Family: Born August 21, 1875, in Montreal, Canada; died April 8, 1954, in Butte, MT; daughter of Edward (an artist and traveler) and Grace (Trepesis) Eaton; married Bertrand W. Babcock (a journalist), 1901 (divorced 1916); married Francis Fournier Reeve (a cattle rancher and oil tycoon), 1917.
Author, scenarist, and screenwriter. Reporter for Canadian newspaper in Jamaica, 1893; typist for stockyards in Chicago; writer in New York 1901-17, and Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1917-24; Universal Studios, New York, NY, scenarist, 1924; screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Universal Pictures, Hollywood, CA, 1925-32.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
NOVELS; AS ONOTO WATANNA
- Miss Numè of Japan: A Japanese-American Romance, Rand McNally (Chicago, IL), 1899.
- A Japanese Nightingale, 1901.
- The Wooing of Wistaria, 1902.
- The Heart of Hyacinth, 1903, Washington University Press (Seattle, WA), 2000.
- Daughters of Nijo, a Romance of Japan, 1904.
- The Love of Azalea, 1904.
- A Japanese Blossom, 1906.
- Tama, 1910.
- The Honorable Miss Moonlight, 1912.
- The Diary of Delia; Being a Veracious Chronicle of the Kitchen with Some Side-Lights on the Parlour, 1907.
- Sunny-San, 1922.
- Cattle, 1923.
- His Royal Nibs, 1925.
SCREENPLAYS; AS ONOTO WATANNA
- False Kisses, 1921.
- (With H. H. Van Loan) The Mississippi Gambler, 1929.
- (With Houston Branch) Shanghai Lady, 1929.
- East Is West, 1930.
- (With Edward T. Lowe, Jr.) Undertow, 1930.
- Young Desire, 1930.
- (As Onoto Watanna; with Sara Bosse) Chinese-Japanese Cook Book, 1914.
- Me, a Book of Remembrance, 1915, Mississippi University Press (Jackson, MS), 1997.
- Marion: The Story of an Artist's Model 1916.
Novelist, screenwriter, scenarist, and society matron Winnifred Eaton was born in Montreal, Canada on August 21, 1875. Writing under the Japanese-sounding pseudonym Onoto Watanna, Eaton is considered one of the first Asian-American writers of popular fiction. During her long career she wrote sixteen novels and enjoyed immense financial success, proving the popularity of 'oriental' themes at the turn of the twentieth century. Although she had a Chinese heritage, Eaton chose the Japanese pseudonym to cater to the romance her audience associated with Japan, and to combat the strong anti-Chinese sentiment of the time. Her sister, Edith Maude Eaton was also a writer, and wrote under the Chinese pseudonym Sui Sin Far, directly embracing her Chinese heritage and focusing her writing around the struggles of the Chinese-American population. To further distinguish her own pseudonym, Winnifred created a fictional past for Onoto Watanna. In interviews she often stated that she was born in Nagasaki, Japan, and that her mother was a Japanese noblewoman.
Her father, Edward Eaton, an English traveler and artist, met her mother Grace, a Chinese woman raised by English missionaries, in Shanghai while on business. The family lived in England, and later relocated to Montreal as a result of the Eaton family's disapproval of their son's marriage. As the eighth of sixteen children--fourteen whom survived into adulthood--Eaton was raised in genteel poverty. At the age of seventeen she was ready to support herself, and followed in her sister's footsteps and left to work as a reporter for a Canadian newspaper in Jamaica.
She soon left Jamaica and went to Chicago, where she worked as a typist and stenographer for the stockyards. It was also during this time that she wrote and published her first book. Miss Numè of Japan, published in 1899, launched her career as well as her pen name. The book tells the story of two couples, one white Americans Cleo and Sinclair, and the other Japanese Numè and Orito, whose marriage has been planned since childhood. The two couples meet when Orito travels to America for school while Sinclair goes to Japan for work. Numè and Sinclair fall in love, while Cleo and Orito, both traveling to Japan to visit their mates, become romantically involved themselves. The love quadrangle does not become fully realized, however, and Eaton allows only certain interracial relationships to succeed.
In 1900 Eaton gained a great deal of fame from her writing, and moved to New York, where she wrote almost a book a year between 1901 and 1916. It was in New York that she also met her first husband, Bertrand W. Babcock, who was a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, and later became her literary agent. After bearing four children, Eaton divorced Babcock, and supported her family entirely through her writing.
In her novels Eaton tells stories of romance and also addresses the societal taboos of her time. While she allows interracial romance to flourish in her plots, the relationships rarely come to lasting fruition. In MELUS, Pat Shea observed that Eaton "includes details which challenge the following: restrictions placed upon white female/Asian male romances; an insistence on a foreign setting for the romances, and the notion of the subjugated role of the Asian woman."
Eaton's novels are generally set in Japan, with the plots circling around the fated love affairs between a Japanese woman and Caucasian man. Her second novel, A Japanese Nightingale, published in 1901, was a tremendous success, being translated into several languages, as well as adapted to the stage. In the North American Review, William Dean Howells noted, "There is a quite indescribable freshness like no other art except in the simplicity which is native to the best art everywhere." Feeding the public's taste for exotic fiction, the novel also focuses on a love affair: Jack is an American businessman, and Yuki is a Eurasian woman working in the Japanese teahouse Jack frequents.
