Sweeney, a successful novelist after she left The Times in 1984, was a popular member of the Old Farts, the organization of retired Times employees. She turned out 17 novels over the years for Avon and Fawcett, selling as many as 100,000 copies each. Set in the stratified society of early 19th century England, her books were especially popular in Britain and known for their meticulously researched descriptions of the era's clothing, customs and mores.
Sweeney often was as amused as her newspaper colleagues by the titles and provocative book covers chosen by her publishers, Avon and later Fawcett. Nevertheless, she dedicated such books as Devil's Bargain, Midnight Bride and its sequel Midnight Lord, The Lily and the Hawk and Scarlet Lady to much-loved relatives and friends. She signed her books with a flourishing "Marlene Suson" signature, and conducted workshops and talked with groups of prospective romance writers.
"I chose Regency romances," she once said, "because I could have fun with it."Set in England, her books dealt with the arch customs and social climbing of a striated society from 1811 to 1820, the period in which George, Prince of Wales, served as regent while his father, King George III, was incarcerated with mental illness. Marriage in the era usually was an economic arrangement involving fortunes and titles, but Sweeney made sure her protagonists also fell in love, even if it took months or years after the wedding vows.
She was a voracious reader, and her detailed research enabled her to accurately describe period clothing, furniture and mores. Her books earned praise from better-known writers of the romance genre, including Amanda Quick, who said Sweeney's work was "sure to go straight to the heart," and Elizabeth Lowell, who termed her writing "warm, witty, wonderful."
Born in Miles City, Mont., the elder of two daughters of a railroad man, Sweeney grew up there and in Butte, Mont. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Washington in Seattle in only three years -- unable, she said, to afford a fourth year.
She began her journalism career working for magazines in New York City before moving to Los Angeles in the early 1960s. She worked as a reporter for the United Press International wire service and as a producer for what was then KNXT-TV Channel 2.
When Sweeney was hired by The Times in 1971, she was one of only three women covering breaking news. Her general assignment stories over the years ranged from the Long Beach man who sailed aloft in a lawn chair from his backyard to improvements in earthquake safety 10 years after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.
In those days, women did not have it very easy at The Times. Most often, they were given "women's assignments" and not allowed to do very much on the main stories. Gradually, that changed, with the addition of such hard-driving and well-respected reporters as Narda Zucchino, Nancy Skelton, Myrna Oliver, Janet Clayton, Anna Gorman, Julie Cart, Tracy Wilkinson, Andrea Ford, Becky Trounson, Carla Hall, Tracy Wood, Carla Rivera, Tina Daunt, Julie Tamaki, Stephanie Chavez, Joselyn Stewart, Teresa Watanabe, Tracy Weber, Bettina Boxall, Usha McFarling, Jennifer Oldham and the remarkable Bella Stumbo among others.
Now, of course, The Times women are highly successful and well accepted. Sweeney helped pave the way for that. It wasn't always so, and at one or two times they had to assert themselves, demanding equal treatment.
Sweeney also served as an assistant metropolitan editor in charge of weekend coverage. An avid skier, she contributed a skiing column to the sports section for several seasons. She left The Times to become a full-time novelist in 1984 after helping cover the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
At the end of her life she sustained her most difficult and tragic disease with grace and dignity. Friends remembers her as a talented and wonderful person, friendly to everyone. Sweeney is survived by a sister, Kathy Heron of Great Falls, Va.
Marlene Suson's Books on Amazon: Marlene Suson
Cover Art by Max Ginsburg for Scarlet Lady by Marlene Suson