Jackie Collins, best-selling author of sexy Hollywood novels, dies at 77

Jackie Collins, whose dishy novels about the private lives of the Hollywood glitterati catapulted her to best-seller lists for decades, died Saturday in Los Angeles after a battle with breast cancer that she kept largely secret, her publicist said. She was 77.

Collins revealed the illness only to her family and closest friends until she spoke about it in a recent interview with People, said Melody Korenbrot, her publicist for 32 years. In the People interview, Collins said she had undergone a lumpectomy and radiation treatment.

"I've written five books since the diagnosis, I've lived my life, I've traveled all over the world," she told People.

Born in London on Oct. 4, 1937, Collins, the child of a theatrical agent, began hand-copying Mickey Spillane novels in her teens.

She described herself as a "major juvenile delinquent" who was thrown out of a boarding school at 15 for smoking and, in the late 1950s, followed her movie star older sister, Joan, to Hollywood.

For 26 years, she was married to Oscar Lerman, her second husband, who died of prostate cancer in 1992. She was engaged to Frank Calcagnini, an Italian businessman, when he died of cancer a few years later.

Collins achieved notoriety in 1968 with the publication of her first novel, "The World Is Full of Married Men," which made London's best-seller lists and inspired a member of Parliament to describe it as the dirtiest book he'd ever read.

Collins' website boasted that she wrote more than 30 best-selling novels, including "Hollywood Wives," "Hollywood Husbands" and "Hollywood Kids," which together sold more than 500 million copies around the world.

"Everyone read her books," Korenbrot said. "I've seen them on airplanes, hotels, beaches."

Collins was a fixture on the Hollywood scene, where she frequented celebrity hangouts in search of story material, a practice that gave her novels an insider's feel. Her novels frequently involved strong female protagonists, including Lucky Santangelo, a businesswoman who "could do anything she chose to do," as Collins put it.

Santangelo possessed "a magnetic charismatic quality," Collins wrote, adding, "She radiated a presence full of beauty, power, passion and strength. A lethal combination.... Nobody told Lucky Santangelo what to do."

The Santangelo family saga began in 1981 with "Chances" and stretched into "The Santangelos," the ninth book in the series, published this year.

Collins was in the United Kingdom promoting the book this month, despite her illness. She was also active on Twitter, posting tweets as late as Friday, including: "#Emmys this weekend. Who do you want to win?"

Melissa Gilbert, who starred in an adaptation of "Hollywood Wives: The New Generation," tweeted Saturday: "An amazing woman. Talented. Funny. Kind. One of my very favorite producers ever. She will be deeply missed."

While beloved by readers, Collins was not a favorite of critics. "The sexual candor of 'Ulysses' is nothing compared to the multiple orgasms of Jackie Collins," Anthony Burgess once commented wryly.

Collins was "the undisputed schlock jock of the sun-and-sex-on-Sunset genre," then-Los Angeles Times staff writer Nikki Finke wrote in 1990.

Collins' harshest critic may have been Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who in 1988, finding her books too sexy, threatened her publishers with execution.

In an interview with The Times in 1985, Collins described herself as "a street writer who doesn't pretend to be anything else," adding: "I'm not grammatical in the way I talk, or in the way I write, and I don't pretend to be. I'm a high school dropout who eavesdrops."

Collins was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer more than six years ago but only recently revealed her illness to her sister Joan, according to the People story. She had kept it from her to avoid burdening her, she said.

In a statement, Joan Collins said she was "completely devastated" by her sister's death.

"She was my best friend," Collins said. "I admire how she handled this. She was a wonderful, brave and a beautiful person and I love her."

Collins leaves behind three daughters: Tracy, 54, Tiffany, 48, and Rory, 46.

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg contributed to this report.

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