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by Bamber Gascoigne


Harold Robbins (1916-1997) - originally Harold Rubin, also: Frank Kane

 

American novelist, who published over 20 books, which were translated into 32 languages and sold over 750 million copies. Among Harold Robbins's bestsellers is The Carpetbaggers. It was loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes, taking the reader from New York to California, from the prosperity of the aeronautical industry to the glamour of Hollywood. It's prequel, The Raiders, came out in 1995. As a storyteller, Robbins once compared himself with writers such as Alexandre Dumas Sr. and Charles Dickens. 

"She smiled suddenly. "That's one of the hazards of being a woman. A man can ball all he likes and nothing happens to him. But a woman can get knocked up. She's the one who has to be careful. I thought the pill was going to even things up and it's just my luck I can't take it.""
(from The Lonely Lady by Harold Robbins, 1976)

Harold Robbins was born Harold Rubin in New York City, the son of Russian immigrants. His biological mother, Fannie Smith, died in childbirth. She was buried in a plot paid for by the Progressive Brethren of Neshwies, in Mount Zion Cemetery, Queens, which the author later described in the novel A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952).

Robbins was raised by his father, Charles Rubin, a successful Manhattan pharmacist, and stepmother Blanche Zinnerman, born in Lodz (now in Poland, then part of Russia). The family lived in Brooklyn, at 1184 Schenectaby Avenue. "When I was a kid in New York," Robbins once recalled, "I used to stand under the stairs and look up girls's dresses . . . So it started early with me, you see. In fact, one of my problems in school was that I talked about sex so much." (Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex by Andrew Wilson, 2008, p. 25)

At the age of 18, Robbins graduated from the George Washington High School. After leaving the school, he worked at several jobs. According to widely spread, but mostly fabricated biographical anecdotes, he spent his childhood in an orphanage. Robbins claimed, that he had made his first million by selling sugar for the wholesale trade, but at the beginning of World War II, all the fortune was gone. There is also a funny tale, that he was widowed when his supposed Asian wife was killed by a diseased parrot.

Robbins married Lillian Machnivitz in 1937, his high-school sweetheart; the marriage was childless, but he had two illegitimate daughters. In the early 1940s, Robbins moved to Hollywood, where with the help of his father-in-law, he was hired by Universal Pictures, first as a shipping clerk. Due to his mathematical skills Robbins was eventually promoted to budget analyst. In addition, he was a very good chess player. His first novel, Never Love a Stranger (1948), followed the rise of an orphan from the streets of New York. Robbins typed it on a Smith-Corona portable. To have it published by Knopf, he had to change his pen name to Harold Robbins.

Never Love a Stranger created controversy with its graphic sexuality. In Philadelphia, the book was banned. The Dream Merchants (1949) was about Hollywood's film industry, from the first stages to the sound era. Again Robbins blended his own experiences, historical facts, melodrama, sex, and action into a fast-moving story. "He leaned across the table. "Look, Warren, first of all, this picture will be the real thing. It won't run just twenty minutes, it will run more than an hour. Then there is something new that's just been developed. It's called the close-up."

Robbins' fourth book, Never Leave Me (1953), is set in New York. In the story Brad Rowan, an owner of a small advertising firm, struggles against the temptations of money, sex, and power. Brad has been married twenty years, he loves his wife and children, but everything changes when he meets Hortense E. Schuyler: "Her face was not quite round, her cheekbones high, her mouth soft and generous, her chin not quite square, her nose not quite tilted, her teeth white and even, not dentist's even but human even."

When the ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover was lifted in 1960, the court decision gave writers a lot more freedom in dealing with sexual matters. Robbins utilized the opportunity with his sexually graphic novel The Carpetbaggers (1961). Critics dismissed the book as trash. This  international bestseller of aviation, Hollywood, high finance, and Jonas Cord Jr., perhaps amused Howard Hughes, if he ever read the book, for at least the business tycoon did not sue the author – Cord was loosely based on Hughes. Born Max Sand, the son of a white man and a Kiowa woman, Nevada Smith is Cord's childhood friend. Several other characters were also easily identifiable. Later Jackie Collins made successful use of this old narrative trick.

