FOR JACKIE COLLINS, LIFE’S NOT JUST ‘LUCKY’
The only way to live happily in Hollywood is not to need anything from anyone.
--Novelist Jackie Collins
All Hollywood, unlike all Gaul, can be divided into two parts: the Players and the Observers. The Players have the power, primarily to say yes or no, and to sign checks--while the Observers (if they’re very lucky) have all the fun. At the top of the heap of observers is someone called the Hollywood Novelist. It’s a misleading label. Truman Capote was a Hollywood novelist, though he never wrote a book about Hollywood; Judith Krantz is not a Hollywood novelist, because she has only a passing grasp of the Players.
In simple terms, the Hollywood novelist understands gossip. The ultimate Hollywood novelist was Jacqueline Susann, of course, because she understood the Players perfectly. Her novel “The Love Machine” was said to be “loosely based upon” former CBS president James Aubrey, but Susann didn’t work that way. Over a two-year period, Aubrey, her neighbor in New York, would meet with Susann and fill her in on the backside of the TV business. What she didn’t get from Aubrey, she got from her imagination.
The new Hollywood novelist (usually there’s only one at a time) is Jackie Collins. Her current book, “Lucky” (Simon & Schuster, $17.95), isn’t about Hollywood proper but, like its predecessor “Hollywood Wives,” it might as well be. Both novels are about Hollywood as a state of mind.
“Can you imagine the characters in ‘Final Cut’ or ‘Indecent Exposure’ appearing in my books?” Collins asked the other day. “The deeds done in those books are too gruesome for fiction. By the second page you hate those people. I have to tone my characters down, I promise you. ‘Final Cut’ only reads like a novel if you know it isn’t.”
But Collins, the younger sister of “Dynasty’s” Joan, is intrigued enough to next tackle the men of Hollywood; the Players, in other words. “Hollywood Husbands” is the logical successor to “Hollywood Wives,” the book that topped the New York Times best-seller list for nearly four months, sold 5 million copies, was printed in 30 languages and got turned into a TV miniseries. “Wives” dealt more with the social and sexual rituals of power women. From bedrooms to board rooms is where Jackie Collins wants to go next.
“I’m a street writer who doesn’t pretend to be anything else,” she said the other morning, lounging in the living room of the house “Baby Doll” bought for Carroll Baker. “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. I don’t type, but I once told my typist--this dear lady who came every Friday to pick up the weeks’ pages--'All right, you fix my grammar.’ Well she did, and I couldn’t bear it! ‘Put it all back the way it was,’ I told her. Pick up a page, any page, of writing by Truman Capote and you will find that he was incapable of using the wrong word. His writing is timeless, extraordinary. I’m just trying to give people a little piece of 1985.”
How she does it draws envy from even her detractors. (And there are many. Early reviews of “Lucky” are not lovely. People magazine calls the book “a profusion of worn-out plots.”) Somewhere in the middle of her 40s, she already has weathered 10 novels, three screenplays, a 19-year marriage, three daughters and yet maintains the kind of low profile that lets her roam Farmers Market unobserved. What’s curiouser is that she runs her house without a secretary, or a cook, or even a sounding board for her writing. (Her husband, disco owner Oscar Lerman, reads the manuscript only on completion.) “Lucky” is the first book for which she had an American contract, and it was the kind of contract no editor can fiddle with. From Collins’ lips to Simon & Schuster’s pages, “Lucky” is the very long, lascivious sequel to “Chances,” her 1982 Mafia opus (the one insiders called “The Godfather Goes to Bed”).
Two weeks ago “Lucky” so bombarded bookstores (first printings total 335,000 copies) that even Judith Krantz, visiting from her home in Paris, made the rounds of Beverly Hills bookshops to make sure she’d not been forgotten. Collins, too, was around town, signing books and talking on TV, and preparing for another ritual, the Book Tour. The Observer is looking a lot like a Player these days.
On the tour she will give the standard Jackie Collins Interview, the sexy-chic rapid-fire repartee about Hollywood lawyers who get “loss of status settlements” for the divorcing wives of Hollywood stars. (“In other words, the wife gets some money and loses some identity, as in the corner table at Ma Maison.”) The Jackie Collins Interview will get as peppery as the airwaves allow, but it will miss the point entirely. The point is that Hollywood has changed, though Detroit would rather not know that. So the Jackie Collins Interview won’t disillusion Detroit.
