“Hi Sis it’s me!” she said. I was delighted to hear Jackie’s familiar voice. She had told me weeks earlier that she was coming to the UK and we were already planning a host of activities, so I assumed this was one more opportunity to share the excitement of her arrival.
“Isn’t it a bit early for you?” I asked her.
“It’s 8 o’clock – I’ve been up for a while. Are you with Percy? I need to talk to you both about something. It’s rather bad news I’m afraid.”
“What is it?” I asked fearfully.
“I’ve got stage four breast cancer,” her voice broke as she said it, then I burst into tears. “I’ve known for seven years,” she said bravely.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I cried as Percy held me tight.
“I couldn’t – I didn’t want to upset you. I know all the problems you’ve been having in the past few years – I didn’t want to burden you with mine.”
My voice was so choked with tears I could hardly speak. She explained that since we spent so much time in Europe while she was in LA, she knew I would be worried but there would be nothing I could do.
That was typical of my sister. She always put other people, particularly family, ahead of herself. After we hung up we called two of her daughters, Tiffany and Rory, and they verified that they had been taking their mother for treatments for over five years. “But we all expect her to continue for several years since she is so vital and energetic,” said Tiffany, “And she’s just done a publicity tour of the US for her new book.”
She was coming to the UK ostensibly to publicize launch of her latest novel. However now in retrospect I realize it was to say goodbye to her third daughter Tracy, her two granddaughters, her brother Bill and his wife Hazel and some other close friends, all of who lived in London.
When Jackie told us about her cancer I understood why she had lost weight. I had noticed her gradual weight loss two years ago when we went to LA for the winter months and last year asked her about it. She laughed, saying she was no longer eating desserts and was on a diet. I thought the weight loss suited Jackie so I gave it no further thought. Certainly in her ten-page spread in Hello magazine recently she looked fit and fabulous and, as Wallis Simpson always said, “You can never be too rich or too thin”.
The day she arrived in London, we had had tea at her hotel. Even after an overnight transatlantic trip that would fell the stoutest tree, she was bustling about taking pictures and chatting away with me as we always did.
Two nights before she returned to America, Jackie threw a fabulous birthday dinner party for her daughter Tracy upstairs in the private room of a popular west end restaurant. She was her usual sparkling, funny, energetic self, taking masses of pictures of all of us on her iPhone and her camera and looking, as usual, impeccably groomed and glamorous. She seemed full of joie de vivre as we chatted happily about our Christmas plans in Los Angeles and going to Hawaii with her children and grandchildren after that.
I’ve never had a better girlfriend than Jackie, with whom I shared so much in common and could enjoy talking and gossiping away about everything when we were together, going to our favourite restaurants or to the movies or on long distance phone calls.
She was omniscient – she knew everything that was going on in popular culture; she watched practically every television show (on the four DVR sets she kept going continuously); she knew about every pop band, rocker, rapper and singer and where they were in the charts; and of course she was extremely knowledgeable about every new novel and biography on or off the bestseller lists.
Jackie really enjoyed her life so much and lived it to the hilt, and when we were together, even if we hadn’t seen each other for a few months, we were thick as thieves.
She absolutely adored Percy and often teased him and me about him being “number 5” and doing so much for my children. When she asked him about booking some airline tickets for her and her family to come to London, she laughingly apologized and said “now I’m taking advantage of you like Joan does.”
Soon after we were married Percy became part of her inner circle. Jackie was very particular and private about who was in that ring. She had masses of people who loved and admired her and enjoyed a vast social sphere but other than family and some close friends she was extremely selective about whom she chose to share her innermost thoughts with.
It was not in Jackie’s nature to dislike anyone but when she did – watch out! She hated my fourth husband for she could see through him for what he was – a user, a psychopath and a total philanderer. She begged me not to marry him but unfortunately I went ahead – one of the worst decisions of my life.
Jackie and I didn’t see each other so much during that period. She didn’t want to see “the swede” and I was working fifteen hours a day on Dynasty every day. Her relief at the end of that short-lived marriage was palpable – we celebrated wildly with a big party at my house and she and David Niven Jr. led the chorus of approval handing out t-shirts with slogans such as “Holm-less” and “Holm is not where the heart is”.
Unfortunately, a couple of years later another relationship I had came between us and, having moved back to Europe, we couldn’t be as close as we wanted to be. Sisters will have their estrangements but happily when that relationship ended and I moved back to LA Jackie and I resumed our devotion to each other.
