In 1936 Rosemary Rees described herself, with a mixture of pride and self-deprecation, as 'the "best selling’’ New Zealand author'. This claim may have been debatable, but there was no questioning her international reputation as a romance novelist. In addition, she could look back on a colourful career as an actress, theatre producer and playwright.
Born in 1875 or 1876 at Auckland, she was the youngest of seven children of Hannah (Annie) Elizabeth Staite and her husband, William Lee Rees, lawyer and Liberal politician. In 1879 the family moved to Gisborne. Rosemary probably received early instruction from her sister, Lily, then attended school in Auckland and enrolled at the university college.
Although clever, Rosemary Rees was not especially studious. She was, however, determined to pursue a career. 'Since I was old enough to speak', she later recalled, 'my sole and fervent ambition was to act’. She eventually wore down parental opposition and around 1900 went to London, where she joined the company of comedienne Fanny Brough. Subsequently she obtained roles with touring repertory companies. She also wrote short stories for London journals, and several one-act plays that were staged as curtain-raisers.
After the outbreak of the First World War, Rees volunteered to arrange concerts and entertainments for New Zealand troops in London. In early 1918 she was persuaded to take charge of a concert party going to Rouen, and for 14 months she organised theatrical performances for Allied forces in France.
In late 1919 she returned to New Zealand for a much-needed break, and in 1921 had the idea of touring the country with the comic play, The mollusc. To this end she formed a theatre company whose members included the young Ngaio Marsh. Its performances were well-received in the cities but treated with suspicion in the smaller towns, where the view prevailed that 'This company can't be any good or it wouldn't come here!' After five months she was no longer able to pay salaries and, deeply in debt, she reluctantly abandoned the enterprise. Ngaio Marsh later described it as 'one of the earliest attempts to found a permanent theatre in this country'.
Rees went to Sydney to find acting work, but initially had no luck. Desperate for money, she seized upon the idea of writing a romantic novel. In five weeks she produced the draft of April's sowing, then obtained a role with J. C. Williamson's company touring New Zealand. While with the Lawrence Grossmith company in Melbourne six months later she learned that her novel had been accepted by publisher Herbert Jenkins and that she was contracted to write three more.
This was the beginning of a lengthy writing career during which she produced 24 romantic novels. Some were serialised in major English and American papers before appearing as books, several were published in America (under different titles), and there were numerous reprints and translations. Many had New Zealand settings; this fact and a large local readership established Rees as a key figure in the development of indigenous light romance. The novels were, however, unremarkable: racy dialogue and engaging characters failed to conceal their contrived and predictable plots. Rees was well aware of their shortcomings, conceding that they were 'neither profound nor thought-provoking'. Nevertheless, she was pleased with the recognition and income they brought her.
While her novels celebrated the conventional 'happy ending', Rosemary Rees herself never married. Instead she was supported by a wide circle of friends who provided comfort during financial and emotional crises, found publishers for her writing and gave direction at times of indecision.
Rees continued to travel during the 1920s and 1930s, acting and writing in Australia, England and America (where she appeared in an early 'talkie'). On a return trip to New Zealand in the summer of 1932–33 she researched a travel book for her English publisher. Political connections assisted: she was given advice by Gordon Coates, Adam Hamilton and Apirana Ngata. The resulting book, New Zealand holiday (1933), was enthusiastically reviewed in England and New Zealand. Breezy in tone, it gave an expatriate's affectionate, somewhat nostalgic impressions. Signs of economic depression were lightly dismissed, and the narrative was interspersed with facile views on race relations and colonisation.
During the Second World War Rosemary Rees was a volunteer fire warden in London and worked in a Coventry aircraft factory for a year. She shared a home with her widowed sister, May West, and about 1955 the two elderly women returned to Gisborne permanently.
Rees had maintained her ties with New Zealand, visiting regularly, but in retirement she was ambivalent: she felt in ‘rather a backwater in Poverty Bay – sun and fruit and flowers, but not the stimulation of new ideas'. A return visit to London in 1957 and celebrity status in the local community provided some compensation. She was able to indulge her love of gardening and bridge and read the authors she preferred, including Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley. Visitors were impressed by her strong-boned face, vivid blue eyes and rich voice, as well as her fascinating recollections. Rees continued to publish novels until about a year before her death, which occurred at Chelsea Private Hospital, Gisborne, on 19 August 1963.