Obituary: Harold Robbins
Thursday 16 October 1997
Greed for sex, money and power brought worldwide success and many millions of pounds to Harold Robbins. The greed was that of the larger-than-life characters in his 23 massive bestsellers, novels that created a "bedroom and boardroom" genre of popular fiction since developed by the likes of Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele and, on television, by the makers of Dallas, Dynasty and all their clones.
Robbins was indisputedly the most popular writer in the world, and his books - not one of which has ever been out of print - are said to have sold, in 42 countries, three-quarters of a billion copies. His most popular, The Carpetbaggers (1961), has sold 30 million copies, making it, apparently, the fourth most read book in history.
Robbins's life was almost as extraordinary as his success. When the millions started to roll in, he began to live the gaudy life of the rich, raunchy characters in his novels, perhaps recognising, as an astute and entertaining self-publicist, that this would help shift more books.
He lived a celebrity life of conspicuous consumption: a fleet of high- class cars in which several Rolls Royces were little more than runarounds; villas in the South of France, Acapulco and Beverley Hills; cruises around the Mediterranean on his 85ft yacht with guest lists that at various times included Hollywood film stars, globetrotting European jet- setters, Middle Eastern millionaires and high class hookers. He loudly proclaimed that he had researched first-hand all the vices he described in his novels; and that he would one day be recognised as the best writer in the world.
The arc of his success also read like something from his novels. He was born Francis Kane in 1916, in Hell's Kitchen, New York. A foundling (like his fellow best-seller James Michener) he was brought up first in a Roman Catholic orphanage then in a succession of foster homes. He took the name Rubins from one foster family and changed it to Robbins when he began writing.
After dropping out of High School he worked during the Depression as a bookie's runner, errand boy and a clerk in a grocery store. In the grocery store he saw a way to make money from speculating on crop futures. He borrowed $800, put his plan into operation and was a millionaire within a year. He was 20.
In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, however, he lost the lot when he speculated that sugar would shortly become scarce and bought four shiploads at $4.85 per 100 pounds just before the government fixed the price of sugar at $4.65.
Bankrupt, he went to work in 1940 as a clerk at the New York warehouse of Universal Pictures. Sharp with figures, by 1942 he had become executive director of budget and planning and he remained an executive with the film company until 1957.
He began writing in 1946, to win a bet after scorning the quality of the stories the studio was buying. His first two novels, Never Love A Stranger (1948) and The Dream Merchants (1949) were immediate successes and he even got critical praise (a rare commodity where a Harold Robbins novel was concerned) for his third, A Stone For Danny Fisher (1952), a coming of age novel set on New York's East Side.
Later all three novels became films - Danny Fisher was transplanted to New Orleans as Kid Creole, a vehicle for Elvis Presley whilst Never Love A Stranger provided an early role for Steve McQueen.
Other novels followed in the Fifties - "picaresque novels about doomed people", he called them - but it was with the 1961 publication of The Carpetbaggers (with a central character based on Howard Hughes) that Robbins's career really took off. The 16 novels which followed over the next 37 years (including The Adventurers, 1966; The Betsy, 1971; The Stallion, 1996 and Tycoon, 1997) were snapped up by readers and film companies alike. Virtually all his novels have been filmed for either the big screen or as television mini-series.
In them he often used real life figures like Hughes, Aristotle Onassis, Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner as templates for his central characters. "All my characters are real," he said once. "They are written as fiction to protect the guilty." Readers loved the intricate plots, fast narrative, and what seemed like Robbins's insider view of Hollywood, industry bigwigs and the super-sexed super-rich.
Robbins loved the life of the playboy, albeit one who produced a big book every couple of years. He did this by working 12 to 16 hour days, never rewriting nor working out his plots in advance. As he got wealthier, in addition to his glamorous lifestyle and outrageous parties, he got serious about art (he bought Chagalls amd Legers, Picasso sketched him), fine food and gambling.
His extravagant lifestyle came to an end in 1985 following a stroke and then a fall in which he fractured both hips. Confined to a wheelchair he remained in his palazzo in Palm Springs for the rest of his life. He underwent a series of operations to repair his damaged bones, including one in which he suffered painful nerve damage. An attempt to implant an electric painkiller in his stomach failed and thereafter he took over- the-counter painkillers every day to alleviate the constant pain.
He continued to type his books two fingered but now could only manage three or four hours a day. The wild spending, the divorces (he admitted to three wives but it seems there were three other brief, unpublicised marriages, two possibly to the same woman) and the medical bills put a big dent in his bank balance. The houses, the cars and the yacht went.
His marriage to his second (or fifth, depending on who is counting) wife, Grace Palermo, ended in divorce after 28 years in 1992. A week later, on Valentine's Day, he married his assistant, Jann Stapp, vowing it would be his last marriage.
He was writing almost to the end and had just completed another novel, Wishing Well. Of his writing he never had any doubts: "I'm the best around - no one can compare with what I've done. I'm the world's best writer in basic English. Everybody understands what I write - except maybe the critics."
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