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The Hardest Working Woman in Trash Fiction : She's Smart. She's Sexy. And She Sells. So How Come Judith Krantz Can't Get No Respect?

December 02, 1990|MARGY ROCHLIN | Margy Rochlin is a contributing editor of this magazine.

HELEN GURLEY BROWN is talking about Judith Krantz, who used to write for Cosmopolitan magazine and who also is a close friend. In her famous urgent whisper, Brown says, "There are people who say to Judy, 'Why don't you write something good ? Something literary ? Something you can be proud of?' Well, I'd like to put a bullet through those people's heads."

Brown stops, carefully weighing the savageness of her statement. "No," she reconsiders. "First I'd like to pull out their fingernails, one by one, then put a bullet through their heads. Because they're just"--she searches for the right invective--" pretentious jerks ."

LEAVE IT TO her friends to come up with fantasies of violent retribution. Judith Krantz prefers to be nice. Nice, as in ignoring the greasy lake that forms on her plate when the waiter at Le Dome spills San Pellegrino water onto her veal-and-chicken boudin. Nice, as in accepting what people think about blockbuster novels: that anyone can write one given a string of lunch breaks and low enough standards.

So when she's quizzed about loftier aspirations--which "happens so often that I don't even get insulted"--Krantz smiles and replies, "I write the best books that I know how. I can't write any better than this."

Of course, privately, the Wellesley graduate tosses her hands into the air and laughs. "You know, people think that because I had a good education, I'm not writing on the level that I should. They think I'm harboring some slim little intellectual volume, that I am really Isaac Bashevis Singer in disguise."

Back in her Bel-Air home, 62-year-old Krantz looks around her office. It's a padded cell, really. The walls are soundproof, cushioned and upholstered in a leaf-green-and-orange floral fabric that sinks in at the poke of a fingertip. This is the room where, when she is composing one of her 500-plus-page sagas full of ka-boom! sex and frenzied consumerism, she spends six and a half hours a day, five days a week, with the exception of Wednesday afternoons. (For the past 19 years, she's dedicated part of one day every week to getting her beige pouf done at Aida Grey in Beverly Hills.) She works in an old silk blouse and sweat pants, wearing layers of sweaters that she'll shed throughout the day--when things are going well, Krantz's body temperature sizzles. For nine solid months, the only other breaks in her workday come when she nibbles on her spartan lunch of iced tea and a chicken salad sandwich, or speaks with her blond assistant, Edwina Lloyd, or accepts phone calls from her husband, television producer Steve Krantz.

Krantz gives the tiniest of sighs and contemplates her brand-new red tennis shoes, so small they should be bronzed. "What all this indicates to me is that people think what I'm writing is fun, that they really don't understand how hard 'fun' is to write," she says, her voice rising slightly. "It's hard to entertain people and make a story move just like that. "

She knows that her critics have no idea what it takes, how much preparation is required before she taps out a single sentence on her Macintosh Plus computer. They don't care about how much interviewing and research go into building the novels' heavily populated worlds. If few of Krantz's theatrically romantic figures could exist in real life, she nonetheless tries to construct for them an accurate reality. Inside the cabinets of her wood worktable, she's stored stacks of brown spiral binders, the end result of investigations so thorough that she'll end up using "only 1% of the information" she's collected. Just as in the days when she was a journalist, she'll call up experts out of the blue and pick their brains or set off on a fact-finding mission in her chauffeur-driven limousine. When Red Appleton, a 40ish-but-still-beautiful fashion model, goes to Louis Vuitton at South Coast Plaza to check out an 18-karat-gold Gae Aulenti fountain pen for Mike Kilkullen, her 60ish-but-still-virile fiance, Krantz herself has visited the place and priced the thing.

Red and Mike are central characters in "Dazzle," Krantz's just-published book, which, if all things go as anticipated, will rise dreamily to the top of the bestseller lists. That's what "Scruples," "Princess Daisy," "Mistral's Daughter" and "I'll Take Manhattan" did in 1978, 1980, 1983 and 1986, respectively. Only one Krantz book in 12 years--"Till We Meet Again," in 1988--stuck at No. 2. All told, 60 million copies of her books (paperback and hardcover) have sold worldwide, in 30 languages.

Over the years, Krantz has displayed a knack for ensuring such sales. Perhaps this is because, as she is fond of saying, she is "an advertising man's daughter." She has extremely strict ideas regarding the promotion and marketing of her books. In fact, says Crown Publishing Group executive vice president Michelle Sidrane: "We consider her a partner in that process."

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