Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex

Here are some excerpts from this 2008 book:

* “I realized it was because he did not care if he used the same adjective three times in three consecutive sentences. When you read one of his books, you realize what a rotten writer he is—he really has only four adjectives—but he’s a great storyteller.”

* “He is slender, tanned … a powdering of gray at the temples, a faintly humorous expression around his eyes. He smiles often, but a man who can earn a million by merely announcing he is going to write a novel has the right to laugh out loud.”

* Robbins’s new home [after his second marriage in 1965], at 905 North Beverly Drive, was a sign that he had arrived. Built on the site of Gloria Swanson’s old mansion and situated directly opposite the Beverly Hills Hotel, Robbins’s house was an architectural status symbol. Yet for all its connotations of wealth and power and material success, inside the house, among his close circle of friends, Robbins continued to behave like a down-to-earth boy from Brooklyn, quaffing pints of his favorite drink, Orange Crush, and playing practical jokes.

* The Adventurers is one of Robbins’s worst books, a bloated, sprawling epic without the wit or brio of The Carpetbaggers. It is sickeningly pornographic in its violence, but ultimately it fails as a work of popular fiction because it commits the sin of being mind-numbingly boring.

* By the end of the year [1965] Robbins, now back in Los Angeles, was regarded as the highest-paid writer in the world, while one survey conducted by the Library of Congress concluded that he was the most widely read author of the past six years. He had well and truly established himself as an all-American brand, without perhaps understanding the consequences of his ambitions. “I get this feeling of dissociation,” he admitted. “My books sell all over the world. I see them in airports in racks. Lucky Strike. Coca-Cola. Harold Robbins. But what is this product? Who is this guy?”

* “You need to get your lawyer to write to the heads of the casinos barring you from the tables. Otherwise you will never stop. You’re addicted.” Harold nodded solemnly, and although he appeared to think his friend’s advice was sound, he did nothing about it.

“Harold’s real entertainment was not women, it was gambling,” says Shagan. “And I witnessed that, I was part of it. He could not be kept out of those casinos in the South of France. He was able to rub shoulders with the people who shape our world—and he liked that. That was his form of escape.”

* Perhaps one reason he gambled—and indeed, spent increasingly large amounts of money—was that subconsciously he didn’t believe he deserved the enormous sums he was being paid for his books. Each time he stepped inside one of the gilded gambling palaces that graced the South of France, he flirted with financial danger. Logically, of course, this did not make sense, but the prospect of losing all his money, something he had worked hard to achieve, also tapped into his deepest desires and fears. He was a poor Brooklyn boy at heart, somebody who really did not belong mixing with the power brokers of the entertainment world or the superwealthy jet set. Also, if his fortune was wiped out, that would give him the opportunity to make it all over again; its absence would soon lead to the delicious anticipation of repossession, the adult equivalent of Freud’s classic observation of an infant repeatedly throwing his toy out of his baby carriage, only so it would be replaced.

* Hedonism was the religion of the newly moneyed classes, men and women on an endless quest for the ultimate high. Robbins reasoned to himself that he had a duty to document the lives of the rich and infamous—“I write about the modern scene,” he said—and so it was only fitting that he witness the excesses at close quarters.4 A year or so after he and Grace married, he told his wife that he expected her to accept that he would sleep with other women. Extramarital sex was essential for his writing, he said, and as he often went away for long periods of time, he was simply being honest with her. He did not mind if she slept with other men—in fact, he almost expected it of her—but it was important that they did not keep any secrets from each other.

* Robbins felt free to live out his wildest fantasies, especially when he was away from home. “Did he play around a lot? Yes, he did. Was he really discreet? No,” says Judi Schwam Yedor. “He was like a ringleader. He liked making fantasies come true, in real life, for everybody. He was a hedonist—it was obvious from his novels the man was not that far from his books.”5 Robbins’s reputation as something of a sexual predator often got him into trouble with his British publisher. “We would get calls from reps from the north saying, ‘That fucker Harold Robbins was all over the buyer at Smith’s and she didn’t like it one bit,’” recalls Peter Haining. “It was difficult to make excuses for him to some of the girls that he made quite blatant passes at. I’m sure there were a number of occasions where prostitutes were organized for him, and it was said that his great passion was for colored girls. I heard after I had left the company that he had spent a night with a black girl, and he was subsequently concerned with his physical condition. He wanted to be checked out by a doctor to make sure he hadn’t got a dose of the clap.”

