Cid Ricketts Sumner became widely known in the mid-twentieth century as a novelist whose works were the basis for several popular films. Born Bertha Louise Ricketts in Brookhaven, Mississippi, on 27 September 1890, she quickly acquired the nickname Cid from her parents, Robert Scott Ricketts and Bertha Burnley Ricketts. Homeschooled by her mother and grandmother for much of her early education, she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1909 from Millsaps College in Jackson, where her father taught.
Ricketts received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1910, spent another year there doing postgraduate study, and then enrolled as a medical student at Cornell University in 1914. On 20 July 1915 she married one of her professors, James Batcheller Sumner. Cid Sumner dropped out of school and subsequently focused on raising the couple’s four children until they were old enough to attend school, when she began writing. After her 1930 divorce, she taught high school English in Jackson and French at Millsaps College. She then moved back north, spending much of the remainder of her life in New York and Massachusetts but frequently visiting family and friends in Mississippi.
Sumner published her first novel, Ann Singleton, in 1938 but did not capture the public’s attention until her second novel, Quality (1946), a propagandist work opposing segregation. The work, which was excerpted in Ladies’ Home Journal in December 1945, focuses on a young, fair-skinned black woman who moves north, passes for white while attending nursing school, and falls in love with a white doctor. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People criticized the “Uncle Tom” tone of the book, leading Elia Kazan to work with representatives of the organization when he adapted the novel for film under the title Pinky in 1949.
Often referred to as one of Hollywood’s first interracial films, Pinky starred a white woman, Jeanne Crain, in the title role. Her Academy Award nomination for best actress was one of three the film received. Kazan settled on a melodramatic conclusion for the film, with Pinky leaving behind the doctor and her career and returning to her family and roots as a black woman in the South. As several critics predicted, Pinky was highly controversial, and some southern theaters refused to show it, but it became one of the year’s top-grossing films.
In 1948 Sumner published Tammy out of Time, which became the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor starring Debbie Reynolds. Its success led to other Tammy novels—Tammy, Tell Me True (1959) and Tammy in Rome (1965)—as well as two Tammy films starring Sandra Dee: Tammy, Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy and the Doctor (1963). A short-lived 1965 television series loosely based on Sumner’s Tammy was edited into Tammy and the Millionaire (1967), starring Debbie Watson.
In addition to Ann Singleton, Quality, and the Tammy stories, Sumner published eight other novels—But the Morning Will Come (1949), Sudden Glory (1951), The Hornbeam Tree (1953), Traveler in the Wilderness (1957), View from the Hill (1957), Christmas Gift (1959), Withdraw Thy Foot (1964), and Saddle Your Dreams (1964)—as well as a number of short stories. Sumner also wrote several nonfiction works, mostly based on her travels, including such adventures as floating down the Green and Colorado Rivers, taking freighters, and riding horseback through Europe.
Sumner spent her last years in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where she was beaten to death on 15 October 1970, apparently by her sixteen-year-old grandson, John R. Cutler. Ironically, Sumner’s only mystery, Withdraw Thy Foot, focused on a brutal murder on the Massachusetts coast with the investigation led by a female schoolteacher.
- New York Times (16 October 1970)
- Richard J. Schrader, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 291 (2004)
- John W. Wilson, College English (March 1949)