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Ex-Actress Portrays Sex, Greed, Glitz in Newport Setting

December 23, 1989|DENNIS MCLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a place "where luxury knows no limits and only the best is good enough."

Welcome to Newport Beach, "one of the West's ritziest oases," as author Jocelyn Christopher has Robin Leach, that toady-to-the-rich-and-famous, rhapsodize at the beginning of "Private Dancers" (Dell; $3.95), her sex-, glitz- and megabuck-laced contemporary romance novel.

Now meet the Pearls, Newport's most fabulously wealthy family:

Here's oil magnate Barton J. Pearl, confidant of presidents, "a man of unlimited power, ruthless propensities, and dangerous tastes that run from drug smuggling to dark desires."

Here's Pauline Pearl, Barton's ex-wife and doyenne of Newport Beach society, the no-longer young but still "scheming beauty obsessed with buying priceless things--including a son's love and a man's passion."

Here's Gregory Pearl, the adopted son, "a rising rock star hooked on cocaine, whose one hope for reclaiming his life is the girl his mother wants to ruin."

And don't forget Brittany Pearl, the adopted daughter, a pill-popping "pampered debutante ready to marry one man while being lured into the bed of his best friend."

For a Los Angeles-based writer whose prose bathes the fictional Pearl family in a deep purple haze, Newport Beach was an irresistible setting for her new paperback novel.

"I was very intrigued by it," Christopher said in Costa Mesa last weekend. "I do write about life styles of the rich and depraved, first of all, and I just kind of felt that everybody had read and said almost everything there was to know about Beverly Hills. I had seen enough of Newport Beach that I knew that here was this sort of great enclave of very, very wealthy people who live in quite a different style than Beverly Hills."

Newport Beach, according to the Canadian-born former actress, who managed to pick up a proper British accent while living in England for six years, does not have the "theatricality" of Beverly Hills.

"I mean it's not basically a show-biz place as such, and also it's more homogenous because Los Angeles, since it is a film community, attracts a lot of creative people from Europe and New York. So this is almost just moneymaking for the sake of moneymaking and very stratified simply on that basis.

"It's obviously also more conservative, I would say. And yet beneath the veneer of conservatism, I felt that from the point of view of a trashy novelist there was just as much going on here perhaps as in Beverly Hills, where you would more expect it."

Christopher was speaking over a Caesar salad and a glass of white wine at Pronto Grill in South Coast Plaza after a two-hour book signing at Brentano's that netted her eight book sales. She was not too disappointed by the turnout, which is about average for an author whose name does not have the recognition factor of a Jackie Collins or Judith Krantz.

"People feel self-conscious (about asking for an autograph) if they don't recognize you," Christopher said good-naturedly. "Funnily enough, the best (signing) I had was in a supermarket, for some reason."

Although it flashes back to Barton and Pauline Pearl's early years, "Private Dancers" is set primarily in 1979 and '80.

"It was kind of the beginning of the 'greed is good' era, which I wanted to capture," Christopher said. "It's also kind of a pre-AIDS era, where people felt they could do 'anything'--experiment with their sexuality, be very promiscuous--and we hadn't yet learned about all the risks and the downside. I just wanted to focus in on that time also, of unbridled lust and unbridled greed just running rampant."

The steamy world of contemporary romance seems an unlikely genre for a University of Toronto English literature graduate who also attended Oxford University in England.

Christopher said she abandoned Oxford after being "just utterly seduced by the theater and the London stage." She arrived in Hollywood in the mid-'80s and turned to writing three years ago when, she readily admits, her acting career "was not going that brilliantly and I was low on funds."

"At the same time," she said. "I had had kind of a charmed life, so even though I had never been super-rich I tended somehow or other to have had the opportunity to meet a lot of these people and I had a lot of interesting, hot gossip.

"I'd be telling this (gossip) to my friend, and at the same time moaning and groaning about my sad status in the acting world, and he just said, 'I have no sympathy for you. You've got your degree in English literature and you've been to Oxford, and all these stories you've been telling me sound as though they were out of 'Hollywood Wives.' Why don't you sit down and make them into a novel."

Figuring that if she was going to write a Jackie Collins type of novel she had better read one, Christopher bought a copy of Collins' steamy "Hollywood Wives." But when she got to what appears to be an incest scene, she slammed the book shut. "I said, 'This is terrible. I can't read this.' I took it back to the bookstore and said I want my money back."

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