Jackie Collins: Author who sold hundreds of millions of books with her raunchy dissections of power, money, sex and fame

‘Because I’m a woman writing about sex, people get outraged,’ she said

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If Leonardo da Vinci invented the 20th Century 400 years early, one might playfully add that Jackie Collins invented the 1980s 12 years early. She was Hollywood’s premier correspondent of power, money, sex and fame. Her novels, which no airport bookstand could be without, revelled in greed and ruthlessness, her protagonists rutting animals in Gucci suits. Possessed of a determined, commanding beauty, with her vivid personality and opulent appearance, Collins perpetually upstaged the characters who populated her stories because unlike them she never took herself, or what she did, too seriously.

She sold half a billion books over nearly half a century; in 1998 she was advanced the record sum of $10m for her next three novels. Appropriately for such a fashionable woman, her work never went out of fashion, even after such sexual frankness had long ceased to be a novelty. If her work was the epitome of the “sex and shopping” genre, her sister Joan was the embodiment of them, appearing in movie versions of The Stud and The Bitch, roles which led her to a career-defining performance in Dynasty.

The brazen naughtiness of Jackie Collins’ work was merely pungent seasoning, however: her true appeal lay in the social rather than the sexual fantasy she peddled. Her female characters were firmly in the driving seat, wilful, envied, impervious minxes. (The 1978 movie version of The Stud fatally assumed that the title character was the central character: in fact Collins’ men were generally a dull bunch, taut-torsoed dunderheads rarely thinking further than the next gratification, whereas her women are intoxicating, steely fluffragettes).

Cannily, she was sure to include a token moral streak amid all the mischievous sex, making her books the 400-page equivalent of a tabloid exposé, revelling in the salacious detail of playboy lifestyles but reassuring readers at the end that such people aren’t really very happy deep down.

The younger daughter of Joe Collins, a revered variety agent, Jacqueline Jill Collins was born in Hampstead in 1937. Accounts of her early life sound suspiciously like a publicist’s dream: she began writing stories when she was nine, but her constant truanting saw her sent to the Francis Holland School in Baker Street, where she dreamed up mucky verses which she sold to her classmates for a penny each, along with instalments of a raunchy saga she was writing entitled “Letters from Bobby”.

“When I was 14, I had the figure of a 19-year-old, and I liked boys. I lived in a basement flat so I was out of the window every night. I put bolsters in the bed so that it looked as if I was there” she claimed. It was smoking that finally got her expelled when she was 15. She celebrated by flinging her school uniform into the Thames. Devouring pulp novels by the likes of Harold Robbins, she later observed that, as a writer of bonkbusters, “everyone says ‘good old Harold’, but because I’m a woman writing about sex, people get outraged”.

With her sister making an impression as an actress, her parents encouraged Jackie to follow her to Hollywood. (Just shy of 16, she met Marlon Brando, then 29, at a Tinseltown party, and began a “short, but fabulous” affair with him.) She soon got the measure of the world she was entering, a land of lascivious directors and exploited actresses. She found work as a waitress, a pin-up and a mechanics’ assistant, and tried her hand at a singing career alongside appearances in B-movies and a few television series, before leaving acting to her sister.

Her first marriage, to Wallace Austin, was wrecked by his depression and drug addiction; shortly after their divorce he died from an overdose. Raising her first daughter by herself, she turned to writing.

Her first novel, The World Is Full Of Married Men, appeared unexpurgated (despite jitters from her publisher) in 1968, painting swinging London in rather different hues to the other portraits of it from the time. It didn’t seem to be a very happy place, but it was certainly a raunchy one. By now she had married Oscar Lerman, who took her to lunch after seeing her photograph in a magazine and proposed to her there and then. The marriage lasted for 26 years, until his death from cancer in 1992.

Lerman owned the nightclub Tramp, which would provide the thinly-fictionalised backdrop to Collins’ next novel, The Stud (1969), the story of a working-class waiter living on his looks, who sleeps his way into the role of nightclub manager via an affair with his boss’s wife, only to be chewed up and spat out by her when she is done with him. It’s brutal emasculation, with the wealthy elite portrayed as decadent and heartless, and it outraged Barbara Cartland, who claimed to have lost sleep over it.

The novels came thick and fast from then on; Collins wrote off the cuff, seven hours a day, preferably by the pool. By the time The Stud was filmed, she was famous enough for it to begin on a signed photograph of her. The film, cashing in on the disco era, was made for tuppence and had a disastrous effect on the career of the devilishly handsome Oliver Tobias, but reinvented Joan’s career. After a daft-as-a-brush sequel, The Bitch (1979), Jackie assumed greater control on a film version of The World Is Full of Married Men (1980), and on all subsequent screen versions of her work, which proved better suited to American television.

The peccadillos of the glitterati were observed by her at clubs and parties; she moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s and found no shortage of scandal to furnish novels such as Hollywood Wives (1983), which was touted as “a scandalous exposé”. It sold 15m copies. Chances (1981) introduced readers to the Santangelo dynasty, and their ambitious daughter Lucky, who got her own novel in 1985. Rock Star (1988) was another road-to-ruin caper, tapping a similar vein to Lovers and Gamblers (1977); Collins was fascinated by what having thousands of lusty female fans does to a man, not that the answer came as any great surprise.

After Lerman’s death, Collins met businessman Frank Calcagnini, and was engaged to him when he died in 1998. Collins never stopped working, keeping her breast cancer a secret even from her sister until shortly before she died. She made a TV appearance to discuss the ninth book in the Santangelo saga a week ago, and appeared typically joyous and wry.

Every one of her novels has appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers List, and in an age where titillation can be quickly found in far more immediate forms, it says something that her success appeared to be anything but on the wane. Perhaps it is best summed up by the story of how a schoolboy wrote to her saying her had read one of her books under the blankets in his school dormitory by torchlight, but it had been confiscated by the matron, who he had then caught reading it the following day.

Jacqueline Jill Collins, author: born London 4 October 1937; OBE 2013; married 1960 Wallace Austin (divorced 1964), 1966 Oscar Lerman (died 1992), partner to Frank Calcangnini (died 1998); died Beverly Hills 19 September 2015.