Barbara Taylor Bradford may never win the Booker Prize but her millions of fans around the world have turned her into one of the highest- earning British women. It's all a far cry from her humble Yorkshire childhood.. .
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Pandemonium - Barbara Taylor Bradford is simultaneously trying to give an interview, put away her diamonds, pour coffee and finish a photo-shoot. The energy burns off her and ricochets round her huge suite in the Dorchester, which is already overflowing with Corinthian columns, flowers and a vast television. BTB is also trying to decipher the schedule devised to plug her 14th blockbuster, Power of a Woman; but it has been so criss-crossed with corrections she can't get her head around it.

"Do I do TV today, or do I come home?" she wants to know.

"You come home," says her PR woman.

"So what am I doing at three o'clock?"

"You're going to Classic FM, then you come back - "

"- Then I come back, change my clothes - "

"And then tomorrow you're doing breakfast TV - "

"That's Bob and I, doing health and fitness at 11 -"

"Health and fitness, and then Richard Whiteley at one."

Taylor Bradford nods, bustles into the bedroom, then charges out. So does her husband Bob Bradford, who manages her multi-million-pound empire, the curly-haired photographer and his male assistant. They all converge in the sitting-room and start weaving round each other like players in a French farce.

Bob Bradford extracts himself from the melee and comes over to shake my hand. He is heavy-set, 67 or so, but looks younger from a distance. He is Jewish and was a three-year-old in Germany when the Nazis came to power. He managed to escape, but never saw his parents again. He prefers not to talk about it.

This unlikely couple - the German-Jewish movie producer and the Yorkshire- born author of 14 bestsellers, including the phenomenally successful A Woman of Substance - have been married for 32 years, all of which they have spent in New York. But they met in London. Taylor Bradford was a career woman, having made her way from the Yorkshire Evening Post aged 19 to become fashion editor of Woman's Own and then feature writer for the London Evening News and Today Magazine.

"I was in LA, coming here for a trip," Bob says laconically, sitting heavily beside me on the sofa. "A friend of Barbara's, who was a friend of mine by coincidence, said: 'Call my girlfriend in London, you'd like to meet her. Call her soon as you get to London.' But, of course, I came to London and took three weeks to call. It was just another number to me. But these people threw a cocktail party for me and she came - well, she was forced to come."

"Forced to do what?" calls Taylor Bradford, who is sailing round the room taking off her diamonds and rolling them into a little velvet case. ("I just want to make sure I put them back," she has been muttering. "I panicked this morning: where did I put my jewellery -")

"Forced to come to Jack Davis's house, and I met you," Bob tells her flatly.

"Oh, that old story," she says.

"That old story, yeah."

He lapses into silence for a moment, then continues.

"She was 27, 28. What did I see in her? I can't really say. She was just a very pleasant-looking, attractive young woman. She was bright, and I put a lot of value to brains - intellect. She was bright, outcoming, and I guess that really caught my attention."

Bob has a weird accent - sort of New York-Jewish with a bit of European thrown in. He gets words wrong because he was brought up in Paris before going to New York as a young man to make movies.

"I had family there," he tells me, "and so I moved to New York. I came to make my way in life. I just wanted to leave Europe. I was very attracted to America."

"Should I order a car for Classic FM?" the publicity agent is asking Taylor Bradford on the far side of the room.

"We can just get a taxi, can't we?"asks BTB.

I can't help smiling at this. Estimates of Taylor Bradford's fortune hover around pounds 60m. Two years ago she was named by the Mail on Sunday as Britain's highest-earning woman, with a yearly income of almost pounds 12m from sales of her books (around 14 million copies at the last count), multi- million pound advances and sales of television rights. Her comment doesn't come across as stingy though; just unpretentious.

"I'd prefer to get a car," Bob instructs. "Then it can wait and bring you home."

"Whatever you like," says Taylor Bradford airily. She picks up the telephone and begins dialling.

"Pick up the phone. Now push the button," Bob instructs.

"It's ringing," she tells him.

Bob transfers his attention back to me.

"And you film all her books?" I prompt.

"I produce all her works. I've made seven mini-series and a number of two-hour shows. All of her contracts and all the deals pass by my office for approval. We supervise all the marketing and advertising worldwide for all the books and we also manage the business affairs ... She has very little to do with the business side other than she knows what's going on."

"You're not threatened by her success?"