By the 1902 publication of her third novel, The Wooing of Wisteria, Eaton's publishers were advertising her "oriental" persona. Eaton was photographed in a kimono with her hair put up in a Japanese fashion, while standing in front of a painted screen. Some editions of her books had specially commissioned illustrations by Japanese artists, as well as a facsimile of the author's autograph in Japanese. According to Yuko Matsukawa in the Reference Guide to American Literature, "both the books and Onoto Watanna were consciously produced for popular consumption."
During these prolific years in New York, Eaton continued her Japanese-themed romances. The Heart of Hyacinth, published in 1903, tells the story of an English orphan growing up in a Japanese family who is raised with the Japanese ideals of beauty, and fears her own Caucasian appearance. Other books include Daughters of Nijo, a Romance of Japan published in 1904, The Love of Azalea, published in 1904, and A Japanese Blossom, published in 1906.
Eaton's popularity continued, and she won praise for her 1910 novel Tama. A reviewer for the New York Times suggested, "It holds the very spirit of Japan, a spirit fragrant, dainty, and elusive." Eaton followed with The Honorable Miss Moonlight, published in 1912.
While Eaton did not have a complete knowledge of Japanese language or Japanese culture, her audience remained loyal. Matsukawa remarked that Eaton's use of exotic settings "diffuses the potentially disruptive subject of interracial romance and miscegenation in order to safely explore the intersections of culture and gender relations." Eaton's books commanded large advance royalties, and she moved in a distinguished circle of New York society that included Edith Wharton and Mark Twain.
Eaton briefly attempted to write in the voice of an Irish-American maid in the novel The Diary of Delia: Being a Veracious Chronicle of the Kitchen with Some Sidelights on the Parlour, published in 1907. Although the novel is set in America and voices an Irish accent rather than a Japanese one, it shares elements with Eaton's other works: the heroine is impoverished but resourceful, the plot twists as she goes about her adventures, and romance is ultimately found.
In 1915 Eaton made a move away from her Japanese novel and wrote Me: A Book of Remembrance, an anonymously published fictional autobiography. Here her protagonist is Nora Ascough, who has an English father and a mother from an unnamed country. The story follows Eaton's own, as Nora leaves home and works as a typist in Jamaica, then Chicago, and later New York. Once there, she pursues her writing and has various romantic adventures. Throughout the novel, Nora matures and discovers her personal worth through the different situations she encounters. In a review published in MELUS Caroline Sin suggested, "The confluence of race and class in this series of self-representations, both in her 'real' life and in her autobiography, is significant and speaks not only to the complexities involved in 'passing' or refusing to pass, but also to the intricacies of separating the different levels of shame and desire that mark working class Asian American identities."
Eaton published another cloaked autobiography, Marion: The Story of an Artists' Model, by Herself and the Author of Me (1916). This novel is based on the experience of Eaton's sister, Sara, who had her own misadventures while trying to support herself in the world, and later wrote about them with Eaton. James Doyle in Canadian Literature commented that both of these novels "reveal a remarkable degree of ironic self-awareness on Winnifred's part, if . . . she is portraying herself in the satirical portrait of Nora Ascough, a would-be writer who mincingly flaunts her newfound independence."
The same year Marion was published, Eaton divorced Babcock. The following year, 1917, she married Francis Fournier Reeve and relocated her entire family to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where Reeve ranched and farmed. Later, he sold the ranches and had success in the oil business. While in Calgary, Eaton supported the arts and continued her writing at a less rapid pace. She published her last Japanese-themed book, Sunny-San, in 1922, and it became one of her most popular Japanese novels. Eaton then wrote her last two novels, both set in the Canadian west: Cattle, published in 1923, and His Royal Nibs, published in 1925. Both are about cattle ranching in Alberta and explore life on the Canadian prairies.
During the 1920s Eaton moved to Hollywood and worked on movie scripts for Universal Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as an adapter, dialogue writer, or scenarist during the industry's transition to sound film. Eaton used her knowledge of writing exotic romances in such films as Shanghai Lady, produced in 1929, and East Is West, in 1930. Other films included 1929's The Mississippi Gambler and 1930's Undertow and Young Desire. Eaton worked her way to the position of chief wcenarist before her writing contracts expired and she moved back to Calgary where her family remained.
Once again in Calgary, Eaton actively supported Canadian literary organizations and theatre. She died on April 8, 1954 in Butte, Montana, while returning north from a vacation in Phoenix, Arizona. Althougn many of her novels fell out of print following her death, academic interest in Eaton's works has been kindled by her place in American and Canadian fiction, due to the social and literary impact of her writing. Amy Ling concluded in Asian American Literature that Eaton's "literary talents were considerable, and the 'cheap and popular device,' known as the romance novel, was the total support for herself and her four children for sixteen years."
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
- Riggs, Thomas, editor, Reference Guide to American Literature, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000, pp. 257-258.
- Trudeau, Lawrence J., editor, Asian American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI) 1999, pp. 90-100.
- Canadian Literature, spring, James Doyle, Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna: Two Early Chinese-Canadian Authors, pp. 50-58.
- MELUS, summer, 1997, Pat Shea, Winnifred Eaton and the Politics of Miscegenation in Popular Fiction; winter, 1999, Caroline Sin, review of Me: A Book of Remembrance, p. 180.*