Gabrielle Burton, a feminist novelist, memoirist and screenwriter who considered conventional marriage lopsided but identified with the pioneering Donner Party wife who perished protecting her husband, died on Sept. 3 at her home in Venice, Calif. She was 76.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, her daughter Jennifer said.
In 1972, Ms. Burton wrote “I’m Running Away From Home, but I’m Not Allowed to Cross the Street: A Primer of Women’s Liberation,” which National Journal magazine said “radiates good sense.”
Her “Heartbreak Hotel,” published in 1986, about seven women sharing a house, won the Maxwell Perkins Prize for outstanding first novel.
And “Manna From Heaven,” a film she wrote starring Shirley Jones and Cloris Leachman about an eccentric family that receives a financial windfall, was produced by her five daughters (and directed by two of them) in 2002, when she was 64. (Reviewing it in The New York Times, Dave Kehr called it “refreshingly sincere, gentle and good-natured.”)
But she was perhaps best known as the self-identified alter ego of Tamsen Donner, whose husband, George, led California-bound migrants by wagon train into the Sierra Nevada, where they became trapped by early snowfalls in the winter of 1846-47.
Tamsen Donner sent their five daughters off to safety with rescuers. Some of the rest of the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism to survive. Rescuers found George’s body the following April, and Tamsen had apparently remained with him until the end before dying herself. Her body was never recovered.
In 2009, after 27 years of research and rumination, Ms. Burton published “Searching for Tamsen Donner,” which she described as “part memoir, part historical re-creation” of the Donner chapter. She followed that with “Impatient With Desire” (2010), a fictionalized version of Tamsen Donner’s missing journal.
“In the early days of the women’s movements, I felt that we — my ‘sisters,’ my family and I — were pioneers, searching for new ways to work and love,” she said in 2009 in an interview for the author Frances Dinkelspiel’s blog.
“The common representation of Tamsen as a ‘heroine,’ because she stayed with her husband until death did they part at the cost of her own life, rankled me and scared me because I was afraid that an authentic part of me, my writing, might be sacrificed to marriage and motherhood.”
Sacrifice might come through emotional cannibalism, too, Ms. Burton suggested in an interview with NPR in 2010.
“The nicest husbands and children,” she said, “will eat you up alive if you offer yourself on the plate, and they’ll ask for seconds.”
That warning dovetailed with how she once described marriage: “A man loves a woman so much, he asks her to marry — to change her name, quit her job, have and raise his babies, be home when he gets there, move where his job is. You can hardly imagine what he might ask if he didn’t love her.”
Gabrielle Diane Bridget Baker was born in Lansing, Mich., on Feb. 21, 1939, to Clifford Baker, an insurance executive, and the former Helen Dailey.
She received a bachelor’s degree from Marygrove College in Detroit and a master’s from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in 1995.
In addition to her daughter Jennifer, she is survived by her husband, Dr. Roger V. Burton; four other daughters, Maria, Ursula, Gabrielle and Charity; eight grandchildren; and a brother, Terry Baker.
According to her website, she had recently finished a book about aging called “Don’t Sit Down Yet.” She said the title had been inspired by adult African elephants, who only sit down when they are ready to die.
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