The death this weekend of best-selling author Jackie Collins – in Britain earlier this month to promote her latest novel, The Santangelos, published by Simon & Schuster – will have shocked and saddened both her readers and the British book trade.
A regular visitor to this country throughout her career, Collins was a distinctive and irrepressible figure whose wit and warmth struck a chord with booksellers, whose names she rarely forgot. The publication parties – in the pre-recession era of no-expense-spared excess - were legendary, a fixture in the book trade calendar during her long years at both Pan Macmillan and, more recently, Simon & Schuster, to where she followed her beloved editor Suzanne Baboneau. However, it was Sonny Mehta who had originally acquired her for Pan back in the day when he and Simon Master presided over what was then widely regarded as the coolest place in publishing.
In 2008, on what would be my final American sortie for Publishing News, I interviewed Collins in LA, which the author referred to as “La-La-Land”, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, immortalised by the Eagles as “Hotel California”. I arrived early, greeted by one of the many pink polo-shirted flunkies who helped guests unload their luggage from black stretch limos. I had never seen so much Louis Vuitton and passed a happy 40 minutes watching the out-of-this world go by.
Collins led me out to the bougainvillea-filled garden. “These are the best seats, where all the stars sit and observe what goes on”, she explained, settling into a booth and ordering drinks. I had once interviewed her sister, who was making her own fiction debut: not an easy task, for Joan was all look-at-me theatrics. In contrast, Jackie was as down-to-earth as can be, a part of the scene yet simultaneously apart from it. The quintessential novelist.
Collins recalled that she had woken up one morning in 1982 and decided she wanted to live in America so she and her husband, Oscar Lerman, “packed up the kids and the dogs” and left London to set up camp at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “We lived here for three months - it was fabulous. First of all my publishers were paying, so I had a huge suite. Then the suites got smaller and smaller as I had to pay myself… But it was an adventure that paid off. Chances was one of the top 10 books in America that year, and that includes every kind of book. Then I did Hollywood Wives and that was my breakthrough - people knew who I was.”
Her writing career began in 1968 with The World is Full of Married Men, which was banned in Australia, South Africa and China - and in Boston. “I'm not banned anywhere now, which is disappointing,” she reflected, explaining that the novel was a reaction “to all those books about women having a lousy time… Men were outraged by it... Tom Driberg, who was an MP and not out of the closet, took an ad in the Sunday People to say this was the most shocking book he'd ever read. It was number one within 10 days.”
Collins was 15 when she first set foot in LA, despatched by her father, Joseph William Collins, a theatrical agent whose clients would later include the Beatles. She was to stay with big sister Joan, already embarked on an acting career. She'd been “a bad girl” at school, playing truant to go to the movies and uninterested in anything but books and writing. “I didn't mix with the other girls because they all seemed too young to me. I pretended to be American. I pretended my father was in the CIA and had to be under cover… My best friend was a couple of years older than me, and she was American.” When Jackie was expelled, her father offered the choice of reform school or Hollywood.
“I said I'd take Hollywood. Joan met me at the airport and said: 'here's a list of people. They're all rich and important and if you get into trouble call them - they all know me. You're almost 16, so here's the number of the place you learn to drive. Here's the keys to my apartment. Have a good time. Goodbye'.”
Jackie Collins at the Beverley Hills Hotel in 2008.
Living on Fountain Avenue, not far from Sunset, in a complex full of would-be actors and directors, Jackie found inspiration for many of the characters who would people her early novels, notably Hollywood Wives. “I also met the guy on whom I based Gino Santangelo,” the priapic mobster who features in the Santangelo series. “I had all these adventures - what didn't I do! Married men were always chasing me. I was a bad good girl. I would want to bring people out, find out what they were about. But when it came to the crunch I would say no.”
Even before she was published, Collins felt “like an out-of-work writer” but it was her second husband, the aforementioned Lerman (who died in 1992) who pushed her to submit the manuscript for Married Men to a publisher. After that came The Stud based, like all her novels, around true characters - in this case the guy who ran the discothèques her husband owned. “Believe me, if you sit in a disco every night for fifteen years you've seen it all - every rock star, every movie star, every bit of bad behaviour you could possibly imagine. These days I like to stay home and when I do go out it is as an observer.”
She was, she said, “amused by it all. I've got that English sense of humour, which comes through in my books. I have a great life - but I'm a Brit. All the nonsense is fabulous for my books. When I talk about women and their maintenance - all that is true. These women are so busy having maintenance they really don't have time to do anything else. There's the manicure, the pedicure, the facial, the hair colouring, the hair cutting, the massage, the pilates, the yoga… I've listed eight things without thinking and that's going to take up a day. Then there's the designer clothes and the borrowed jewellery. It's a busy life. These women don't have a second!”
Do people recognise themselves? “I have this theory that in Hollywood they don't really read books - they just read Vanity Fair, so they can sound extremely well read. I get away with a lot. Some of my friends read them, but people never recognise themselves - especially if it's a bad person. But I never say - I just smile.”
With worldwide sales of more than 500 million, Collins didn’t need to worry about the critics, though she was irritated by the snobbery of so many. “I'm not a literary writer - but there should be room for every kind of writer. I tell really good stories with interesting characters and that should be enough.” She was proud of the fact that those who might not otherwise read read Jackie Collins novels. “I get wonderful emails from people who regard me as a friend in bad times.” Barbara Cartland – with whom she memorably shared the Wogan sofa - once accused her of being responsible for all the perverts in England. Film director Louis Malle called her “a raunchy moralist”, a description she liked.
As we drained the last of our cocktails, I asked Collins to describe herself: “I'm a workaholic but I love what I do. I was a tough little smart-arse who came to Hollywood and became a success.”
In London this weekend, Ian Chapman said it had been “a privilege to have known her as publisher and friend”.
Suzanne Baboneau reported that Collins had said nothing of her illness during her recent visit, when it is reported that she told her sister of the secret she had shared only with her children. “That it happened so quickly is a real shock. She was so wonderfully down to earth for all the glamour in her life. I adored working with her.”
Liz Thomson is a freelance journalist.