This devotion became most apparent when she was a very young teenager and I was a seventeen year-old starlet under contract to the Rank organization. For two years Jackie painstakingly cut out and pasted every single press clipping about me into a big blue scrapbook, recording the name and date of the publication in her flowing handwriting.
When I went to Hollywood in the fifties she wrote to me, and I to her, at least once a week – her letters full of news, fun and gossip. Later, during what we refer to as the “Tramp” years, when her husband Oscar Lerman owned and ran the nightclub with Johnny Gold, her letters about the hijinks in the club became quite raunchy and they really made me laugh.
By then she was already writing her novels and her first one, The World is Full of Married Men, was a huge bestseller. Even though some criticized the sexual content of the book it didn’t bother her. “That’s the way it is with so many husbands,” she’d say wisely, “They can’t keep it zipped.” Jackie in fact had started writing when she was only ten years old, and I would illustrate her first stories because I wanted to be a dress designer. I wonder where they are now.
Jackie wrote the character of Fontaine Kahled in her novel The Stud, with me in mind. When we made the movie it was a great success for both of us, even though the critics and moralists mocked it, calling it “soft porn” and “disgusting”.Jackie wrote about what she knew, particularly the Hollywood stories of divorce, betrayal and scandal. She despised men who were unfaithful to their wives as she had an extremely strong moral ethic. “I had my wild child phase when I was a teenager up until I got married.”
Recently, when we were looking through one of her many photo albums, I kept asking who the several different good-looking guys she was with on various beaches, “My boyfriend” she replied to every one of them.
“Wow, you had a lot of them!” I exclaimed.
“I know,” she twinkled.
I remember fighting men off Jackie when she was only fourteen. Once we were followed from the beach all the through the backstreets of Cannes by an extremely famous English movie star who was trying to pick her up. And when she came to Hollywood I gave her the keys to my car and my apartment, told her where she could reach me and jetted off to film in Barbados for three months. By all accounts she had a ball in LA and my parents, in an effort to reform her, had chosen the worst possible antidote.
I think that her iconic character Lucky Santangelo, the star of many of her books, was Jackie’s alter ego. Brave, ballsy and beautiful, she suffered no fools, took no prisoners and lived her life exactly as she wanted to. Lucky believed, as did Jackie, that “girls can do anything” and Jackie instilled that credo in her three remarkable daughters.
My sister and I never employed a stylist nor did we have makeup artists, preferring to do our faces ourselves. She had her signature look and I had mine, and what we wore and how we looked epitomized who we were. Neither of us followed fashion slavishly but wore what suited us and phlegmatically, and with British thrift, we both agreed it was ludicrous to spend thousands of pounds employing some young chick to go shopping for us. Besides why should we give over the pleasure of a good shopping expedition to someone else? Jackie truly enjoyed shopping for jewelry. She wore them all the time – gorgeous pendants, necklaces and earrings that she often designed herself.
We both adored the movies since we were children and went as often as possible, and our favourite outing for the last ten years was to get up early on Saturday or Sunday and head off to see the latest movie that we agreed was worthy of a trip to the cinema – it was uncanny how we agreed on most of the films. We were so fascinated by show business as children that we wrote off for signed pictures of actors and actresses. Jackie had “fan crushes” on Tony Curtis and Steve Cochran – dark brooding “bad boy” types on whom she later based several of the characters in her novels, including Gino Santangelo.
Her second husband Oscar was the man that everybody loved. He was charming, urbane and unerringly witty, not to mention a great dresser! After Oscar died in 1992, she started a relationship with darkly handsome Frank Calcagnini. They were extremely compatible and happy together until he too sadly died in 1996.
I used to nag my sister about getting mammograms, as our darling mother Elsa had succumbed to the disease in 1962 when she was only in her the early fifties. I was religious about doing mammograms regularly. Jackie however refused – she didn’t even like going to doctors. Like my brother and I she was needle-phobic.
As Jackie said in her last interview she did things her way. I celebrate the way she lived her life and, as she put it, the pleasure she gave to me and to so many people. In her inimitable way she had more concern for others than for herself to the end, and anyone who knew Jackie well will tell you how courageous and selfless she was. This, of course, was one of the reasons for her great success in both her personal and professional life and why she was loved and admired by so many. I therefore choose to remember her as the strong, independent, loyal, caring, maternal, fun-loving, witty, joyful woman she was.