Later Robbins would enjoy orgies at his Beverly Hills home. As guests cavorted in the vast bedroom, decorated the color of champagne, the participants would be able to see their naked forms reflected in the mirrored ceilings. Friends say that Robbins’s orgies were always lighthearted affairs, typical get-togethers in an age when swinging was, in some circles, as normal as a Sunday brunch party.

* On one occasion Robbins employed a sex therapist to instruct the women on how to engage in oral sex in the manner of Linda Lovelace in the pornographic film Deep Throat; apparently the secret was for the woman to imagine her throat gradually opening up until it resembled a large O shape. For his part, Harold prided himself on being a master of oral sex, using a sucking technique to pleasure a woman until she experienced multiple orgasms. Lovers say that, in the midst of their climax, Harold would look up from between their legs, smile, and say, “Gotcha!”

* He went on to dismiss the critics and to mock writers like Jack Kerouac, who was acclaimed but, he declared, unpopular with the general public. “There’s no question about it—I am the best there is,” he said. “This is all I do. I work damn hard at it … I’m a novelist, purely a novelist. I tell stories, and I want people to read them. Several of us first published right after the war—me, Mailer, James Jones, Irwin Shaw—but I’m the only one whose market has continually expanded … James and Shaw, people like them, lost touch. They jumped to Europe, they lost touch with America, they didn’t grow as human beings or as writers, they missed the all-important part of postwar growing pains.”

* He announced himself to a group of people, ‘I am to my generation what Charles Dickens was to his!’ I don’t think he meant it to sound arrogant. What he wanted to convey was, ‘I am representing my world as I see it now in the same way as Dickens did in his day.’

* “One of the things I finally realized is that people like Jackie [Collins] can write what they write because that’s the smartest they are,” said Slavitt. “There’s an authenticity to their doing it, and people like me who condescend to write best sellers are a little fraudulent … She hadn’t really invented anything! But why should she? She wasn’t an artist. She was an anthropologist. Jackie didn’t invent, because she didn’t believe, or couldn’t comprehend, the truth of fiction. And for America’s most popular novelist to be unable to understand what fiction is—that says something about publishing, and it says something about our civilization.”

Similarly, Robbins acknowledged that his skills were not so much creative as journalistic, telling one reporter in 1969 that he did not have the imagination to invent, merely the ability to rearrange facts. “Given the nature of his reportage, the conclusion can hardly be avoided that the Robbins oeuvre constitutes a commentary on our time as bleak as Beckett’s,” wrote one critic.34 Robbins, for one, accounted for his success by explaining that fundamentally he wrote from the heart. “I guess it’s because what I write is real,” he said. “They’re American stories, about the power game. The sex is incidental … I sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the Far East and the Near East—and these books are so American … And if it’s so simple, how come my imitators don’t do as well?”

* In the early to mid-1970s drugs, particularly cocaine, amyl nitrate, Quaaludes, and marijuana, became a permanent fixture in Robbins’s life. “I remember Harold had this pharmaceutical book, full of details about different drugs, how many milligrams you should take to help you up and down,” says his friend Patrick Young. “He liked pure cocaine, and mushrooms too. He also had this fountain pen, a Mont Blanc I think it was, that had an adjustable top. When he turned it, it would dispense cocaine, and he’d take a quick sniff now and again without anybody knowing what he was doing. Yet for all this he had a mind like a trap; he could analyze things incredibly well.”

* By the time [Michael] Korda started to edit Robbins, he believes, the writer had long since lost his touch. “I don’t think Harold was putting in a third of the time or thought that he used to put into a novel,” he says. “By the end of this period, which was drawn out and went on for a number of years, I think Harold was sloughing off pages in exchange for a check and couldn’t give a shit. I also think he had lost that capacity, either the working or mental capacity, to stop and change even if he wanted to. He was caught up on a never-ending roller-coaster of his own needs, which were very considerable.

“Although people talked about Harold’s generosity and kindness to his friends, I must say that in the years when I knew him I never saw that side of his personality. I saw an abrasive, disagreeable, aggressive, challenging man who was someone you’d run a mile to avoid. He was as disagreeable and odious in the days of his success as the days of his failure. He had every reason to be generous and good-natured and happy, but he was a mighty unpleasant fellow. There was a sort of growling, sneering, aggressive bitterness to him. He was doubly difficult to be around when he was with Paul [Gitlin], especially when they’d both had a few drinks. It was like defending yourself against an army of enemies.

