The Adventures of Writer Jackie Collins, Keyhole Kop : Novelist Stirs Up the Dirt Her Hollywood Friends Dish Out
A small earthquake registering moderately severe on the Beverly Hills panic scale is rumbling from Malibu to Hollywood. Jackie Collins is finishing her 12th novel in 20 years this month, and her friends already are feeling the aftershocks.
On this particular night, the epicenter is located at Spago.
Standing in the garden terrace, a drink in one hand, a slice of pizza in the other, producer David Niven Jr. whispers conspiratorially. “People keep saying to me, ‘David, don’t you think you should write a book?’ But how can I when everything, everything , I have ever done, said or thought appears in Jackie’s novels.
“There’s nothing left,” he laments. “I don’t know why the headings on some of the chapters shouldn’t be, ‘I’d like to dedicate this to. . . . ‘ “
At the other end of the restaurant, Alana Hamilton Stewart, ex-wife of actor George Hamilton and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” singer Rod Stewart, admits she tells Collins too many intimate details about her marriages. “I trust her completely to change the names so I’ll be safe. Otherwise,” Stewart adds, her eyes opening wide, “I’ll kill her.”
Actress Angie Dickinson is warier. “I love her but that doesn’t mean I trust her,” she confides in a corner of the room. “I mean, she’ll take notes right in front of me.”
Super-agent Irving Lazar sees himself in every Collins book. “I’m always the guy getting out of bed!” he says. And “Tonight Show” producer Fred de Cordova is awaiting Collins’ latest opus “to see if I’m in it.”
As if on cue, the 46-year-old writer makes her entrance.
Dressed in her trademark animal prints (a black-and-white tiger-striped outfit this time out), the tall brunette has warm greetings (“Kiss, kiss”) for everyone. After all, these are more than just friends. These are the sources for most of the tastiest parts of her novels. As she collects every gossipy morsel (“You must be joking. You’re not? How wonderful!”) the ground imperceptibly shakes. If information is power, then Collins is a veritable 800-pound gorilla. “It is amazing what people tell me,” she says.
One of the publishing industry’s best-selling quartet of novelists, along with Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele, Collins was crowned by literary critics long ago as the undisputed queen of flash-and-trash fiction. Indeed, she is expert at producing the sort of books that serious readers are embarrassed to be seen devouring.
These days, both her admirers and detractors agree that, if nothing else of merit, she accurately captures the people, places and peccadilloes of popular culture in her novels. In Los Angeles, that means fading film idols who contemplate face-lifts, Rodeo Drive shopping sprees, Bistro Garden lettuce lunches and seedy Sunset Boulevard motel rooms.
No doubt, that’s why Collins is now amusingly referred to as the Margaret Mead of Hollywood.
“I want to be remembered for writing books that really reflected the particular time I wrote them in,” Collins says. So if her books contain a lot of sex and scandal, “that’s just because they’re mirroring what happens daily in Hollywood,” she maintains.
Indeed, whether she lurks around the dinner table with her notebook at the ready, steals off to the bathroom at a private party or restaurant to jot down conversations, or sweet-talks a show business star into revealing private confidences, Collins is unabashedly blatant about prying into the private lives of her best-connected friends and associates.
“I think Jackie’s lucky that she has lots of friends who lead such fascinating lives,” muses Niven, one of her best friends. “Unfortunately, you’re never credited for having given her these stories.”
A few days after the Spago party, Collins is rummaging through an overstuffed desk drawer in the second-floor study of her Beverly Hills home, once owned by Carroll Baker. She triumphantly holds up a torn scrap of paper with scribbling on it. “Ah, here are some good lines,” she says, as excited as an explorer who was found buried treasure.
There’s the Hollywood wife who said she was going to make a will and leave her plastic surgeon to her husband. There’s the producer recalling how every time his father punished him as a child, his mother would shout, “Don’t hit him in the mouth! It will cost $600 to get his teeth fixed!” And there’s the wife who threw a 20th anniversary party and invited all her husband’s mistresses.
Sometimes, she’ll go through the drawer filled with half-filled notebooks and newspaper clippings and magazine articles and look for “something good.” Whenever she’s in need of inspiration, “this drawer is invaluable,” Collins says.
She seems to have a credibility with readers that other authors of the genre don’t. “When people read my books, they know they’re reading the truth.”
