JACKIE COLLINS: MISTRESS OF SEX (Tatler)
(Original story posted in Tatler)
She sold over 500 million raunchy books and invented the Eighties bonkbuster. In her final interview before her death Jackie Collins told Annabel Rivkin what she wanted to be remembered for…
If you are a woman between 30 and 45, then it is probable that your sex education happened, not in a school biology lab, but between the red-hot pages of a Jackie Collins blockbuster. Yes, there was Shirley Conran’s frankly faultless Lace, with what might be the best line in the history of literature – ‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?’ True, there were Jilly Cooper’s punningly genius and warm-hearted horse-centric bonkbusters. But Jackie? Well, Jackie took the genre by the balls. Jackie, with her raunchily moralistic take on the bad guys getting it (and the good guys getting even more of it), built a one-woman empire on ball-breaking, ball-licking and just good old-fashioned balling.
Thirty-two New York Times Best Sellers. A fortune (vastly overestimated according to her) of £60 million. Mini-series. Movies. Cheesy, but hey… There was a time – younger readers should know – when Jackie Collins and her elder sister Joan bestrode the Atlantic like two gorgeously painted cultural behemoths. Jackie wrote sex. Joan acted sex. The Kardashians have nothing, I mean nothing, on these two in the glamour stakes. Elizabeth Taylor had gone all Larry Fortensky, so Joan was absolutely it. And no woman had ever consistently written such bravely, shamelessly shimmery filth until Jackie wielded her tumescently throbbing pen. Oh God, it was bliss.
And then, in September, quite out of nowhere, it seemed, she died, aged 77. She was just gone. And it was particularly strange because it was one week after she’d been in London on an aggressive promotional tour for her latest book. She died from breast cancer exactly nine days after she had been sitting opposite me on a sofa in a hotel suite, appearing neither sick nor drugged, nor in pain. Talking clearly and confidently about the future. Looking thin – very thin – but not fragile.
‘How come you are so slim?’ I asked. ‘Slimmer than ever before?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she replied, ‘I think I eat well. I eat what I want. Joan came to tea on Sunday and we had the sandwiches, we had the scones, we had the cream. I love cakes.’
This was her final face-to-face interview. And we talked about sex a lot. Not death. Fucking. ‘And when to say fuck it! You learn that as you get older.’ And, oh, how I respect her for the air of complete relaxation and contentment around her, even, reports would suggest, as she was meeting members of her family to finally tell them about her condition and its imminent conclusion. A condition kept secret for six and a half happy, productive Hollywood years. The last chapter in her Hollywood story.And it’s a raunchy story, the one she lived – as are the ones she wrote. Her (endless) sex scenes (wow, those characters have unquenchable libidos) may seem common or garden now, but in 1968? Deplorable. Deviant. Disgusting. And from a woman! Well, she was clearly no lady.
Having met this mellifluously generous author, I would beg to differ, but the question remains – how did Joan Collins’s baby sister, a middle-class girl from Regent’s Park, know her way around the literary… anatomy? ‘Joan was the goodie-goodie,’ clarified Jackie. ‘I was the bad little girl. And she was in Hollywood by the time I was thrown out of school.’ The powers that were at Francis Holland School took a dim view of her jumping out of the window to goand lurk in Leicester Square. But the nail in her educational coffin came when she pointed at the resident school flasher’s part and hooted, ‘Cold day, isn’t it?’
Jackie and Joan’s father, Joseph, a South African theatrical agent was not an evolved or encouraging type. He told Joan that she’d be washed up at 23. ‘You’re old enough and ugly enough’ was his standard retort to any question that Jackie asked. ‘I can’t read that!’ said Joseph when The World Is Full of Married Men was published in 1968. ‘I can’t read that language from my daughter. It’s disgusting.’
It was banned in Australia. People took out full-page adverts to voice their umbrage. ‘Miss Collins,’ said Barbara Cartland on Terry Wogan’s BBC1 chatshow in 1987, ‘you are responsible for all the perverts in England.’ To which Jackie purred, ‘Oh, thank you.’
Feline. Softer than Joan, who possesses a real sense of danger. Spikes. Jackie was one of those good-natured naughty girls who just did her own thing. Commissioned her own Hollywood pile, which she called ‘the house that Hollywood Wives [the book that made her name and cemented her following] built. I live my life like a man now. I finally have my freedom and I love it. I have a man for every occasion: if I want to go dancing, if I want to go to dinner, if I want to go do karaoke – but I don’t want anyone moving in. I might have a one-nighter here or there, who knows? If I feel like it.’
