BOOK REVIEW / The other side of Millionsville: He writes bestsellers and is very rich. Peter Guttridge meets Sidney Sheldon

AT THE AGE of 75, Sidney Sheldon is probably the wealthiest author in the world, a multimillionaire with homes in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and London. His novels - among them The Other Side of Midnight, Bloodline and his latest, The Stars Shine Down - are translated into 56 languages and sold in 100 countries. Each one tops the US bestseller lists and sells in the millions. The Other Side of Midnight has sold eight million copies and counting.

Faced with such statistics, questions about his novels' literary qualities seem both churlish and irrelevant. Face-to-face with Sheldon, who greets you in the hallway of the Eaton penthouse apartment he bought from Andrew Lloyd Webber, you suspect such questions won't get you very far.

For Sidney Sheldon is a professional interviewee. He looks good - tall, broad-shouldered, with a shock of white hair, a slightly pink face, navy blazer and maroon tie. He talks well. A veteran of scores of whistle-stop US publicity tours and hundreds of chat shows, he needs only the most generalised question to set him off on a string of anecdotes, amusingly delivered in a well-modulated voice, with appropriate pauses for dramatic effect. He is very charming, and deflects anything remotely probing. If you persist, is there impatience behind his bonhomie? Is it perhaps the same asperity that makes the maid so nervous when she accidentally drops a coffee spoon on the floor. Sheldon stops talking. Silence. 'Sorry, sir,' she says in a tiny voice. A pause, then Sheldon resumes his anecdote with a smile.

But these are slight moments in an entertaining hour's anecdotes from, you remember, a master storyteller. And what makes Sheldon so interesting is the extraordinary life he led before writing novels, encompassing poverty in Chicago and New York and major successes on Broadway and in Hollywood. 'I was born in Chicago during the Depression,' he begins. 'My father was a salesman who moved around a lot. I went to a lot of different schools but I was the first one in our family to go beyond third grade.'

At first Sheldon dreamed of being a songwriter. While working as a hat-check attendant in a hotel in Chicago, aged 17, he gave the bandleader one of his songs. The man liked it, orchestrated it and included it in his repertoire. Excited by this, Sheldon persuaded his parents to let him go to New York to be the next Irving Berlin.

He got nowhere with the music publishers in New York, but he did see a lot of movies and aspired to the lifestyle he saw on the screen. Next stop Hollywood, as an aspiring scriptwriter.

'Naturally, I couldn't get past the studio gates, though I visited them all. Then someone told me about readers, who wrote synopses of books for busy producers. I'd just read Of Mice and Men so I sent a synopsis to every studio. Within three days I had a job at Universal.' Sheldon established a routine: up at 5am to write scripts before going into Universal to spend the day as a reader. The scripts were bought by low budget 'B' picture companies. At 18, he was an established screenwriter.

After war service, he and co-writer Ben Roberts went to New York where they were asked to write the script for a stage revival of The Merry Widow, to be choreographed by George Balanchine. It ran for 18 months. They had two other hit shows running on Broadway at the same time. Sheldon was by now 25. He hankered after a return to Hollywood and came up with a script which David Selznick bought and filmed as The Bachelor and The Bobby Soxer. It starred Cary Grant and won Sheldon the Best Screenplay Oscar for 1947.

'Over the next 12 years I wrote scripts for them all - Grant, Astaire, Crosby, Judy Garland. I was good friends with Grant, whom I later directed.' His screenplays included Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun and Anything Goes. By the time he left MGM to join the nascent television industry, he was also a producer/director.

In television he plugged straight into the mainstream, creating four long-running television series, including Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie. He moved into novel writing in the late Sixties when he had an idea for a story that he could not see working on the screen. The Naked Face was turned down by five different publishers. When it was eventually published it won an Edgar Allan Poe award and sold 17,000 copies. His agent was very pleased. 'I said, excuse me but I've had a show on the air for five years watched by 20 million people a week. I'm not thrilled with 17,000. I made no money on the book but I had such a wonderful sense of freedom. So I wrote the next one with no expectations.' He pauses deliberately. 'That was The Other Side of Midnight and it changed my whole life.'

The Other Side of Midnight has as its main character a strong, beautiful woman who struggles against all the odds to move from rags to riches. She is a Sheldonian archetype, and reappears in some form as the main character in all of his fiction. 'I like women who are strong but retain their femininity.' he says, 'I have met so many women like that. People like Sherry Lansing (the Hollywood film producer), my first wife Jorja (who died) - and Alexandra, my second wife.' (Alexandra, a former child actress, is sitting at the other end of the table, a beautiful but disconcertingly silent witness to the interview.)

Women make up 60 per cent of his readers. Another fan is the US President-elect, who has just sent Sheldon a note - signed Bill - thanking him for his latest book and saying how much he was looking forward to reading it once he had a little spare time. For such readers Sheldon works non-stop, with his next three books already mapped out. Admittedly, much of this work involves travelling around the world with Alexandra doing background research on the glamorous lifestyles his characters usually end up leading. Even so, why doesn't he retire? 'Writing is my life. I go down to Palm Springs to relax, by the third day I'm restless. I want to go back to work. When I finished The Stars Shine Down, I told all my friends I was taking a year off. They bet me I wouldn't. I paid out over dollars 3,000.'

The kind of drive he has exhibited in his life would, in his fiction, relate to some childhood unhappiness or trauma. He isn't about to reveal anything like that about himself, although there is perhaps a hint when he talks about his parents. 'My mother, Natalie, was remarkable. She wasn't creative but she loved to read. And she worked, selling dresses in Chicago, until she died, aged 75.'

Was his father proud of him? Sheldon pauses, though not this time for dramatic effect. 'My father was different - I don't know how to describe him. He was proud of my success. When Jeannie was on he told me all his friends liked the show. But he wasn't around too much. He moved around a lot.'

He then tells a story about his first piece of published writing. 'When I was 10, I wrote a poem and asked my father to send it to a kid's magazine I used to read. He sent it under my uncle's name - I think my father was afraid they might reject it and it might somehow reflect on him.'

That's the nearest he comes to any personal revelations. Perhaps he is saving them for his autobiography, scheduled as the book after next. How long does he anticipate it will take? He gives an avuncular smile. 'Well, it's taken me 75 years so far.'

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions