Born c. 1940, in Fitzgerald, GA; daughter of Garbert (a cotton mill manager) and Frankye (Davis) Mayes; married William Frank King (a computer research scientist; divorced, 1988); married Ed Kleinschmidt (a creative writing professor), 1998; children: Ashley (from first marriage). Education: Attended Randolph–Macon College; earned B.A. from University of Florida; San Francisco State University, M.A., 1975.
Home—2022 Broderick St., San Francisco, CA 94115; and Cortona, Italy.
Taught English and creative writing at San Francisco State University since the late 1970s, eventually become chair of the creative writing department; freelance copywriter for cookbook publishers and newspapers; first collection of poetry, Sunday in Another Country, published by Heyeck Press, 1977; contributor of poetry to Atlantic, Carolina Quarterly, Gettysburg Review, and Southern Review, and of travel articles to the New York Times after 1988. Her memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, was made into a film by Touchstone Pictures, 2003.
Award from Academy of American Poets, 1975.
Frances Mayes was virtually unknown as a writer until her 1996 memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, went on to spend much of the remainder of the decade on the best–seller lists. The account of her renovation of an abandoned villa in the Italian countryside was even made into a 2003 feature film that starred Diane Lane. "I think people responded to a woman in her midlife taking a big risk and making a change," Mayes told WWD writer Luisa Zargani about the book's appeal. "I believe a lot of people have this dream."
Mayes was born in the early 1940s and grew up in a small Georgia town called Fitzgerald, where her father managed a family owned cotton mill. One of three daughters in her family, she was a bookworm from an early age, preferring to while away the hours perched on a tree branch in her backyard with Nancy Drew mysteries. She left Fitzgerald in 1958 to attend Randolph–Macon College in Virginia, but eventually transferred to the University of Florida to earn her undergraduate English degree. While there she met her first husband, who would go on to a career as a computer–research scientist. The couple moved to northern California in the early 1960s, and had a daughter, Ashley, in 1964.
Mayes continued her studies, eventually earning a graduate degree from San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 1975. She began teaching there, and published her first book of poetry in 1977, the prophetically titled Sunday in Another Country. Several more volumes followed, but Mayes toiled on the verge of obscurity as a poet while rising to a post as head of SFSU's creative–writing department. Collections of her verse—which included After Such Pleasures in 1979 and Hours, a 1984 tome that drew heavily upon her Southern roots—earned good reviews in the literary world, but she remained a relative unknown outside of it.
Mayes' life changed after her 1988 divorce. She had already been spending time in Italy during her summer teaching breaks, but decided to use her divorce settlement money to acquire a more permanent address there. In 1989, she found an abandoned 250–year–old villa for sale just outside of Cortona. The place was about 60 miles southeast of Florence, the Tuscan capital, and was one of many in the area that had sat crumbling for a generation and was badly in need of repair. Since the 1950s, Italians had been leaving the countryside in droves for the cities, and high taxes on such estates also made keeping the venerable ancestral homes impossible.
Mayes paid dearly for the property, Bramasole, but also knew it was far more reasonable a price than buying a vacation home somewhere on the California coast. She and her boyfriend, Ed Kleinschmidt—also an academic—began restoring it with the help of local artisans known as muratori. She also began a journal of the renovation process, which also chronicled her increasing passion for the Tuscan hills, a fertile agricultural region, and her idyllic days there.
Mayes began writing articles for the New York Times about the charms of Florence and region, and a 1992 piece on a weekly market fair became the basis for her memoir. "I just had such a good time writing the article that I started writing other chapters, other essays," she recalled in an interview with Lee Svitak Dean of the Star Tribune. The result was Under the Tuscan Sun, published by San Francisco's Chronicle Books in 1996. New York Times reviewer Alida Becker delivered one of the first mainstream press reviews. "Casual and conversational, her chapters are filled with craftsmen and cooks, with exploratory jaunts into the countryside—but what they all boil down to is an intense celebration of what she calls 'the voluptuousness of Italian life,'" Becker noted. The critic did grant that Mayes' passion for her adopted land at times "leads to the sort of gushy observations you might expect from a besotted lover. But more often it produces an appealing and very vivid snapshot imagery."