Reluctantly, Collins will agree that “scandals in the ‘40s and ‘50s wouldn’t be scandals today. Nothing is lurid now. When an actor gets arrested for driving around coked out of his mind, nobody blinks. But nowhere is like Hollywood, still. Stay here a while, and it seems normal. But it is not, I assure you.”
Collins, who’s spent part of every year here since age 15, has retained an outsider’s slant on the community. Over several days of watching her, in public and at home, one found her to be consistently observant, but never ambivalent. And she never seemed to disbelieve any shred of Hollywood gossip.
“I may be a voyeur, but I’m something of a moralist too. My secret is that my women characters are the aggressors. My women are like Harold Robbins’ men. I don’t want my women stepped on. I haven’t been stepped on, and that’s why I can write these books. It’s because I’m not a character in any of them.”
She should be. Witness a recent afternoon: Collins, in the kitchen of her Beverly Hills house, was making Shepherd’s pie for Sammy Cahn, the songwriter who’s also her neighbor and friend. Cahn recently had gall-bladder surgery, and Collins’ Shepherd’s pie is something he requested. So Collins, after an interview at home and a lunch at the Ivy, made the pie. That she does her own cooking doesn’t surprise anyone. (Many Beverly Hills wives do their own cooking--some Hollywood wives, and husbands, even do without full-time maids just like Collins--but almost none write novels.)
“On a good day I do 20 pages, on a bad day I do 10 pages. That’s without a secretary or a typewriter or a word processor or even an outline from which to work. I simply write from day to day without planning.” She does “some plotting” while marketing and doing the laundry herself.
What doesn’t she do? “I don’t exercise, ever,” says the tall brunette who doesn’t seem to need to, at least from the looks of her, in her trademark low-cut leopard top accentuated with six silver rings and double silver Elsa Peretti earrings. “My shoes cost $25, I’ve not worn a skirt in 10 years, and I stick to black slacks. This simplifies life. I only wear men’s jackets, and I have forever. I do my own hair, and I lunch out maybe once a month. My 1969 Mustang needs a car wash. But if I never left the house again, I’d have enough material to go on forever.”
There’s a reason for that, and it’s Collins’ ace in the hole. It isn’t merely that she’s the wallflower one sees at parties, keeping to herself. Aspiring novelists, take note: “Everybody has one wild time in their life, and if you’re lucky it’s early. I was putting sexy limericks in my diary at the age of 6, and I was selling little boys peeks. At 15 I became a major juvenile delinquent in London, and I was expelled from school.”
She never went back, coming instead to Hollywood in the late ‘50s, “where my sister was a movie star at the time. At the airport Joan handed me car keys and said, ‘I’m off to a movie location. Learn to drive immediately.’ Jackie found the fast lane faster even than Joan, which took some doing.
Or undoing. “I was wearing bikinis around Santa Monica Beach, at a time when nobody here wore bikinis. I’m not exactly undeveloped,” said Collins matter-of-factly, “so men would follow me. Married men would always use the same line, ‘My wife is different.’ I caught on quickly.”
In other words, Collins learned the truth at 17. She stuck to bachelors, Marlon Brando for one (“Before he got fat”), and she grasped something central to stardom: “The men are almost always lonely, and almost always they have problems with women, due to their mothers.”
Collins, wisely it turned out, spent more time with unsuccessful, aspiring types. “I was very taken by the people who came here to be stars, the hungry young actors and so on. What I got was invaluable for a writer. I got characters, people who have been turning up in my books ever since. Always, somewhere in the back of my head, I knew I would write.”
One look at Collins’ living room (or dining room, or den) backs her up: Everywhere are books, pop novels primarily, and they look like books that have been read. On shelf after shelf one also sees an unusual collection of framed photographs of friends. What’s unusual (for Hollywood) is how the friends haven’t changed over a 20-year period. Sister Joan, the Michael Caines, the Leslie Bricusses, Sean Connerys, Roger Moores and other non-household names.