The title of the novel was taken from the pejorative name given to those Northerns who overran the South after the end of the Civil War – they tended to carry all of their wordly possessions in bags made of remnants of carpet. Motivated by complaints filed by members of the National Organization for Decent Literature, police in Waterbury and Bridgeport, Connecticut, asked local wholesalers and retailers withdraw The Carpetbaggers from sale because it was "obscene." For whaterver reason, the book was banned in South Africa, later also two other books: The Betsy and Dreams Die First.  John Michael Hayes wrote the screenplay for Edward Dmytryk's 1964 screen version of the bestseller, starring George Peppard, Carrol Baker, and Alan Ladd in his last film role. Andy Warhol watched the film several times; he found Carroll Baker irresistible. (Warhol by Blake Gopnik, 2021, p. 831)

Hollywood gossips and personalities provided a lot of material for Where Love Has Gone (1962). The "sculptress" of the story was a thinly veiled Lana Turner. This book did not go unnoticed by the actress, who answered Robbins and all scandal papers with her candid autobiography. "It's said in Hollywood that you should always forgive your enemies, because you never know when you'll have to work with them," Turned wrote prophetically and with very good reason. (The Lady, the Legend, the Truth by Lana Turner, 1982, p. 284) She agreed to star with George Hamilton in a weekly one-hour soap, entitled Harold Robbins's The Survivors. From the beginning, the show had problems. Lana Turner drank a lot of vodka, the scripts were constantly rewritten, and the production went over budget. The series lasted only 15 episodes and never competed with Peyton Place, as Robbins hoped it would. 

From 1957, Robbins worked as a full-time writer, producing usually 5000 words a day – he had 16 hour days. Although Robbins did not have success with literary critics, he believed that one day he would be recognized as the world's best author. "You got something going inside you," one of his characters said in Dreams Die First (1977). "Maybe it's the way you look at yourself. Or society. You're skeptical about everything. And still you believe in people. It doesn't make sense. Not to me anyhow."

Of his many works perhaps the most acclaimed was A Stone for Danny Fisher (1951), a coming-of-age story set in New York in the Depression. The tale was turned into a musical under the title King Creole (1958), starring Elvis Presley. "Elvis Presley can act," wrote Howard Thompson in The New York Times. "In Paramount's surprisingly colorful and lively "King Creole," most of it outright drama, he does a good, convincing walk-through as a downtrodden New Orleans youth who tangles with some gangsters (along with that blasted guitar). It's a sturdy, picturesque job, and so is this Hal Wallis production at Loew's State until it finally lapses into standard gangster shenanigans." ('Actor With Guitar' by Howard Thompson, The New York Times, July 4, 1958)

Other run-of-the-mill bestsellers include The Betsy (1971), which centered on a daring race car driver and enginer Angelo Perino and Loren Hardeman, the Number One of Bethlehem Motors in Detroit. Joining together, they are determined to build the world's fastest sports car. In the 1978 film adaptation of the book , directed by Daniel Petrie, Laurence Olivier played Loren Hardeman, Tommy Lee Jones was Perino. The car indusry story continued in The Stallion (1996). "If you call me Miss Elizabeth one more time, I'm going to throw something at you. You built a car for me: the Betsy. Why can't you call me Betsy?"

Memories of Another Day (1979) was the story of the son of an union leader with connections to the real life character of Jimmy Hoffa. "I'm not dead. I'll be alive as long as you're alive, as long as your children and their children are alive. There is something of me in every cell of your body and there is no way you can get rid of me."

Spellbind (1982) took the reader in the world of organized religion. Again, reviewers were concerned that the story lacked real depth. "To give the devil his due, Mr. Robbins may have wanted to write a bristling expose of America's moneymaking televised ministries. But it is a certainty that this glitzy commercial novel will do nothing to stop the flow of millions of dollars into those churches' coffers. And other coffers as well." (Evan Hunter, in The New York Times, September 5, 1982)

Descent from Xanadu (1984) told of a rich industrialist who tries to find a remedy against ageing. Peter Andrews called Robbins's novel Goodbye, Janette a "dirty book written in accordance with the demands of the form." ('Bad Smut' by Peter Andrews, The New York Times, June 7, 1981) This time Robbins set the story in Paris. Andrews noted that the books had many sex scenes, in which the characters "actually do things I wouldn't even talk about when I was in the Army." (Ibid.,  page 15)

Robbins was married three times, not five, or six, as he occasionally claimed. At one point of his life he owned 14 cars, a 85ft yacht, and had houses in Beverly Hills, Acapulco, and the South of France. And he had no fear of being photographed wearing multicoloured striped trousers, a lilac hat, and giant sunglasses.

From 1982, Robbins was obliged to use a wheelchair due to emphysema and a cocaine-induced stroke, but he continued writing, despite all difficulties. In 1986, he slipped in the shower of his Beverly Hills home, and broke both his hips. Robbins couldn't sit at his typewriter for four years.

