| When Harold Robbins' heart stopped beating yesterday in Palm Springs, Calif., he was 81. For nearly 50 of those years, from the publication of "Never Love A Stranger" in 1948 to this year's "Tycoon," he was a phenomenally successful author. Before Dominick Dunne and Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins, before even Jacqueline Susann, Robbins had proven himself the master of the roman ` clef bestseller. His chronicles of the sexual and financial peccadilloes of the rich and the restless and the often clunky films made from them earned him a fortune he did his best to spend emulating the extravagant lifestyles of his characters.
I interviewed him several times over the years. (I also was fortunate enough to attend some of his outlandishly lavish press parties, including the infamous dinner at one of L.A.'s better restaurants where a horned devil chased a nymph, both starkers, onto the long table and ravished her while the dessert was being served.) Our last meeting took place a little more than two decades ago at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, his usual choice of venue. The Pocket edition of his novel "Descent From Xanadu" was then at the top of the paperback charts. He'd entered into a new long-term agreement with 20th Century Fox involving all of his unproduced works (including "Xanadu") and whatever new ones he might think up. And he had just turned in the manuscript for "The Storyteller," which he proudly proclaimed "the most autobiographical of all my books."
Still, he wasn't exactly blissful. He was only three years past a debilitating stroke. He'd recently fallen and hurt his hip. And the strength of the dollar had cut deeply into his international sales profits. "No matter what any writer will tell you," he said solemnly, "we write because of the money. If there was no money, we'd do something else."
On top of that, Michael Korda, his editor at Simon & Schuster, had been displeased with the new manuscript. "Michael is a good editor, but he's a little too structured for me," Robbins said. "He likes everything to go into a slot. Also, he's nervous. He says he's never read anything like this new one since Henry Miller. He says, 'Are you sure you're writing this with a typewriter or your prick?' He says, 'This is the dirtiest book I've ever read.' 'Don't take it so seriously,' I told him. 'Enjoy it.'"
I asked him why he'd left his first publisher, Alfred Knopf. "Ah, Alfred," he said, smiling. "He gave me my name, you know. It was 'Harold Rubin,' but he didn't think 'Rubin' looked right on a book cover, typographically. I didn't leave Alfred. He left me. We were having lunch at the University Club in New York and he asked me to come up to New Hampshire and spend the weekend skiing. I told him he was a little old for that sort of thing. 'You'll break your leg,' I said. And he did. And that was the end of my relationship with Knopf."
I wondered where he got his ideas for his books. "I came to L.A. in 1937. Started out as a shipping clerk at Universal. Met a lot of people. My books are based on people I've met. You remember some people. You remember things about them. I knew Howard Hughes, spent a fair amount of time with him. But I'm not writing biographies. Both DeLorean and Lee Iaccoca thought they were the (automobile manufacturer) in 'The Betsy.' (Entertainment executive) Jim Aubrey thought he was the guy in 'The Inheritors.' Grace Metalious (author of 'Peyton Place') was a model for 'The Lonely Lady,' but she was just part of it. The other part was a real girl out here who I knew. An actress and a writer. She still lives here, married, has a child. She was very what we would call today ERA-ish.
"When 'The Adventurers' was published, Howard Hughes sent a security guy by to pick up a copy. He told me, 'The boss wants to see if you did as well by (playboy Porforio) Rubirosa as you did by him.' These were the larger-than-life people of the time. And there were a lot of them. The airplane manufacturer in 'The Carpetbaggers' was Bill Lear, not Howard Hughes, by the way.
"My problem is that it's impossible to write about the film industry of today. You have nothing but blank faces out here. You can say what you want about Jack Warner or Harry Cohn or Louis Mayer, but they were characters you remembered. Every time I meet Barry Diller he has to tell me who he is, because I can't remember him."
He found the movies made from his books even less memorable. "Most of them I don't recognize. They don't use the book. Maybe that's the way it should be, I don't know. I liked Steve (McQueen) in 'Nevada Smith,' George (Peppard) in 'The Carpetbaggers.' I didn't believe Carole (Baker) for one second.
"There was one movie where they really screwed it up but good. The director's wife was fucking the leading man, which is how he got the job. Had a 17-inch cock, probably. Maybe I should have used him in some book. But they shouldn't have used him in that movie."
Did he have any happy Hollywood memories? He thought for a few beats, then grinned. "Screwing Cary Grant. Grant's a real cheapskate. When I was at Universal, I made a deal with him. He would get 10 percent of the gross on his next movie, 90 percent of the profit and own the negative after 10 years, 100 percent. He thought it was the greatest deal ever.
"The only cash up front would be $100,000. And he was getting a million, even at that time. I had to explain all this to the fucking board of directors. They kept telling me that the studio wasn't going to make any money out of it, that we were giving it away. Pissing out our money. I was furious. I went back to my office and sent out for water pistols. Then went back to the meeting. 'You said I was pissing out the money. Here it is.' I gave 'em some squirts and walked out. Everybody thought I was gonna get fired.
"The movie made a fuckin' fortune. Nobody paid attention to the fact that I kept the distribution rights and the remake rights and subsidiary rights at Universal forever. As they say, 'Whoever gets the money first, keeps it.' And that's the distributor. All that Cary Grant got was statements."
I asked which of his contemporaries he read. "I don't. It's too hard trying to figure out what's worth reading and what isn't. I pick up a book and find out it's one I wrote years ago. I started to read Mario (Puzo)'s 'The Sicilian' and I couldn't get into it. Basically because Mario doesn't know anything about the Sicilians. I had to get him introduced to Sicilians in Italy through my wife Grace's people. He was afraid to go there at first. I told him just to tell 'em that he wrote 'The Godfather.'
"I knew Jim Farrell and Ford Maddox Ford. I read a lot of their stuff. In the '30s there was a different kind of literature. The so-called literary thing was very intellectual and lefty. Sometimes the story was fucked up by the politics. Dos Passos was one of my favorites. I reread the 'USA' trilogy before I wrote 'Memories of Another Day,' as much for research as anything else."
Pocket had just put up a billboard above Spago Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard touting "Xanadu." Its tag line was "The Harold Robbins legend continues." I asked him what he thought of it. "I'm right up there with Julio Iglesias," he said. "We're all manufactured. Maybe I should cut a record with Diana Ross." He shook his round, balding head in wonder. "What the hell are they talking about, legend? I'm just a guy trying to make a buck and stay alive."