Meet the real woman of substance
Published 20/09/2011 | 05:00
At 78, and with another book out, the grand dame of blockbusters, Barbara Taylor Bradford, explains why she still gets up to write at 5am
In a cloud of palest aquamarine, her neck and ears decorated with pearls the size of cherries, the grande dame of the blockbuster takes her place at the centre of the Dorchester's mid-morning deal-makers and gossipers
Barbara Taylor Bradford and the hotel are made for one another. They are both sumptuous and well-preserved, with just that delicious whiff of irregularity under the gloss.
"You know, I am not a jaded person," she says. "I am pleased when something nice happens. I am thrilled when I get this."
She rests a jewelled hand on her latest novel, Letter From a Stranger, where her pink, embossed name is bigger than the title. The books just keep coming, and so do the royalties. This year, she was reported to be worth €208 million.
"Success is very ephemeral," she says, ignoring 32 years' evidence to the contrary.
"Bob [her American husband and tireless promoter] always says: 'You're only as good as your last book, Barbara.' I've got my feet on the ground. I'm not a flibbertigibbet."
Indeed, no. She is 78, but her Yorkshire work ethic is as ravenous as ever, and so is her sense of entitlement.
"I work hard for it," she says. "I would say to anyone who wants to criticise me: fine, but you get up at five o'clock every morning and sit at a desk all day and throw your guts into a book."
She seizes her tumbler of water and holds it up to the light. "See that? It's half full, not half empty. I've been blessed with good health, great parents, and a really wonderful partner. We have been married for 47 years."
Bob Bradford is somewhere up in their suite, trying to read by what his wife denounces as "Belgian lightbulbs", ineffectual energy-saving models imposed on Britain, as she sees it, by Strasbourg.
Bob is a successful film producer in his own right who has managed Barbara's career since she struck gold with A Woman of Substance in 1979, and has made 10 of her books into films. He has an aphorism for every situation and his presence is continually invoked.
When "bitchy women" make snobbish remarks about her fiction, Bob says: "I love you, your friends love you, the readers love you, and the rest of the world doesn't matter."
Not that Taylor Bradford, with 86 million books published in 40 languages and 90 countries, has any need to bother her honey-coloured head about literary snobs. "I tell you what does impress me a little bit," she says, running her finger down the long list of her novels on the flyleaf. "It's when I see this. I think: how did I do it?"
The answer, of course, is obsessive hard graft. She gets up at five, makes porridge and goes to batter the hell out of her IBM typewriter.
Her regal penthouse in East 52nd Street resembles a mini-Blenheim Palace, but she slaves away in her office as if it were a garret.
At 5pm she stops, showers and slips into a kaftan to greet Bob, aged 79, from work. What a trooper.
There were two miscarriages and no children. Could her output have been so colossal if she had been a mother?
"Yes, because I would have had a nanny. I believe in nannies. You have to have drive, you see."
Taylor Bradford is magnificent in her certainties. In print, she may sound like Margaret Thatcher (one of her heroines) at full throttle, but her manner is open, friendly and uncrushing. She looks peachy and well-maintained. Is she vain?
"Yes," she fires back. "I want to look good. I've had Botox in the past and I've had fillers and I use all the creams. I really don't care what people think because it's nobody's business but mine."
She was an adored only child who seems to have imbibed a potent dose of self-belief from her mother. The family lived in Upper Armley, a suburb of Leeds.
They were not-badly-off working-class, but her mother was grooming Barbara for higher things.
She would dress her like a princess, force-feed her books and instruct her in etiquette. "You must never be rude to anybody, Barbara, even if it's the man who comes to pick up the rubbish."
They would go to the theatre and ballet. But above all they would visit local stately homes, most frequently that of Studley Royal, seat of the Marquess of Ripon.
All this suddenly seemed to pulsate with significance when it was discovered years ago that her mother, Freda, was probably the marquess's illegitimate daughter. Her grandmother had been in service at the big house. Neither of them breathed a word of it.
"My mother loved stately homes. But what was this ordinary woman doing taking a child in the '50s to all the stately homes in Yorkshire?"
Barbara could read by the age of four and had a library ticket at six. By 12, she had read all of Dickens and was scribbling herself.
"Hemingway said you can only call yourself a writer when you're paid for what you write. I meet that, don't I? I was a writer from the age of 10."
She left school at 16 and joined the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post.
Soon, they gave her a job as a reporter, with a desk abutting that of the columnist and novelist Keith Waterhouse, who introduced her to the mysteries of expenses. They stayed in touch until he died two years ago.
At 20, looking like a cover girl for Vogue, she hit Fleet Street as fashion editor of Woman's Own.
In 1961, she met Robert Bradford on a blind date. After their marriage, she struggled for years to write suspense thrillers. Then one day, she had a serious talk with herself.
What do I really want to write, she asked. The result was the life-changing A Woman of Substance, a rags-to-riches story in which the saga of Emma Harte seemed uncannily to mirror the tale of her own grandmother.
"If I knew, it was because I'd heard something as a child. My mother never told me. She was ashamed of being illegitimate.
"She was a very proud woman who'd worked hard all her life and was determined I was going somewhere.
"She actually made me what I am. People say to me, 'You're still the same', because I was always well-mannered. It's not all gone to my head."
As far as the literary cognoscenti are concerned, Barbara Taylor Bradford may be a woman of little consequence, but ever so politely she poses a question for an answer: "Do I really care?"
Letter from a Stranger, by Barbara Taylor Bradford (Harper Collins, £17.99)