Frances Parkinson Keyes (1885–1970)


Frances Parkinson Keyes was a prolific journalist, editor, memoirist, and biographer, but was most well known as a bestselling novelist. Problematic for some critics because of her popular and accessible prose, Keyes captivated fiction readers from the 1940s well into the 1960s, writing about politics, murder, religion, and life in the South. Today, however, few of her novels remain in print.

Frances Parkinson Wheeler was born on July 21, 1885, in Charlottesville, where her father, John Henry Wheeler, was the chairman of the Greek department at the University of Virginia. After her father’s death, her mother, Louise Fuller Johnson Wheeler, remarried and moved the family to New England, where Keyes split her time between Boston, Massachusetts, and Newbury, Vermont. She was educated privately in Boston, Geneva, Switzerland, and Berlin, Germany, and traveled widely throughout Europe. On June 8, 1904, at the age of eighteen, she married Henry Wilder Keyes (which rhymes with “prize”), and the couple lived on Henry’s family estate, Pine Grove Farm, near Haverhill, New Hampshire. The couple had three sons: Henry, John, and Francis.

Her husband Henry Keyes was involved in politics, serving in the New Hampshire House of Representatives (1891–1895 and 1915–1917), State Senate (1903–1905), and later as governor (1917–1919). The couple moved to Washington, D.C., when Henry was elected to the United States Senate, where he served from 1919 to 1937. After her husband’s death in 1938, Frances Keyes spent time traveling in Europe and the United States before eventually settling in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Keyes’s professional career as a writer began with the publication of her first novel, Old Gray Homestead, in 1919. During the 1920s, she wrote the series “Letters from a Senator’s Wife,” for Good Housekeeping (where she served as a contributing editor from 1923 until 1935), which were later published in book form. Keyes also wrote about her experiences as a political wife in two memoirs, Capital Kaleidoscope: The Story of a Washington Hostess (1937) and All Flags Flying (published posthumously in 1972), as well as a novel, All That Glitters (1941).

The author of more than fifty novels, Keyes demonstrated versatility in her settings and subject matter, reflecting the varied geographies of her childhood and early adult life. The River Road (1945), Came a Cavalier (1947), and Dinner at Antoine’s (1948) each sold more than one million copies. Dinner at Antoine’s, a murder mystery surrounding the iconic New Orleans restaurant, was her most well-known work. In addition to its popular acclaim, Keyes’s fiction was distinguished by her immersion in cultural and geographical background research. She repeatedly moved to and sometimes purchased property in the regions where she set her novels. For example, the Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard, a native of Louisiana, appears in many of her Louisiana novels, and during the last decades of her life, Keyes purchased and lived in the former Beauregard home in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Today the Beauregard-Keyes House hosts an extensive collection of Keyes’s work, memorabilia, and correspondence.

Toward the end of her career, Keyes expanded her writing interests, editing a poetry anthology and writing short stories, as well as penning inspirational holiday volumes. Keyes converted to Catholicism after her husband’s death, and this experience fueled much of her writing on religious subjects, both fiction and nonfiction. The University of Virginia Special Collections Library holds papers and manuscripts relevant to Keyes’s books on religion and Christian missions, as well as manuscript copies of her novels and correspondence about research for Steamboat Gothic, for which she employed two University of Virginia students.

Frances Parkinson Keyes died on July 3, 1970, at her home in New Orleans. She is buried at The Oxbow, a home built by her great-grandfather in Newbury, Vermont.

Major Works

  • The Old Gray Homestead (1919, published as Sylvia Cary, 1962)
  • The Career of David Noble (1921)
  • Letters from a Senator’s Wife (1924)
  • Queen Anne’s Lace (1930)
  • Silver Seas and Golden Cities: A Joyous Journey through Latin Lands (1931, published as Silver Seas and Golden Cities, 1964)
  • Lady Blanche Farm: A Romance of the Commonplace (1931)
  • Senator Marlowe’s Daughter (1933)
  • The Safe Bridge (1934)
  • The Happy Wanderer (1935)
  • Honor Bright (1936)
  • Capital Kaleidoscope: The Story of a Washington Hostess (1937)
  • Written in Heaven: The Life on Earth of the Little Flower of Lisieux (1937, revised edition published as Therese, Saint of a Little Way, 1950)
  • Pioneering People in Northern New England (1937)
  • Parts Unknown (1938)
  • The Great Tradition (1939)
  • Along a Little Way (1940)
  • Bernadette, Maid of Lourdes (1940, revised edition published as Bernadette of Lourdes: Shepherdess, Sister and Saint, 1953)
  • Fielding’s Folly (1940)
  • The Grace of Guadalupe (1941)
  • All That Glitters (1941)
  • Crescent Carnival (1942)
  • Also the Hills (1943)
  • The River Road (1945)
  • Once on Esplanade: A Cycle between Two Creole Weddings (1947)
  • Came a Cavalier (1947)
  • Dinner at Antoine’s (1948)
  • Joy Street (1950)
  • All This Is Louisiana (1950)
  • The Cost of a Best Seller (1950)
  • Steamboat Gothic (1952)
  • The Royal Box (1954)
  • The Frances Parkinson Keyes Cookbook (1955)
  • St. Anne: Grandmother of Our Saviour (1955)
  • Blue Camellia (1957)
  • The Land of Stones and Saints (1957)
  • Guadalupe to Lourdes (1957)
  • Victorine (1958)
  • Station Wagon in Spain (1959)
  • Christmas Gift (1959)
  • Missionary to the World (1959)
  • Roses in December (1960)
  • The Chess Players (1960)
  • The Rose and the Lily: The Lives and Times of Two South American Saints (1961)
  • Madame Castel’s Lodger (1962)
  • The Restless Lady, and Other Stories (1963)
  • Three Ways of Love (1963)
  • The Explorer (1964)
  • Saint Catherine of Siena (1965)
  • I, the King (1966)
  • Tongues of Fire (1966)
  • The Heritage (1968)
  • All Flags Flying (1972)

July 21, 1885
Frances Parkinson Keyes is born in Charlottesville.
June 8, 1904
At the age of eighteen, Frances Parkinson Wheeler marries Henry Wilder Keyes.
Frances Parkinson Keyes moves to Washington, D.C., with her family when her husband Henry is elected to the U.S. Senate, where he serves from 1919 to 1937.
Frances Parkinson Keyes's first novel, Old Gray Homestead, is published.
Frances Parkinson Keyes serves as contributing editor for Good Housekeeping.
U.S. Senator Henry Wilder Keyes dies.
Frances Parkinson Keyes converts to Catholicism.
July 3, 1970
Frances Parkinson Keyes dies at her home in New Orleans.
  • Kirkus, Virginia. “The Value of a Best Seller: An Appraisal of Frances Parkinson Keyes.” The English Journal 40:6 (1951, June): 303–307.
  • Frances Parkinson Keyes Papers, 1952–1963. Accession #3923, 3923-a, 3923-a, 5983, 7018. University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.
  • John Wheeler Papers, 1882–87. Accession #6945. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
  • Pendleton, Hogan. Lunch With Mrs. Keyes: A Short Biography of Frances Parkinson Keyes. New Orleans: Keyes Foundation/Beauregard-Keyes House, 1989.
APA Citation:
Buck, Carrie. Frances Parkinson Keyes (1885–1970). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/keyes-frances-parkinson-1885-1970.
MLA Citation:
Buck, Carrie. "Frances Parkinson Keyes (1885–1970)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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