In her book, Mayes writes that her rustic house yielded many surprises that first year. Told that its water supply was excellent and dated back to a system built by the great Medici patrons in medieval times, Mayes found out otherwise during a shower just six weeks later. She was forced to pay dearly for a truckload of water to keep her supplied for the rest of their summer. Another time, prepping the dining–room walls for a paint job, they uncovered a fresco. "Every swipe reveals more: two people by a shore, water, distant hills," she writes. "The biscuit–colored houses are the same colors we see all around us." Ed concentrates on refurbishing the long–neglected garden, and Mayes devotes herself to shopping for local produce in the meantime. The Cortona market brings inspiration. At certain intervals in her book, she includes many casual recipes for such Italian delights as basil and mint sorbet and wild mushroom lasagna.
Mayes' San Francisco publisher had little marketing money to promote the book when it was first published, but it soon caught on with readers, and word of mouth helped propel it to the best–seller lists after Broadway Books released it as a trade paperback in late 1997. It remained on the New York Times bestseller lists until July of 2000, an astonishing 142–week run. Mayes' account of her new life in Italy, juxtaposed with her more hectic one back in the United States, seemed to strike a chord with readers. Italy and its pleasures have intoxicated centuries of travelers back to the pilgrim of the early Christian era. In more modern times, food, family, and enjoying life's simple pleasures—la dolce vita, or "the sweet life"—seem to be the preoccupying goal of Italians, who appear to outsiders to be a nation of impossibly fashionable and attractive people whose days revolve around spirited political arguments at outdoor cafes and long, genial evening meals. "I had a feeling it would sell," Mayes confessed to San Francisco Chronicle writer Jerry Carroll, "because I absorbed the sense of the mania people have for Italy, not only as a travel destination and a place to have a vacation, but as a lifestyle. There is a sense that the Italians are having more fun." The restorative, escapist fantasy was not lost on United States President Bill Clinton, whom reporters followed to a bookstore one day in the middle of his impeachment trial in early 1999, where he became one of the one million readers who bought a copy of Under the Tuscan Sun.
The success of Under the Tuscan Sun freed Mayes financially. "I've always been trying to squeeze writing in around the edges of teaching," she told Entertainment Weekly journalist Lisa Schwarzbaum. "Now I just have the responsibility of being a writer, which is what everyone in my department dreams of, to write their way out of that horrible job." There had been some professional derision, Mayes granted, that after so many years contributing poetry to small literary journals that she then earned a mint out of a combination travelogue/home–restoration diary complete with recipes for polenta and gelato. "Sometimes my colleagues have been a little weird about this, and I've been shocked, because I expected all my friends and associates to be thrilled for me," she told Schwarzbaum. "One of my colleagues referred to my book as 'your little food book.'"
Mayes wrote a sequel, Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy, that takes up where her first memoir ended: she and Ed finish the house, plant a garden, and begin to use Bramasole as a base to explore Tuscany and Italian treasures elsewhere. The pair, who had married by then, collaborated on the lavishly illustrated In Tuscany in 2000, a coffee–table–style work that prompted some book reviewers to declare that perhaps Mayes had finally exhausted her subject matter.
In 1987, she wrote The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, and started a novel she had begun some years earlier but then misplaced. Mayes rewrote the first 50 pages of the novel, called Swan, which was published by Broadway in 2002. She had always wanted to tackle the form, but was stymied by the necessity of devising a credible plot. Then, she explained to Atlanta Journal–Constitution writer Bob Longino, she realized she could build a story around the "things that always obsessed me about the South and growing up there. Unlike other parts of the country, the actions of your ancestors play out on you in a pretty direct way. I think in the South there has always been that sense that your dead grandmother might walk into the room at any minute."