Photos of the Famous
For proof, just look at all the famous folks whose photographs Collins has snapped and scattered around the house: Louis Jordan, Shirley MacLaine, Roger Moore, Sean Connery, Sidney Poitier, Michelle Phillips, Elton John, Joan Rivers, John Ritter, Tony Danza, and, of course, best buddies Michael Caine and wife, Shakira. With friends like these, Collins doesn’t even need to pump older sister Joan.
But exactly where does Collins conduct her research?
“Basically, I like to go and watch people. I’ve very fond of Le Dome because it’s a great place to relax. I like the Ivy. I was there the other night, and Meryl Streep was at one table and John Travolta was at the other. Trader Vic’s, because more of L.A. society goes there, is interesting, too. And, of course, Spago.”
It was while lunching at the Bistro Garden that the British writer came up with the title of her biggest best-seller to date. Looking out at a sea of wrinkle-free wealthy women in their designer clothes and diamonds, “ Ah , I thought, Hollywood Wives. And a book was born,” Collins recalls.
Written while moving her family from London to Lotusland, “Hollywood Wives” topped the New York Times best-seller list for 30 weeks in 1983, sold 5 million copies and wound up as a TV mini-series. The first day it hit bookstores, Crown Books in Beverly Hills sold 50 copies, many to Hollywood wives who sent their chauffeurs in for it.
Newest Best Friend
True, there was shock and horror in some quarters. One over-sensitive Hollywood wife even accused Collins of writing about “my has-been husband.” But everywhere else in town, Collins was suddenly everyone’s newest best friend. “Hollywood loves success,” she says smugly. And three years later, when she sat down to write “Hollywood Husbands,” she found it almost researched itself. Real-life husbands volunteered their services as informants and told outrageous tales about close friends and rivals.
“I realized that it was their way of getting revenge against people who had done them wrong in business or in love. So that’s one fact I learned about Hollywood husbands--they get even.”
Her best book is always her next book, she maintains, and that one, “Rock Star,” is being delivered to Simon & Schuster this month for publication in February.
Why focus on rock stars? “Nobody’s really excited about movie stars these days,” she claims. Most of the action takes place in and around Los Angeles. In fact, the book opens at the Malibu home of a rich record magnate and his wife, who are hosting a huge rock ‘n’ roll fund-raiser where three world-class rock stars are flying in to perform.
Rock Star Confidante
As usual, she will be writing about a scene she knows intimately. She claims to have met many of the biggest rock stars in the business at Tramp, the exclusive London and Los Angeles clubs owned by her husband, Oscar Lerman. “They would all come sit down at my table and chat and confide things. People like Ringo and Elton John. And I got to know all their managers, who are much more fun than the actual rock stars,” Collins says.
And, once again, she is relying on her friends for help. Niven claims that Collins would phone him “every time she got stuck. And she does get stuck from time to time because she’s happily married and not exactly frolicking around like rock stars or frequenting the places that rock stars frequent with their squeeze of the second.”
Alana Stewart also was a source. “ ‘Rock Star’ is the one I’m waiting for,” she whispers. “Jackie assures me that the characters are composites of several different rock stars. But, of course, Rod is one of them.”
And what parties are her favorite for doing research? Irving and Mary Lazar’s Oscar Night at Spago “takes a lot of beating,” Collins says. “I’ve been to it three times in a row now. It’s not to be missed because of the mixture of people, everyone from Barbara Walters to Kathleen Turner. I know people who leave town if they’re not invited.”
Some hosts might be offended if a guest were to eavesdrop and even take notes the way Collins does. Not Lazar. “I trust her,” he says.
Her other favorite haunts for book material are record stores, shopping malls and supermarkets. She once wrote an entire scene for “Hollywood Wives” in her car while watching people in the parking lot of the Safeway on Santa Monica Boulevard. And she recently led a group of 10 from lunch at Le Dome to the Pleasure Chest sex shop to research the latest in condoms.