Lee Server has noted that the last period of Robbins's life followed the devices of his own plots. He went broke, lost his wife, and published his books in the hope that they "would keep him in lobster and cocaine money." ('Robbins, Harold,' in Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction, by Lee Server,  2002, p. 223) Anecdotes tell how the author was locked in hotel suites without room service, to make him produce a sufficient number of typed pages. "Do I think of myself as a literary man?" he once said. "Hell, no. I'm a story-teller. Literature follows the story-tellers. Just look how Dumas and Dickens are still being read today . . . What I write about sex and violece reflects contemporary America." (Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex by Andrew Wilson, 2007, p. 2)

Several of Robbins's books have been made into films, among them Never Love A Stranger (1958), directed by Robert Stevens, The Carpetbaggers (1964) by Edward Dmytryk (also Otto Preminger planned to film the book), The Betsy (1977) by Daniel Petrie, and Harold Robbins' Body Parts (1999), produced by Roger Corman. Harold Robbins died on October 14, 1997, in Palm Springs, California. His posthumously published novel, The Predators (1998), is a combination of A Stone for Danny Fisher and The Carpetbaggers. It depicts the life of Jerome Cooper, a scrappy Jewish kid who fights his way up and out of New York's infamous Hell's Kitchen and into the world of international business. The Secret continued the story of Jerome, and his son, Len. Jerome tries to keep his affiliations with organized crime a secret. His son becomes a lawyer and is gradually drawn into the world of his father. Never Enough (2001), about four friends and a crime, is based on Robbins's story ideas and was finished by a ghostwriter. Heat of Passion (2003) also gave work for an anonymous ghostwriter. Robbins's ex-wife Grace Palermo, a former casting director at Grey Advertising, published in 1999 a book of memoir about her life with the best-selling author. Grace designed the master bedroom of their Beverly Hills home, which had a custom-made, emperor-sized bed.

"It is far too simplistic to argue that each time a woman reads a magazine advocating heterosexual marriage, or a Barbara Cartland novel, a rubber fetishist goes and buys a favorite magazine or a teenager buys a Batman comic that they are equally vulnerable, equally exploited, equally duped. To patronize every reader of Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins is to grossly misjudge and diminish the subject." (Cult Fiction by Clive Bloom, 1996, p. 151)

For further reading: Popular Culture by David Manning White (1975); Stranger Than Fiction: My Wild Life With Harold Robbins by Grace Robbins and Frank Sanello (1999); Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (2006); Harold and Me: My Life, Love, and Hard Times with Harold Robbins by Jann Robbins (2008); Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex by Andrew Wilson (2008); Cinderella and the Carpetbagger: My Life as the Wife of the "World's Best-selling Author," Harold Robbins by Grace Robbins (2013) 

Selected works:

