an RWA convention, I was in the bar when I was introduced to Kate Duffy.

There was much squeeing. I was a fan of hers, and she was a fan of our site. She was drinking with one of her authors, but wanted to introduce herself and tell me how much she loved reading Smart Bitches. I was sort of dumbstruck. Ok, I was a lot dumbstruck.

Then, the following day, I mentioned that I was trying to figure out how to get to my flight to Newark, when she said, “Oh, I’ve reserved a car. You’re coming with me.” Enter dumbstruck Sarah, take two. It was 90+ degrees, I was not a little puffy, and exhausted – and she made room for me with her friend Joan, even though she’d just met me the day before. I told her then that I’d have to construct a shrine in her honor, with man titty and diet Pepsi. The shrine has grown a lot in the past two years, and I’m surprised looking back that it’s only been two years since I met Kate. I feel like I’ve known her for so much longer than that. And I know, most certainly, that it wasn’t long enough.

When I tried to explain to my husband why I was so blown away by meeting Kate and talking with her at RWA, I couldn’t figure out how to explain who she was in romance. She wasn’t just an editor or a fan of the genre.

“She’s the Julia Child of romance,” I said.

One of Kate's dinner parties: me, Mary Stella, Karen Auerbach, Kate Duffy, and Beth Ciotta

There isn’t a part of the genre in the United States that hasn’t been touched by Kate’s talent, and that’s not hyperbole. Kate and I used to meet for meals a few times a year and I always came away with a very satisfied belly – Kate had a knack for putting together the best dinner parties at restaurants that absolutely rocked. She could gather the most interesting people and before you knew it, four hours had gone by and you still had things to say and hear.

But more than that, whenever I was with Kate, I always learned something. She has been part of the romance genre in all its myriad incarnations for so long, she was a walking history book of the romance publishing industry, and of the genre as a whole.

“I didn’t want to be a governess or a nurse in Europe. I wanted to read about Americans.” – Kate Duffy

Kate was one of the foundations of the romance genre in the US because she knew there had to be a market for romances featuring American heroines and American settings. Whenever I ate with her, one story would merge into another, and suddenly I had a much deeper insight into how far the romance genre has come in recent years, and how much it’s changed. Kate was a walking history book with a very, very long memory.

“Sarah, I kid you not, dragons. DRAGONS.”
“She has dialogue like Spencer and Tracy. I love it.”
“You have to try this. No, really. Be quiet. Try this.” – Kate Duffy

At RWA in San Francisco, she and I were on the same flight home, and she eagerly shared with me the books and authors she was most excited about and the things that made her happy. I have noise canceling headphones for airline travel because Kate not only told me about them, but tapped me on the head during the flight to Newark and dropped hers onto my lap. She was right.

“Oh, look! I’m a reader!” – Kate Duffy, whose registration at RT in Pittsburgh had her listed not as an editor, but as a reader. “Best RT ever,” she told me.

Kate was often right. It was really annoying sometimes. And if we disagreed, which we did a lot, I’d often get The Look, which I nicknamed The Kate. Many people are familiar with this look. The chin goes down. One eyebrow may go up. And clear as air, you get the message that she thinks you are out of your mind. The word “withering” comes to mind. I was the recipient of The Kate many a time. Sometimes I totally deserved it.

The last time I spoke with her was 1 April 2009, when she told me I’d made a HUGE mistake in putting up an April Fool’s joke that our book had been the subject of a lawsuit brought by Jane Litte on behalf of the International Consortium of Heroes. The first email from Kate read, “I just saw the site. Are you ok?!” Then, a few seconds later, “I get it. Boy, did you ever make a mistake. Not funny.”

So I called her. She gave me a small dose of hell. I wasn’t her author, and our book wasn’t going to be published by Kensington, but she wanted me and our editor, Sulay, to succeed because she cared about us. And she thought I had made a huge goof. She told me so and then said, “Let’s get together for lunch soon. After RT.”