One is left with the impression of a well-maintained, slightly sultry woman who in a week of talking not once used foul language. (The impression is in direct contrast to the reaction to her books. As Anthony Burgess once put it, “The sexual candor of ‘Ulysses’ is nothing compared to the multiple orgasms of Jackie Collins.’ ”) In person, she’s anything but overtly sexual. Is there a contradiction here?
“I’m very married, and everybody knows that. I’m also a woman who can’t say no--to a party invitation. But other than that . . . I’ve really always been just the observer.”
Being the middle child of a London theatrical agent and his “exquisite, fragile wife” gave Collins a useful duality. Show business was in the house, but her mother’s side of the family was much quieter. In her teens Jackie began copying by hand the novels of Grace Metalious and Mickey Spillane. Fiction was more comforting than fame, though she liked to dabble in London night life. At 19 when she returned to London, she did what respectable daughters her age were supposed to do: She married. Within a couple of rocky years, her older, wealthy merchant-prince husband was dead of an overdose of Methedrine.
“He was manic-depressive and there were days he couldn’t get out of bed,” Collins recalled. “I suddenly had a child, and a husband who was climbing the walls.” She also had a starlet career (“Passport to Shame,” 1959) that was going nowhere fast. “I never wanted to be an actress. I was married . In those days manic-depressives were put in mental wards, and I was there standing by him. It was agony. Addictive personalities, let’s face it, can become addicted to any substance.”
Is Collins an addictive personality? “I tried everything--once. But I was never on Methedrine and I never really got into drugs. For 20 years now I’ve done no drugs, and at parties here where bowls of coke are passed, I pass. And I giggle to myself, because people are whispering, ‘Well, she’s the Hollywood expert. Maybe drugs are out if she’s not having any.’ Such rubbish. Nobody with any sanity can condone drugs. I lived through a death. I know.”
The experience strengthened her resolve: Collins is the kind of woman who insists, “We can’t blame anyone for our lives.” No fan of psychoanalysis, Collins is (unusually for a writer) a person who seems to lack a dark side, which may explain how she’s finished 10 novels. “Maybe it was at the time of my first marriage, but because of it I got an idea about strong women. My women characters say if you screw me, I’ll screw you back. I had to learn very early to be independent.”
“The trick is not to let the press hover over. That’s been the secret in London too. Tonight we’re letting everyone in, but for one time only.” Collins was talking about the new Hollywood branch of Tramps, the London disco that her husband Oscar Lerman founded in the 1960s, thus inventing a whole new substrata of social life: The stay-up-late jet-set members-only anything-goes watering hole. The Beatles and the Jaggers and the Nicholsons would meet to eat, late, at London’s Tramps, and now in Los Angeles the very private club is taking off. Collins’ book party, two weeks ago, was the first semi-public showing.
“The doorman is Attila the Hun,” confided Collins. The place, really, is much like something out of a James Bond movie, vintage 1965. One expects Julie Christie to turn up, in a mini skirt. Instead, this night, one saw the usual names and faces, the inveterates who go because they’re invited. Jackie Collins has it all over them; she goes, usually around 10 p.m., “because I can watch and get material.” To have a husband who co-owns swank discos on two Continents is for a Hollywood novelist the ultimate luxury. That Tina Turner and Sting and Madonna Penn hang out at Tramps--while the press does not--is even better fodder. It keeps Collins tuned in.
A book party is another matter, however. It’s a tradition many commercial novelists shun. Simply put, a publication party doesn’t sell books, it only invites freeloaders. But Jackie Collins is the This-Minute Kid in publishing; her agent Mort Janklow has been offered megafigures (meaning seven figures) for the novels that will follow “Hollywood Husbands.” ABC and producer Aaron Spelling want to ritualize sequels to “Hollywood Wives,” the miniseries that last February had America watching and steaming. Her paperbacks are all over airports like early Harold Robbins titles. How did the deluge happen?
“I never even realized this before,” said Collins, “but really my husband is responsible. Isn’t that old-fashioned, and sweet? One night at a particularly glamorous party in London a lonely famous female singer looked around the room, turned to me, and said, ‘The world is full of married men.’ This was 1967. I had my title for my book, and then I had half a novel. And then I met Oscar. It was that marvelous thing of somebody saying ‘You can do it, and I love you.’ ”
Collins took herself to America, to an isolated house at Montauk, on the tip of Long Island. “I’ve always loved to sit in the sun, so I turned sunbathing into a reward. I’d find a dark spot to write, work like a mad dog, then treat myself to the sun.” It’s an odd way to get through the long haul of a novel, but Collins returned to London in 1968 with her first book (“The World Is Full of Married Men”) completed. During publication week a member of Parliament told the press it was the dirtiest book he had ever read. That week the novel made London’s best-seller lists, where it perched for a while. “And mind you, it didn’t have a four-letter word in it!”
