Ex-Actress Portrays Sex, Greed, Glitz in Newport Setting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a place "where luxury knows no limits and only the best is good enough."

Welcome to Newport Beach, "one of the West's ritziest oases," as author Jocelyn Christopher has Robin Leach, that toady-to-the-rich-and-famous, rhapsodize at the beginning of "Private Dancers" (Dell; $3.95), her sex-, glitz- and megabuck-laced contemporary romance novel.

Now meet the Pearls, Newport's most fabulously wealthy family:

Here's oil magnate Barton J. Pearl, confidant of presidents, "a man of unlimited power, ruthless propensities, and dangerous tastes that run from drug smuggling to dark desires."

Here's Pauline Pearl, Barton's ex-wife and doyenne of Newport Beach society, the no-longer young but still "scheming beauty obsessed with buying priceless things--including a son's love and a man's passion."

Here's Gregory Pearl, the adopted son, "a rising rock star hooked on cocaine, whose one hope for reclaiming his life is the girl his mother wants to ruin."

And don't forget Brittany Pearl, the adopted daughter, a pill-popping "pampered debutante ready to marry one man while being lured into the bed of his best friend."

For a Los Angeles-based writer whose prose bathes the fictional Pearl family in a deep purple haze, Newport Beach was an irresistible setting for her new paperback novel.

"I was very intrigued by it," Christopher said in Costa Mesa last weekend. "I do write about life styles of the rich and depraved, first of all, and I just kind of felt that everybody had read and said almost everything there was to know about Beverly Hills. I had seen enough of Newport Beach that I knew that here was this sort of great enclave of very, very wealthy people who live in quite a different style than Beverly Hills."

Newport Beach, according to the Canadian-born former actress, who managed to pick up a proper British accent while living in England for six years, does not have the "theatricality" of Beverly Hills.

"I mean it's not basically a show-biz place as such, and also it's more homogenous because Los Angeles, since it is a film community, attracts a lot of creative people from Europe and New York. So this is almost just moneymaking for the sake of moneymaking and very stratified simply on that basis.

"It's obviously also more conservative, I would say. And yet beneath the veneer of conservatism, I felt that from the point of view of a trashy novelist there was just as much going on here perhaps as in Beverly Hills, where you would more expect it."

Christopher was speaking over a Caesar salad and a glass of white wine at Pronto Grill in South Coast Plaza after a two-hour book signing at Brentano's that netted her eight book sales. She was not too disappointed by the turnout, which is about average for an author whose name does not have the recognition factor of a Jackie Collins or Judith Krantz.

"People feel self-conscious (about asking for an autograph) if they don't recognize you," Christopher said good-naturedly. "Funnily enough, the best (signing) I had was in a supermarket, for some reason."

Although it flashes back to Barton and Pauline Pearl's early years, "Private Dancers" is set primarily in 1979 and '80.

"It was kind of the beginning of the 'greed is good' era, which I wanted to capture," Christopher said. "It's also kind of a pre-AIDS era, where people felt they could do 'anything'--experiment with their sexuality, be very promiscuous--and we hadn't yet learned about all the risks and the downside. I just wanted to focus in on that time also, of unbridled lust and unbridled greed just running rampant."

The steamy world of contemporary romance seems an unlikely genre for a University of Toronto English literature graduate who also attended Oxford University in England.

Christopher said she abandoned Oxford after being "just utterly seduced by the theater and the London stage." She arrived in Hollywood in the mid-'80s and turned to writing three years ago when, she readily admits, her acting career "was not going that brilliantly and I was low on funds."

"At the same time," she said. "I had had kind of a charmed life, so even though I had never been super-rich I tended somehow or other to have had the opportunity to meet a lot of these people and I had a lot of interesting, hot gossip.

"I'd be telling this (gossip) to my friend, and at the same time moaning and groaning about my sad status in the acting world, and he just said, 'I have no sympathy for you. You've got your degree in English literature and you've been to Oxford, and all these stories you've been telling me sound as though they were out of 'Hollywood Wives.' Why don't you sit down and make them into a novel."

