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Shirley Conran, Author Best Known for the Steamy ‘Lace,’ Dies at 91

Shirley Conran, the industrious and proliferous British author whose 1982 novel, “Lace,” was a tale of female autonomy disguised as a bonkbuster (to use the British term for a steamy best seller) that made her a millionaire and introduced the lowly goldfish into the erotic canon, died on May 9 in London. She was 91.

The cause of her death, in a hospital, was pneumonia, her son Jasper Conran said.

Ms. Conran was already a household name in England when she set out to write a sex guide for schoolgirls, but ended up writing the potboiler that was “Lace.” In 1968, she was the founding editor of Femail, The Daily Mail’s popular and revolutionary women’s section; when it was launched, a photograph of her face, with a rose between her teeth, was plastered on billboards throughout London.

She was also the author of “Superwoman,” a witty and proudly feminist primer on household management. Its premise, still novel in 1975, was that domestic skills are not tied to gender, and that women can learn to fix a dripping faucet just as easily as men and children can learn to shop for groceries and wash their own clothes. The title was ironic, Ms. Conran wrote: “A Superwoman isn’t a woman who can do anything, but a woman who avoids doing too much.”

Her mantra, “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom,” became a feminist rallying cry, finding its way onto matchbooks, dish towels and throw pillows.

Yet the book, her first British best seller, was comprehensive and encyclopedic, ranging from meal planning to financial literacy and fuel conservation. It was based on Ms. Conran’s own hard-won experience.

In 1962, when she divorced her husband, Terence Conran, the lifestyle mogul who taught a generation of Britons to appreciate modern design — and for whom she worked as a textile designer — he gave her four weeks’ pay and no divorce settlement. The couple had lived grandly, despite Mr. Conran’s spartan, Scandinavian aesthetic, in a fully staffed townhouse. When Ms. Conran moved out, she had to fill the gaps in her own education — economic, domestic and mechanical — while teaching her two young sons, Jasper and his older brother, Sebastian, to pull their weight at home.

Then she tackled sex. As a women’s editor, and as a child of the ’40s, she knew that many women were mystified by their own bodies and dismissive of their own pleasure. Men, she reckoned, were even worse; she liked to say that most of them still thought a clitoris was a Greek hotel. When she began her research by diving with characteristic zeal into sex manuals, she lectured her elder son, to his horror, on the mechanics of the female anatomy in forensic detail. When she interviewed female sexologists, she was stunned that a few seemed as woefully dim as some men.

“The ignorance was so abysmal,” she told The Observer in 2012, when “Lace” turned 30. “I spent 18 months researching it. But then I got so bored I thought I might as well have a go at writing a novel. So ‘Lace’ is really intensely researched sexual information dressed up as a novel.”

“Lace” is the story of four young women who meet at a finishing school in Switzerland, one of whom gets pregnant, and a porn star turned Hollywood celebrity who is the child she gave up for adoption. “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?” is the book’s memorable salvo.

There are sexy bits — notably a goldfish that swims where no fish has likely ever swum before — in its 600-plus pages, but there are more words devoted to the women’s careers, their friendships and the superfluity of the men in their lives. One character’s domineering husband — a designer who will eat only from plain white china and drink from perfectly proportioned glasses, and who turns out to be a cross-dresser with terrible taste in clothes and makeup — is clearly a stand-in for Ms. Conran’s ex.

Ms. Conran sold the book for a reported $1 million to Simon & Schuster, and Michael Korda, her editor, set out to teach her how to write a best-selling novel. She moved into an office next to his, “doggedly rewriting in a tiny hand,” as he put it in his memoir, “Another Life: A Memoir of Other People” (1999), covering the walls with plotlines and chronologies in different color ink and “driving a succession of typists mad.”

“Few writers have taken to criticism with more cheer and harder work than she did,” Mr. Korda wrote, “and we soon became friends. Her determination was something of a force of nature and was, in its own way, infectious.”

“Lace” was promoted to the hilt — some publishing industry types called it the “Mommy, Who?” book — not just in bookstores but also in clothing shops in Beverly Hills, and with giveaways like lace garters embroidered with the book’s title in gold. It was panned by critics: “It is a work of such transparent and exquisite cynicism that its triumphant march to the upper reaches of the best-seller lists seems divinely ordained,” Jonathan Yardley wrote in The Washington Post. But it fulfilled its promise, and Mr. Yardley’s prediction, selling many millions of copies (teenagers passed the book around like contraband, and inspiring a mini-series starring Phoebe Cates (critics panned that, too) and a sequel, “Lace II” (1985).

The much-ballyhooed goldfish adventure, according to Sebastian Conran, came from his father, but not because he had lived it. He had heard about the practice while on a business trip to Scandinavia and passed the tale along to Ms. Conran, though the original anecdote apparently involved a stickleback.

“Both my parents self-perpetuated mythologies,” Sebastian Conran said. “But there’s likely a kernel of truth behind every story.”

Shirley Ida Pearce was born on Sept. 21, 1932, in London, the eldest of six children. Her father, Thirlby, was a master mariner who became a dry cleaning magnate. He was also an alcoholic who abused and terrified his family, while her mother, Ida (Wakelin) Pearce, tried to keep the peace. Shirley learned to mute her personality to stay out of his way.

She attended the St. Paul’s Girls’ School in West London, where she was taught, she told The Independent, “by a generation of women who’d lost their fiancés in the first World War and were quietly feminist,” and then a finishing school in Switzerland.

When she returned to England, her father threw her out of the house in an alcoholic rage. She worked as a model in London, which paid for art school classes. She met Mr. Conran while waitressing in his soup-and-salad bar, the Soup Kitchen. They married in 1955, and she went to work for his company, Conran Design Group. “He had a sense of mission,” she said. “I was head acolyte.”

But Mr. Conran was chronically unfaithful, and Ms. Conran caught him out by giving a bar of Roger & Gallet carnation-scented soap as a Christmas present to the woman she suspected he was having an affair with at the time. When he came home smelling of the stuff, she left.

Ms. Conran wrote five more potboilers after “Lace,” but none proved to be as popular. “Savages” (1987) was about a group of women who are left to fend for themselves on a deserted tropical island after their husbands are executed by a dictator. With typical enthusiasm, Ms. Conran threw herself into researching survival skills.

“It wasn’t the reviewers who killed the book,” Mr. Korda, her editor, wrote. “The problem was that Shirley’s readers evidently didn’t want to read about women eating raw fish or building a raft or learning to kill with their bare hands.”

After her midlife windfall — during which time she bought, and sold, an apartment in Manhattan and an 11th-century castle near Cannes, France — Ms. Conran devoted herself to founding organizations promoting work-life balance, financial literacy and math skills. She was made a dame, the female equivalent of a knight, in Britain in 2023 for her services to mathematics education.

In addition to her sons, Ms. Conran is survived by two grandchildren and her siblings, Isabel Carr and Richard Pearce. Two brief marriages, to John Stephenson and Kevin O’Sullivan, ended in divorce. Mr. Conran died in 2020.

As Ms. Conran said, “A woman has to be her own Prince Charming.”

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