  • Never Love A Stranger, 1948
    - film (1958), dir. by Robert Stevens, screenplay by Richard Day, starring John Drew Barrymore (as Francis 'Frankie' Kane), Lita Milan, Robert Bray, Steve McQueen.
  • The Dream Merchants, 1949
    - TV film (1981), prod. Columbia Pictures Television, Operation Prime Time (OPT), dir. Vincent Sherman, with Mark Harmon, Vincent Gardenia, Morgan Fairchild, Brianne Leary.
    - Suuri unelma (suom. Anja Haglund, 1976)
  • A Stone for Danny Fisher, 1952
    - film King Creole (1958), prod. Hal Wallis Productions, Paramount Pictures, dir. by Michael Curtiz, starring Elvis Presley (as Danny Fisher) , Carolyn Jones, Dean Jagger, Walter Mathau.
  • Never Leave Me, 1953
    - Älä jätä minua koskaan (suom. Juhani Pietiläinen, 1968) / Kun totuus paljastuu (suom. Juhani Pietiläinen, 1979)
  • 79 Park Avenue, 1955
    - TV mini series (1977), prod. Harold Robbins International Company, Universal TV, dir. Paul Wendkos, with Lesley Ann Warren, Marc Singer, David Dukes, Polly Bergen, Raymond Burr, Michael Constantine.
    - Park Avenue 79 (suom. Kyllikki Holmquist, 1956)
  • Stiletto, 1960
    - film (1969), dir. by Bernard Kowalski, starring Alex Cord, Britt Ekland, Patrick O'Neal. A mafia melodrama about a killer who decides to quit his job.
    - Stiletti (suom. Helge Heino, 1979)
  • The Pusher, 1960 (screenplay, based on a novel by Evan Hunter)
    - film (1960), prod. Milford/Carlyle Productions, dir. Gene Milford, starring Kathy Carlyle, Robert Lansing and Felice Orlandi
  • The Carpetbaggers, 1961
    - film (1964), prod. Embassy Pictures Corporation, Paramount Pictures, dir. by Edward Dmytryk, starring George Peppard, Carrol Baker, Alan Ladd, Bob Cummings, Martin Balsam. An old-fashioned melodrama, where a young playboy inherits an aircraft business, becomes a megalomanic tycoon and moves to Hollywood in his search for power. Set in the 1920s-30s. Alan Ladd's last film. Followed by prequel Nevada Smith (1966), prod. Solar Productions, dir. by Henry Hathaway, starring Steve McQueen, Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Arhur Kennedy. A revenge story where Smith goes after the senseless killers of his parents. Remade as a TVM in 1975, dir. by Gordon Douglas, starring Cliff Potts, Lorne Greene.
    - Rahantekijät (suom. Jaakko Lavanne, 1973)
  • Where Love Has Gone, 1962
    - film (1964), prod. Joseph E. Levine Productions, Embassy Pictures Corporation, dir. Edward Dmytryk, starring Bette Davis, Susan Hayward, Mike Connors, Jane Greer.
    - Mihin rakkaus johtaa (suom. Rolf Ekman, 1964)
  • The Adventurers, 1966
    - film (1970), prod. AVCO Embassy Pictures, Paramount Pictures, dir. by Lewis Gilbert, starring Bekim Fehmiu, Alan Badel, Charles Aznavour, Candice Bergen, Ernest Borgine, Olivia de Haviland. Bloody adaptation of Robbins' novel, a revenge story set in a fictional Central American republic. Sex, drugs, and sadism.
    - Seikkailijat (suom. Anja Haglund, 1974)
  • The Inheritors, 1969
    - Vallanperijät (suom. Sakari Ahlbäck, 1972)
  • The Betsy, 1971
    - film (1977), prod. Harold Robbins International Company, dir. by Daniel Petrie, starring Laurence Olivier, Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Katharine Ross. A melodrama of an aged car manufacturer.
    - Autokuningas (suom. Esko Halme, 1979)
  • The Pirate, 1974
    - TV drama (1978), prod. Howard W. Koch Productions, Warner Bros. Television, dir. Ken Annakin, with Franco Nero, Anne Archer, Olivia Hussey, Ian McShane.
    - Sheikki (suom. Anja Haglund, 1975)
  • The Lonely Lady, 1976
    - film (1983), prod. Harold Robbins International Company, KGA, Universal Pictures, dir. Peter Sasdy, starring Pia Zadora, Lloyd Bochner, Bibi Besch, Joseph Cali.
    - Kultanainen (suom. Esko Halme, 1977)
  • Dreams Die First, 1977
    - Lehtikuningas (suom. E.A. Mesi, 1978)
  • Memories of Another Day, 1979
    - Pomo (suom. T. Peltonen, 1980)
  • Goodbye, Janette, 1981
    - Näkemiin, Janette (suom. Antti Virtanen, 1986)
  • Spellbinder, 1982
  • Descent from Xanadu, 1984
    - Haaste kuolemalle (suom. Renne Nikupaavola, 1985)
  • The Storyteller, 1985
    - Tarinaniskijä (suom. Renne Nikupaavola, 1986)
  • Piranha, 1986
    - Piraijat (suom. Antero ja Tuomas Tiusanen, 1992)
  • The Raiders, 1995
    - Valtaajat (suom. Anna-Laura Talvio 'Elone, 1995)
  • The Stallion, 1996
    - Stallion: hevosvoimien kuningas (suom. Anja Meripirtti, 1996)
  • Tycoon: A Novel, 1997
    - Tycoon: mediaruhtinas (suom. Heikki Karjalainen, 1998)
  • The Predators, 1998
    - Saalistajat (suom. Ilkka Terho, 1999)
  • The Secret, 2000
    - Salaisuus (suom. Heikki Kaskimies, 2001)
  • Never Enough, 2001
  • Heat of Passion, 2003
  • The Betrayers, 2004 (with Junius Podrug)
  • Blood Royal, 2005 (with Junius Podrug)
  • The Devil to Pay, 2006 (with Junius Podrug)
  • Harold Robbins' The Curse, 2011 (Harold Robbins and Junius Podrug)
  • 79 Park Avenue, 2017 (publisher: Iridium Press)
  • Where Love Has Gone, 2017 (publisher: Iridium Press)
  • The Dream Merchants, 2017 (publisher: Iridium Press)
  • Spellbinder, 2018 (foreword by Michael L. Frizell)
  • The Inheritors, 2019 (foreword by Michael L. Frizell)
  • The Betsy, 2019 (foreword by Michael L. Frizell)
  • The Lonely Lady, 2021 (foreword by Velda Brotherton)
  • Descent From Xanadu, 2022 (publisher: Iridium Press)
  • Goodbye, Janette, 2023 (publisher: Rogue River)


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