INTERVIEW; She's a friend of Norman Mailer and is the richest Englishwoman after the Queen. Her name is Barbara Taylor Bradford

John Walsh meets a woman of substance. Picture by Dillon Bryden
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The phone rang three times in the Claridges suite during my chat with Barbara Taylor Bradford. Each time, she answered it with a gesture that, my memory told me, had once seemed the quintessence of chic. She swooped across the carpet like a practical-minded Valkyrie, seized the shrilling handset, tilted her magnificent head through 45 degrees and unsnapped a vast pearl-and-diamond earring as, in a single fluent gesture, her other hand applied the receiver to her fragrant, bijou-free ear. It took a moment to register that it's just what Alexis Colby, played by Joan Collins, used to do in Dynasty.

Mrs Bradford - or "BTB" as she is invariably styled by her publishers, making her sound something between an illness and a company chairman - is often accused of living in a soap opera; more precisely, of living in the world delineated in her own novels, with their elegantly loaded, entrepreneurial dames and mahogany-complexioned husbands, their immaculately furnished living-rooms and stiffly implausible passions. She can, of course, afford to be. The prima donna assoluta of modern female saga-writing, she is said to be the richest English-woman after the Queen, her personal fortune estimated at anything up to pounds 625m. The combination of huge world sales, bogglesome advances (a three-book deal for pounds 20m was negotiated with HarperCollins in 1992; it's almost time for a new one) and television rights to mini-series (the personal forte of her gravelly, Germanic husband Bob) brings wads of moolah in every post. Last year alone she netted pounds 11.9m.

Her books have always been successful, beginning with the stratospherically best-selling A Woman of Substance, in which a kitchen maid called Emma Harte builds a global business empire with nothing more than Yorkshire grit and innate good taste. The titles of subsequent books have harped on the concept of endeavour - Hold the Dream, To Be the Best, Act of Will, Everything to Gain - although their initial inspirational message, of "You-too-can-run-IBM-while-remaining-true-to-yourself", has matured into a more complacent, domestic murmuring.

Her later books feature, like a leitmotif, a woman of settled riches drifting through her gorgeous home noting with approval ("I've always loved this room") the harmonious interior decor. Their plots may lurch off into lurid murders, their walk-on characters may be the purest cardboard (Irishwomen will preface every remark with "to be sure"; the inhabitants of the Yorkshire dales are "canny, down-to-earth folk"), their conversations may lack any spark of interest or amusement, but those moments of heartfelt, Ideal Home self-congratulation ring with utter conviction.

Taxed with this judgement, the author bridles. "The books are about much more than that, and you know it. People are touched by the feelings and emotions in my books. Some say, you don't have any mundane details about everyday life in your books, and I say, 'No, because then nobody would read them'." Her multitudinous fans, luckily, appreciate her for much more than literary style. "People say, 'You changed my life: when I read A Woman of Substance, I became a different person, I thought, if Emma can do it, so can I.' A woman in Atlanta said something very nice to me: 'My daughter is 18,' she said, 'and I told her, if you want to understand about love and sex, read Barbara Taylor Bradford'." One feels that Atlanta will feature, in a year or two, a young woman comprehensively disillusioned about many things including coup de foudre love, male wooing techniques and the incidence of simultaneous orgasm.

It's easy, and shockingly tempting, to ridicule Mrs Bradford, as she glides with designer-Dalek smoothness through a life of riches, fame and high connection. She wears her riches comparatively lightly, once you've got past the single-rope pearl necklace, the gold-and-emerald bangle, the huge diamond ring and telephone-defeating earrings. When in London, she always stays in Claridges (a favourite setting in her books) because, "I like the decor and the restaurant. I'm a creature of habit. And I always stay at the Plaza Athenee in Paris because for months we lived there when Bob was running a film company in the Sixties." Of course. She hates shopping, though she may visit "Emma's store" - which is Harrods, her first heroine's emporium of choice - and Hermes, for its scarves and handbags. She likes to inspect galleries, especially Richard Green's for the "French contemporary Impressionists" that she and Bob collect.

But amazingly she comes across, through all this, not as a monster of smug consumerism, but as a straight and rather sweet-natured person who has learnt some defensive, role-playing skills to fend off the outside world. During our talk, she sat on a sofa with a velvet cushion clasped to her side, part comfort blanket, part bolster between herself and the smart-alec Press. She's a big, pretty woman of 62, with a volcanic, ash- blonde meringue of hair, merry eyes and a brilliant smile, and is not above flirting with her interrogator ("Did anybody ever tell you, you look like a young James Coburn?"). She shares with her characters an endearing compulsion to explain things that require no explanation - that the Place Vendome, where she got her blue frock, is pronounced "plaice" over here, but "plass" in Paris, that the art deco movement was in the 1920s...

Her social acquaintances are pretty starry these days. When in France they lunch with Pamela Harriman, the former political horizontale turned American ambassador ("She's 72 and she has this thing which Vivien Leigh apparently had, of never taking your eyes off the person you're talking to").

