Sunday, August 27, 2000
Los Angeles The Scheherazade of Hollywood Nights
"Elaine Conti awoke in her luxurious bed in her luxurious Beverly Hills mansion, pressed a button to open the electrically controlled drapes, and was confronted by the sight of a young man clad in a white T-shirt and dirty jeans (urinating) a perfect arc into her mosaic-tiled swimming pool."
--Opening of "Hollywood Wives," by Jackie Collins, 1983
Jackie Collins' characters frequently are caught in the act of doing something risque, contemplating doing it or suffering the consequences of having done it too little or too much. The act they contemplate most, it seems, is sex. But even the tiniest nuances of naughtiness rarely escape the author's anthropological eye.
"I explore every little section of Hollywood life in my books," she says during a chat at her home. But what she explores most is the lives of Hollywood's High and Mighty. People with fame, glamour, money and power -- or just with such incredible good looks that the world delivers multiple lovers and multiple you-know-whats to their boudoir doors -- along with all the decadence, luxury and film land plot lines that make Collins one of the best-selling writers of our time.
With publication of "Lethal Seduction" (Simon & Schuster) last month, Collins is in the spotlight again with media types who don't always say they admire (or even read) her work, but who can't ignore the fact that 200 million of her books have been sold and that none of her 20 titles has ever been out of print. And she shows no sign of stopping. She is working on her 21st: "New Hollywood Wives," an update of the best-selling 1983 sizzler.
What's to update?
Pools and pool men are pretty much the same, she says. But the wives are totally different. "In '83, when I wrote the original, the wives of Hollywood's richest, most powerful men did lots of lunches and charities and always took second place to their husbands. They pushed their husbands invisibly, from behind. The husbands usually wound up having affairs because the wives became such (shrews). But the wives held the purse strings, and that was their power."
Today, wives of Hollywood's top men "want to be ahead of their husbands," she says. "They push themselves forward, they want to be actresses, directors, producers. Usually, they are half-assed actresses when they meet the guy. Then they star in a few movies because the husband propels them into that.
"Then, whether they have the talent or not, they will definitely get the favors, the parts, the deals. And I'm sure you know who I'm talking about, but I'm not going to name names, because I never do," she purrs in her British lilt.
Collins, at 5 foot 9, has a strong, pantherlike physique below the oval face framed by bangs and long, straight dark hair. At 59, she resembles TV's Xena, Warrior Princess, more than she resembles her older, more fragile-looking sister, Joan, whom she declines to discuss at any length because "we want to preserve our separate identities."
She will leave for New York this night, she says, to be interviewed by "some of my friends" -- Matt Lauer, Larry King, Barbara Walters and Starr Jones, among others. On her return, she will tape "Politically Incorrect." And then she'll go back to her usual life -- dinners at the Sunset Room, Reign, Le Dome or Spago; private screenings at friends' homes and writing the new novel.
She lives solo these days, she says. Frank Calcagnini, the shopping mall developer she shared her life with for the past six years, died of cancer three months ago at 59.
Her first husband, whom she married at 17 and with whom she had one daughter, died when Collins was very young. Her second husband of 23 years, Oscar Lerman, with whom she had two daughters, died of cancer nine years ago. The truth about her life, as with everyone else's, she says, is that nothing is ever perfect. And reality almost always trumps anything that she, as an author, could dream up.
"People think I make up these incredible stories, these unbelievable twists and turns of plot. But I write about what I know, about real life. And real life in Hollywood is so incredible that I have to tone it down, way down, to even make it seem halfway believable."
"What's the best sex you've ever had," Jamie Nova asked her best friend. "
--Opening line of "Lethal Seduction."
Collins denies her books sell because of sex, a misconception sometimes put forth by the critics, she says. "I set the scene, create the ambiance, and my readers do the rest with their own imagination. My biggest critics are people who have never read my books -- or at least haven't admitted to it," she says. "I would not have been selling this amount of books for this amount of time if it was just for sex. It's the characters I write about that people love. And when those characters have sex, my reader wants to know about it."
Even the condescending reviewers agree that Collins writes fast-moving stories with dozens of twists and turns, and scads of good-versus-evil plots in which the good guys -- who inevitably have great hair, exquisitely sculpted bodies and value love and friendship over power and money -- always win. Collins is fond of quoting the late director Louis Malle, who called her "a raunchy moralist."
The ultimate Hollywood snoop, she is considered trustworthy to a fault, she says. This is why she is invited to A-list parties and homes, where she writes down snippets of gossip or chatter for use in her books. It is why many of Hollywood's rich and famous confide their deepest secrets to her. They know that even the most salacious details might turn up in a book but will be disguised to conceal the real players.
But in a Hollywood that is now defiantly young, how can she maintain the popularity of past years?
"Britney Spears was recently quoted as saying she likes to curl up with a Jackie Collins novel in her spare time. I always have people of all ages and races in my books."
She also always has strong women in her books, women who succeed in business as well as in bed. "I grew up reading Harold Robbins and other male authors. I loved the excitement in their books, but women were always in the kitchen or the bedroom, always sexually available at all times. They never had jobs. They were either married to rich men or they were hookers."
How Collins was able in her first book to put all the snippets of Hollywood gossip together in roller-coaster narratives came as a surprise even to her, she says. Her extremely complicated plots are a Rubik's Cube of unlikely characters who start out in dozens of different places and whose lives somehow all converge -- in Hollywood, of course. Their exploits are sometimes their undoing. Or, as in Collins' own case, they create someone strong enough to make it to the top.
Madison was a survivor " she didn't know what her future held, she only knew that whatever it was, she could deal with it.
-- Last line of "Lethal Seduction."