When she was younger, Barbara Taylor Bradford refused to wear jewellery to an interview. The author of A Woman of Substance and 25 other global bestsellers did not want to "flaunt" her great wealth. (Estimated to be worth £166m, she was 31st in the 2009 Sunday Times Rich List of the country's wealthiest women.) After a string of sneering profiles in which the bling and not the books was regarded as the story, the former journalist became sensitive.
"Then one day I thought, why do I care what people who don't actually know me write?" As she says this, her steely blue eyes challenge me to follow in the steps of my bitchier predecessors. But who am I to deny the 77-year-old her fun? She is resplendent in turquoise and diamond jewels that add glitter to the fusty light of the Dorchester's dining-room where we are having lunch.
Besides, I actually like the woman seated opposite me. She may look like any other senior millionaire Manhattanite in a smart trouser suit and the kind of glasses that only über-nerds and older ladies can get away with, but she is funny, kind and, beneath the Upper East Side gloss and flawless skin, retains the rugged landscape of her Yorkshire youth.
"I love this book!" she roars at one point, causing other diners to look round. Then she adds, making me almost choke on my roast potatoes: "Anybody who doesn't like this book, I'm going to punch in the face!" She is laughing, a mischievous, I-dare-you-to-write-that kind of laugh. This is not what I expected of a woman falsely rumoured to have heated the lake at her Connecticut home in order to keep the swans warm.
The book in question is Playing the Game, Taylor Bradford's 26th blockbuster, and as romantic and thrilling as the rest. This time, the excitement centres on the international art market and Annette Remmington, a London art consultant whose life is made dangerous by the arrival of sudden fame and the handsome journalist Jack Chalmers.
It is classic BTB: glamorous people in glamorous places doing glamorous things; but beneath the surface hide grubby secrets that threaten to bring their whole world crashing down. Annette is, says her creator, "still a strong woman and independent, but stuck in a terrible situation". The situation is that, at 18, she married the rich Marius Remmington, 20 years her senior and a would-be Svengali to her Trilby. "He tries to control her, but because she is a Barbara Taylor Bradford woman, she's fought and resisted this total control," she adds with the pride of a mother describing a daughter.
Annette is the latest in a long line of feisty heroines, beginning with Emma Harte in A Woman of Substance, who combine the looks of an Angelina Jolie and the business acumen of a Deborah Meaden.
Taylor Bradford loves these women and their stories, referencing them like family throughout the time we have together. As strong women are her forte, I wonder how she feels about the domestic drudges who inhabit much contemporary women's fiction these days? " I'm not interested," she says dismissing them like flies with a flick of her hand. "I know people say I write about women who are rich, but that is not really true. I write about women who become successful."
Pretty much like herself, then? The rise to fame of the woman who was Barbara Taylor is not quite a rags-to-riches story, but her background in Leeds was unremarkable. The beloved daughter of Winston and Freda, who had lost a son to meningitis before she was born, the writer admits that she was spoiled. When I ask about her brother, her voice becomes husky: though her mother died in 1981, thoughts of the sufferings Freda went through (including a spell in the workhouse) retain an emotional charge.
Headstrong, Taylor left school at 15 to work for the Yorkshire Evening Post, where she was taken under the wing of Keith Waterhouse, who taught her how to fiddle her expenses and produce sparkling copy. As she describes it, she sounds like a junior Hildy Johnson, determined to look and act the part: when her mother bought her a mac, she trampled it into the dirt because it was "too new". She giggles like a naughty schoolgirl as she recalls her mother's shocked face.
When our food arrives, she is momentarily distracted. "Oh my goodness, that is some plateful for two hungry women," she exclaims. Like a great aunt indulging a favourite niece, she fusses over me, insisting I try the fiercely hot horseradish sauce and have more gravy "if you need it". I don't, but take it anyway because I want to please her. "Is that all right?" she keeps asking.
In the late 1950s, Taylor arrived on Fleet Street. Had she wanted, she probably could have been its first female newspaper editor, but in 1963 she met Bob Bradford, an independently wealthy American film producer. They met over a curry organised by her then-neighbour, the screenwriter Jack Davies. "We got on like a house on fire. It was like we knew each other," she says of that first meeting. He was, she says, handsome and charming. As she remembers that first date, she smiles more to herself than me.
Forty-seven years later, it is Bob who welcomes me when I arrive at the hotel. He is full of the cruise they have just taken in the Mediterranean. "It was wonderful," he says in a deep voice which retains a hint of his German roots and French education. His wife was less enamoured of the trip. "I do these things for Bob," she confides, laughing.
They had wanted children, but after two miscarriages Taylor Bradford never got pregnant again. Whether it was this which turned her from writing children's books to writing A Woman of Substance she does not say. It feels too raw a question. So I ask instead whether she misses not having had children, adding that I feel crass asking the question. There is no rancour in her reply. "It's a normal question," she assures me. "There have
been times in the past when I have missed having a child. Bob said something very true: you don't miss a person you've never known. But we both said how terrible it would be if you had a child who died or had been abducted." It seems a strange sort of comfort, until I remember that she witnessed her parents' pain at the loss of a child.
Given her phenomenal work ethic (she writes every day and produces a book a year), children would have been a distraction. A self-described feminist, Taylor Bradford admits that something has to give if you want to be successful. "I read recently about Emma Thompson having been quoted saying you can't have it all – and I don't think you can," she says. "You can have your husband and children and work, but you can't have a social life."
Other feminists may baulk at her assertion that to be a successful woman "you need a good husband", but what she means is that women should not be burdened by everything; that they need a partner's support. For Taylor Bradford, it meant that she could write while Bob took care of the business side of things. He has recently relinquished his control over this aspect of her career, handing publisher negotiations over to the literary agent Jonathan Lloyd of Curtis Brown, though he remains involved in producing the screen adaptations of her books.
Through Bob, Taylor Bradford became one of a handful of novelists whose name goes above the title in screen adaptations. Such a level of success and fame means that she does not have to work. And now Bob is taking it easier, it would be natural to assume that she will follow suit. She looks shocked at the suggestion.
"Danuta, look," she says, tapping a bejewelled finger on the table. "People say to me, 'Why do you still work? You don't have to, you are rich and famous.' I say, 'Forget all that! What would I do all day?' I have worked from the age of 15, what am I going to do? Go out shopping? Have lunch with girlfriends?"
Playing the Game, By Barbara Taylor Bradford (HarperCollins £17.99)
'...Marius Remmington. He knew Annette was afraid of him, but he did not understand why. Her husband was manipulative and controlling – that he knew from the gossip about Marius – yet something more than this seemed to scare her. She kept saying that Marius would never let her go, never divorce her. But she could just walk out, couldn't she?'Reuse content