A Fantasy Named Danielle Steel : After 23 Books in 15 Years, Her World Sometimes Seems Too Unreal to Be True

Times Staff Writer

How could she be real?

First there's that name, Danielle Steel. Romantic, alluring--it's sure to be an inspired invention.

Then there's the sheer volume of work--23 books in 15 years. And the scope of subject matter--historical sagas and contemporary dramas, characters ranging from heiresses and alcoholics to ex-convicts and cowboys. No doubt they're all produced by a stable of writers toiling thanklessly in a basement somewhere in Brooklyn.

And there has to be a marketing gnome whose full-time job it is to think up all those mushy titles: "Passion's Promise," "Now and Forever," "To Love Again," "Secrets" and the newly published "Kaleidoscope."

Perpetuating Myth

Plus a photographer whose portraits of a middle-aged model with gleaming chestnut hair, creamy unlined skin, sensually full lips and sparkling diamond necklace perpetuate the myth that Steel is not just a flesh-and-blood woman but a glamorous one as well.

Then there's the exotic picture of her private life that's been presented by her Los Angeles publicity machine: daughter of a German "nobleman," wife of a San Francisco shipping "magnate," "devoted" mother of nine. Even Ripley might not print that one without a smirk.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Danielle Steel isn't real even to Danielle Steel.

Yes, the name is hers. Yes, at age 39 she really has written all those books. Yes, the photograph is a flattering likeness. Yes, the fairy-tale background, though a bit exaggerated, is basically true. And yes, "I'm obviously one of the more successful writers in the country and probably one of the higher paid," she admits modestly. "But I think other people are more aware of it than I am.

"And I guess that's because, with the background I had as such, I've always felt it wasn't really OK to work. It was even less OK to be a success. I have a real conflict within myself. I'm afraid to let it all hang out and say, 'Yes, this is what I am and what I do,' and 'Yes, that is me who is No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list,' because it means you've flopped as a woman.

"So I think that to atone for the sin of being successful . . . I always kind of back off and hide it. I'm very much in the closet with my work."

Literally in the laundry room, where she used to sneak after midnight to work while the rest of the family was fast asleep. "That's how she started out--writing books on the top of a washing machine while it was bouncing. And she still is because she's comfortable doing that," explains her husband, John Traina.

"Actually, about a week before we got married, the moving men were taking my house apart while I was trying to meet a deadline," she adds sheepishly. "So I had the typewriter (a 1948 Olympia) on the toilet and I was sitting on the floor trying to finish the book. And that's exactly where I did it.

"In my bathroom."

Aw, come on!

After all, she is wearing an opulent fox turban and sweeping scarlet cape-and-skirt ensemble--exactly the sort of dramatic costume that a successful author would wear. And she is answering questions in a breathy whisper on a rainy afternoon under the sort of dark, brooding skies that novelists like Steel love to describe in detail.

She's chosen an intimate sitting room inside San Francisco's Sherman House, a white Victorian hotel that once was the salon of music devotee Leander Sherman, because she won't let journalists into her homes or to follow her through a typical day. In other words, to see the real Danielle Steel.

And yet she is real enough to her adoring public to have been named one of the 10 most influential women in the world in a 1981 national poll of college students. To have a million copies of her newest novel printed in hardcover, with an additional 4 million slated for paperback. To have 85 million copies of her books in print worldwide.

And real enough to be savaged by the critics. "For $15.95, you can have a more meaningful experience at Anaheim's Fantasyland," a Los Angeles Times reviewer said of her 1982 hit, "Crossings."

Sometimes the themes of love and loss are all too familiar despite the different locales, time frames or characters. Often there's too much Cartier jewelry, too many Dior gowns and titled Frenchmen for even glitz-and-glitter addicts to swallow. And when social conscience does surface, it's interchangeably rape, abortion, deafness, adoption or a dread disease. As one reviewer noted about "Family Album," the 1985 novel set in Los Angeles, Steel's idea of poverty is "living in Monterey Park--horrors!--with only one servant--worse horrors!"

