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A Fantasy Named Danielle Steel : After 23 Books in 15 Years, Her World Sometimes Seems Too Unreal to Be True

January 06, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

How could she be real?

First there's that name, Danielle Steel. Romantic, alluring--it's sure to be an inspired invention.

Then there's the sheer volume of work--23 books in 15 years. And the scope of subject matter--historical sagas and contemporary dramas, characters ranging from heiresses and alcoholics to ex-convicts and cowboys. No doubt they're all produced by a stable of writers toiling thanklessly in a basement somewhere in Brooklyn.

And there has to be a marketing gnome whose full-time job it is to think up all those mushy titles: "Passion's Promise," "Now and Forever," "To Love Again," "Secrets" and the newly published "Kaleidoscope."

Perpetuating Myth

Plus a photographer whose portraits of a middle-aged model with gleaming chestnut hair, creamy unlined skin, sensually full lips and sparkling diamond necklace perpetuate the myth that Steel is not just a flesh-and-blood woman but a glamorous one as well.

Then there's the exotic picture of her private life that's been presented by her Los Angeles publicity machine: daughter of a German "nobleman," wife of a San Francisco shipping "magnate," "devoted" mother of nine. Even Ripley might not print that one without a smirk.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Danielle Steel isn't real even to Danielle Steel.

Yes, the name is hers. Yes, at age 39 she really has written all those books. Yes, the photograph is a flattering likeness. Yes, the fairy-tale background, though a bit exaggerated, is basically true. And yes, "I'm obviously one of the more successful writers in the country and probably one of the higher paid," she admits modestly. "But I think other people are more aware of it than I am.

"And I guess that's because, with the background I had as such, I've always felt it wasn't really OK to work. It was even less OK to be a success. I have a real conflict within myself. I'm afraid to let it all hang out and say, 'Yes, this is what I am and what I do,' and 'Yes, that is me who is No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list,' because it means you've flopped as a woman.

"So I think that to atone for the sin of being successful . . . I always kind of back off and hide it. I'm very much in the closet with my work."

Literally in the laundry room, where she used to sneak after midnight to work while the rest of the family was fast asleep. "That's how she started out--writing books on the top of a washing machine while it was bouncing. And she still is because she's comfortable doing that," explains her husband, John Traina.

"Actually, about a week before we got married, the moving men were taking my house apart while I was trying to meet a deadline," she adds sheepishly. "So I had the typewriter (a 1948 Olympia) on the toilet and I was sitting on the floor trying to finish the book. And that's exactly where I did it.

"In my bathroom."

Aw, come on!

After all, she is wearing an opulent fox turban and sweeping scarlet cape-and-skirt ensemble--exactly the sort of dramatic costume that a successful author would wear. And she is answering questions in a breathy whisper on a rainy afternoon under the sort of dark, brooding skies that novelists like Steel love to describe in detail.

She's chosen an intimate sitting room inside San Francisco's Sherman House, a white Victorian hotel that once was the salon of music devotee Leander Sherman, because she won't let journalists into her homes or to follow her through a typical day. In other words, to see the real Danielle Steel.

And yet she is real enough to her adoring public to have been named one of the 10 most influential women in the world in a 1981 national poll of college students. To have a million copies of her newest novel printed in hardcover, with an additional 4 million slated for paperback. To have 85 million copies of her books in print worldwide.

And real enough to be savaged by the critics. "For $15.95, you can have a more meaningful experience at Anaheim's Fantasyland," a Los Angeles Times reviewer said of her 1982 hit, "Crossings."

Sometimes the themes of love and loss are all too familiar despite the different locales, time frames or characters. Often there's too much Cartier jewelry, too many Dior gowns and titled Frenchmen for even glitz-and-glitter addicts to swallow. And when social conscience does surface, it's interchangeably rape, abortion, deafness, adoption or a dread disease. As one reviewer noted about "Family Album," the 1985 novel set in Los Angeles, Steel's idea of poverty is "living in Monterey Park--horrors!--with only one servant--worse horrors!"

Then again, nothing seems to affect Steel's popularity. "It's funny because when Danielle gets together with Sidney Sheldon or Paul Erdman or anybody else," her husband notes, "what they always agree on is once you become successful, you have bad critics."

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