I don’t think I will ever recover from the sadness of losing my beautiful baby sister. Someone once said, “The reality is that you don’t ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one, you learn to live with it.” I think Jackie would have liked us to do more than that. As she requested, I will not mourn her death, but rather celebrate her life. She will live on in the wonderful memories I have of her from our childhood and particularly from the last fifteen years, during which we were closer than ever. I feel her spirit, I hear her wonderful laugh and I see her all the time in the hundreds of photos of her that are sprinkled around my home.
She wasn’t just a star – to me she was an entire galaxy.
I have posted this online freely available. If you have read or wish to republish the article, I ask that you please make a donation to the following organisations:
For UK – Penny Brohn Cancer Care.
For USA – Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Organization.
If I had a granny haircut,” says Jackie Collins, running a hand through her glossy dark mane of hair, “and little glasses and looked hideous, I’d probably be taken a lot more seriously.” She sighs. “But if you’re vaguely attractive and you write, people say, ‘Who does she think she is?’ They look at the picture on the back of the book and criticise that. It’s a snob thing.”
Nothing about the picture on the back of Collins’s latest book, The Power Trip, makes one think “granny”. Heavily made up and wearing a lot of gold jewellery, she is showing more than a hint of cleavage. In the photograph, she looks about 50, maybe younger. In fact she is 74.
In person, she looks older than in her picture, but not as old as she actually is. We meet at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a couple of blocks away from her house. Collins, who is, of course, the younger sister of actress Joan, drives herself up to the front door in a Volkswagen Phaeton saloon and gets out, dressed, as always, in a trouser suit and lots of Cartier jewellery.
Collins, who has sold nearly 500 million copies of her books worldwide, has just written her 29th novel. The Power Trip is about a Russian billionaire and his supermodel girlfriend, who invite five powerful couples on a yacht trip that goes horribly wrong. As with all her novels, this one features lots of glamour, drama and sex. Sample line: “He took her breath away with his brooding dark looks and his aura of control and power. One look and she was hooked.”
Taking a seat in the outdoor patio of the Polo Lounge, she quickly scans the neighbouring tables. “It’s always fun to come here,” she says. “Last time Elton was here. I think he’s in the south of France now. It’s like a local.”
A chic blonde woman of indeterminate age passes the table. “You look fabulous,” she tells Collins, adopting the traditional Beverly Hills greeting. “Thank you,” says Collins, adding sotto voce: “I have no idea who that was.” After another two women follow suit, word for word, Collins turns inwards, trying to hide. “I don’t dare look up any more, all these women look the same. Why do they inject their lips? They look like two big worms.”
'Devastated' Joan only learned of her sister's illness this month
Her ability to skewer the women of this city was of course best exemplified by her bestseller Hollywood Wives. Although Collins still sounds very British, she has lived here for most of her adult life.
Has she never been tempted to become one of them? “No, never,” she says adamantly. “I can’t imagine anything worse. If I filled my days with doing all that stuff for myself, I’d never have time to write.”
She loves living here, though, because “there are so many bizarre characters and so much material for my books. Also, Americans are very friendly and they want you to succeed. In England people can be a little acidy. You feel they want you to fail.”
Jackie Collins' life in pictures
She orders sparkling water and a salad, switching a couple of the ingredients – “no egg, double beet”, dressing on the side, no bread – which seems quite a Hollywood approach to lunch. “Actually,” she says, “it’s because I like adding more dressing, not less.” And just in case I am in any doubt about her healthy appetite, she adds that what she misses most about Britain is the food from Marks & Spencer. “When I’m in London I go to my precious Marks & Spencer, fill a basket with food, then come back to The Dorchester and take all the bottles out of my minibar and cram in my prawn sandwiches instead.”
This is classic Jackie Collins, the combination of the down-to-earth with the almost unreachably glamorous. The Dorchester mixed with M&S. It is in evidence again when she describes her frugal attitude towards food: “My housekeeper comes to me with an expired tin of Heinz baked beans and she goes [Collins adopts a stilted Latino accent], ‘It say 2011. I throw?’ And I say, ‘Certainly not. Put those back in the cupboard.’”
In her books, she uses a similar technique. “I always include ‘rags-to-riches’ characters,” she says. “Like Lori in The Power Trip. She comes from nothing. Her mother had to screw the cable guy to pay the rent.”