“Writer’s strike? I’m watching the best television in years – have you seen what’s on PBS lately? You have to see this show. Tape it. Better yet, I’ll send you a DVD. ” – Kate Duffy

Kate was determined in her generosity, and generous in her determination. Her many, many kindnesses to me over the years are too numerous to mention. I will miss her presence at conferences, her sense of humor, her wit, her curiosity, her enthusiasm, and most of all, her love of romance and the happily ever after. Kate was the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor since we met, and I valued her wisdom, her opinion, her enthusiasm, and her warmth more than I can say. She was my friend, and I will miss her terribly.

More than anything, I wished for a happier ending for her, that she would have beaten back her illnesses and kicked ass and taken names as usual. It wasn’t meant to be.

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and I’ve been in synagogue for most of the morning. It’s also a day of reflection and remembrance, and today I’ve had a lot to reflect upon, remember, cry, and often inappropriately laugh about as I thought about Kate. If you’ve ever met Kate, you know she is unforgettable. May her memory be a blessing to her family, and may they be comforted.

“May the one who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us, and for all who dwell on earth. And let us say: Amen.” (Mourner’s Kaddish, Reconstructionist)

From her family, the obituary is below.

Renowned romance genre editor

Kate Duffy (Alice Katherine Duffy) was instrumental in shaping the face and direction of the romance genre from the late seventies and the “romance revolution” of the early 1980s through today, when at any given time the authors she has worked with continue to populate the nation’s best seller lists.

The recipient of numerous honors from national and regional writers organizations, including the Romance Writers of America, she was the first recipient that organizations “Industry Award” in 1991. Recently, RT Book Reviews magazine announced her as the 2010 recipient of their annual Melinda Helfer Award, presented for outstanding support of and contributions to the genre.

Kate first published or worked with, some of the genre’s best known writers, including Jude Deveraux, Julie Garwood, Lori Foster, Heather Graham, Judith McNaught, Mary Janice Davidson, Jacqueline Frank and Mary Jo Putney.

Kate attended Notre Dame Academy, Trinity College, and George Washington University.  She studied at Oxford University and returned to the U.K. to work at Paddington Press.  Upon returning to the U.S. whe became an editor at Popular Library. She later worked at Dell, Simon & Schuster, where she was the founding editor of Silhouette Books, moved on to Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books division, Harlequin Enterprises, where she founded the Worldwide Library imprint, and Kensington Publishing, where she established Brava Books.  She is also remembered for the hugely successful Tapestry Books imprint at Pocket Books which began in the early 80s and continued for a number of years.

Born January 28, 1953 in Rochester, New York to Benedict James Duffy, Jr. and Alice (Boyle) Duffy, Kate lived in Rochester, New York, Hingham, Massachusetts, London, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and New York. She spent the bulk of her adult life living in Manhattan.  She is survived by her mother, actress Alice Duffy, her sister NBC News producer Clare Duffy, her brother Benedict Duffy and his wife Amanda, her niece Rosalind, her nephews Alex and Elliot, and legions of writers, friends and colleagues who are grateful to have known her.

Kate died at home after a long illness with a variety of complications.


General Bitching...

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  1. Chris Redding says:

    Bon Appetit! I agree. She was the Julia Child of romance.

  2. Kwana says:

    What a beautiful tribute. You and all of her friends and family have my condolences. It is such a loss. She was well loved and respected.

  3. Angela James says:

    Oh, Sarah…perfect. Thank you for this.

  4. What a wonderful tribute. Condolences to her family and friends.

  5. Amen.

    I’d seen and talked to Kate throughout my years at RWA (even pitched to her), although I’m sure she had no clue who I was. I remember her most at the Smart Bitches get together in SF.  She sat in the corner “holding court”, as usual. 🙂

    She was definitely a woman who held a presence where ever she was.  She will be missed.

  6. Sybil Cook says:

    What a wonderful post.  She was romance and I am still very much in shock.  I honestly didn’t think she wouldn’t make it.  It never really entered my mind.

    Thank you for sharing.

  7. Aww, you just made me cry.  Kate will be sorely missed.

  8. Lauren says:

    What a lovely, and totally fitting remembrance.

  9. Fuckin’ A. She was a giant, and no one will ever completely fill her shoes.

  10. Mark Henry says:

    Sarah. Beautiful. Thanks.

  11. Toni Andrews says:

    I loved Kate. Her sense of humor—hysterical remarks delivered with a dead-pan expression—always made me laugh.