"No. I'm very proud of her - tremendously proud of her. I mean, I manage her. I keep building her bigger and bigger. I think it's wonderful. I think we make a perfect team."

Taylor Bradford emerges again. She has changed into a navy-blue suit and draped the jacket jauntily over her shoulders. She looks impressive: her blonded hair swept like candyfloss over her head. Her broad face, which looks younger than her 64 years, is a trifle powdery, but she retains an air of girlishness.

BTB takes her place on the sofa and Bob retires with dignity to the bedroom. She wants to warn me at once not to believe everything that has been written about her. "A lot of it is either invented, or I've never said it," she explains earnestly. "Somebody wrote I had 2,000 shoes, which is so funny. I mean, I love shoes, I'm heavy on shoes, but 2,000! My aunt in Leeds said you would have to have a shoe shop!"

She laughs nervously - she has quite a high voice and an almost stagey upper-class English accent.

"I mean, it was such a silly thing to say! Because if you think about it, 2,000 pairs of shoes and shoeboxes, you almost do have to have a shoe shop, don't you?"

It doesn't seem to occur to her that she could buy untold shoe shops. But it turns out it is not the implicit accusation of extravagance that bothers her, but the inaccuracy. She recalls another journalist who quoted her as saying she hadn't got so far by having cat hairs on her coat. "Cat hairs! I mean really!" She ruffles up her feathers at this fairly innocuous mis-statement. "I mean, I don't even like cats! I'm a dog person!"

IF HER interviewers are sometimes inaccurate Taylor Bradford is the opposite, adopting a sort of show-and-tell approach in interview. Mentioning a stately home where she recently gave a speech she hands me the brochure; explaining how her father managed with one leg she limps awkwardly across the room; names are given with close attention to historical accuracy ("Alma Naylor as she is now - no, she's not Alma Naylor, she's Alma Marshall").

In fact, listening to her is not unlike being assaulted by Tippex, she corrects herself so constantly. She also hates leaving anything out, so she recounts stories in labyrinthine detail, correcting madly as she goes. She told me the entire plot of two of her books before lunch - and her books are not short.

Her first and best-loved is, of course, A Woman of Substance, the rags- to-riches story of Emma Harte, the Yorkshire servant girl who builds a department-store empire from sheer sweat and determination. This is not the sort of novel that would ever win the Booker Prize, but it has undoubtedly whiled away a vast number of lazy holidays. It is, as it were, a good bad book - full of hardship and passion and the reassuring moral that hard work can result in mindboggling success. The same moral, in fact, that is apparent inTaylor Bradford's own rise, from her birth into a humble household in Leeds (her mother, Freda, was a nurse in a fever hospital and her father, Winston, an engineer) to her current enviable lifestyle based around a multi-million-pound fortune and a penthouse apartment in Manhattan.

There are other similarities too. Just as her fictional servant girl Emma Harte had a Plan with a capital P to escape poverty, so too did Taylor Bradford. She wanted to be a novelist from an early age - her father bought her a typewriter at 12 - and so, after consulting several library books on the subject, she joined the Yorkshire Evening Post at 16. This was on the basis that journalism was the best route to becoming a novelist. Emma Harte is very like herself, Taylor Bradford concedes. "I imbued in Emma a lot of my traits, like hard work - I'm very hard-working and I don't know any other way to be. And I'm quite driven, and she was, and I'm quite ambitious, and she was. And she was very strong-willed in many ways, and so am I, and yet she was vulnerable and emotional, and I am, too."

Many of Taylor Bradford's characters are based on real people. Emma Harte's brother Winston, who runs off to join the Navy at 16 and loses a leg, is her father. She is delighted I spotted the resemblance and tells me about it in her characteristic fashion, Tippexing as she goes along. "Yes he was!" she cries. "My father lost a leg at the end of the First World War - well, towards the end - but he didn't have a wooden leg as somebody wrote, he had an artificial limb, aluminium - I never know which is the American pronunciation and which is the English. I based the brother totally on my father, and in fact my grandmother did go to hospital in Leeds and say to him: 'Winston, you must have your leg off. The gangrene is travelling and it's gone above your knee.' And he said: 'I'll never have my leg off!' But in the end she finally convinced him to - it would have killed him you know, because it was above the leg, above the knee, it was his left leg - and I know he said to her: 'Half a loaf is better than none' - and that's exactly what Winston said to Emma."