Jackie Collins obituary
The middle child of Joe Collins, a showbusiness manager, and his wife, Elsa, Jackie was brought up in a basement flat in Marylebone Road. “We weren’t an affluent family,” she says. “My father was a bit of a chauvinist. Like other men, he was always putting women down.” She went to Francis Holland School but found it hard to fit in. “I wasn’t like the other girls, I had one friend a couple of years older than me who taught me everything I know. And the rest of them were just bloody idiots, stupid little girls.”
At 15 she was expelled “for playing truant and for waving at the resident flasher and going, ‘Cold day today, isn’t it?’, which the school thought was disgusting.”
Collins says she was mostly ignored by her parents. “When I was born they really wanted a boy. Eventually my brother was born and Joan was a movie star so they never noticed me. As a middle child you can get away with murder. I never had to do homework. It was only when I was thrown out of school that they realised I existed, and then it was like, ‘Hollywood or reform school: get out of our lives.’ So I went to join my sister who was living in Hollywood.”
She is, she insists, still very close to Joan. “We are the best of friends, I know a lot of people think we’ve had problems but we never have. They see two successful sisters and that’s what they assume. I’d probably never have got to Hollywood without her and then I think I repaid her by giving her The Stud, which I wrote the screenplay for. It brought her career right back, it got her Dynasty, too.
“We’re extremely different,” she continues. “She’s very, very social, I’m not. At parties she’ll be on the dance floor whereas I’ll sit and observe. Now Joan has this amazing husband Percy, who is so great. She’s so lucky to have found him.”
Would Jackie ever consider marrying again?
“Absolutely not. I can’t imagine anything worse. Why would you need to marry someone when you’ve got the freedom to see anyone you want?”
Collins has been married twice, first to Wallace Austin, who was “a drug addict and bipolar”. They had a daughter together but divorced when she was 26. Next she married a nightclub owner, Oscar Lerman, 20 years her senior, who was “fantastic”. They had two daughters and she remained married to him until his death from cancer in 1992. Later she became engaged to a friend of her husband’s, Frank Calcagnini, but he also died of cancer.
“I nursed them both through really traumatic illnesses,” she says. “Frank was so fit and tall and gorgeous and he got flu one Christmas and the doctor said, ‘Come in for a chest X-ray.’ So he went in and when he came out, he looked at me and said, “I’m f-----. They’ve given me three months to live.’
“And those three months were just horrific. For a while afterwards I couldn’t be with people. If they said just one sympathetic word I would burst into tears.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Collins has a solidly conventional streak. “I have a very moralistic side,” she says. “I was married to Oscar for 26 years. He was, I presume, faithful to me and I was faithful to him because I very much believe in that if you’re married. My father was a philanderer so I don’t buy into men being allowed to screw around. If a man screwed around on me and we were in a committed relationship I would end it there and then. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Women don’t get that.”
I had expected Collins to be imperious and impatient, with a low tolerance level for interviews. In fact she is warm and relaxed, suggesting coffee long after our allotted time is up. A shameless name-dropper with a mischievous streak, she pours out her stories randomly. “I was having a party one night and I invited George Michael.”
“As one does,” I find myself saying, because she is friendly enough to take this in good part. “As one does,” she says, laughing at herself, “and I called him up to give him directions. I said to him, ‘You know the park in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel?’ Well, you remember the scandal [when Michael was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act”]? So he said, ‘Yes, actually I do.’ ” She claps her hand to her mouth. “Oh my God, what have I said?”
When she first arrived in Hollywood, Collins tried to establish herself as an actress, with limited success. “I didn’t really want to act. I only wanted to write.” It was Lerman who persuaded her to complete her first novel, The World Is Full of Married Men, published in 1968. “He was the first person ever to encourage me. My parents said, ‘No one’s ever been a writer in the family, you can’t do that.’ ” The reaction to the book’s publication was nuclear. “An MP took out a half page in The People newspaper and said, ‘This is the most shocking book I have ever read.’ I’m sure that helped sales. Then Barbara Cartland said, ‘Miss Collins is responsible for all the perverts in England.’ ”
Did she realise at the time that she was going further than almost anyone? “Yes, I did. I wanted to write something that was honest about women and men and relationships. What I wrote was way out there, it was way before they had what they call the bonkbusters of the Eighties. I was annoyed when I got shoved in with them. I don’t like being lumped in with anybody. I like to think I stand on my own.”
After her first book, she never looked back. “Once I was published that was it. I was on an express train. And I’ve been on it ever since. Enjoying every minute.”
