Jackie Collins: Queen of the bonkbuster (Guardian.co.uk)
Written by Emma Brockes. Original Article here.
Jackie Collins writes her books long-hand, in the office of her house in Beverly Hills. Around the room, a mixture of the ordinary and the not so ordinary: family photos, archived photo albums going back 30 years and two large, ornamental panthers, her signature animal. That Collins has a signature animal – outlined on her stationery and on the flyleaf of her books – is of course part of her scrupulously maintained fabulousness; the author of The Stud, Hollywood Wives and The World Is Full Of Married Men is, as well as being a great storyteller, a woman who pays meticulous attention to the marketplace. She enters the room, sleek in a black trouser suit, and says, “How nice to see you again.” We met eight years ago for about two and a half minutes at a launch party. Collins really is very good.
Her latest book, Goddess Of Vengeance, revives her most popular characters, chiefly Lucky Santangelo, the daughter of mobster Gino Santangelo, whose first outing in the novel Chances in 1981 made Collins’s name in America. Lucky is a character who, if encountered early on in life, is never forgotten. I can’t speak for boys but for girls the typifying Jackie Collins experience is finding a copy of Chances on your parents’ bookshelf when you are a bit too young for it and absorbing, open-mouthed, the various gymnastic possibilities of the human body. (There is a scene in Chances in which a teenage sex slave services her client, the memory of which will outlive everything I learned on my degree course.) Now Lucky is back, a woman in her 50s, operating a Vegas hotel empire and still running around with a gun in her handbag. In an era of mealy-mouthed reluctance by women to own their feminism, Collins is refreshingly forthright. “When Lucky came to me I thought, fuck it, I have read so many books where the women are having nervous breakdowns in Harrods and all they can think is, ‘Isn’t it terrible, is he going to marry me?’ – soft, wimpy women. I wanted to write a real kick-ass heroine, and she’s still going strong.”
There was a solid business rationale for this. In 1968, when Collins published her first novel, “women’s fiction” tended to come in the mould of The Pumpkin Eater and The L-Shaped Room, conscientious, painful accounts of women’s interior lives that Collins didn’t or wouldn’t identify with. She had been brought up in a kind of rackety luxury, the daughter of Joseph Collins, a showbusiness manager, and his wife Elsa in a basement flat on Marylebone Road. Neither parent had ambitions for their daughters; Joan, four years Jackie’s senior, was off becoming an actor and Jackie’s earliest ambitions were to climb out of her bedroom window and hang out in nightclubs around Leicester Square. “My mother was a really beautiful woman,” she says, “motherly and kind of laid-back. She would cook lovely dinners. I never saw her read a book. And my father was very handsome, but he was a bit of a chauvinist. Every Friday night they had a card party at our house and I would hide on the trolley – my mother would do this big trolley of food to take in to the men – so I could hear what men said about women. From an early age I got the impression of the double standard, and have been writing about it ever since.”
Collins talks fast, with the polish of the seasoned chatshow guest. She is starting to think about her memoirs and there is about her repertoire – the Regent’s Park flasher, her affair at a young age with Marlon Brando, the time she spent at the Chateau Marmont in her teens – an air of the old Hollywood pro, powered by the philosophy of pull-yourself-together, don’t linger on the bad stuff, keep moving on, dare to dream. It’s this forward drive that makes her books so seductive, but in conversation can lead to some startling compressions.
“I was so young,” she says, of her first marriage, to Wallace Austin: “A lovely guy who unfortunately turned out to be addicted to drugs.” He was bipolar and would ultimately kill himself. “I didn’t know how to save him. I would come home and he would have a note on his chest – ‘I’ve taken an overdose’ – and they would come and take him away. We were together for four or five years. It becomes a blank after a while. For years I couldn’t even talk about it. It was too traumatic. And then I met my wonderful husband Oscar, who claimed he saw my picture in a magazine and flew to England to meet me. I’ll never forget it, we had lunch in Tiberio and he said, ‘I’m going to marry you.’ I said, ‘Typical line!’ And I knew he hated flying. So I said, ‘Let’s get married in California.’ I thought, that takes care of that. We ended up flying to California and getting married.”
It is one of the touching contradictions of Collins’s life that, despite all her racy depictions and voracious heroines, she was married to one man for 26 years. In a funny way she is quite prim. When she gambles, she likes to break even. In the days of her going to her husband’s nightclubs, she would sit on a bar stool and take it all in, the keen-eyed and sober observer. You don’t write a book a year, sell 400m copies and police an extremely workable public persona without a huge amount of discipline. It was Oscar, she says, who first told her she could write. In her 20s she was a “half-assed actress”, traipsing after her sister Joan, playing small roles in British films and TV series such as The Saint and Danger Man. But she didn’t want to be an actor. She wanted to be a writer.
