Obituary: Sue Margolis

Mrs Marvellous - the teacher who became a romantic-comic novelist


The BBC reporter-turned novelist and sometime JC columnist Sue Margolis, who has died aged 62, always enjoyed, especially in Jewish company, casually mentioning her father’s job. Donald Wener, an East Ham boy who had spent the war in the RAF, joined the civil service after demob. So far so good, but as my wife Sue delighted in adding, her dad’s wasn’t just any civil service position. This was with the Inland Revenue. As an Inspector of Taxes.

It was a room-emptying line at weddings and barmitzvahs, and Sue was entertained almost from childhood by its shock value. Iconoclasm was her stock-in-trade as a novelist. But like other jaw-drop lines, it would be said or written mischievously rather than in any way maliciously. She was a huge, outspoken character, but vastly kind-hearted. The characters in her 14 romantic comedy novels, all set in north and east London Jewish society, would swear, joke and copulate their way through the pages, but there was a rich thread of warmth and affection, exactly the same as the off-page Sue.

She and I met at a Habonim meeting in her parents’ lounge in Clayhall, Ilford, during a power cut in the 1972 winter of discontent. She was laughing so much at something that, while I could barely see her in the candlelight, the first thing I ever heard her say was: “Oh my gawd, I think I’ve wet myself.” The vibe I was getting from my spot cross legged on the floor was that this was a pretty normal Susan Wener thing, and I was taken. I had come for earnest discussion on kibbutz life and socialist Zionism and got instead a soul mate and partner I would be with for 45 years.

In the subsequent months we would tell each other our deepest secrets, like any teenage couple. Her biggest, confided to me nervously while sitting on the wall of the Clayhall telephone exchange on Woodford Avenue, was that her mother was a convert from Methodism, so she wasn’t “properly” Jewish. Neither I nor my mother (my father was dead) could have cared less, although the tax inspector issue troubled my mum, whose own mother had been taken apart by the Inland Revenue years before. 

After grammar school she read Politics at Nottingham University, as I did. We were filling out UCCA forms within weeks of meeting (first date: to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Odeon Leicester Square) and I was slightly alarmed to discover she had applied for the same courses as I had. Pulling it off, and both getting the requisite offers and grades was quite the project during the summer of 1973, but we were equally delighted when we started uni, a little weirdly, as a couple.

Sue’s aim was to be a teacher,mine to be a journalist. My graduate traineeship would be in Leeds, where we moved in 1977. Sue did a postgrad teaching course and was a fantastic teacher, called Mrs Marvellous by the kids at the C of E junior school in Headingley, where she trained. But there were no jobs for teachers in Leeds, so she got pregnant with our first, Ruth, now a mum and BBC journalist in New York. She also taught herself to be a BBC freelance reporter, and became Radio 4 Woman’s Hour’s Yorkshire correspondent.

She stayed with the programme after we moved to London, and was still turning out feature packages for them 12 years down the line, when we had two more children — David, now in the film industry, and Eleanor, the New Statesman and Guardian writer. 

But comedy — specifically outrageous, sexually loaded comedy — was where she really wanted to be, and in 1996, after realising that a year’s hard work with the BBC had earned her £3,800, she sat down and wrote her first novel, Neurotica. Agent Vivienne Schuster sold it to Headline Publishing, but while there was a lot of noise and publicity around its launch in 1998, sales were only OK. It seemed that Jewish sex comedy didn’t quite resonate with British book buyers, and it was only in the US where Sue Margolis took off — her last 12 books, though still set in Ilford, Finchley and Hampstead — were only published in the States and half a million sales on, she retains more fans in Tennessee than even in north London. Neurotica almost became a film after Bette Midler bought the rights (still available!) and her novel Apocalipstick was close but not quite yet a US TV series, to be set, bizarrely, in St Louis, Missouri. Sue objected to her work being categorised as “chick lit” , critics have observed that her writing. was too unusually sharp and precise for the genre.

In January of this year Sue, a lifetime non-smoker, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and, in spite of rallying early on an immunotherapy trial, grew worse through the summer and died on November 1. She was already working on her first serious novel, Kristal, set in Berlin around Kristalnacht.

Sue is survived by me, by her mother, Audrey, now 91, by her sister Louise (famous as the singer in the 1990s Britpop band Sleeper), her brother Geoff, who was Sleeper’s manager and remains in the music business, by Ruth, David and Ellie and our all-American grandchildren, Dalia and Ezra, aged four and two.

Jonathan Margolis

Susan Linda Margolis: born  January 5, 1955. Died November 1, 2017

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