Jackie's rise to bonkbuster fame

  • Books
  • Tuesday, 29 Sep 2015

British author Jackie Collins passed away from breast cancer on Sept 19. She kept the disease a secret for more than six years. Even her sister Joan only found out about it two weeks before her death. Photo: Reuters

English language fiction was such an established business by the 1960s that even the most original authors could only continue familiar genres: romance, crime, thriller, literary. However, Jackie Collins more or less invented the form of storytelling now recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as “bonkbuster”, selling more than 500 million copies of 32 titles that remained in print at her death at the age of 77 on Sept 19.

Books by other authors – including Judith Krantz’s Scruples (1978) and Shirley Conran’s Lace (1982) – encouraged the birth of the term for stories in which women went in search of sexual and financial fulfilment in a milieu of first-class cabins and five-star hotels.

However, Jackie had started to write such books earlier and continued to publish them longer than any of her rivals – a student writing a thesis on bonk-busting novels would soon have well-fingered editions of Jackie’s 1968 debut, The World Is Full Of Married Men, and Hollywood Wives (1983), her first mega-seller, which declared in its title both her signature setting and her preference for female protagonists.

If she had a predecessor, it was Jacqueline Susann, whose scandalous hit, Valley Of The Dolls (1966), featuring sex and drugs in the movie business, had topped bestseller charts two years before Jackie started publishing. As Susann died young without writing another book, Jackie can be seen to have taken over and expanded the brand in books such as Lovers And Gamblers (1977), an 800-page account of erotic and economic betrayals in the worlds of music, movies and fashion that is probably her signature novel.

Jackie also learned from Susann – and from another bestselling author of the period, Harold Robbins – the importance of exhaustive media promotion of new titles, especially on television, where authors should ideally look as if they had just walked out of one of their own narratives.

Actress Joan Collins (right) and writer Jackie Collins at the 2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills. Photo: Reuters
Actress Joan Collins (right) and writer Jackie Collins at the 2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills in February. Photo: Reuters

Central to the success of Jackie was the assumption that she was fictionalising people and events she had seen or heard for real. She certainly had the connections to showbiz that helped support that assumption: She was the daughter of a major British showbiz agent, Joseph Collins, the sister of a movie star, Joan Collins, and the wife of an American nightclub owner, Oscar Lerman, whose properties included the key 1970s London watering-hole, Tramp.

His business interests in Los Angeles gave her the familiarity with the American high life that drove her major books. Anglo-American by nationality, she became increasingly an American novelist and began setting her books in that country from 1971 onwards.

Having initially shadowed Susann, Jackie continued to keep a sharp eye on market trends. After Mario Puzo’s Mafia saga, The Godfather, became one of the biggest-selling titles in publishing history, Jackie published, in 1974, her own mob story, Lovehead (later renamed The Love Killers).

Subsequently, organised crime became the most recurrent Jackie theme apart from Beverley Hills infidelity, although, characteristically, the novelist set out to feminise the mob novel.

Chances (1981) introduced the character of Lucky Santangelo, heiress to an American mafioso. The sequence of books about her – including Lady Boss, in which the heroine rather provocatively takes over a Hollywood studio – reached nine with The Santangelos, published just two weeks ago.

While the Santangelos share the mafiosi world of the Corleones and the Sopranos, their women do more than spend, breed and cook, especially Lucky, who inherits and maintains the family firm.

“My heroines kick ass,” Jackie once said, complaining of contemporary female masochism in print and film. “They don’t get their asses kicked.”

A 2006 photo of Jackie Collins and her daughter Tracy. Photo: Reuters
A 2006 photo of Jackie and daughter Tracy (right). Photo: Reuters

Jackie holding up her Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal which she received from Queen Elizabeth II in November 2013. Photo: AFP
Jackie with the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal she received from Queen Elizabeth in November 2013. Photo: AFP

The author herself was held up at Uzi-point in her car in Beverly Hills once. She reversed out of trouble, fast. “My heroines do what women would – if they had the courage,” she said.

She knew minor mafiosi, and got their details right, just as she knew, or had met, or had logged well-sourced gossip on, several showbiz generations – “I’m a Bel Air anthropologist,” she described herself.

Jackie also followed the example of Puzo, whose Godfather character Johnny Fontane was a disguised version of Frank Sinatra, in encouraging readers to play spot-the-model. A comedian character called Charlie Brick shared a great deal of CV with Peter Sellers, one of her dad’s clients.

Al King, in Lovers And Gamblers, is a superstud singer whom readers have to fight not to see as Tom Jones. In interviews, Jackie used a formula presumably intended to avoid legal or social difficulties, acknowledging that a character might contain an “essence” of Jones or Madonna or whoever.

Having grown up in showbiz and trained as an actress, Jackie continued to live by the rules of a theatrical trouper that the show must go on. She kept her more than six-year battle with breast cancer a secret from most, and even sister Joan was only told in the two weeks before Collins’ death.

Just over a week before her death, Jackie flew to London for a trip that, as well as a final dinner with her sister, also included the promotion of her book on ITV’s Loose Women. It was typical of her determination and loyalty to have fulfilled that commitment.

Once, when I was in Los Angeles to record an interview with an actor who cancelled due to illness, Jackie, following a plea from a slight mutual acquaintance, turned up almost immediately to fill the gap: immaculate, articulate, full of top gossip from the worlds of entertainment and politics.

In person, she was much cleverer and more thoughtful than was suggested by prose deliberately written to be read swiftly and widely translated. She was a feminist less by ideology than through the example of equalling or bettering the achievements of men.

Among women novelists, probably only Agatha Christie before her and J.K. Rowling since have created such individualistic fictional worlds for such a huge and enduring readership. – Additional reporting by Veronica Horwell/Guardian News & Media

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