“I got no encouragement. They just sent you to school – nobody would say, ‘How did you do?’ I was top in English composition. Everything else I was two out of 100.” At home, she read – Mickey Spillane, Harold Robbins, Terry Southern and Grace Metalious (who wrote Peyton Place). “One of the people I read was Dickens and I loved the fact that he had all those different characters. My three favourite books were, mmmm, Dickens – well, all of his books, actually – and The Great Gatsby, and The Godfather. And I loved The Adventurers, although Harold’s women were just there to have orgasms for his heroes.”
When she started to write herself, Collins got into the habit of beginning a book and then abandoning it when a better idea came along. It wasn’t until Oscar read the opening pages of The World Is Full Of Married Men and insisted she finish it that she saw something through.
It was published in 1968 and promptly banned in Australia and South Africa. Barbara Cartland called it “filthy and disgusting”. It wasn’t just the sex but the premise of the book in which a man who leaves his wife for his mistress is sent packing when she says she isn’t interested in marriage. “Men were outraged by it, so it was number one within a couple of weeks. A politician, who was in the closet at the time, took out a half-page ad in the Sunday People and said, ‘This is the most disgusting book I have ever read.’ It was great.”
There followed a series of bestsellers, including The Stud, Lovers And Gamblers and The Bitch. It is a source of continued irritation to Collins that she is not taken seriously, not in terms of great literature – she is pragmatic about what she does, which is to keep people reading – but the dismissiveness with which she is treated relative to her peers. Interviewers always go on about her age, she says (early 70s), which she doesn’t think male authors get hammered for and she isn’t pleased with the way her publishers treat her. “As successful as I’ve been lucky enough to be, I still know when I deal with publishers I deal with a double standard.” She has to chase them for better promotion, particularly when it comes to social media, which Collins, with her instinct for PR, has been on to since day one. (She’s a great Twitterer.)
This is, of course, part of her success. Collins is a pop-culture junkie. She records so much TV, she needs four digital recorders. I make the mistake of asking who she ran the teen speak past for her new book (example: “One flat way-out cool rave”) and she looks put out and says, “I’m on all the sites, I watch all the shows, I’m a big Skins fan, love it, I love Shameless. I watch a lot of MTV. I love Gossip Girl. I love 90210. Then I read all the magazines. I just have a feel for it. I can put myself into any age group – I can fall into it. Any gangster. It’s a gift I’ve been given. I like to write a big canvas.”
That has been the appeal of her books, she hopes – “Because I’ve always tried to write for everybody, gay, straight, black, white, Hispanic, whatever.” She could never leave the house again and she wouldn’t want for material, although she is careful never to write too true to life. “If I was going to write about Charlie Sheen, it wouldn’t just be Charlie, it’d be a bit of Charlie, a bit of Robert Downey Jr, a bit of David Duchovny, all mixed up. And then you have an interesting character.” In terms of her writing, the double standard is one from which Collins has, perhaps, occasionally benefited. Before the women in her novels regain the upper hand, they are subjected to a brutality that, from a male writer, might be read as exploitative. It’s something Collins is sensitive to.
“I would never write about – the one thing I could never write about is cruelty to children,” she says. “I just protect children in my books.” I’m thinking of the teenage sex slave in Chances and Collins adds quickly, “I’m talking about under 10.”
She has been in America for more than a quarter of a century, but the English sensibility stills gives her critical distance, both in her work and her lifestyle. She doesn’t loaf around a pool all day, or spend lots of money on clothes – black trouser suits work for her and she sticks to them. She hardly exercises. But isn’t peer pressure to look a certain way in Hollywood irresistible?
“I must be incredibly confident, because I’ve never felt that. You see these women and men – the whole plastic surgery thing – and they’ve got these little fat cheeks, they look like chipmunks. It takes about a year and a half before they look normal again. And you’re like, why are you doing that? What’s the purpose? I don’t get it. Perhaps it’s an English thing.”
Or a writer thing.
“Well, I am amused by it. And I can write about anything I want. I can create anyone I want, kill off anyone. It’s a great power, being able to do that.”
Does she have the splinter of ice? She looks puzzled. Graham Greene’s quote about there being a “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”?
“Oh, really? That’s interesting. Probably I do.”
Collins has three adult daughters. She was a strict mother, she says. She didn’t want Hollywood brats and sent them to a Catholic girls school. “I wanted them to be in school uniform. They’ve really stayed out of the limelight. You’re not going to find a spread of them in Hello! magazine, posing around. I was always there for them, I took them to school, I bathed them every night when they were babies. Although we had a nightclub life, I made sure I was the one who put them to bed or cooked their dinner, took them to school. There were years and years when I got no sleep whatsoever, when I got four or five hours a night. We would be out till 3 o’clock in the morning, and then I’d be taking them to school at 8am. Then writing all day.”