“I’m a very structured editor—I take a manuscript and hand it back with what needs doing. I would send him a letter [of suggested corrections], and he would say he wouldn’t have time for this shit, these fucking changes. And so I would change what I wanted to change. I don’t think it made any difference. When Harold was really writing, he didn’t need any editing, that’s the truth of the matter. But when he gave up on writing, all the editing in the world wouldn’t have made those books one percent better because they were just a piece of shit to begin with.”

* After finishing The Lonely Lady—arguably his last “good” book—Robbins started work on a novel about the porn industry, which he entitled, rather tellingly, Dreams Die First.

* “I think of his story as a dreadful warning of what happens to people who become suddenly successful,” says Michael Korda. “Saying that he sold out is putting it both crudely and mistakenly, as I don’t think Harold made that decision. I think it was built into Harold from the very beginning. If his schemes to co-produce movies had ever worked out, I think he would have been perfectly happy never to have set finger to typewriter again, just as long as the checks rolled in from the studio. Writing for him, [at this stage], was a chore, something he didn’t want to do.”9 His friend Steve Shagan agrees. “Harold destroyed himself not with booze, drugs, or women. He destroyed himself with success.”

* [Larry] Flynt, for one, was pleased to have Robbins’s support, and the two men became close friends.

* Despite its faults, the dirtiest of Harold’s dirty books was an instant success. In the U.K. it sold 77,000 in ten days, while Goodbye, Janette had the largest advance first printing of any novel in the world: a total of 3.75 million copies in the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and Germany. “Call it pornographic,” said Robbins of the book, “because the people it deals with in the fashion world live pornographic lives—they exist to accentuate sex, that’s what fashion is all about: the body … They do things to heighten physical and sensual sensitivity, push themselves to the limits limits with flagellation, bondage and domination, mind-expanding dope, drugs that speed you up and slow you down, cocaine, acid.”

That spring Robbins was named the world’s best-selling living author, with total sales of 200 million, beating Barbara Cartland (150 million); Irving Wallace (130 million); the writer of westerns Louis L’Amour (110 million); and the author of contemporary gothics Janet Dailey (80 million). While the New York Times best-seller list was compiled using statistics from Publishers Weekly and from bookstores and wholesalers with more than forty thousand outlets across America, genre fiction was often absent from its chart because romances, thrillers, and Robbins’s novels were sold in establishments like truck stops that did not report their sales to the Times.

All these authors, said Scott Haller in The Saturday Review, “satisfy—and, at the same time, reflect—the fantasies and desires of vast segments of the book-buying public.” Robbins’s books were both “an exposé and a masquerade” as they “inundate us with gossipy inside information, and at the same time, they invite us to solve a mystery. Who is that masked celebrity climbing into the king-size bed?” What all these authors have in common, besides enormous wealth, is a clear understanding of the importance of story. Their books have an easily demarcated beginning, middle, and end. Narrative closure is essential—“these novels seldom conclude with a question mark or a questionable move,” said Haller. Aspiration is also a key ingredient—the writers create “worlds that are beyond the reach of most readers”—as is possession of the common touch. They all share a “sincere mass-audience mentality,” while their real lives tend to reflect, at least to some degree, the fictional worlds of their novels. Finally, the writers all explore the age-old battle between good and evil, rewarding the virtuous, punishing the wicked, and reminding us that “the rich are more miserable than you and me.”

* Harold Robbins may have been rich, but he was far from happy. By this point in his career he realized that he had started to plagiarize himself—many of the tropes of his novels were well worn, while the majority of his characters could wander into his other books without too much difficulty—and that the fictional image he had created for himself, the holograph that he had designed for the purpose of attracting money, sex, fame, and freedom, was in danger of imprisoning him. In order to maintain his playboy lifestyle—the yachts (he now had another one, harbored in Marina del Rey), the houses, Grace’s increasingly large credit card bills, and the properties he bought his mistresses—Robbins churned out a series of substandard novels that seemed to lack the spark of his earlier work. He had never been a great writer, but at least he could claim to have spun a good story; now, however, even that ability was beyond him. The things that once had given him pleasure had lost their luster…

* Robbins wrote Spellbinder quickly, finishing it in thirty-one days. In order to meet his deadline—and to make sure he banked the hefty check from Simon & Schuster—he knocked back a homemade cocktail of Coca-Cola, into which he heaped spoonfuls of instant coffee, no doubt accompanied by frequent snorts of cocaine. By February he completed the book, relieved that he had done so before the wedding of his daughter, Caryn, to her boyfriend, Michael Press. Little did he know, however, that 25 April 1982 would mark the beginning of his descent. Robbins, the ultimate dream merchant, was about to experience his worst nightmare.