In Manhattan they dine with Norman Mailer ("We have a good laugh together. He flirts with everybody"). She hasn't met the Queen yet but knows Princess Margaret. Oh, and Liz Hurley had a walk-on part in the mini-series of her book Act of Will. There should be no reason why she would ever leave her adopted country of America, with her $3m Manhattan apartment and rural Connecticut retreat. So why has she come all this way (interrupting a knackering multi-city, book-promoting progress from Washington to Atlanta to New York) to pick up an honorary D Phil from the University of Bradford? "It's a great honour. When they wrote and asked, I said to Bob, 'Why do I need another one?' - I've already got an honorary degree from Leeds, the keeper of my archive [she does not bat an eyelid at this dangerous aside] - and he said, 'They might be hurt if you didn't.' But I think they're giving it to me just because I'm a Yorkshire writer. At Leeds they said it was for my 'contribution to popular literature'." Did the qualification bother her? "No, I write popular fiction. It's very hard to do, and I'm proud of it." She lifted her handsome chin. "I'm not like some popular women writers who decide they're too good to write it now." Such as? "Well - Colleen McCullough, say. She had a wonderful success with The Thorn Birds, a marvellous popular novel, and now she's gone very serious."

Did she aspire to writing differently? Did she want to write like, say, Anita Brookner one day? "No. Although it's not true to say that I don't do different things. For instance, my new novel Dangerous to Know [in which a smart, mature, decor-fancying artist investigates the death of a handsome, sexy, world-conquering philanthropist with two nasty children] has four narrators." Does the Bradford degree make her regret that she never went to university, as her parents had wished? "I don't regret anything I've done," she said with a firmness, like a portly Piaf. How about things you haven't done? "It was a conscious decision. How was I ever going to get a training on a newspaper if I didn't work on one."

The question is rhetorical, since a university education in the early Fifties surely offered no great obstacle to becoming a journalist. But it pitches Mrs Bradford back to the days when she was a supremely determined 15-year-old from North Armley, near Leeds, who got a job in a typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post, wrote little stories about local characters and was shunted to the features desk. Unstoppable at 16, she was taken up by Keith Waterhouse ("He had brilliant red hair, very unruly. He was very sweet to me. We'd go to the Kardomah Cafe in Leeds and have beans on toast") and made it to London, still only 20, as fashion editor of Woman's Own. She is clearly proud of the teenage nous she so precociously displayed, a template for the single-minded idealism of all her female protagonists.

She is also obviously fixed on her parents, Freda, a nanny, and Winston, a naval man invalided in the First World War. They were a constantly squabbling couple. "He was very good-looking. He had a fatal charm, a real Jack-the- lad, and my mother would get terribly jealous." In both her two most recent books, the heroine remembers a childhood trauma of expecting her father to leave for ever. Was this drawn from life? "I think it must spring from the war years. We had an air-raid shelter at the end of the garden. My mother and I would go in with a torch and I'd worry about where my father was. Usually he was down at the pub, locked in during the raid, and then we'd hear his step down the garden."

Mr Taylor's artificial leg occasioned his daughter an unhappy moment. "When he died at 81, my mother said, 'Your father wanted his leg taken back to the hospital', so my uncle drove me there with it, and three spare legs, and when I handed them over, I just broke down in floods of tears. It was like giving away part of him and myself." In the odd way of squabbling couples, Mrs Taylor died five weeks after her husband, of a broken heart. Barbara - you inevitably wind up calling her Barbara - still visits her home turf, unsentimentally.

"I go back from time to time, but I've not much reason to, except to see my aunt and uncle and my cousin, and some friends in Ripon where my mother was from." But she disdains any notion that she's left her "roots" for the towers of Manhattan. "You must remember I became a completely different person when I went to London. I lived there for 10 years. I didn't go from Leeds to New York. I'm very far removed from Leeds now."

She is sensitive to accusations that she's become "grand", mostly because there's a whole cuttings file of skewed fantasies about her lifestyle. She still believes in bargains, she says. She doesn't waste money, even on her main indulgence, which is (naturally, given her heroines' fetishistic obsession with the stuff) antiques: "Right now I'm very fond of Biedermeyer, early 19th-century, lots of fruit woods trimmed with mahogany." The bars of soap in her apartment are used right to the end. She has her hair done twice a week by John Frieda in New York, and has her own make-up artist for television appearances.

She does not, on the other hand, possess 2,000 pairs of shoes like Imelda Marcos, as once reported. Her two suites at Claridges are not (as also reported) one for her and one for her clothes; the second is to accommodate photographers. But the rumour that most annoys her is the suggestion that her pond in Connecticut is permanently heated to keep its resident swan warm. "It's simply a device used by local farmers to unfreeze one area of the pond so that cattle can drink there."

And about her home state itself, she is revealingly sensitive. Towards the end of our talk, I ventured to say that I'd been to the millionaires' row around Greenwich, Connecticut, and had encountered a culture of tacky glamour, cocktail-slugging contests by the pool, the last word in brainless, moneyed indolence. Was she familiar with these people? "I know about them, but that stuff isn't for me. It's a suburb of New York. Look..."

Suddenly galvanised, she crossed the room, settled in front of me and firmly drew on a piece of paper the route from Manhattan to her bosky upstate idyll. "Here's where we cross on to the mainland, Greenwich is there, we drive right up the state line and cross here to New Milford." And then she ran out of paper and had to find a second sheet on which to locate her new home, at the top.

Nothing could more eloquently express her desire to distance herself from the common herd of crappy millionaires, ghastly low-rent people she has spent a lifetime rising above, awful tasteless arrivistes who couldn't tell a Degas from a dunghill. Her face, suddenly darkened, was the face of Hyacinth "Bouquet" from Keeping Up Appearances. The flawlessly groomed, stunningly successful, seamlessly upward, and indefatigably positive BTB showed a trace of dorsal fin at last.