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Culture of Love

The man who invented sex

Harold Robbins was the man who invented sex. Not the actual act, nor its literary depiction, but the way it was represented in mass-market fiction. The "godfather of the airport novel" if not the creator of the bonkbuster changed the face of post-war popular fiction with steamy tales such as The Betsy, The Lonely Lady, The Pirate and his 1961 classic, The Carpetbaggers.

During his 50-year career (he died in 1997) he sold an estimated 750 million books and, in the process, transformed himself into a brand. In the pre-Robbins world, readers looking for literary sex had to find it within the pages of elite, more highbrow writers such as James Joyce, DH Lawrence and Henry Miller. Robbins wrenched sex into the mainstream.

In 1948, Robbins' first novel, Never Love a Stranger, was one of the books seized by the Philadelphia vice squad and prosecuted on grounds of "immorality and obscenity". Contemporary readers were titillated by its overripe language its use of phrases such as "muff diver" as well as its frank, and quite brutal, portrayal of sex. Reviewers were shocked by its content one said the novel was nothing but "vice, vulgarity, obscenity, murder and fornication".

Yet Robbins was bullish about his right to write about sex in this way and, with his publisher, decided to fight the legal case. During the subsequent hearing, in 1949, the presiding judge noted that he would prefer that his three daughters learnt about the facts of life in his library than in a neighbour's barn. Years later, Robbins looked back at this landmark case. "Because I won that suit it opened things up so that Henry Miller could be published, Anas Nin could be published, DH Lawrence could be published," he said.

With each of his novels, Robbins pushed the boundaries of acceptability. Then, in 1961, he published the mother of all bonkbusters The Carpetbaggers, the world's first big, popular, dirty book. Robbins had the good fortune to hit upon the idea for the novel at particular point in history when a new spirit of liberality was sweeping through Western culture. The author tapped into a new frankness and also acted as a sort of carpetbagger himself, seizing the virgin territory of post-war commercial fiction and sexualising it. Without Robbins it's questionable whether the sex and shopping novel would ever have existed. There would have been no Jacqueline Susann, no Shirley Conran, no Jackie Collins.

Robbins who made more than $50m during his lifetime and had homes in Los Angeles, Acapulco and the South of France, together with a fleet of cars and a yacht really did laugh all the way to the bonk. "Lucky Strike. Coca-Cola. Harold Robbins," he said of himself before he died. "But what is this product? Who is this guy?" The answer was simple: sex between soft covers.

'Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex' ,by Andrew Wilson is published in paperback on 6 October (Bloomsbury, 8.99)