American author Fran Ross was one of a very few African American women to write satirical novels. She grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later moved to New York City. She was a freelance writer and copy editor for several major publishing houses. Though her single novel, Oreo, was largely overlooked upon publication during the 1970s, it was later reissued. A 2015 edition drew attention to the late author and her work.
Early Life and Education
Frances Dolores Ross, commonly known as Fran Ross, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 25, 1935. Her father, Gerald Ross, was a welder from North Carolina who died in 1954 in a car accident. Her mother, Bernetta Bass Ross, was from Virginia. Bernetta, a college graduate, supported the family working as a store clerk. Ross, their only daughter, had two younger brothers, Gerald Jr. and Richard.
Ross was called Frosty as a child. She loved to read, was athletic, and enjoyed drawing. She played basketball at Camphor Memorial Church Center and Richard Allen Youth Center. She attended George Brooks Elementary and Shoemaker Junior High School. Growing up, she and her brother Gerald sometimes helped their grandmother, who was a cook for a business executive and his family, on weekends during dinner parties.
During her childhood Ross frequently heard Yiddish spoken. Her family lived next to a Russian Jewish immigrant who had a corner store. Her brother had a part-time job working for a Jewish family.
In high school she participated in debate, literary club, and art club. She graduated from Overbrook High School just days before her sixteenth birthday, at a time when the student body was mostly white and Jewish. Ross earned a full-tuition scholarship to Temple University. She graduated magna cum laude in 1956 with a BS in communications, journalism, and theater. Her teachers encouraged her to write.
Ross found a job working for the Curtis Publishing Company, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post. She wanted to be a journalist, but found few prospects in Philadelphia. In 1960 she moved to New York, where she worked for McGraw-Hill as a proofreader and copy editor. She later found similar employment with Simon and Schuster.
The young copy editor was also busy writing. Her novel, Oreo, was published in 1974 by Greyfalcon House. It received some attention, but quickly went out of print. The narrator of the satirical work is an African American woman, Christine Schwartz. Her absent father, a radio actor, is Jewish, while her mother is African American. The titular nickname refers to a person who is black on the outside, but white on the inside; although it is meant as an insult, Christine embraces the label. Oreo goes in search of her father and Jewish identity. She takes no prisoners on her quest, during which she beats a pimp to a pulp in high heels. In a twist on the theatrical tradition of blackface, Oreo provides a dead-on impersonation of a Jewish housewife while recording a radio commercial. The novel, which skewers both African American and Jewish stereotypes, failed to find its audience.
Ross also worked as a freelance writer. Her work was published in Essence magazine; Titters, a feminist humor magazine; and Playboy, among others. Ross also was a part-owner of a mail-order company, which created educational materials.
In 1977 she landed what seemed to be a promising job as a comedy writer for comedian Richard Pryor and moved to Los Angeles, California. The move was a financial stretch for Ross. She hoped to earn enough writing scripts to enable her to work on a second novel. She struggled even more when Pryor, who had not yet committed to the planned weekly television show, rejected the idea. Ross found it nearly impossible to sell scripts and series ideas in the West Coast entertainment industry. She moved back to New York and resumed working in publishing as she wrote freelance articles.
Death and Posthumous Recognition
Ross died of cancer on September 17, 1985, in New York City. In 2000 Northwestern University Press reprinted her novel, which gained some attention. In July 2015 New Directions published a new edition, with an introduction by Danzy Senna. Reviewers noted that the feminist work, with its biting look at questions of biracial identity, had been decades ahead of its time.
"Afterword," Oreo. Available online at https://books.google.com/books?id=wgg-BQAAQBAJ&pg=PT127&lpg=PT127&dq=fran+ross+september+17+1985&source=bl&ots=y6kMaRGg0J&sig=n_dI41A46bXIKw372sUOqA_SSH4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAmoVChMIpcvvpcP8xgIVydIeCh1kxQrr#v=onepage&q=fran%20ross%20september%2017%201985&f=false (August 9, 2015).
"An Overlooked Classic About the Comedy of Race," The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/an-overlooked-classic-about-the-comedy-of-race (August 9, 2015).
"Ross, Fran," The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction by Darryl Dickson-Carr. Available online at https://books.google.com/books?id=4EyrAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA198&lpg=PA198&dq=fran+ross+author+september+17+1985&source=bl&ots=dzUBdkFJTU&sig=ik-8whCaS4WvwnOslTx-AEtdPMU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAWoVChMIv-6s08L8xgIViPceCh0Bdgf4#v=onepage&q=fran%20ross%20author%20september%2017%201985&f=false (August 9, 2015).