As Jackie Collins' art, antiques and jewels come to auction, Jane Shilling reveals a connoisseur of art as well as life, while novelist Jilly Cooper fondly recalls her friend
Becky Sharp, the ambitious anti-heroine of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, mused, "I think I could be a good woman if I had £5,000 a year." Add a handful of zeros to that figure, and it is the kind of sentiment that might have been voiced by Jackie Collins' alter ego Lucky Santangelo – except that, like Becky Sharp, Jackie's headstrong heroines knew perfectly well that it was far more fun to be bad.
In her fiction – Jackie wrote 32 books – the wages of sin have a hefty designer name attached: Valentino, Harry Winston, even Picasso and Monet. Her seductresses are rarely content with baubles, however exquisite. Along with their pavé-set diamond panther brooches, studded with cabochon rubies and emeralds, they have a sharp eye for the practical trappings of grand luxe: "I want a Ferrari, two mink coats, lots of diamonds, a beautiful penthouse in New York, and a villa on the Riviera!" runs the wishlist of one exigent minx; another has a "gull's-egg diamond ring... which could lay a burglar out for a week and a half".
Jackie was effortlessly fluent in the stylistic argot of Hollywood aspiration, but her own version of it was spiced with a twist of self-mocking wit. At her Beverly Hills home, the contents of which are offered at Bonhams Los Angeles this May, exquisite Biedermeier desks and original Art Deco pieces were displayed alongside market finds, including a jolly collection of humanoid teapots. And while she loved important jewels, including a burglar-flattening 7-carat diamond-and-platinum ring, she did her own manicure:
"It took ten minutes," she told one interviewer. "It would have taken an hour in the salon."
Jackie's debut novel, The World is Full of Married Men, caused a scandal when it was published in 1968. It was banned in Australia and South Africa; in Britain, an MP took out a newspaper advertisement to denounce it as "the most shocking book I have ever read". Meanwhile, Barbara Cartland, the British grande dame of romantic fiction, pronounced the novel "filthy and disgusting", claiming that Jackie was "responsible for all the perverts in England" – an endorsement for which the young pretender was duly grateful.
A comparatively sketchy education did nothing to discourage Jackie's early ambition to write. She was born in 1937, the middle child of theatrical agent Joseph Collins and his wife Elsa. Like many middle children, she felt herself overlooked within the family. Her elder sister, Joan, was a performer from an early age; her father had hoped that Jackie would be a son, and after her younger brother, Bill, was born, she claimed he "never noticed me... I brought myself up ".
It is the case that middle children often turn out resourceful and observant. Jackie was both, though her powers of observation sometimes got her into trouble. As a pupil at the rather grand Francis Holland School for Girls (motto: "That our daughters may be as the polished corner of the Temple"), Jackie regularly played truant, and once brightly remarked to the local flasher that it was a chilly day. The remark came to the ears of the headmistress, who considered it "disgusting" and expelled her. Becky Sharp-like, she celebrated by throwing her school uniform in the Thames.
Her parents, at their wits' end, sent Jackie out to Hollywood, where Joan was living – and there she discovered her milieu. She was young, she was very pretty, and while her flirtation with an acting career proved desultory, her flirtations with actors would provide glorious material for her future bestsellers. She claimed to have rebuffed the advances of Errol Flynn and Sammy Davis Jr, but recalled a "very brief but fabulous affair" with the 29-year-old Marlon Brando. At 23, she married businessman Wallace Austin. Their daughter, Tracy, was born in 1961. Alas, the marriage ended after four years. Jackie's second marriage, to Oscar Lerman, an art dealer and nightclub owner 18 years her senior, provided the stability and encouragement that she needed to write.
She had begun the habit of gathering material as a child, when she would eavesdrop on her parents' card parties, but they dismissed her ambition to become a journalist. At Hollywood parties, while Joan dazzled on the dancefloor, Jackie was more likely to be found in the shadows, observing the antics around her. When she met Lerman, she told him she was a writer, and he took her at her word.
She had already begun writing novels, only to abandon them after a few chapters. But when Lerman read the opening pages of The World is Full of Married Men, he said, "Finish this one. You're a story-teller." Jackie did as she was told. Juggling her home and creative life with enviable stamina, she wrote seven hours a day, seven days a week, preferably by the pool – "surrounded by all those phallic cacti" – then stayed up until the small hours, watching the beautiful people misbehaving themselves in the ways that made her fiction so addictively readable. "If anything, my characters are toned down," she said. "The truth is much more bizarre."