Then again, nothing seems to affect Steel's popularity. "It's funny because when Danielle gets together with Sidney Sheldon or Paul Erdman or anybody else," her husband notes, "what they always agree on is once you become successful, you have bad critics."

As Steel herself explains it, "When it's 1:30 or 2 in the morning and I feel like reading something, I don't want to read Thomas Mann. I want to read Jackie Collins. Some long esoteric treatise may be good for your mind, but it's awful hard to read. And after you pass the age of 12, you have enough pressure and stress that you just want something you can flow with."

And to hear Steel tell it, her novels literally flow out of her. She sees herself as a mere medium for plot and characters. "It kind of comes through me," she says mystically. "You write what's in you and you have very little control over it. I sit there writing and the story comes to me and I say, 'Gee, that's really neat. Where'd that come from?' "

An Audible Sigh

Mostly, it comes from her life.

Steel emits an audible sigh as she talks about her lonely life as the only child of rich and unreliable Europeans. Her father, "on the lower echelons" of Munich's Lowenbrau beer dynasty, was a playboy who preferred going to the opera in white tie and tails to work. "This was a matter of great concern to his family," she says pointedly.

Her mother, she says, was the daughter of a high-ranking Portuguese diplomat. The pair met and married in New York, where Steel was born. "It was very noisy," she says of their marriage.

They divorced "politely" when she was 7 and Steel went to live with her father. "They flipped a coin and he won," she says. Her mother moved back to Europe. "I saw her over the years. I didn't see a lot of her, but I saw her," Steel says in a voice noticeably empty of emotion. Her mother is still alive; her father, she says, "is at the big party in the sky."

Hers was an unusual childhood, "a very adult kind of childhood," she says.

She would attend the grown-ups' dinner parties, listen to the discussions of politics, or watch illicit romances blossom. "I was very shy. Besides, nobody was going to talk to an 8-year-old. So I became sort of a fly-on-the-wall observer at an early age. Looking back on it now, I think it's probably what made me a writer."

But before she would become a writer, she set to make her mark in the fashion world as "the new Chanel." With the benefit of an education at French lycees and a snooty Swiss boarding school, she returned to New York to enroll at the Parsons School of Design and New York University, where she studied French and Italian literature.

Eventually, writing would prove to be more satisfying than fashion, "because I didn't have to do darts anymore." But, in the interim, at age 17, she opted for the security of marriage to a wealthy French-American banker 10 years her senior.

Nine years and one daughter later, the marriage ended. Today, she believes the break-up was inevitable because she was "ridiculously young."

"It's like if you buy a puppy not quite knowing what it is and you take it home and it turns out to be a giraffe. When we met, I was going to school. I was very well behaved. And then I did everything to the poor man but grow two heads."

In 1969, after taking on a few odds jobs to get out of the house, she began writing--poetry, fables, free-lance articles. John Mack Carter, then editor of the Ladies' Home Journal, urged her to write a book. "I thought he was crazy," she recalls. "But about six months later, I decided to try it, more as a lark than anything else."

Her First Novel

At age 25 she finished her first novel, "Going Home." It was not instantly published. Simon & Schuster bought it in 1973 for $3,500, but sales were only "OK," she admits. Even so, she was encouraged and turned out five more novels. Fifteen different houses rejected them.

"I kept trying to figure out each time what it was that wasn't working," she says. "Even now I still don't know."

In 1977, Dell bought "Passion's Promise," which sold very well in paperback. From then on, she became something of a cottage industry, producing at least two, usually three and sometimes even four novels a year. She moved to San Francisco with her daughter "because it was far from my mother and my ex-husband, and that's what I loved."

By her own account, she lived "a very quiet life. A solitary life. Friends would say, 'You have to go out more, meet people,' and here I was alone in my house with my child writing books and never meeting anyone. And I was always saying that I'm waiting for Prince Charming to come up and knock on my door.

"Well, he did, much to my amazement."

(In the meantime, there was a false start. In 1977, she met and married an alcohol and drug abuse counselor; two years after the birth of their son, they were divorced. It is a marriage she clearly doesn't wish to discuss. "Alzheimer's has come on," she says, dismissing the subject.)