    I was on a “Books at Sea” Cruise with a group of writers. Kate brought her mother.  Heather Graham hosted a private Karaoke party on the ship.  I told her I wanted to sing and she said, “Fine, but I don’t want anyone to just sing—you have to have an act.”

    When I told her I didn’t really have an act, Heather told me no problem, she’d get me one.

    She corralled Kate (who she always called “Doo-FAY”) and browbeat her into being my “back up dancer.”

    Kate put on her signature stone face and did Pips-style dance moves while I tried to sing Orange Colored Sky without laughing at her antics.

    It was being video taped—I wonder if Heather has a copy. 

    Kate’s loss is a seismic event in the Romance community.

  12. Kiersten says:

    Though I’ve heard her name banty around romance land for years, I’ve never had the joy and honor of meeting Kate in person. It saddens me that now I never will. A lovely tribute Sarah. Thanks.

  13. I am so glad I had the opportunity to have drinks with Kate during RT Pittsburgh. A more honest, hilarious, straight-shooting, acerbically wise champion of the Romance genre, you could not hope to find.

    She will be missed.

  14. Beth Ciotta says:


    I was just thinking about the particular ‘dinner party’ pictured here. (big lump in throat) Just one of the many fantastic moments I shared with Kate. She was a unique and generous soul and I will miss her greatly. Thank you for sharing such a lovely tribute.


  15. Lee O says:

    A wonderful tribute, thank you for sharing this with us. *hugs*

  16. Jane says:

    This was lovely.

  17. Sunny Lyn says:

    Sarah, thanks – lovely tribute to a marvelous editor and friend. God, we’re gonna miss her.

  18. I don’t write romance, but you still made me said I will never meet Kate Duffy.

  19. Ashley Ladd says:

    I’m so sorry to hear this news. We’ll miss Kate. I didn’t get to meet her, but she sounds like a wonderful person.

  20. Lovely, simply lovely.

    Kate will be missed.

  21. I never had the pleasure of meeting Kate personally, though I’ve heard her speak and know some of her authors.  She seemed to be a truly wonderful person and I’m sorry I’ll never have the chance to meet her now.  This is a beautiful tribute!

  22. Jaci Burton says:

    Beautifully stated, Sarah. I can’t imagine the romance community without Kate Duffy in it. I’m so saddened by her passing.

  23. Beautifully said. What a great loss for the industry and for her family and friends.

  24. Jessica Lee says:

    What a great tribute!  I only had the pleasure of speaking with her once, but it was a telephon call I’ll never forget. She made me feel so special about my writing, and I’m saddened by her loss. I was looking forward forward to working with her in the future. The publishing industry has truly lost a gem.

  25. Alessia Brio says:

    Thank you for sharing that, Sarah. It was touching & beautiful. I regret that I never had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Duffy.

  26. Beautiful tribute, Sarah, though I’m incredibly sad to learn the news is true.  It seems like it was just yesterday I emailed her my condolences for her uncle, Peter Boyle.  She thanked me and was incredibly nice.  What a loss to the romance industry. 🙁

  27. Oh, very well done, Sarah. Very well done, indeed.

  28. Judi Fennell says:

    My first meet with Kate was during one of her Query Letter workshops at National where she read queries out loud and let you know her immediate thoughts. (You learn REAL quick to get a thick skin in this business when Kate read your queries out loud.) I had the (un)fortunate luck to follow a query that had had a cheating husband as the hero. Not Kate’s cup of tea AT ALL. “The hero is a jerk,” was her comment. So, enter my querly letter. She got two lines into mine, did The Kate (look) at me and said, “He’s not married is he?” Luckily (well, for me, notsomuch for my hero and his late wife) the hero was a widower. That, Kate could deal with. But I was forever the Writer with The Not Married Hero to her.

    She told you like it was because she knew how it was. An icon in the business and she will be missed.

  29. Oh, Sarah, you really got me with that tribute to her.  Thank you for writing that.  I have been a recipient of “The Kate” look many times, once when I was moderating a panel and she didn’t like the question.  Withering, indeed.  Followed by brilliant insight and a great joke.  You really captured a woman who will be missed by so many.

