On the road with Jackie Collins

Courageous, campy and sometimes cartoonish, Jackie Collins drove herself to become one of the most popular novelists of her time.

In 1968, after a shaky career as an actress, Joan Collins' little sister decided to become a writer. She went on to sell over 500 million books.

Jackie Collins loved to see her name in print. When I interviewed her in 2000, the British-born author made sure to note that “Talk magazine said, ‘Nobody writes about sex in the back of a Bentley better than Jackie Collins’,” while also alerting me to the news that, thanks to a CD she’d just put out of her readings, she was “chosen ‘recording artist of the week,’ tongue-in-cheek, by Entertainment Weekly three weeks ago!”

In that sense, Jackie was like every party girl I’ve ever known who runs around with her own press clippings — a completely unnecessary gesture since they could easily quote them from memory. But Jackie had a right to believe her own press since she’d taken kitsch and “trash” to new levels, earning media approbation when other dishy women authors such as Grace Metalious, Rona Jaffe, and Jackie Susann, didn’t always get kudos for their steamfests. Jackie’s breathless and bemused tone proved irresistible, and her 32 novels — every one of them a commercial hit — sold some 500 million copies in 40 countries.

In books such as Chances, Lucky, and Hollywood Husbands, Jackie provided rich heapings of voyeuristic pleasure, letting readers peek into the scandals of the rich and striving. She shone a spotlight on the marvelous misdeeds of heiresses, gangsters, and gay trainers, allowing us to “tsk tsk” every happening while longing for the next page full of them. And the media seemed to recognize that, while she wasn’t Dickens, she delivered a hell of a good beach read, a saucy stew sprinkled with all manner of contemporary lingo and real-life celebrity name-droppings.

Jackie Collins at Barnes Noble for the signing of her new book "Lovers And Players" on February 7, 2006 in New York City. (Scott Wintrow/Getty Images)

Jackie Collins at a New York City book signing. (Scott Wintrow/Getty Images)

Jackie saw me as kindred spirit — one of the gals, I suppose — and once singled me out in print as her favorite gay New Yorker. Several years later, she asked me to moderate a discussion with her at Barnes & Noble and we had campy fun, though I apparently overstepped when talking about her characters and gleefully emitted several R-rated words, which rang shockingly through the store’s sound system. The next time I saw Jackie, I was with my mother at a Lincoln Center party and desperate to introduce Ma to my celebrity writer friend. But as we circled, Jackie kept her head turned away, obviously trying to avoid my attention. Had the F-bomb truly offended the lady who wrote about public sex, doggie-style romances, and a character who was named Varoomba “because of the amazing contortions she was able to perform with her outrageous bosom?” I wouldn’t be surprised, since Jackie was a woman of contradictions — able to get down low while assuming airs — just like her sister Joan Collins, who can be funny and self-deprecating, but also prickly. (Jackie told me how amused she was that Joan had turned down the Broadway production of The Graduate because of the nudity involved. As Jackie remembered, in the 1978 movie version of her book The Stud, Joan was “stark naked on a swing” in one delirious scene. And it hadn’t even been in the script!)

Jackie and Joan were one of the great sister acts — a more uppity answer to Olivia/Joan or Liza/Lorna — with constant ups and downs based on their winding, sometimes intertwining careers and their complicated personal lives.

Jackie and Joan Collins, in London a week ago, were one of the great sister acts.

Jackie was married twice and is survived by three children. She started as an actress, and Joan may well have breathed a sigh of relief when that didn’t work out and Jackie switched over to literature instead. Jackie was so successful as a writer that the genre must have seemed especially alluring to Joan. In 1988, Joan decided to become a trashy novelist herself, writing Prime Time, drenched with the same contemporary lingo and celebrity namedroppings that worked so well for her sister. Still, Jackie and Joan were deeply bonded beneath the competition.

Six years ago, Jackie Collins learned that she had breast cancer, but she told only her closest family members, becoming uncharacteristically quiet on the subject. Like Nora Ephron — who believed that “everything is copy,” until she got sick —Jackie’s own illness became something she couldn’t control or spin, and so she didn’t address it publicly. Instead, she put up a veil of privacy. Glamorous things — Beverly Hills manicures, leopard print bed sheets, and fabulous hair — interested her more than real-life challenges and setbacks.

In death, she remains high atop the lowbrow hit parade of stylish society scribes. “I’ve often read, ‘This writer is going to knock Jackie Collins off her perch’,” she told me, irritated, in that interview. “If I’d been knocked off my perch that many times, I’d be black and blue all over. There’s nothing sadder than a bad imitation…”

And Jackie Collins was the real thing.


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