Figuring that if she was going to write a Jackie Collins type of novel she had better read one, Christopher bought a copy of Collins' steamy "Hollywood Wives." But when she got to what appears to be an incest scene, she slammed the book shut. "I said, 'This is terrible. I can't read this.' I took it back to the bookstore and said I want my money back."

Christopher went ahead and wrote about 300 pages of a novel and on the strength of that she was able to interest Mel Berger, now her agent with the William Morris agency.

"He really liked it, but he said, 'Now look, you've got some problems with your character development and this and that. I'm not sure I can represent you, but if you work on this show it to me again.' He said, 'I really think you should get ahold of 'Hollywood Wives' and see how Jackie Collins handles it.'

"So I went and bought it again. This time I sort of read it with a different eye and I do now appreciate she's pretty damn good at what she does."

Christopher's first novel, also for Dell, was "Strange Sins," a sex-filled contemporary romance set primarily in Beverly Hills, about a Broadway producer who breaks into the film business.

Christopher said she spent about three months in Newport Beach in early 1988 observing the social scene of what she has since described as "the ultimate paradise for passionate indulgence."

"Of course it was fun," she said with a giggle. "You do hear incredible gossip. Maybe it's my English accent that helps me out. People just tend to tell me things. I don't know why."

Christopher said she originally assumed Newport Beach "is such a conservative place, I thought maybe I was going to have to make some of this up."

"But I didn't," she said. "In fact, I could write another couple of volumes."

As for the characters in "Private Dancers," Christopher said, "Let's say at least part of all the characters correspond to somebody I might have met in Newport Beach, but they're also composites of people I've met elsewhere."

With another giggle, she added: "You can't do just a caricature of one person and not wind up with a libel suit around your neck."

Although Vanessa, the ravishingly beautiful young dancer, is the heroine of "Private Dancers," she is overshadowed by the memorably wicked Pauline Pearl, who drives around in a cognac-colored Silver Shadow and thinks nothing of picking up a $20,000 flame-pink beaded Bob Mackie gown at Amen Wardy's to wear to a party.

"She's quite a character, yes," Christopher acknowledged with a laugh. "She's even stranger in fact than in my fiction, if you can believe it."

So there's a real Pauline Pearl lurking among the racks at Amen Wardy's?

"She's based on several real people as they all are," said Christopher, "one of whom is down here, yes."

And how would the author describe the perilously possessive Pauline?

"Utterly rapacious," she said with a grin. "There just seem to be a lot of people for whom too much is never enough. And that's fascinating to me because it's almost like no matter what they have, there's always somebody that has something more. And they don't focus in on what they have and what they've achieved and how happy they should be, but on what somebody else has. It's always the next car, the next yacht, the next helicopter. There's always something. So almost always the seed of their own misery is right in this mad acquisitiveness."

But don't take Christopher's portrait of Newport Beach too seriously.

"You have to understand there are lovely people down here and I did meet lovely people down here," she said, "but a book about lovely people is not, perhaps, what I set out to write."

Christopher said she is a third of the way through her next novel, the "saga of a super-rich family" set mainly in Venice, Italy. It's the story "of how the family almost disintegrates over time through the stress of their wealth and greed." With a laugh, she added: "So greed is definitely my favorite topic."

And what's the fascination about writing about the fabulously rich for a woman whose literary heroes are Henry James, Dostoevsky and Dickens?

"I think there is a market for it, for one thing, to be totally crass," Christopher said. "And I'm not immune from this fascination by any manner of means. I think we'd all like to know what it would be like, just for a week, to wake up in this fabulous mansion and have servants at your beck and call and be able to say, 'I'm going to Paris.' Plus, everybody works so damn hard nowadays for their money. I think even more so within the last five years: Just kind of running really hard just to stay in the same place.

"So I think people have this deep need for romance and fantasy in their lives. Me too. Above all."

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