OBITUARY

Farewell Jackie Collins, creator of the bonkbuster novel and tireless trouper

Anglo-American novelist who sold more than 500 million copies of her deliciously trashy books dies of breast cancer at the age of 77

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 September, 2015, 3:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 September, 2015, 3:17pm
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The Anglo-American writer Jackie Collins, who died of breast cancer at the age of 77 on September 19, more or less invented the form of storytelling recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as "bonkbuster", and sold more than 500 million copies of 32 titles that remained in print at her death.

Books such as Judith Krantz's Scruples and Shirley Conran's Lace encouraged the birth of the term for stories in which women went in search of sexual and financial fulfilment in a milieu of first-class cabins and five-star hotels. However, Collins had started to write such books earlier and continued to publish them longer than any of her rivals, and a student writing a thesis on bonkbusting novels would soon have well-fingered editions of Collins' 1968 debut, The World is Full of Married Men, and Hollywood Wives (1983), her first mega-seller, which declared in its title both her signature setting and her preference for female protagonists.

Collins understood the importance of exhaustive media promotion of new titles, especially on television, where the author should ideally look as if they had just walked out of one of their own narratives.

Central to Collins' success was the assumption that she was fictionalising people and events she had seen or heard for real. She was the daughter of a major showbiz agent, Joe Collins, the sister of the movie star Joan Collins and the wife of the nightclub owner Oscar Lerman, whose properties included the key '70s London watering-hole Tramp. His business interests in Los Angeles gave her the familiarity with the American high life that drove her major books. Anglo-American by nationality, she became increasingly an American novelist.

Collins always kept a sharp eye on market trends. After Mario Puzo's Mafia saga The Godfather became one of the biggest-selling titles in publishing history, Collins published, in 1974, her own mob story, Lovehead, a suggestive title that caused some squeamishness among booksellers and was later renamed The Love Killers.

Subsequently, organised crime became a recurrent Collins theme, although, characteristically, the novelist set out to feminise the mob novel. Chances (1981) introduced the character of Lucky Santangelo, heiress to an American mafioso. The sequence of books about her - including Lady Boss, in which the heroine takes over a Hollywood studio - reached nine with The Santangelos, which was published just days before her death.

Collins also followed the example of Puzo, whose Godfather character Johnny Fontane was a disguised version of Frank Sinatra, in encouraging readers to play spot-the-model. A comedian she named Charlie Brick shared a great deal of CV with Peter Sellers, one of her father's clients. Al King, in Lovers and Gamblers, is a superstud singer whom readers have to fight not to see as Tom Jones, while the boozing footballer Rod Turner, in her screenplay Yesterday's Hero, might as well have been called George Best. In interviews, Collins used a formula presumably intended to avoid legal or social difficulties, acknowledging that a character might contain an "essence" of Jones or Best or whoever.

She was quick to understand the benefit to a popular novelist of screen adaptations. Her early short novels The Stud (1969) and The Bitch (1979) became successful Brit-flicks starring her sister, and the TV mogul Aaron Spelling, who had worked with Joan on Dynasty, turned Jackie's Hollywood Wives into a 1985 mini-series that proved hugely attractive to audiences and advertisers, if not reviewers.

Having grown up in showbiz and trained as an actress, Collins continued to live by the rules of a theatrical trouper that the show must go on. Just over a week before her death, she flew to London for a trip that, as well as a final dinner with her sister, also included the promotion of her book on ITV's Loose Women.

It was typical of her determination and loyalty to have fulfilled that commitment. Once, when I was in Los Angeles to record an interview with an actor who cancelled due to illness, Collins, following a plea from a slight mutual acquaintance, turned up almost immediately to fill the gap: immaculate, articulate, full of top gossip from the worlds of entertainment and politics.

In person, she was much cleverer and more thoughtful than was suggested by prose deliberately written to be read swiftly and translated widely. She was a feminist less by ideology than through the urge to equal the achievements of men. Among women novelists, probably only Agatha Christie before her and J.K. Rowling since have created such individualistic fictional worlds for such a huge and enduring readership.

The Guardian