In the avalanche of bonkbusters, bodice-rippers, chick-lit novels and innumerable Shades of Grey that followed the publication of The Stud, The Bitch, Hollywood Wives, Chances and their fellow bestsellers, it is easy to forget the audacity of Jackie's early fiction. "When I published my first novel, no one was writing about sex," she once claimed, with pardonable exaggeration. She cited Dickens and Mickey Spillane as literary influences, and admired Harold Robbins – though she didn't care for the fact that his women were to be found exclusively in the kitchen or the bedroom. Equally passionate about sex and food, or indeed a combination of the two – in 2014 she published The Lucky Santangelo Cookbook – Jackie was determined that her heroines should be strong, resilient women, who deal with men on their own terms. "My heroines kick ass," she announced. "They don't get their asses kicked."
Power and money – those great drivers of fiction since Daniel Defoe's scandalously sexy heroine, Moll Flanders, burst upon the world in 1722 – were Jackie's themes too. But in the deliciously rackety melee of her plotlines, there invariably glittered a golden thread of true love. Her own marriage to Oscar produced two more daughters – Tiffany and Rory– and lasted for 26 years, until Oscar's death in 1992. "I have a very moralistic side," she said. "He was, I presume, faithful to me and I was faithful to him, because I very much believe in that if you're married." Nor did she entirely subscribe to the Hollywood model of conspicuous consumption.
A keen art collector and trawler of markets, she modelled her Beverly Hills home on a painting she had always wanted to own – her fellow-Brit David Hockney's A Bigger Splash – and furnished it to her own taste, with an eclectic mix of Art Deco pieces: Tiffany lamps, elegant bronze figures of dancers, and the sleek panthers that gave their name to the fictional film studios that appeared in her novels.
Among the glorious trophies of a life of writing (always in longhand – every Collins novel contains a sweet personal message to its readers in her admirably clear schoolgirl script), alongside the pieces by Cartier and Harry Winston, the pear-shaped diamond ring and platinum-and-emerald necklace, the paintings of café culture by David Richey Johnsen and François Chabrier, Jackie kept a reminder of a very different kind of café culture.
The bawdy, exuberant paintings of the British artist Beryl Cook – also collected by Whoopi Goldberg, Yoko Ono and Prince Rupert Loewenstein – conjure a world as far from Beverly Hills as can be imagined. With their plump ladies, saucy in the leopard print that Jackie relished, cheerfully stuffing themselves with tea and cake, embracing weight gain, advancing age and equally plump men with raucous enthusiasm, the paintings must have reminded Jackie of the very first chapter of her life, when she played truant from school to experience the vibrant London street-life of corner cafés, red double-decker buses, and kiss-me-quick clinches on park benches, noting every detail and dreaming of becoming a writer.
Jane Shilling writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mail and Evening Standard.
My friend, Jackie by Jilly Cooper
I know Jackie Collins is up in heaven now because she was such a warm and lovely person, and because she gave such huge pleasure to the world with her wonderful novels. She was a great story-teller, who wrote about people and a subject, Hollywood, that she knew backwards. Thus her characters sprang to life and her stories made fantastic films. I've never forgotten my daughter Emily, in her early teens, asking me for a good book to read. I suggested Hollywood Wives. Back at her boarding school, she was reading the book in bed when the matron snatched it away, snapping "I'm not having you read trash like that". The next day, Emily had a headache. She went into the sanatorium for an aspirin, where she found the matron glued to a book... It was Hollywood Wives!
'Our mother' by Rory, Jackie's youngest daughter
Jackie was such a unique character. She only collected art and jewellery that brought her joy, never bending to trends or relying on interior designers or stylists.
For as long as my sisters and I can remember, she was passionate about her collections. The story goes that when our parents first met in the 1960s, our father – an artist and avid art connoisseur – introduced our mother to the thrill of collecting. He took her to the flea market in Paris, and she was hooked! As children, most weekends we were bundled off to antique markets all over London, so that she could feed her addiction.
She felt a true affinity to big cats: panthers, leopards and tigers. She even named a room in our house 'The Tiger Room'! She was also mesmerised by the Art Deco period and fell in love with the elegant sculptures of Lorenzl and Chiparus. She was drawn to the statues by the expressions on their faces, and would only buy those that spoke to her. Her collections were an extension of her creativity and a constant source of inspiration to her. Just as the potential of the blank page inspired her to write all of her novels in longhand, her stunning white and marble home became the backdrop to her beloved paintings and art objects, filling the space with warmth and colour. She will always be remembered for her simple and classic personal style, which was the ideal canvas for her glamorous jewellery – bold, bright and daring. Just like her.
Sale: Jackie Collins: A Life in Chapters
Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 May at 10am
Enquiries: Katherine Miller +1 323 436 5503