The death of blockbuster novelist Jackie Collins reminds Steve Braunias of the awkward time he visited her at her home in Beverly Hills.
Jackie Collins was one of the worst writers of the 20th century, every sentence a cliché, every book a dull thud, but she sold somewhere around 140 million copies of her godawful novels and she lived in luxury. I set foot in that luxury in 1991. She lived in a gleaming white mansion in Beverly Hills. There were six cars out front – a Volvo, a Saab, four Mercs. I pulled up in a Cadillac. It was a summer’s day. The only people out and about in the neighbourhood were Mexicans with hedge clippers. The driver of the Cadillac taxi asked me, “Say, are you a rock star?”
I spoke into an intercom. The gate opened and an old butler met me at the front door. He wore loafers, chinos, and an open-necked blue shirt. He looked like he was about to drop dead any second. Perhaps his corpse would be eaten by an enormous dog which bounded down the hallway. The butler said, “Down, Killer.”
I was shown into the living room. There were lots of family photographs on the walls, including portraits of Joan Collins. The library made a statement. It was stocked with dull thuds by Sidney Sheldon, Judith Krantz, Harold Robbins, and worse. The worst of them arrived, padding over the thick, white carpet in stockinged feet. Jackie Collins said, “You’ve met Oscar?”
The old guy was actually her husband, Oscar Lerman. The sudden knowledge of it removed the immediate impression I had of him as a casually dressed servant. I think he could tell that’s how I regarded him. I smiled at him. He didn’t smile back. He narrowed his small, flickering eyes, and panted in the heat like Killer. I said, “Greetings, Oscar!”
His handshake was as dry as sand. He blew away. Collins wore black pants, a black blouse, and a blue Armani jacket. She said, “You’ve come all this way! I thought I’d I put something nice on for you.”
She fetched two Pepsis and we drank the hard stuff straight from the bottle for the next hour or so. She said she believed in hanging and she boasted about her sales figures in some detail and she said, “I go to parties, and see Tony Curtis, who I wrote fan letters to me when I was growing up, and Gene Kelly says, ‘Hi! How are you? I loved your last book!’ People in the business really like my books a lot, because they know the reality and the truth of them.”
It was a happy, civil hour or so, and then it came time for her to go. She and Oscar had to attend a movie preview. She said, “Do you have far to drive?”
I said I didn’t have a car, that I came by taxi. Oscar had reappeared by this stage. He received the news with a sigh. I asked if I could call for a cab. He said, “But it could take forever, and we’re in a hurry.”
Well, I said, that wasn’t a problem, I’d simply walk. It was a beautiful day. I didn’t have anywhere special to be, and I’d enjoy strolling the streets of Beverly Hills. It was my first time in Los Angeles, and it’d be a pleasure. I said, “You rush along. I’ll be fine.”
Oscar had gone white with rage. He explained it wasn’t done to simply go walking in their neighbourhood. Private security firms patrolled the streets and if they saw me just sauntering along, they’d leap out and cuff me. There’d be a scene. The neighbours would talk. He said, “You should have thought about this.”
I apologised. The atmosphere was tense. Collins reappeared wearing shoes. She asked Oscar if he’d called a cab. He said no, there wasn’t any point. I said if it wasn’t safe to walk the streets, I could wait by the front gate. That was really asking for it; Oscar fixed me with those small eyes and sighed. I was afraid he’d whistle for Killer. But then Jackie Collins said, “We’ll take you. We can drop you somewhere.”
Oscar received the news with horror. He turned to his wife. She was many years younger than him, and also considerably taller. He looked up at her with his moist, pleading eyes. He could die any second; he didn’t want to spend his last seconds with a man from New Zealand. She looked down on him, and said, “You should take a blazer. It can get cold in that screening room.”
He got his blazer. We got in one of the four Mercs. I sat in the back. She drove. No one said anything. I felt terrible about things, that I’d failed a basic rule of Los Angeles etiquette; I was a galumphing Kiwi, a hick, showing up at their home without a care in the world. The least I could do was make matters worse. I leaned forward, and said, “Can I come to the screening, too?”
Neither turned around. They said in low voices, “No.”
The beautiful weather, the lazy heat, the smog blown clear by the Santa Anna winds…I loved Los Angeles. You couldn’t hear yourself think for the constant noise of money and fame and desire. Jackie Collins parcelled it all up in her bad prose, in one blockbuster after another; she was a hitmaker, entertaining millions with her stories of men (“Tall and colt-like with smooth olive skin and a killer bod, Max was a show-stopper”) and women (“Venus sighed, lying back totally naked except for an animal print-thong”) in positions of power and states of undress. She sold fantasies. Los Angeles existed on fantasy. It was everywhere, as contagious as the flu. To the question asked by my driver of the Cadillac taxi, I answered, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.”
You might not find any Jackie Collins at our excellent sponsor Unity Books, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out the rest of their catalogue.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.