Lucky Santangelo has become Collins’s best-known character, featuring so far in seven of her books. The “dangerously beautiful” daughter of a gangster, she is, Collins says, “the woman I would like to be in another life. She does it her way and takes no s--- from anyone”.
Occasionally, she finds herself channelling Lucky. A few years ago she was held up at gunpoint. “I was with Joanna Poitier, Sidney’s wife, and we were in her driveway. I turned and there was a masked man with an Uzi and he said, ‘Don’t move, b----, or I’ll blow your f------ head off.’ There was so much hatred in his voice that I thought, ‘He’s going to kill us anyway.’ So I got the car into reverse and took off. I still don’t know how I did it. I was writing Lucky at the time so it was a total Lucky moment.”
She is often contacted by women who claim her books have changed their lives.
“They love my strong heroines. I get so many tweets and letters from women who say, ‘I broke up with my boyfriend and normally would go and lie on the floor and cry but I read Lucky and I went out and I got it all together. You gave me courage, you gave me strength.’ ”
Those who criticise her the most, she believes, have never read her books. “I never said I was a literary writer. I’m a storyteller and I tell stories my way and I think people relate to that. To be literary you have to have huge boring descriptions and use long words that nobody understands. Shakespeare bored the crap out of me. I much preferred Dickens.”
A savvy user of social media with a huge Twitter following, Collins nevertheless still prefers to write in longhand.
“I sit there with my black felt pen and yellow legal pad and my pen just flies across the pages. I have no idea what is going to happen to any of the characters.” Although she has become immensely wealthy, with a Beverly Hills mansion which is “so big that the gym is a block away”, she was none the less incensed when The Sunday Times included her on its Rich List, putting her net worth at $93 million (£60 million).
“Who do you have to f--- to get OFF The Sunday Times Rich List?” she fumes. “It’s so ridiculous. Your kids read it and believe it. I said to them, ‘Sorry, I wish.’
“I don’t know how they figure it out, anyway. Out of every $100, you’re paying 15 per cent to an agent, 15 per cent to a PR and manager, you’re paying 50 per cent to the government so you end up with $20. And then you’ve got to live and pay for your house and your assistant. I’m not pleading poverty by any means but that was so ridiculous and insulting and annoying.”
Collins lives alone in her mansion, like a “cool bachelor”. “I have a couple of people I see on occasion. Fortunately they don’t live in LA.” She once said she had been in love five times in her life. I ask if that included Marlon Brando, whom she met as a teenager at a Hollywood party. “No, he was just a schoolgirl crush.” So is it true they spent a night together? She laughs. “We had more than a night together. He was fun.”
She insists that she buys into no part of the Hollywood high-maintenance lifestyle. “People here are so obsessed. They go to Pilates, the gym, the dermatologist, the nutritionist. They have facials, two manicures a week. I could go on and on. I had Botox once – I hated it. The only thing that vaguely bothers me is my neck but I’m not going to put myself under: it doesn’t bother me enough.”
Salons, in her view, are a waste of time and money. She shows me her hands with glittering pale-pink nail polish. “This morning I noticed my nail polish was chipped and I thought I couldn’t meet you for lunch looking like that so I did my nails myself. It took 10 minutes. It would have taken an hour in a salon.” She has the same attitude towards clothes. “I don’t have to worry about what I wear every day because I always wear the same. I’ve got my dressy jackets and my daytime jackets.”
Instead of filling her time with self-maintenance, Collins admits an extreme television addiction. “I have four TiVos in my bedroom. I’m constantly trying to catch up, it’s like homework. I watch everything: reality shows, Gossip Girl, 90210. Each day I say to myself I will not put on the television until four o’clock and then I find myself at three o’clock on my bed watching. Once in a while I will take a Sunday and I will not get dressed and I will lie on my bed all day and watch TiVo. I will not feel guilty about it.”
Now she is working on a book about Lucky’s early life as well as a Lucky Santangelo cookbook and a book of photographs. And she is also thinking about an autobiography: “When I think back on my life, there will be some stories to tell.” As if that is not enough, she is still planning to write a novel a year. “I don’t want to stop writing until I run out of stories. And I’ll never run out of stories.”
As to how she wants to be remembered, Collins says she has given it careful thought: “On my tombstone, I want to have the words: ‘She gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure’.” She chuckles wickedly. “Take that as you will.”
[This interview was conducted at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2012]