Luck was now an operative four-letter word in the Collins career. Plus timing. “In the late ‘60s, Englishwomen writers were very much like Edna O’Brien, writing about tortured females who go to the Cotswolds to have nervous breakdowns. American women writers were all doing sex manuals, or kiss-and-tell books. I answered a need for liberated women.”
One-book wonders are one thing in publishing, but producing 10 books (regardless of literacy or heft) is quite another. “Almost everyone I meet says, ‘Oh, I could do that, I could write a book.’ And they could, they could write one book. It would be about themselves. I never wrote about myself, and I never wrote a kiss-and-tell, and I never wrote about old love. . . " nor has she written about her sister or her husband.
“Oh, but people read themselves into everything! After ‘The Stud,’ Ryan O’Neal and Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger all told me they knew it was about them. People finish one of the books, and say, ‘I know who so-and-so is,’ and I just say ‘Well, if you know, then you don’t need me to tell you!’ ”
The standard Jackie Collins interview, as opposed to a talk with Collins herself, will elicit the usual line about “the characters are based on composites of people, not on one specific person.” Savvy readers know better. “Hollywood Wives” is about Hollywood wives, real not imagined, which is why Hollywood tuned-in and not just Detroit. The impulse for the book came to Collins in a flash.
“One lunchtime I walked into the Bistro Garden, and I was struck by something. At each table sat the same woman, with the same hairdo, the same $600 handbag, the same unmitigated insecurity. Each of them knew they had the same $600 bag, and I just looked at them, and thought, ‘Ah, Hollywood wives!’ ”
Last year, when Aaron Spelling wanted a follow-up to the TV opus, Collins thought, “ ‘Ah, “Hollywood Husbands!” ’ But not the same characters. Aaron agreed. It would be easier to do, but not as much fun.”
Years ago, Collins would refer to writing as a “masochistic” profession, though now she seems to dote on it. “Yes, but to anyone not dedicated, it is masochistic. Day after day, the same characters, and it goes on for months. That’s why ‘Hollywood Husbands’ had to be new. I’m doing three husbands: The talk-show host, the manager-husband and the agent-turned-executive.”
And the word is out. One recent afternoon, entering the Ivy, for lunch, Collins got stared at with the kind of big loving eyes reserved only for This Week’s Heat. It was primarily the producers who smiled (what few of them there were that day at the Ivy). Collins barely noticed the producers. After all, she’s got her characters for “Husbands,” and the book is half done. Basically, she’s not the kind of woman strangers, or producers, approach, so lunch goes uninterrupted.
“I have this very well-known name and a completely unknown face,” she said, relieved that anonymity (and thus privacy) is preserved. “I have this image as being exotic, but I think I’m eccentric. What I don’t want is to go on ‘Hour Magazine,’ once a month, and be the Hollywood expert.” Meaning that tales of vasectomies, suicides, overdoses and hustlers are really wasted on daytime TV. Further, they’re the stuff of gossip, and fiction, and if most Hollywood insiders dismiss the tales, Collins doesn’t. She listens and uses.
“That’s how you get books written. You maintain the privacy. My ego doesn’t need TV. I do TV now to plug a book; I do a big tour, one interview after another, and then that’s it for the year. I go back home, back to work, become very concentrated, and then at 10:30 one morning, the vacuum cleaner repairman arrives and interrupts the flow. I open the front door and look at my husband wide-eyed, and howl, ‘Would Harold Robbins do this?’ ”
Maybe not, but these days Robbins isn’t selling like Collins. Is there, finally, a reason for her readership?
“People don’t have baked beans for brains. I’m giving them a big book every time out. And there’s no cheat. Listen, I’m doing this to please myself. It doesn’t get easier and it doesn’t get harder. But it does get better. What I write is a suit of clothes that fits me.”