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OBITUARY

Harold Robbins; Prolific Best-Selling Novelist

October 15, 1997|BURT A. FOLKART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Harold Robbins, whose steamy novels were laced with sex, violence and conflict and centered around the international jet set or troubled youths in conflict with their culture, died Tuesday in Palm Springs.

The author of "The Carpetbaggers" and "Never Love a Stranger" died shortly before noon in Desert Hospital. He was 81 and had suffered a stroke in 1982 that left him with aphasia and sometimes blocked his ability to express his thoughts. He also had been confined to a wheelchair by hip injuries.

A prolific author of 21 books who worked as a cook, cashier and bookmakers' errand boy before finding fame as a novelist, Robbins divided his books into two categories: The first he called the "adventure novels," typified by "The Carpetbaggers." They involved the machinations of the wealthy and powerful ("Carpetbaggers" supposedly was based on eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes). The second group were his "Depression" novels, which Dick Lochte of the Los Angeles Times Book Review said were "close in style and substance to the hard-boiled novels of the '30s in which tough street kids fight their way out of the proletarian jungle to achieve wealth and power."

These paralleled Robbins' own battles with life, which he began under the name Francis Kane, an infant abandoned in New York City who never knew his parents.

If he was born to obscurity, his fame at its zenith became immense.

According to the anthology "Contemporary Authors," each day about 40,000 people buy his novels, which brought him total sales of 750 million copies worldwide. "Carpetbaggers" alone has been through more than 70 printings and has sold 8 million copies. "Stranger" and "Dreams Die First" have each topped 3 million.

Success did not humble him one iota. He called himself the "best novelist alive . . . you can find my books anywhere in the world in any language."

Before his illness he also could have been a character out of his own novels, throwing out words like "fabulous" and "baby" as the prime seasonings of his conversation. He enjoyed fame on film as well as the printed page. Many of the books became motion pictures, including "The Carpetbaggers" and a spinoff, "Nevada Smith."

He toured the world on an 85-foot yacht "with two beautiful French whores I hired as decorations," he told The Times. But because of divorce, failing health and a propensity for spending beyond his means, he sometimes lost much of what he had.

The failures returned him to familiar ground.

When he was 15 he left the home of the Rubins, the family that had adopted him, to take on a series of odd and sometimes questionable jobs in New York. He shortly found his first prosperity in the food business, buying options on farmers' crops and selling them to canning companies. At age 20 the product of poverty had become a successful businessman--a millionaire, he said.

But in 1939 crop speculation led to losses, and when farm prices were frozen by World War II, Harold Rubin was back to work, this time as a shipping clerk for Universal Pictures.

After uncovering a severe overcharge, he was promoted to the budget department and for the first time began to write on the side.

He saw a novel that Universal had regrettably bought to film and bragged that he could do better. On a $100 bet he did, and thus was born "Never Love a Stranger." It was a sexy tale of a tough orphan coming of age, not far removed from Robbins' (he had changed his name) life itself. Although he was chided for its steamy sex scenes, the book became an instant bestseller.

"A Stone for Danny Fisher" also told of a poor Jewish boy, trying to succeed in Depression-era New York, and remains his most praised work. A New York Times reviewer cited "vivid characterizations" and "feeling for individual scenes."

The novels that followed were not that well received.

"Spellbinder," "Never Leave Me" and "The Betsy," of the 1970s and '80s, were challenged for having all the depth of cartoon characters.

In the mid-1990s and with his last wife, Jann, whom he continually called his "fabulous, just fabulous baby," he made a comeback with "The Raiders," which continued the saga of Jonas Cord, begun in "The Carpetbaggers." Publishers Weekly called it "his most entertaining novel in years [and] a lively follow-up to a commercial fiction classic," a phrase that might well sum up the author himself.

Rich or poor, Robbins never doubted himself:

In a 1986 interview, he said: "I won't leave any unfinished manuscripts. I'll live till I'm 200 years old, and I'll write all the stories that are in me. Put it on my tombstone: 'He finished his job and went home.' "

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