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Mr. Blockbuster

Sidney Sheldon, 87 and master of the good life, is like his many novels: timeless.

September 25, 2004|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

To heck with high art. It's time to check in on Sidney Sheldon, the prince of potboilers, a man ignored by the literati for almost 40 years and none the worse for it.

Sheldon has sold 300 million books. He is the most translated author in the world, according to Guinness' book of records. And he's a Southern California icon, like the Hollywood sign, and just as taken for granted.

And now, at 87, Sheldon's become a kind of geriatric phenomenon. His 18th novel, just out, received an initial first printing of 750,000 copies. In publishing, that's blockbuster territory -- the same print run, for example, given to Kitty Kelley's new tell-all on the Bush clan. His book will hit No. 3 on next week's New York Times bestseller list.

A visit might be instructive for all the aging boomers who plan to keep on ticking well into their own octogenarian years. Besides which, Sheldon's long been reported to live the same extraordinary lifestyle as the characters in his feverish fiction.

Drive west on Sunset Boulevard past Beverly Hills, to a perilous curve in the road. Turn left onto a blind, uphill slope that ends at Sheldon's 3-acre hilltop estate. There, where only birdsong and the flap of butterfly wings can be heard, sits the whitewashed, pillared, two-story house (11 bedrooms, 22 baths) that has been Sheldon's L.A. home for the last 30 years. He has just put it on the market at $23 million.

It is late afternoon. A housekeeper (one of four) along with Sheldon's personal assistant, Mary Langford, usher guests into the large center hall. The place is apparently bustling with unseen minions. Sheldon's French chef is in the kitchen whipping up dinner; assorted gardeners and a houseman tend to their chores. A Realtor in the foyer awaits Dole Chief Executive David Murdock, who wants a look at the property.

Sheldon, however, is nowhere in view. Langford leads the way past a warren of high-ceilinged rooms (filled with gilt-trimmed furniture upholstered in pale silk) to a back staircase. There's no elevator. "Mr. Sheldon likes to use the stairs," Langford says during the steep climb. He also still drives, she adds, although the houseman sometimes doubles as a chauffeur.

Upstairs, double doors open silently to reveal -- and it is a moment of high drama -- a snowy-haired figure seated behind a huge desk at the far end of a sunlit room about the size of a soccer field. Sheldon's head is bent, pen poised over paper, as if composing his next bestseller. In reality, Sheldon never physically writes his passion-pumped tales; he dictates them to Langford, a former court reporter, who transcribes the words exactly as they spill from his imagination.

Sheldon is imposingly tall, but now gaunt and pale. Is he in good health? "Absolutely. In February, I'll be 88. But my mind is young. I have trouble remembering things, except when I'm writing. Then everything is crystal clear."

Indeed, his new book, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?," has the same zip as his others. A roller-coaster mystery with surprisingly clever twists and turns whisked in with plenty of glamour, international intrigue and heavy breathing. It will undoubtedly be read just as popcorn is eaten at the movies: compulsively, unstoppably. Until there is no more left.

"Sidney's at the top of his game," says Sheldon's literary agent, Mort Janklow, who also represents such folks as Tom Wolfe, Michael Crichton and the pope. "This new novel is as good as he's written in 20 years. Reading it, you have no idea this wasn't written by a younger man."

Yes, but how does an 87-year-old maintain currency in an era when trends seem to shift with each wind and emphasis is so much on the young and the new?

"Sidney's longevity secret is that he is a great storyteller, a master of the narrative tale. Readers care about his characters, many of whom are women under threat. He has an instinctive ability to read women's emotions."

Those basic emotions -- love, lust, fear -- have not changed since Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt. And because Sheldon wastes no space describing places and things that might date him, his narratives are rather timeless in a fantastic, James Bondian way.

"He amazes me," says Sheldon's editor at HarperCollins, Maureen O'Brien. She "inherited" the author a few years ago, when his previous editor retired. "I was uncertain. I considered myself a fairly hip young woman" and feared he might not be her cup of literary brew. "But his work blew me away. It's the perfect tone for today."

So no, Sheldon is not selling his house because of age or infirmity or a wish to downsize in his platinum years. "It's because of my wife. She has a very bad case of ... uh, no smog. I want to get her out of here. I'll buy something similar out at the beach," he says.

He lives to write

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