Swan is set in a small Georgia town of same name—not coincidentally also the earlier name of her Fitzgerald birthplace—and centers on a grown brother and sister, J.J. and Ginger, whose mother committed suicide nearly two decades before. Ginger, an archaeologist, has been living in Italy for many years, but returns home when their mother's body is found illegally exhumed. The plot reaches back into possible skeletons in the family closet, and is helped along by a number of memorable side characters drawn from townsfolk and extended family members. "Mayes pulls off the drama while eschewing melodrama, imbuing the book with a strong core," asserted Houston Chronicle writer Melanie Danburg.
Mayes' Tuscan reveries were revived for the big screen when the film version of Under the Tuscan Sun was released in 2003. Diane Lane played the Mayes character, but director Audrey Wells, who had adapted the book for the screen, changed some elements of the story. The steady Ed vanished, and instead she finds romance with an Italian man. "I didn't mind the changes at all, I actually expected them," Mayes told WWD's Zargani just before the film was released in United States theaters. "The spirit of the book is there, it's the same as the film's."
Mayes still lives in Bramasole, and because of her books Cortona became a thriving tourist destination. The city began hosting a Tuscan Sun Festival, and even made Mayes an honorary citizen. The occasion required her to deliver a ten–minute speech in Italian, which she claimed was the "the scariest thing I have ever done apart from having a baby," she told Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly. Her love of Italy remains strong, despite her still–shaky language abilities, and often in her books she has compared the welcome she received in her new homeland to the famous Southern hospitality with which she was raised. "They have this warmth and gift for friendship that just constantly amazes us," she told Dean in the Star Tribune interview. "They are the most giving people. Surely that's a gross generalization. I'm sure there are some horrid Italians, but we've never met them."
Mayes was tapped as a consulting designer for the "Tuscan Home" line of furniture by Drexel–Heritage, and was working on another nonfiction book, Tuscan Home, slated for 2004 publication. She and Ed—who took her last name when they wed in 1998—also acquired another property in Tuscany. This one might prove even more challenging: 900 years old, it was built by hermits and sits perched on a mountainside. Back at Bramasole, travelers still stop on the road to get a view at her beloved, immortalized home. "I've heard them say it's even more beautiful than they thought," she told People writer Peter Ames Carlin. "But I also heard someone on the road say, 'Is that it? Why don't they fix it up?'"
Sunday in Another Country (poetry), Heyeck Press (Woodside, CA), 1977.
Climbing Aconcagua (poetry), Seven Woods Press (New York, NY), 1977.
After Such Pleasures (poetry), Seven Woods Press, 1979.
The Arts of Fire (poetry), Heyeck Press, 1982.
Hours (poetry), Lost Roads Publishers (Providence, RI), 1984.
The Discovery of Poetry, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1987.
Ex Voto (poetry), Lost Roads Publishers, 1995.
Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (memoir), Chronicle Books, 1996.
Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy, Broadway Books, 1999.
(Coauthor) In Tuscany, Broadway Books, 2000.
Swan (novel), Broadway, 2002.
(Editor) The Best American Travel Writing 2002, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Mayes, Frances, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, Chronicle Books, 1996.
Atlanta Journal–Constitution, October 10, 2002, p. F1.
Booklist, November 15, 2000, p. 594.
Entertainment Weekly, April 16, 1999, p. 32; December 8, 2000, p. 85.
Houston Chronicle, October 20, 2002, p. 23.
Library Journal, September 1, 2003, p. 236.
New York Times, November 17, 1996; September 26, 2003, p. E15.
People, August 23, 1999, p. 154.
Publishers Weekly, August 26, 2002, p. 57.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 1997, p. E1.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), November 7, 2001, p. 1E; November 8, 2001, p. 6T.
WWD, August 29, 2003, p. 4.
"Frances Mayes," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.