In 1964, Bel-Air homemaker Jacqueline Briskin took a night class at UCLA Extension called “The Craft of Fiction” because she thought it was a literature-appreciation course. To her surprise, it was not about reading novels but writing them.
She learned the lesson well. Her first published novel, the 1970 “California Generation,” hit bestseller lists, as did her subsequent books.
Though her sprawling, family sagas — usually featuring the trials and travails of the wealthy and powerful — might not show up on college syllabuses, they were undeniably popular, selling more than 20 million copies worldwide.
Briskin, 87, died Dec. 24 at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. She suffered a heart attack the day before Thanksgiving, said her daughter, Liz Briskin.
Jacqueline Briskin took the UCLA class because her husband Bert Briskin — a pioneer in the self-serve gas station business — was enrolled in a stock market class at the same time. They had three children and she wasn’t considering writing as a career.
“I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I found myself absolutely fascinated with writing,” she said in a 1982 Times interview. She praised the instructor, Times book critic Robert Kirsch, as a “great teacher,” but said the timing — she was in her mid-30s — also might have been right.
“Maybe I was at the time of life when I needed to do something else,” she said.
After the class, Briskin wrote a novel that she tossed after the first draft, then spent two years trying to sell short stories without success. “I set a deadline,” she said. “I gave myself until age 40. If I hadn’t sold anything by then, I’d quit.”
Finally, a story sold, and that seemed to open the gates. “Eventually I sold everything I wrote,” she said, and publishers started calling to see if she had a novel.
Briskin, who typically started her writing day as soon as her children were off to school, wrote “Rich Friends,” a tale of the fabulously wealthy Van Vliet family in California that Briskin would feature over several generations in other novels.
It didn’t sell at first and she wrote “California Generation,” again starring the Van Vliets. It took place during the 1960s youth rebellion, and for research she arranged to live for a while in a UC Berkeley dorm.
When it was published, only six years after the writing class, Briskin was suddenly a successful author. “The publisher invited us to New York, we had a room at the Plaza Hotel overlooking Central Park, and they threw a big party for us,” she said in 1980.
“It was a whole new world for me.”
She was born Jacqueline Orgell on Dec. 18, 1927, in London. Her father was a silversmith and in 1937 moved the family to Beverly Hills where he started Spencer Orgell Silversmiths on Wilshire Boulevard, attracting movie stars among his clientele. Jacqueline grew up with stars as neighbors and her best friend was Susie Gump, of the family that owned the famed Gump’s high-end emporium in San Francisco.
Jacqueline graduated from Beverly Hills High School and enrolled at UCLA in pre-law, but quit after two years to marry Bert Briskin.
After her initial success as a novelist, he quit his work to become her agent, negotiating deals that included not only seven-figure advances, but also guaranteed amounts to be spent on promotion.
California was the setting for most of her novels, including the 1978 “Paloverde,” which begins in the 19th century and carries on through the birth of Hollywood and World War I. But her 1982 “The Onyx” is set in Detroit and follows a family through a half-century of the auto business.
Her plots included betrayal, vengeance, greed, murder, twins (one good, one evil) and sex scenes that were graphic for the time. Liz Briskin said it seemed difficult to believe that her petite, Bel-Air mom was writing those passages. “It’s kind of hard to reconcile they were the same person,” Liz Briskin said this week.
Literary critics were not always kind, but even those who disparaged her convoluted plots praised her skill as a wordsmith. In his Times review of “Rich Friends,” which was published in 1976, Bart Paul wrote, “Miss Briskin brings a serious tone and a degree of skill all too rare in these aspirant epics.”
In the mid-1990s, after 12 published novels under her own name, and two under the nom de plume Diane Du Pont, Jacqueline Briskin retired to take care of her husband, who was in declining health because of Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 2004.
Besides her daughter Liz, who lives in Sebastopol, she is survived by her sons, Ralph of Emeryville and Richard of Mill Valley; and four grandchildren.