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AUTHORS / The people behind the books we read.

They Say She Who Laughs Last . . .

May 26, 1999|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How deliciously appropriate to find Diane Leslie sitting beneath the famous Brazilian pepper tree on the patio of the Polo Lounge with a large pink camellia on her head.

Her hair is short and blond, blunt cut with bangs like a Dutch child's. Her lips, tinted the same shade of peach as her fingernails, are pursed primly and her pale pink linen napkin is folded in a perfect triangle across her lap.

Every inch the lady--except for that outrageous flower.

Which is exactly how one must imagine little Fleur de Leigh--the precocious 10-year-old in Leslie's 1950s coming-of-age book--would look had she returned fully grown to the Beverly Hills Hotel to share a bottle of Pellegrino with an interviewer and marvel over how well life has turned out after all.

Of course, there have been sorrows and disappointments along the way--and, goodness knows, plenty of therapy--but both Leslie and her lightly fictionalized child-self, Fleur, have survived.

From the time she could put pencil to paper, Leslie spent many hours chronicling her life and its many, as her publicist carefully refers to them, "eccentricities." Eccentricities involving the 60 or more nannies who moved in and out of Leslie's young life, the movie stars, the cooks, the maids, the other Hollywood children with whom she shared little more than the same psychologist.

With her first published novel--the autobiographical "Fleur de Leigh's Life of Crime" (Simon & Schuster, 1999), Leslie has managed to transform a fairly awful childhood into something not only highly entertaining, but also wildly successful.

On the day it came out, the book hit No. 1 on the Los Angeles Times fiction bestseller list--an almost unheard-of publishing achievement--and after a fast second printing, the book returned to the top spot this week.

Not bad for a woman who cheerfully describes her occupation as "housewife" and still works part time selling books at Dutton's in Brentwood.

Diane Leslie (who wishes she'd been named Diana, or at the very least been given an exotic middle name to break up the plainness) has always had a colorful imagination. But never, she insists, in her grandest fantasies, could she have conjured up what is happening to her today.

"This is all so wonderful, so wonderful and incredible and unexpected," she says. "The only thing that compares to having a book at the top of the bestseller list is when I was a Girl Scout and I sold more cookies than any other girl in Beverly Hills because I stood out in front of the Bank of America selling cookies by the case. It feels like that, but now I'm selling my books by the case!"

Her mother, Aleen Leslie, was a screenwriter during the 1930s, '40s and '50s and wrote the "A Date with Judy" radio show that later became a comic book, a 1948 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and, finally, a TV sitcom. Her late father, Jacques--"Of course you know my parents made up these names for themselves," explains Leslie--was a wealthy entertainment lawyer whose clients included Peggy Lee, Jack Webb and Art Linkletter.

In the latter part of the 1950s, when she was between the ages of 10 and 12, Diane was living an extraordinarily privileged life of luxury. She lounged on the man-made sterile-sand "beach" along the coast of the Beverly Hills Hotel pool. She had her swimming strokes critiqued by Cornell Wilde and on her daily walks with the dog exchanged silly one-liners with neighbor Groucho Marx.

Her neighborhood was that of the old Chaplin estate, the medieval castle that was Pickfair and the Barrymore villa. She sipped hot chocolate from Haviland cups as her mother chain-smoked cigarettes pulled from Meissen china baskets and lit by monogrammed silver Ronsons.

"That I may have been unloved and ignored in such a setting crossed no one's mind," says Leslie, who, like the Hollywood women of her mother's day, politely demurs when asked her age.

With self-absorbed, career-driven parents, it was up to the child's string of transient caretakers to provide any warmth or affection. But when Diane (or Fleur) did grow close to one of her staff, the nanny--or, as her parents liked to say, the nurse--would be fired.

"It threatened them, I think, that I should feel closer to anyone but them, even though they ignored me. Which explains why having the constant of a single caring relationship--even if it had to be with the gardener--was so important to me, and to Fleur."

Like the fictional version of herself, Leslie too had a crush on the hunky gardener who worked bare chested, muscles rippling, tanned skin glistening in the sun. Later, says Leslie, her mother tried to appropriate even that memory, telling Diane that he wasn't a good gardener at all. "She told me she just kept him around because she so enjoyed looking at him."

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