One of her first boyfriends when she decamped from London as a teenager to stay with Joan in Hollywood was Marlon Brando, ‘the most beautiful man I have ever seen. It wasn’t a long thing – he had a girlfriend and I had a million boyfriends – but it was, oh, interesting.’ LONGING to know what Marlon Brando was like in bed. Aren’t we all? Come on Jackie… ‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ said Jackie. YAY! ‘In my autobiography, which I’m writing next year.’ Please let it be written down somewhere.
Jackie’s rebellion wasn’t about shoplifting and drinking, it was about ‘climbing out of the window and picking up guys’. Marlon was an aberration. ‘I dated a lot of guys, but not a lot of movie stars. Actors on the periphery, maybe. I liked the wild ones. Guys that lifted weights. Guys who owned car lots, so I could get a cheap car.’Jackie!
Actually, she was married, to schmutter entrepreneur Wallace Austin, by the time she was 23. They had one daughter, Tracy, but he became a speed addict and they divorced in 1964. Not long afterwards, nightclub impresario Oscar Lerman spotted her picture in a magazine and ‘dared to stalk me’. Jackie and Oscar, who married in 1966, became central to late-Sixties London nightlife. Not the toffy Annabel’s crowd but the showbizzy Tramp tribe and the rock ‘n’ roll Ad Lib crew. ‘My husband created Ad Lib and it was the place,’ she said. ‘The Beatles, Eric Clapton. Tramp [another of his clubs] was more Shakira and Michael Caine, George Best, all that lot.’
The Caines took Jackie under their wing when she and Oscar moved to his native Hollywood in the Eighties. They remained her great friends. ‘I had a fabulous party for Michael Caine a couple of years ago, where Scarlett Johansson sang “Happy Birthday”,’ she said. ‘Jack Nicholson was there, and Al Pacino and Hugh Jackman.’ She hung out with Sidney and Joanna Poitier, had girls’ dinner dates with Sharon Osbourne, Kris Jenner and Melanie Griffith. She became part of the Hollywood wallpaper – not exactly on the frontline, but still offering her brand of fictional documentation.
She had two more daughters, Tiffany and Rory, with Oscar, and they were married for 26 years, until his death, from cancer, in 1992. ‘He was a very smart businessman, very settled, perfect for me at that time, because I’d always gone for wild boys. He encouraged me to write. Nobody had ever encouraged me before.’ The air of American opportunity and possibility may also have lubricated her pen. She wrote in the car on the school run. She wrote in bed. She wrote while cooking the children’s dinner, and nearly 50 years later here we are, with the release of The Santangelos, her murder-and-fuck fest of a family saga.
‘Roleplay’ is the advice she offered for a happy marriage. ‘And never come out of character. You say to your husband, “Get your mother to look after the kids – we’re going to meet at this hotel. At the bar.” You meet him. You look different – wear a wig – you have a fantastic time. He’s a travelling salesman or whatever and you’re a businesswoman stopping over for the night. In the morning you leave before he gets up and you never mention it again.’ Speaking from experience? Who knows. Broad brushstrokes. So commercial. Sort of compressed. Perhaps by illness but, more likely, by decades on junkets. Certainly she was bright-eyed and in no rush, despite time being intensely – profoundly – short. And she was interested. Of course she was. Such storytellers always are…
Though thin, nine days before her death, she looked a million dollars. She didn’t travel with a ‘glam squad’, but the bouffant (this was no chemo wig), shoulder pads and bedroom eye-make-up were firmly in evidence. She wore huge triple-hoop diamond earrings, an enormous heart-shaped sapphire pendant and the vast pear-cut-diamond engagement ring given to her by her late fiancé, Frank Calcagnini, who died in 1998. After Frank, she designed and bought her own jewellery, a piece per book. She wrote – longhand – in black pen in a black tracksuit and wore a uniform of black trousers and dark jacket for day, white jacket for night, if she was out. ‘Joan is a force of nature,’ she said. ‘Her idea of a good time is a fabulous lunch followed by a fabulous dinner. That’s my idea of hell.
‘Retirement was a filthy word. She no longer wrote to shock, but she always wrote to titillate. ‘I write sexy things. I don’t write porn. I write sex.’ And she didn’t care what people thought of her. ‘You get smarter as you get older. You get to the stage in life where you go, “Fuck it.” I don’t give a fuck about anything. I do my own thing. I’m happy doing my own thing.’ How would she like to be remembered? ‘As someone who gave people a lot of pleasure…’ Dot, dot, dot, indeed, Jackie. May you rest in peace.