* The confrontation with a fictionalized version of himself [in the novel Rich Dreams] was, perhaps, too much to bear. After all, he had spent half a lifetime constructing—and indeed living—a fantasy. As his identity was threatened, it fragmented and then split apart, a process that, exacerbated by his excessive lifestyle, finally culminated in a stroke that, in turn, left him with aphasia. Robbins frequently forgot words, and when he tried to write, his sentences were garbled and often written back to front.

* In Grace’s absence, Harold took it upon himself to hire a new personal assistant, Jann Stapp, a former advertising executive from Oklahoma who was in her late twenties. “The secretary took me upstairs, she opens these big double doors, and there’s this huge bedroom with mirrored ceilings and a white satin sofa,” she says. “He’s sitting in the middle of this huge bed, smoking a cigarette, having a cup of coffee and wearing his red jockey shorts.”6 The writer introduced himself by his full name and proceeded to conduct a formal interview, at the end of which he offered her the job. Later, Jann said, “I think we fell in love the first time we met each other. I felt he was the most wonderful thing.”

* Later, when asked by Esquire magazine to describe his favorite thing, Robbins responded, “a beautiful woman’s derriere … She [Jann] came from Oklahoma and gave my life more happiness than the biggest oil gusher. Her derriere made all my dreams come true.”

* [Despite emphysema] Robbins continued to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day.

* Michael Korda remembers it rather differently. “Harold’s sales began to plummet,” he says.18 “In interviews he always sounded cocky and quick to defend his books against the critics, but the truth was that he despised his readers and despised himself for catering to them.”

* His unique selling point of being able to churn out erotically charged, fast-paced epics was now being threatened by a whole new generation of mostly female novelists such as Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran, Celia Brayfield, Jackie Collins, and a host of imitators. These writers invested Robbins’s tired formula with a new energy, an emotional intensity that had been long absent from his novels. In addition, they challenged Robbins’s male perspective, shifting the presentation of the female from passive object to active subject. “I always remember thinking when I read him as a teenager that when I started to write novels my women would be as strong as Harold Robbins’s men,” says Jackie Collins.20 They were better at writing sex scenes too, more descriptive, more sensuous, more daring. Robbins may have invented the “sex and shopping” novel, but his female counterparts adapted the genre and in the process kidnapped a large share of his core readership.

* In order to boost his morale Robbins snorted even larger quantities of cocaine. On 23 February 1984, after a night out with Jann and a couple of friends, he took one toot too many and, while in the shower at his house, suffered a drug-induced seizure.

* [Confined to a wheelchair]… The recreational drugs that he had enjoyed over the years were now replaced by ones issued by the pharmacy; more than thirty different tablets a day. Suddenly his jet-set life—the international travel, his luxury houses and yachts, the parade of celebrity friends, and the endless supply of girls—shrank before his eyes as he was now confined to the reality of four walls.

* From a mansion overlooking the lights of Los Angeles, Harold, Grace, and Jann moved to a single-story rented house in the desert. Robbins was attracted to Palm Springs because of its aura of decadence, its association with Hollywood (it was one of the original party grounds for stars who wanted to escape the controlling influence of the studios), its proximity to Los Angeles, and the relatively cheap property prices. But Robbins must also have felt that he was retreating from the limelight. Palm Springs, for all its recent reinvention as a hip destination, was in the mid-1980s something of an elephant’s graveyard…

* Wayne Koestenbaum would write in The New York Times, “Robbins’s material is smutty but his prose is clean. Simple, speedy and efficient, his sentences demonstrate, in a parodic fashion, what Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero.” They seem transparent but in fact are opaque bonbons, coldly functional fetishes, absurdly themselves … Such bland utterances are so fake, they’re real. They have a quiet, mercenary dignity. Their refusal of insight makes them as modern as neon, or Niagara Falls.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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