by Elihu Blotnick
November 8, 2012
At 82, Merla Zellerbach has been reborn as a mystery writer. Her earlier novels paint psychological portraits. The Hallie Marsh Mystery Series, however, reflects the Bay Area author’s present concern: the injustices of death.
“I’m just getting started; I feel fit and fabulous. I can never lie about my age,” she says with a laugh. “I was born here, educated here and still see too many of my old school chums from Stanford.”
Zellerbach’s Marsh—the heroine of three novels so far—becomes an accidental detective after breast cancer changes the course of her life. Surrounded by medical expertise and malfeasance, she evolves novel by novel, as the mystery within begins to reflect the mystery without. Zellerbach, ’52, writes with wry wit and a breezy style. She sets her plots in the Bay Area and keeps the reader absorbed with recognizable character types and local color.
Mystery of the Mermaid, The Missing Mother and Love to Die For appeared to warm trade reviews, with Publishers Weekly comparing the series to the early works of Mary Higgins Clark. A fourth book, Dying to Dance, will be out later this year.
Zellerbach has a full past with a wealth of material to draw on. At the center of San Francisco’s social swirl for 12 years as editor of the Nob Hill Gazette, a lifestyle and philanthropy magazine, she’s well acquainted with life at the top. An active contributor of time and money to charitable causes, she’s passionate about health and euthanasia issues. She counts Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ’55, among her close friends. During the late ’60s, Zellerbach was a panelist (with actress June Lockhart) on ABC-TV’s game show Oh, My Word! She wrote the San Francisco Chronicle column “My Fair City” from 1962 to 1985.
The daughter of a conservative rabbi, Zellerbach (née Burstein) considers herself “an agnostic who believes in God.” At the end of her sophomore year at Stanford, where she studied psychology, she married Stephen Zellerbach, whose family business was the Zellerbach Paper Company (later Crown-Zellerbach). They had one son, Gary, and a friendly divorce after 18 years.
Zellerbach relates how her first book, Love in a Dark House, came about. “We had a psychiatrist living next door,” she remembers. “He and I used to take walks together. I’d pour out all my woes, he’d offer insights, and I’d come home and type them up.
“One night at a dinner party, I sat next to a Doubleday editor, mentioned my notes, and he asked to see them. I said I wasn’t a novelist, but he persisted until I sent them. He read them and agreed that I wasn’t a novelist, but ‘had promise.’” With his editorial help, Doubleday published the novel about a socialite who seeks purpose in 1961. In 1968, Zellerbach wed CBS newsman Fred Goerner, author of the bestseller The Search for Amelia Earhart.
Zellerbach’s allergy problems inspired her to write five books on that subject, followed by four novels for Ballantine. In 1990, Rittenhouse Square (Random House) landed her on the Recommended Reading list of the New York Times.
Personal experience also led the way to her latest genre. “I saw my beloved father die a terrible death from pancreatic cancer,” Zellerbach explains, “and I also saw my late husband Fred die pain-free and peacefully, with physician help. After those two experiences, I began delving into the mysteries of life and death.”
Her culprits always get their just deserts, but her “main concern is with the needless suffering of those who don’t know they have choices, don’t want to know for religious or other reasons, or who don’t have access to aid in dying.”
Zellerbach is deeply involved with Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit organization that supports the right of individuals to make end-of-life decisions. “We believe that terminally ill, mentally competent adults in serious pain should have the right to doctor-prescribed life-ending sedation if they want it.” She recalls Sen. Feinstein warning her about her passion for merciful death. “She wanted to be sure I didn’t do anything illegal. I assured her that there are two lawyers and two MDs on the board I joined, and everything is strictly by the book.”
In 2010, C&C gave Zellerbach its Hugh Gallagher Award “with great appreciation for her courage and dedication to choice and human liberty at the end of life.”
How does she explain all those romances in her books? “Hard-core mystery buffs and purists of the genre want me to choose between romance and mystery. But then I would ask: What is death without life? And what is life or death without love?”