Her father could do everything he wanted after the operation, she added, except dance - and he loved to dance. But she is faintly defensive when I ask about his years of unemployment during the Depression - "Everybody was of work, and remember, he wasn't an able-bodied man any more" - and later is quick to deny claims that she came from the slums of Leeds.

"I wasn't brought up in poverty at all! But we weren't rich. Yes, I did scrub the front steps every Friday, but I did that very willingly. I still don't mind scrubbing the floor if I have to ... You see everybody here always wanted to make Emma Harte my story, in the sense of rags to riches, but I always had lovely clothes because my mother worked. I was always very stiffly starched and ironed."

Despite Bob's proximity, she goes on to tell me unselfconsciously about her favourite of her own books, The Women in His Life. It is about a Jewish boy called Maximilian whose parents are killed in concentration camps during the war. "It was really Bob's childhood in a way, so I was very involved in the writing of it. He wasn't able to discuss that period with me because he's buried it too deep. It was too hard for him. But it did have echoes of Bob's life. He was an only child, and Maximilian was an only child, although in actual fact Bob's parents died of natural causes, not in the camps. It was an emotional experience for me writing about the Holocaust."

It is time for our lunch downstairs in the Dorchester Grill, so we get up. Taylor Bradford opens her bedroom door to reveal Bob prone on the bed with his shoes on. I am carried in her wake along a corridor and into a lift, where she waits stiffly for it to descend. Another guest eventually offers to press the button for her and we swoop down to the baronial dining- room.

BARBARA TAYLOR BRADFORD is a curious mix. On the one hand she cannot stop herself working fiendishly hard, and has earned hundreds of millions of pounds by doing so, yet on the other she lets her husband control her money in an almost Victorian fashion. This is not something you would catch her heroines doing. They make all their own financial decisions and their long-suffering husbands know better than to stick their noses in.

She says that she and Bob are alike in that "I always think he's controlling and I know that I like to control" but adds that it is usually she who gives in: "I say: 'Oh, to hell with this, it's not worth arguing about!' " I suspect this is true, as she seems to have a sunny personality and I know that she compromised and left Britain after her marriage when Bob said he would only live in New York. "I used to say to Bob, 'You're just like a general' - so he started calling me Napoleon," she confides with amusement. "He found a pillow a few years ago at a gift shop in Palm Beach which said on it: 'Napoleon lives, I married him.' So he crossed out the 'him' and wrote 'her'. It's there in our kitchen in our country house and everyone always screams when they see it!"

Her line on her wealth is that she is not very interested in it and that she did not write A Woman of Substance hoping, or expecting, it to make money. "I was married to a very successful man, remember," she reminded me twice. But can she be as uninterested in her fortune as she claims? Bob may have been well-off as a result of his film career (he tells me he co-produced, among other films in the Fifties, El Cid starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren) but since A Woman of Substance was published almost 20 years ago he has dedicated his career to furthering hers, first by making TV mini-series from her books, then by managing her expanding empire. Also, Taylor Bradford must have realised that A Woman of Substance might make big money because it had a classic bestseller plot - the servant girl who builds an empire, founds a dynasty and has various love affairs and disastrous marriages along the way.

But that was accidental, she says. She had simply reached an age where she had to write a novel or forget the ambition entirely. "I was searching to find a way to write that novel that I always wanted to write, and if I didn't attempt to become a novelist at that point in my life I would regret it later," she explained. "I think if you have an ambition like that and you have not been able to fulfil it you can become embittered - that was the thing that motivated me."

Once she finished her first, she just kept going, and here she is publishing her 14th just 18 years later. She has prodigious energy, and a vast need to be busy. She says she thinks "God will strike me dead" if she stops working, then laughs unconvincingly: "Only kidding." Her fans may have noticed that her heroines seem pathologically unable to enjoy their vast wealth (ie. they never actually spend it and bury themselves in work) and I'm sure she has this problem, too.

This character trait certainly gets to Bob. "She's a workaholic," he told me in his heavy way. "I'm hopefully gonna take her away for a week now to Italy - all she gives me is a week. If I propose anything else she screams at me. She likes to be in her country home in Connecticut and I'm always hoping she'll relax there. But the minute we get there I got the gardener, I got the poolman, all kinds of people in and out. And she loves it - this is what she likes! She organises everything! She always takes books and says, 'I'm going to read,' and she never gets through the books because she's busy with her people, her kitchen, her maid, I don't know -" (at this point he raised his hands in despair) - "there's always something!"