  30. Zoe Archer says:

    I remember wandering into the Kensington cocktail party at RWA Nationals in San Francisco.  The room was tiny, crowded, loud.  Everyone seemed to know each other.  Except me.  I stood in the doorway, blinking, reticent, wondering if I should just go sit in the lobby.  Then Kate saw me, saw my name tag, and swooped forward.  She ushered me into the party and said to her fellow editors, “This is the one I’ve been telling you about.  Her book as a golem in it.  It gives me goosebumps.”  She showed us her arm so we could see said goosebumps.

    The next day, she took me to lunch.  I told her I saw her on a panel at the RWA Nationals in Reno and knew immediately I wanted to work with her because she was so goddamn cool.  She accepted this as her due.  That night I saw her again at the Smart Bitches cocktail party.  Angela James and I started riffing on Jesus Porn.  Kate was gleefully convinced we would be struck by lightning.

    Kate took a chance on me and my writing when other editors were afraid.  She gave me a chance to seize my lifelong dream.  I have a candle lit for her today, but every day I write is illuminated by her spirit.

  31. EC Sheedy says:

    A wonderful tribute to Kate, Sarah. All of us who had the opportunity, fun and sheer honor of working with her will surely appreciate it.

    I am so sad today. I agree with what Toni said, the loss of Kate Duffy is “a seismic event in the Romance community.”
    RIP Kate

  32. Elyssa Papa says:

    This is so beautiful and touching, Sarah. Thank you for sharing such lovely memories of Kate. I’m sorry that you lost a mentor and friend. My sympathies are with everyone who was lucky to have known Kate Duffy. She will be greatly missed.

  33. Kate was my editor. I believe I was her first young adult author, and she took a big chance signing me (an unknown author) on for three books. We went through the process of a launching a YA series together, and I learned a lot from her.

    I have to say, I never thought she wouldn’t beat this. It didn’t even cross my mind. So I’m more stunned now than anything. I can’t believe she’s gone.


  34. Mary Stella says:

    Beautiful tribute, Sarah.  I’ve been crying off and on all morning since hearing the news.  Thought I had it under control and then I came here and saw the picture.  That was such a typical Kate gathering.  Beth and I had just had lunch with her earlier that day and a tour of Kensington.  Beth and I were just about to get in a cab to return to the NINC Conference.  Kate asked what we were doing for dinner and we answered that we were just going to hang out at the hotel.  “No you aren’t,” she decided in her crisp, Kate style.  “You’re coming to dinner with me and my friends.  I’ll just change the reservation.”  What a fun time we had!

    Thank you for putting up the picture.

    Kate was a legend.

  35. Lise Horton says:

    Having never had the good fortune to meet Kate Duffy, I now know what I have missed.  Your words bring her to life.  Good journey, Kate Duffy and I am sorry I never had the opportunity to bask in your light.

  36. Patti Shenberger says:

    Sarah, thank you for your touching tribute of Kate Duffy. I had only met her twice in my career and had hoped one day to have her as my editor.  She was so in tune, in touch and just plain amazing.  She will be sorely missed.

  37. What a lovely tribute to an amazing woman.  I didn’t know her very well—just enough to say hi when our paths would cross at conferences. But I knew her reputation and the high esteem in which she was held by those lucky enough to work with her or call her friend.

    A true loss to the romance industry.

  38. Mary Ricksen says:

    How sad to lose and iconic talent like Kate Duffy. Wonderful tribute Sarah.

  39. Kate was the first editor I ever spoke to. She spent an hour on the phone explaining to me what the issues were that she saw in my book. She was spot on, though I couldn’t see it at the time. The fact that I’d just gotten off the phone with a real life editor was motivation enough for me to keep going. Kate touched my life as a writer in a way that can only be described as incredible. She did not buy my book but she still took the time to tell me how to make it stronger. Because of that, I am still writing.
    I am, as many of us are, deeply saddened by her loss. She was a tremendous influence in so many ways.
    Thank you for this touching tribute.

  40. Susan Peek says:

    Kate Duffy was the most intimidating editor I ever met—and the most encouraging. She’s a legend whose legacy will live forever. She will be sorely missed.

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