Enter John Traina and once again her biography takes a romantic turn: Successful author meets "San Francisco shipping magnate." In reality, he then owned the Pearl cruise line. Today he directs private investments in the travel business, real estate and Napa Valley vineyards.

Despite their differences--he's sociable, she's shy; he likes to attend parties, she "has to be dragged out by the hair to get me to go anywhere"--they had one thing in common when they met in the late '70s: They were both married to other people.

First her marriage fell apart, then his. "Nobody expected it, because my wife took off with a much older man," Traina says. "Much older and much richer."

"And I moved in and cleaned up," Steel grins. "Two hundred children later, here I am."

Steel loves to joke about the size of their family. "I love children. I love babies. And I always wanted to have a big family but I didn't think I had much of a chance of it. I never thought I'd remarry. By all rights, I should still be sitting there in front of my typewriter."

She already had two children by previous marriages; he had a pair of sons with his first wife. Together they've had five more, including a 14-week-old daughter. Complains Steel: "People are always saying, 'Now which ones are the real children?' "

Talking About Traina

The way she talks about her husband is, well, mushy--more Barbara Cartland than Danielle Steel in tone, and somewhat surprising from a woman who writes about strong female characters. "I couldn't do anything without him," she declares. "He made it all happen."

Before their marriage, "I was selling very well, but there was no big push behind me," she says. Traina, amazed by her lack of business acumen, hooked her up with superagent Morton Janklow. Her advances went from three to six figures and higher. "She was a fairly established author already," Janklow says, "but her instinct was not towards business."

Janklow also worked to re-position her away from her romance-novel image. Gone today are the pink covers of "The Promise" and frilly women in lace dresses. "Zoya," due out this spring, is a historical saga spanning the Russian Revolution to the '50s. It will feature the Romanoff family eagles on a red-and-gold cover.

In the process, Traina, who had never read a Steel novel before they were married and thought her writing was just a hobby, became her sounding board for nearly every character. "I'll talk to him. I'll bounce off him. It's very helpful initially," she says. "And then suddenly I know just who they are and I go off and write about them."

Most recently, he's encouraged her to write more about men in order to lure in male readers.

Yet it is clear that Steel remains firmly in control of her own career and especially her image. Since 1979 she has allowed herself to be photographed only by San Franciscan Roger Ressmeyer, known for his blatantly glamorous portraits. "I print her photos softly," he explains. "She has a real clear idea of the message she wants to project to the public."

Are her photos retouched? "No," Ressmeyer responds.

Would he admit it even if they were? "No," he laughs.

Only rarely does she grant interviews, and never at home. "It gets an icky flavor," she explains. "Instead of seeing the apple sauce dripping from my clothes, they'll focus on an expensive painting. It makes you feel like you've been taken advantage of."

Even so, she's perfectly willing to have Hollywood take advantage of her, at least bookwise. In August, they plan to rent a house in Malibu's Trancas colony, and they openly hope to hobnob with studio heads. "I think that should be the headline of your piece," Steel volunteers. " 'Why Haven't Danielle Steel's Books Been More Commercial in Hollywood?' "

"Crossings" became a mini-series, and two more books have been optioned for TV. "But now it's time for us to go to feature film," she says. "I want to be like the rest of the world and watch them on a big screen with a box of popcorn and my husband."

Fantasy Real Life

In the meantime, her real life seems like something the rest of the world might call a fantasy: the British nanny, smartly outfitted in a pink and white striped cotton uniform; the homes in the Bay Area and Napa Valley; the exotic vacations.

Just that morning, she says, she had admired a pair of antique French crystal lamps in Architectural Digest and impulsively called Paris to place an order. She had calculated their cost at $2,200 for the pair--"which I thought was a little steep to begin with. And then the store told me I'd made a little mistake in my conversion. They were $215,000.

"Would a woman who can't figure out if she's buying a $2,200 lamp or a $215,000 lamp know how much money she has?" She smiles sweetly.

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