There is something faintly disturbing about this incessant activity: one wonders if Taylor Bradford is evading something, or trying not to think about something. It does seem a pity not to enjoy your money if you have so much of it, but as far as I can make out, her indulgences are limited to shoes and housekeepers. I suggested she took some time off just for the hell of it and she looked at me blankly over her potted shrimps: "What would I do?" Well, she could go to lunch. This got the same blank stare. Okay, spend some money. "I hate shopping actually," she admitted. She confided that she recently went on holiday with Bob and wanted to come home early: unlike him, she couldn't bear to lie idle on a beach.

Certainly her first book seems to have flowered from a need to keep her mind occupied.

She had the idea for A Woman of Substance in 1976, when she was 43, and had discarded unfinished four other novels, all thrillers. By then she was a successful journalist in New York, writing a thrice-weekly home- decorating column that was syndicated to hundreds of papers. She had just decided to stop trying for a baby after a miscarriage in her thirties, and the novel she had never managed to write was still bugging her. So she sat down with a yellow pad "and asked myself a lot of questions, namely what sort of book do you want to write? A saga, a historical novel, what?" And she came up with the idea for a generational rags-to-riches saga and wrote a 10-page outline in three days. The editor she sent it to, she adds with pleasure, said it was the best she had read "by anyone, bar none".

I asked if she thought her acceptance that she would not have children was linked to the discovery of her literary voice, but she said it wasn't: "It was coincidental - I never worried about having a child." But there clearly was a connection, and she later admitted as much. "Everything came together for me at exactly the right moment. I was living in New York, I was a successful journalist, I wasn't worried any more about am I going to have a child or not - so it was a sort of turning point in a way."

This admission that she did want a baby must have slipped out, because she has always doggedly claimed in interviews that she didn't. Perhaps it is a bone of contention with Bob. Anyway, it's hard not to draw the parallel between her literary miscarriages - the four abortive thrillers - and her real-life one, which happened at the same time. Conversely, when she stopped trying for the human baby, she had her fictional one. If you think this is taking the analogy too far, let me quote her on finishing the book: "Doubleday called it 'The book she was born to write'... I'd decided to weigh it because it was so big - I don't know why I weighed it, but I weighed it at the grocery store and it came to 16 and a half pounds..."

WE WERE eating our main course. BTB had ordered lamb and iced tea and was telling me about moving to London from Yorkshire. She was almost 20. She had landed her job on Woman's Own - this was in the early Fifties, when staff wore hats and gloves - and she was terribly excited. Her mother saw her off on the train at Leeds station and cried. But Barbara was not sorry at all, because she was going to the big smoke.

She found a flat in Swiss Cottage and began having a whale of a time going to parties and clubs. She didn't think about her parents. But after her mother's death 30 years later she found her diary, and the entry for the day she left home said: "Barbara went to work in London today, and all the sunshine has gone out of my life."

As she tells me this, Taylor Bradford begins to cry without warning. "And I never knew," she laments. "Sorry." She fishes a handkerchief out of her Hermes bag. There's no doubt Taylor Bradford owes a lot to her mother: her books revolve around strong women, and Freda supported the family for years while her husband was out of work. She seemed, Taylor Bradford says, "meek and reserved, but in fact she was quite tough ... she was very determined that I was going to have a different life to her."

Taylor Bradford has finished her lamb, generously smeared with mint sauce. "But anyway," she says, relaxing again, "Claire Bloom, who's a friend of mine - I just read her biography Living in a Dolls' House with that husband, Philip Roth, what a son of a bitch. Excuse my language, but everyone says he is. Anyway, she was writing about the part of her life when she was at the Old Vic in the Fifties - it brought it all back! I told that to Claire when I ran into her: we both go to the same hairdresser, John Frieda, in New York.

"Not for me," she adds firmly to the waiter, who has wheeled over a tempting dessert trolley. "When did I have to be back at the suite? Ten to three? I'd better go. Will the paper pay for lunch, because if not I can sign for it?" The paper will pay, I say; I had wondered if she would offer, and think this is a nice gesture. "And I'll send you those books of mine you haven't read," she continues, getting up. She carries on fussing, finding me a small blue pad with "BTB" printed on the top to write my address on, and giving me her office number. "Thank you for answering my questions," I say and she looks anxious. "Well, I don't know," she says. "I don't know if I covered everything."

'Power of a Woman' is out on Thursday (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99).