Thursday 23 November 2017

Obituary: Jackie Collins

The writer's wit, megawatt glamour and million-selling bonkbusters defined an era

Massive success: Jackie Collins, pictured in 1974, has died aged 77 after a battle with breast cancer
Massive success: Jackie Collins, pictured in 1974, has died aged 77 after a battle with breast cancer
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Talking about cancer was "terribly ageing", she thought, so Jackie Collins didn't bother discussing the illness that would eventually claim her life. To die might be one thing, but to let down one's standards of megawatt glamour was quite another. "If I had a granny haircut," she told an interviewer a few years ago, "and little glasses and looked hideous, I'd probably be taken a lot more seriously. But if you're vaguely attractive and you write, people say, 'Who does she think she is?' They look at the picture on the back of the book and criticise that. It's a snob thing."

It might have seemed odd for an impossibly glamorous woman, frequently dripping in jewels and weighed down with furs, to be the one complaining about people looking down their nose, but when Collins first made her name in the late Sixties, the concerns of her novels - sex, money and scandal - were considered too base for the polite society she moved in. She described herself as "an insider writing like an outsider", and as the younger sister of actress Joan Collins, she already had a window in the LA social scene she wrote about. Literary critics deplored the cliches in her books - Collins' response was to point out that the social scene in LA was populated by cliched characters. Romance novelist Barbara Cartland gave voice to some of the objections to Collins' novels, calling them "evil".

In a memorable exchange on Terry Wogan's chat show in 1987, Cartland launched a broadside against Collins' brand of fiction, asking: "Have you ever thought about the effects on young children?" and "don't you think it's helped perverts?" With winking insouciance, Collins shot back: "I really don't think there's anything disgusting about naked people rolling around on beds. I thought that was what you were supposed to do." Collins' harshest critic of all may have been Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who in 1988, finding her books "too sexy", threatened her publishers with execution.

Some of her plots were fantastical, but Collins said that, if anything, she had written more muted versions of the source material. They were based on real people, she agreed, but she mostly let the gossip columnists speculate as to whom she might have meant. At various times, Warren Beatty, Ryan O'Neal and Mick Jagger all claimed to have inspired one of her most famous characters, The Stud. This week, thoughts inevitably returned to a quote from a decade ago, when she teased: "Maybe (when I die) I'll leave a little box with the real names of the real people - that'd be fun." She called herself "a Bel Air anthropologist".

Collins was said to insist on including at least one sex scene every other chapter in her books and she told an interviewer that she found it impossible to write until her hair and make-up were done. She took grave issue with the charge that her bonkbusters were somehow not sufficiently feminist, however. When 50 Shades Of Grey became a publishing supernova, Collins pointed out that the difference between her and EL James was that "in my books the women kick ass rather than having their asses kicked". She also believed that most people who criticised her books had never read them: "I never said I was a literary writer. I'm a storyteller and I tell stories my way and I think people relate to that. To be literary you have to have huge, boring descriptions and use long words that nobody understands. Shakespeare bored the crap out of me. I much preferred Dickens."

Collins, who was born in 1937, was the middle child of Joe Collins, a theatrical booking agent whose famous clients often visited the house (spurring Jackie's fascination with film stars), and his wife, Elsa. The family were brought up in a basement flat in Marylebone Road, London.

"We weren't an affluent family," she would later say. "My father was a bit of a chauvinist. Like other men, he was always putting women down." She went to the prestigious Francis Holland School but found it hard to fit in. "I wasn't like the other girls. I had one friend a couple of years older than me who taught me everything I know. And the rest of them were just bloody idiots, stupid little girls. In her mid-teens she was expelled from the school for mitching and for blithely waving at a man who had tried to flash her and her friends. 'Cold day today, isn't it?' she told him. The headmistress was not amused, and, Jackie, having ceremonially thrown her uniform off Westminster Bridge into the Thames, turned her attention toward acting.

After playing a few small roles in plays in London and appearing on Britain's first successful soap opera, Compact, she embarked on a career in Hollywood. In Tinseltown she crashed for a while with Joan, who had already made her mark there, and supported herself by working as a model and playing small parts in films. She notched up a number of famous conquests, Marlon Brando among them, but when she failed to get an American work permit so that she could take up a place in 20th Century Fox's academy for budding stars, she returned to London.

Back in Blightie she married Wallace Austin, who had issues with drugs, and had a daughter by him, Tracy. But despite revelling in her new motherhood these were difficult times in her life. Austin suffered from manic depression and died the following year after an overdose of medication that had been prescribed to him. Her own mother would also die that year, leaving Jackie bereft.

Writing proved to be her sanctuary and in 1966 she married Oscar Lerman, a popular American art gallery owner and impresario. He encouraged her to complete her first novel after reading a chapter and the resultant work was The World Is Full Of Married Men, a deliciously lurid romp which was like a literary hand grenade, shaking women from the stultifying gender roles of the Fifties and Sixties. The book was banned in Australia and caused a furore in the UK and the US. Collins put the outcry down to the fact that she was "a woman writing a masculine kind of book instead of a depressed, going-to-the-Cotswolds, having-a-nervous-breakdown kind of book." Jane Austen she wasn't.

The Stud which came out in 1969, and its sequel, The Bitch, followed and both became huge bestsellers as well as notable vehicles for her older sister, helping to pull Joan out of a career slump (people often assumed that Joan and Jackie hated each other but both repeatedly dismissed these rumours). The Santangelo series began in 1981 with Chances, followed up by eight other books revolving around the same family. Speaking recently about the central character, Lucky, she told an interviewer: "I wanted to create a woman who was really strong and bold and ballsy."

The books made her a wealthy woman. The Sunday Times included her on its Rich List, putting her net worth at $93m (€83m), prompting her to respond: "What do you have to f**king do to get off that list? Your kids read it and believe it. I said to them, 'Sorry, I wish'."

In 1990 her second husband, Lerman, was told that he had prostate cancer and after he died, in 1992, she announced that she had become a Buddhist. Two years later she became engaged to Frank Calcagnini, a businessman and old family friend. He died of cancer in 2000.

The illness which had ended her husbands' lives would also stalk Jackie in her old age, although not even Joan knew how serious things had become. As recently as last week, Jackie, who was surprisingly social media-savvy, was tweeting: "#Emmys this weekend. Who do you want to win?" To the last, the author retained her ability to craft memorable quips. On a press tour in the weeks before breast cancer claimed her life, she said, "I refuse to mourn people, because everybody dies. Death and taxes, you can't avoid either".

As to how she wants to be remembered, Collins said: "On my tombstone, I want to have the words: 'She gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure.'" She chuckles wickedly. "Take that as you will."

Sunday Independent

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