Writing a new chapter in author’s forgotten life story

She wrote 60 bestsellers, acted in the West End and was part of the sufragette, movement, so why asks Sarah Freeman does no one remember Ripon’s Naomi Jacob?

Naomi Jacob was a writer, actress, political campaigner, but her story has long been forgotten.
Naomi Jacob was a writer, actress, political campaigner, but her story has long been forgotten.

Ask most people to run through Yorkshire’s literary greats and the list will almost certainly include the Brontë sisters and Alan Bennett. Some will also remember that Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield and a few might drag the name of Winifred Holtby from their memory banks. It’s a safe bet, that none would mention Naomi Jacob.

Which is odd, not only because by the time of her death in 1964 had the Ripon writer penned 60 novels, but she’d also led a life arguably more colourful than any of her characters. An actress as well as a writer, she once shared a stage with John Gielgud and was friends of Lawrence Olivier and Sarah Bernhardt. During the First World War she ran a munitions factory, actively campaigned for the suffragette movement and with her own grandfather a Jewish tailor who escaped the pogroms of Western Prussia she spent much of her life supporting refugees. If that wasn’t enough, in 1935 she turned down the Eichelberger International Humane Award for outstanding achievement in the field of human endeavour after discovering Adolf Hitler had been a previous recipient.

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“Yes, it was quite a life,” says her great, great nephew Thomas Atcheson, who along with other members of Jacob’s family are determined to rebuild her reputation and her profile.“Today is the 50th anniversary of her death and it seems right that her story is more widely known.

“When she was just a teenager her parent’s marriage broke up. Her mother and sister went to America, but Naomi left Ripon and enrolled at a teacher training college in Middlesbrough. She didn’t exactly fit in. Those in charge didn’t approve of her attempts to make education entertaining and the fact she was a woman who wore trousers caused a bit of a stir.”

It was an open secret that Jacob was gay and her affair with music hall star Marguerite Broadfoote was well-known in theatre circles. Accurately described as a force of nature, during the Second World War she joined the Entertainments National Service Association and became well known for her flamboyant appearance.

“By this stage Naomi had a crew cut and took to wearing a monocle and a Women’s Legion uniform from the First World War,” says Thomas. “She was definitely her own woman. Early on, while teaching in the slums of Middlesbrough she contracted tuberculosis. It was one of the reasons why she spent most of her life in Italy where the warm air was better for her lungs, but she never forgot her roots.

“While she had been brought up in the Church of England and coverted to Roman Catholicism as a young woman, she remained fiercely proud of her Jewish heritage. So much so, that she went back to Italy when the country was still under German occupation. When asked to bring her papers to the town hall she marched in and demanded that as a daughter of a Jew, they mark her papers as such.

“The embarrassed town official ordered her to leave without a ‘J’ being stamped on her documents.”

For years out of print, now a selection of Jacob’s novels - mostly romantic fiction - have been made available to download. Thomas, who lives in Leeds, admits they aren’t the polished works they might have been had she ever bothered to do a second draft, but it is an important step in remembering his great great aunt.

“Tiggy Walker, the wife of DJ Johnny Walker is also developing a film of one of her novels,” he says. “It might not come off, but it would be a great tribute to Naomi if it did. In the Unicorn Hotel in Ripon, which was once owned by her grandfather, twice mayor of the town, there is a photograph of Naomi inItaly, but it’s quite sad to think that aside for a small number of people no one knows who she was.”

To download Naomi Jacob’s novels go to www.greatstorieswithheart.com