The car climbs a thin, steep, cliff-edge road with a bent guardrail that wouldn't slow a baby carriage. At the top a wide electric gate discloses a level, seven-acre-plus estate, with a burbling illuminated fountain in the center of a vast stone forecourt. An imposing house rises between forecourt and the lights of Beverly Hills far below.
It is one of the homes of a man who sells many, many, many books; the wages, a cynic might say, of fictionalized sin. Harold Robbins also has two villas in Cannes, plus a house in Acapulco he is trying to sell because he no longer cares to go there.
By an irony that will not escape less popular writers, the visitor is led up the curving staircase and down a long corridor and into a (relatively) small, smoke-filled room where, crowded into a corner beside a cluttered desk, is an electric typewriter and an orthopedic swivel chair. In this cell-like solitary retreat, Robbins consults his lonely muse and writes his sexy novels.
There are comforting symbols of success. On one of the walls, which are covered with what looks like woven black plastic, are wooden plaques, each carrying the first line of one of his 18 previous novels starting with "Never Love a Stranger."
His 19th, "The Storyteller," has been rushed out for the Christmas trade, less than two months after he pulled it steaming from the typewriter. It was put into print (180,000 hardcover first printing, he says) so fast the publisher had no time to send him galleys.
He is already into his 20th novel, to be called "The Piranhas," although he has had to cut his daily stint at the typewriter to five hours after recent major hip surgery at UCLA to repair the consequences of a bad fall in his bathroom. He is on crutches.
"The doctor says get up from the typewriter and walk around every 20 minutes or so. Now what kind of advice is that? You're going good and you're going to get up and walk around and lose the thread? Agh."
Robbins writes at a torrid clip and, rather than edit, discards. "I write, and then I read it and if it stinks, I throw the pages away. When it stinks, I know it."
The current book is flavored if not suffused with autobiographical touches. The remembering protagonist is reviewing his affairs from a hospital bed where he is undergoing hip surgery but indefatigably lusting after the nurses. The dust-jacket copy succinctly says, "Joe Crown is a poor boy from Brooklyn with a burning ambition to write."
Joe Crown parlays short stories for Spicy Adventures magazine into novels and Hollywood and incessant spicy adventures. At a certain point, you'd think Joe might welcome a little peace and quiet in a hospital, maybe minus the surgery.
Robbins, whose life and fictions sometimes seem inseparable, spent his early years, to age 11, in a Manhattan orphanage run by the Paulist fathers. At some point, he says, he was a runner for bookies because he was good at remembering numbers. (Joe Crown finds comparable work.)
Robbins came to Hollywood in 1937, working as a shipping clerk, then getting a job in an executive's office at pre-Wasserman Universal. He left Universal in 1946 as a financial vice president, "doing budgets, cost analyses and telling lies to bankers," he says. "I used to think that the budgets I had to write sometimes were more fiction than anything I've written since."
As he has famously said, he made a $100 bet with producer William Goetz that he could do a better book than the one Goetz had just paid $300,000 for. Robbins wrote "Never Love a Stranger," which was taken by the elegant firm of Alfred A. Knopf for a $10,000 advance. Goetz, Robbins says, paid the bet, and Robbins went to writing full time.
Later, Robbins quarreled with Knopf over money and didn't write for four years, until Simon & Schuster bought out his Knopf contract. He has been with S&S ever since.
His novels tend to get reviews that would singe hair. They are in fact that mass-audience genre that is not really susceptible to reviews. The novels are easier to put down than to stop reading. His loyal readers are not likely to be put off by the most scathing of reviews, and even favorable ones would probably not widen his readership appreciably.
But something about them sells. The novels are all almost continually in print, some of them in several languages. He is a credible reporter about what he knows. (His Hollywood stuff may not be the whole story, but it is acridly authentic about some aspects of the industry.)
Yet the key to his wide sales seems to be that, even more basically than some of the other hot-selling popular authors, Robbins is spelling out a lot of fantasies of wealth, power and unlimited coeducational lust and swift gratification that a good many readers evidently share and have been feasting on for 30 years.
He is not modest about his success. "It can't be talent," he says sarcastically, implying a dismissal of the critics. "It's gotta be luck--either that, or the publishers are bribing people to buy the books. Some guy at Oxford says 'Harold Robbins tells a story,' and that's the name of the game, isn't it?
"Now they say, 'This person is the new Harold Robbins' or 'she's the female Harold Robbins.'
"But I'm still going. I haven't told the same story twice in 19 books."