Winnifred Eaton, writer (born 21 August 1875 in Montréal, QC; died 8 April 1954 in Butte, Montana).
Winnifred Eaton, writer (born 21 August 1875 in Montréal, QC; died 8 April 1954 in Butte, Montana). Winnifred Eaton achieved literary fame under the pseudonym Onoto Watanna and was the first person of Asian descent to publish a novel in the United States and to reach a mainstream reading audience.
Winnifred Eaton was the eighth of 14 children born to English merchant and painter Edward Eaton and his wife Grace Trefusis. Trefusis was the adopted Chinese daughter of English missionaries. Edward and Grace met in Shanghai and lived in England and the United States before moving to Montréal in 1873 or 1874. The family struggled financially, but the children were raised in a culturally and intellectually stimulating environment. Eaton was a precocious child and found that storytelling helped her cope with poverty and the difficulties of being racially different. At 14, she sold her first short story to Montréal’s Metropolitan Magazine. That was followed by the publication of several articles and stories in popular American magazines, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Harper’s Weekly. Her older sister, Edith Maude Eaton (1865–1914), was a successful journalist and may have helped her secure a position with the Canadian-owned newspaper Gall’s News Letter in Kingston, Jamaica. Besides reporting and editing news features, Eaton wrote poetry and short stories. She had been in Jamaica for less than a year when, in 1895, she moved to Chicago, where she worked as a stenographer. Two years later, she relocated again, this time to New York.
In 1897, Eaton wrote “Japanese Love Story,” which appeared in Iroquois Magazine under the name Onoto Watanna. The short story appealed to the American public’s fascination with Japan and its culture, and it received several reprints. Eaton had never been to Japan. Her knowledge of the country came from books. Her Japanese-sounding pen name had no actual meaning. In later years, Eaton said she had chosen to write about Japanese characters and use a Japanese pseudonym to distinguish her work from that of her sister Edith, who was writing novels set in China under the name Sui Sin Far. Quite likely Eaton’s decision was influenced by her awareness of American prejudices against the Chinese and the perception in the West of Japanese culture as superior to that of China. The popularity of “Japanese Love Story” led to the publication of several more Onoto Watanna stories in American magazines.
Miss Numè of Japan
In 1899, Rand McNally published Eaton’s first Onoto Watanna novel, Miss Numè of Japan. The story of interracial romance drew mixed reviews due to what was then a controversial issue. It was a ground-breaker that sold well and established a formula that won the author an international readership for such works as A Japanese Nightingale (1901 – later a Broadway play and a motion picture), The Wooing of Wisteria (1902), The Heart of Hyacinth (1903), A Japanese Blossom (1906), and Tama (1910). For publicity purposes, Eaton adopted the persona of Onoto Watanna. She posed in kimonos for photographs and told interviewers she had been born in Japan to parents of high social standing. She was inconsistent about her ethnic background, stating at various times that her father was Japanese or English, and her mother Japanese or half Japanese and half Chinese.
Back to Canada
In 1901, Eaton married Bertrand Babcock, an American journalist with whom she had three children. Babcock became abusive, and Eaton divorced him in 1915. That year she anonymously published an autobiographical novel, Me: A Book of Remembrance. In 1917, Eaton married Francis Reeve, an American businessman who had dreams of ranching in the West.
The Reeves moved to Alberta, where they lived on the 4,000 hectare Bow View Ranch, approximately 65 kilometres west of Calgary. Despite having a comfortable home, Eaton felt isolated out in the country, especially in the winter, when her children were at boarding school in Calgary. She told a friend, “I feel like an exile in Siberia.”
Finding ranch life stifling, Eaton rented a small house in Calgary, and she would go there to write. She contributed articles to the Albertan newspaper and a Calgary based weekly, Farm and Ranch Review. She became active in local theatre and was instrumental in establishing the Calgary Little Theatre Association. She was also a founding member of the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Authors Association. In 1922, Eaton published her last Japanese-themed novel, Sunny-San. The novels that followed, Cattle (1924) and His Royal Nibs (1925), are set in Alberta cattle country and were published respectively under the names Winnifred Eaton and WinifredEaton Reeve. These two novels are the most Canadian of all her work.
Eaton took occasional trips to New York, where she wrote movie scenarios for Paramount and Universal Pictures. She and Frank Reeve were separated in 1924, and she moved to Los Angeles in 1925. For the next six years, Eaton worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. Among the works she was involved in adapting to film were such novels as Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera (for which she was not credited) and Edna Ferber’s Showboat; and plays like East is West by John B. Hymer and Samuel Shipman. Eaton left Hollywood when she and Frank Reeve were reconciled in 1931.
Eaton wrote no more novels after returning to Alberta. Following the Japanese invasion of China and the bombing of Pearl Harbor during the Second World War, she expressed regret for having written about Japan and said she felt she had betrayed her Chinese heritage. She wrote plays for the Calgary Little Theatre and was president of the Canadian Authors Association. Eaton died of a heart attack while driving home to Calgary after a vacation in California.
Eaton wrote over a dozen novels and possibly more than a hundred short stories and articles. “A Half-Caste” and Other Writings (2003), is an anthology of some of her periodical work. The University of Calgary’s Reeve Theatre is named in her honour.
Diana Birchall, Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton (2001).
Brian Brennan, Rogues and Rebels: Unforgettable Characters from Canada’s West (2015).