She also loves intimate dinners with VIPs she can catch off-guard. At one recent evening, “this director just kept leaning toward me and telling me all about how he’d broken up with his girlfriend. And he kept on saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this.’ ”
Maybe it’s the way she hangs on every word. Or nods her head in sympathetic agreement. Or oozes sincerity. Maybe it’s the way she makes people forget they’re talking to a Famous Writer. They’re just dishing dirt with Jackie, a woman who has been married to the same man for 21 years, who claims to do her own grooming, supermarket shopping and cooking, just another Beverly Hills mother boasting about her three grown daughters’ accomplishments.
“She’s like a cheap version of a psychiatrist,” producer Allan Carr explains.
Another reason why people open up to Collins is because this author of books with startling titles like “The Bitch” and “The Stud” is not easily shocked. “They know that they can say anything because basically I’ve heard every story from every angle now,” she says.
When she was younger, she certainly lived as colorfully as any of her characters. “I really had an exciting time,” the writer acknowledges. “I look back on it now and shudder.”
Her father, Joseph, was a well-known London theatrical agent. So both Jackie and Joan grew up around famous people and learned not to get impressed. She was thrown out of a boarding school at 15 for smoking, she says, and her parents, despite her professed interest in writing, sent her to live with Joan, already a starlet with 20th Century Fox.
“She literally was just about to go off on vacation in the West Indies. She said, “Learn to drive. Here are the keys to the apartment, and goodby.’ ”
So Collins bought herself a used $300 Buick and raced around town with a crowd of out-of-work actors, getting in and out of scrapes. She was wearing bikinis around Santa Monica Beach before anybody else, had an adolescent fling with Marlon Brando, got a few bit acting parts including a necking scene with Roger Moore in “The Saint,” and she moved back to Britain at 18, married a clothing retailer, had a daughter and got divorced.
At 24, she married Lerman, a tall, thin, balding businessman. They have two daughters. Lerman steadfastly refuses to be interviewed about his wife. In fact, he’s so publicity-shy that he doesn’t even allow any tidbits about Tramp, the membership-only club for wealthy businessmen and celebs. These days, he floats between their house in the Beverly Hills flats and his club in the Beverly Center. He is by all accounts a dedicated family man who is totally devoted to Collins and content to let her be the star of the household.
Her present-day life--so comfortable, complacent and, yes, maybe even a little boring now that she and Lerman suffer from Empty Nest syndrome--"is completely different from my characters,” Collins points out. “If I were living the kind of frenetic life now that my characters are living, then I would be too exhausted to write about them.”
Whenever possible, Collins likes to write about things she has seen herself, like the maids who used to carry large silver bowls full of cocaine into parties she was attending. (Collins says drugs are outre at Hollywood fetes nowadays.) Otherwise, she’ll only believe stories that have at least two sources to back them up.
“I’m like ‘Deep Throat,’ ” she quips.
Of course, no one would ever accuse Collins of not having an active imagination. When her two youngest daughters were growing up, she would drive them to and from school, using the time at traffic lights to write such steamy scenes as, “And then he grabbed her. . . . " Now, she has the luxury of holing up in her study with a stack of legal pads and soul music on the stereo, writing her stories by hand virtually undisturbed for eight hours a day.
And if she misses anything while in seclusion, Collins’ friends can be counted on to phone her up and fill her in. No wonder Collins boasts that she doesn’t need to set foot out of her house to find out what’s happening in Hollywood.
In keeping with her goal to write one book a year, Collins already knows the title of her 13th novel, a sequel to “Lucky” she will call “Lady Boss.” After that, she’ll pen “Hollywood Kids.” Meanwhile, she is assisting NBC in turning “Chances” and “Lucky” into one eight-hour miniseries. And she’s presently negotiating with the network for control over the televising of “Hollywood Husbands.”
And after that?
Lots of possibilities, judging from the stack of notes and articles scattered around Collins’ study. On this particular day, Collins is clipping a newspaper item about the attempted theft of Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner’s car and the attempted abduction of his bodyguard. “I picked that out because I thought, if it can happen to them, it can happen to anybody.”
She stares at another scrap of paper, her face contorted with concentration as she tries to decipher her scribbling.
“This would be an example of things I write down in my notebook,” she explains, “It says, ‘Mercedes deal.’ ‘Horror in bedroom.’ ‘Necking every two minutes.’ ‘Pornographer.’ ”
She looks even more intently at the scrawl, then shrugs in surrender before throwing the scrap away. “I don’t know what it means now. But when I wrote it down at the time, it had a lot of significance.”