When did they read her books?
“They came home one day and said, ‘Everyone’s reading Hollywood Wives, we want to read it.’ And I said, ‘OK, go ahead.’ And they never criticised me, they just loved it. To this day they want to be the first to read my books.”
Collins’s heroines always triumph in the end, as she herself has done. She’s not one to be introspective, at least not in public. After Oscar’s death from prostate cancer, she married Frank, a businessman and a “very macho guy”. Four years later he went to the doctor for a minor complaint and when he came out into the waiting room, turned to her and said, “I’m fucked.” He died three months later of a brain tumour. “Work was my salvation,” Collins says. “But it was difficult for almost a year even to talk about him. It was too upsetting. After that I just settled into the fact that he’s gone and that’s that.”
She wishes her mother could have lived to see her success – she died before the first novel was published. She would have enjoyed the house in Beverly Hills, Collins says – she designed it herself, inspired by a David Hockney painting. Her sister Joan, when she is in town, lives nearby in an apartment – in fact they had dinner last night. “But then when she’s not here, we’re not in each other’s pockets. We might call each other once every couple of weeks.”
Joan wrote a book, didn’t she? “She’s written two autobiographies. And some beauty books.”
I thought she wrote a novel.
“Yes, I think she wrote a novel as well,” Collins says vaguely. “She did.”
If there is sibling rivalry, it is stoked by what she says are inaccurate press reports about the size of her fortune. It annoyed her when the Sunday Times Rich List estimated her to be worth in the region of £90m. “And then your family sees it. I’m sure my sister believes it every time and is like, oh, my rich sister.”
So she’s not worth that much?
“No. I’ve been writing for many years, but they don’t take into account taxes, then a manager and a PR person and expenses. I probably made a lot of money but I haven’t got a lot of money – I mean, I’m very comfortable.”
Does she take private jets?
“I don’t like private jets. I like good old British Airways.”
Does she have a cook?
“No. I’m a one-man band. I have Jennifer [her assistant], and I have a housekeeper who comes in four days a week. I know it’s a big house, but I like to be alone because I like to wander around while I’m writing. And I like the peace of it. I hate being surrounded by people. I don’t want a stylist, I don’t want any of that. I like just to keep it simple.”
When she visits London, she stays at the Dorchester hotel. Collins hasn’t kept up with UK politics, she says, except “I do think what they’re doing in London is ridiculous, with having people pay to come into the city.”
The congestion charge?
“Yeah, that’s ridiculous. When I used to drive around in London, I had a blue Mustang and it had a secret switch, so I could park it anywhere and the police couldn’t move it because the switch would immobolise the car. That was before clamping.”
As for American politics, she is disappointed in Obama, noncommittal about Hillary Clinton, and likes John McCain: ” I know that’s not too popular to say. But I found him to be an American hero, because I read his books.” When George Bush got into office, she sent him an encouraging note – an odd thing to do, but “nobody knew who he was” so she thought she’d encourage him – and he sent her back an autographed publicity shot. “It wasn’t even signed to me, it was just ‘George Bush’. I thought, what an arsehole. I don’t want your fucking picture.”
She likens her life these days to that of a Playboy bachelor – she does what she likes, when she likes. She would like to take up target practice. She is in favour of girls being taught karate. When she was held up at gunpoint in her car in Beverly Hills, she simply reversed and drove away before the gunman could do anything. “I thought, fuck you, I’m not sitting around for this. I managed to get out of the driveway and zoom off.” (The only outward sign of her panic was that she drove blithely down the wrong side of the road.)
Does she believe in revenge? “Yes, I do. I do believe in revenge. But I also believe in karma. So sometimes you don’t have to take revenge because karma is going to trip them up.”
How long does she give karma to kick in? She laughs. “I’ve never really had to take revenge on anybody. But if I had to, I would. I would have been a vigilante, probably. Yes. I know. I know.”
She wants to call her memoir Reform School or Hollywood. Meanwhile she is working on a tie-in Lucky Santangelo cookbook and a book of glamorous photos she took during the 50s and 60s in Hollywood. We get in the car, a Volkswagen saloon, and drive the few blocks to Mr Chow, her local Chinese restaurant and a Beverly Hills institution, for lunch. When she turns on the engine, loud rock music blares out. You’re a teenager, I say. “I am, I really am,” she says, and looks thoroughly delighted.
• Goddess Of Vengeance by Jackie Collins is published by Simon & Schuster at £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.