Harold and Me
My Life, Love, and Hard Times with Harold Robbins
By Jann Robbins
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2008 Jann Robbins
All rights reserved.
This was a day I would never forget. I'd just received a phone call from a friend telling me I had a job interview with world bestselling novelist Harold Robbins.
Not only did I desperately need a job, but I had moved to LA intending to become a writer myself. I had, coincidentally, spent the last night before leaving Oklahoma City, my hometown, with Harold Robbins. I stayed up all night reading his novel The Pirate.
I arrived in Los Angeles from Oklahoma City with my résumé, my advertising portfolio, my awards, and my ambition. The LA ad world was singularly unimpressed, and I had been unemployed since my arrival. In the LA market, the fact that I had written television, radio, and print commercials and won regional awards was insignificant. On every interview I was told I was "overqualified" or "under-qualified." Well, at least, it contained the word "qualified." I kept getting rejections, but I was determined to stay in LA. From the moment I stepped off the plane into the balmy breezes on Christmas Day I knew I had found my home.
When the call came to interview with Harold Robbins for a temporary job, my two cats and I were living on dry Post Grape-Nuts and we were desperate. On the morning of my interview, I dressed meticulously, choosing a cream silk blouse, soft lilac linen skirt, proper, all the while wondering what Harold Robbins would be like. Intellectual? Terse? No-nonsense? Crazy? Or like the characters in his book? He wrote about sex, drugs, power, and seduction in his books. Would he try to seduce me? My friend who arranged the appointment had told me Harold Robbins was as "wild" as his books but also a very nice person. I remembered his image from pictures I had seen in magazines: black Stetson cowboy hat, dark, heavy sunglasses, looking like he owned the universe.
Harold Robbins had sold over 750 million novels in his career and been translated into forty-two languages throughout the world. That fact was blazoned on the backs of all his books, and I had read most of them.
The Carpetbaggers was racy, wild, and provocative. It had made a hidden progression from my grandmother, to my mother, to my aunt, and even though I wasn't old enough to read it, I suspected it was somehow wicked since it was passed in a brown paper bag. In fact, they only read it at night.
My diesel Peugeot puttered like a sewing machine as I entered Beverly Hills, passing beautiful mansions tucked among the trees and hills surrounded by walls of privacy. I followed my directions to 1501 Tower Grove Road and gave my name to the guard at the large black wrought-iron gates, and he let me through. The driveway was a half mile of plush greenery and surreal landscaping.
After I parked my car in the circular driveway, Rick, the majordomo, greeted me. Entering the large and elegant gray two-story home, I followed him over plush carpeting up a winding staircase. At the double doors in the hallway the majordomo knocked and then opened both doors in a sweeping gesture. We stepped up one stair and entered a huge, sprawling bedroom. Cream satin drapes from ceiling to floor, cream satin walls, smoke-mirrored ceiling, and a huge king-size bed. It looked like the ultimate seduction chamber, straight out of a Harold Robbins novel.
In the middle of the bed, a man wearing jet-black sunglasses sat cross-legged with a cigarette in his hand, smoke curling into the air, sipping coffee out of a mug emblazoned with the inscription "Too Much Sex Blurs Your Vision." The last three words blurred. He was wearing a white T-shirt and red jockey briefs.
This was my introduction to Harold Robbins.
I had always had a slight limp. Most people, seeing me walk for the first time, fixate on that limp. I'm overly sensitive about this, but as I walked toward Harold he never took his eyes off mine. He hadn't noticed the limp and I could have kissed him.
He put his hand out to me. "Hi, I'm Harold Robbins."
I shook his hand and smiled back at him. "I'm Jann Stapp."
"Pull up a chair," he said, and motioned to the ecru satin chair in the sitting area near the bed. I turned the chair toward the bed and handed him my résumé. At the time, I was naive enough to think that it was your résumé that counted. In the world of Harold Robbins I discovered that shapely legs, a pertinent derriere, and a come-fuck-me smile were all that mattered.
"You're a very pretty girl," he said, looking at me and smiling.
He kept on his black sunglasses and I couldn't see his eyes. I wondered if he always wore them. I wondered if he did all of his interviews sitting in bed, drinking coffee out of a mug that said "Too Much Sex Blurs Your Vision" ... in red jockey briefs. I wondered if the Hollywood stories were true about the casting couch or, in this case, the author's bedroom.
He briefly glanced over my résumé and grinned broadly. "I went to Oklahoma once. Tulsa. I had chicken-fried steak with gravy and biscuits, the best! Almost as good as eating pussy." His deep voice rasped with a rough New York accent.
Now that was the Harold Robbins from one of his characters in a blockbuster novel!
"How do you like California?"
"I moved here on Christmas Day and don't want to leave," I said. A red bedside intercom light blinked and a beep sounded from the telephone as I spoke.
He smiled at me. "What do you want, Linda?" he bellowed into the speaker.
Linda's voice filled the room. "Dr. Cooper is running late; he'll be here in about fifteen minutes."
Harold took off his sunglasses for the first time. "Does that mean I can charge him for my time?" he quipped, and laughed at his own joke.
"You'll have to ask him about that," Linda said, and hung up the phone, laughing.
He had a penetrating stare and had never yet taken his eyes off of me. "Linda is Grace's secretary, not mine. She's a pain in the ass. My head got fucked up a few weeks ago; she and everybody else are driving me crazy. I've got to get rid of her."
I wondered if Grace was here. My friends had told me she traveled quite a bit.
"I had an accident the day my married ... Caryn."
I looked at him, a little confused, but said nothing.
"Goddammit, that's what I mean. My sentences get fucked up," he said in frustration. "I slipped ... shower. Fuck it ... it's all screwy. Crazy ... I can see the sentence in my head.... It comes out ... wrong. It's driving ... crazy. You don't understand me and I don't know it's wrong."
He was very frustrated but would not explain what had happened. I smiled at him. "It's okay, Mr. Robbins."
My smile seemed to break his frustration and he smiled back at me.
"I went crazy the other night when I was downstairs in the kitchen. I was trying to tell Rick." He glanced at me. "He's the one who brought you up here. I was telling him what I wanted for dinner and he and Linda kept finishing my sentences. I threw the pans all over the kitchen. Christ, they all try to help, but I need to do it on my own. I sent Grace to fucking Cannes to get her out of here. She was driving me crazy. I told her that she could go to the Cannes Film Festival and she's over there pissing money away like ..." He shook his head when he couldn't complete the sentence.
"In the hospital the doctors said I'd bruised my head during a fall and I had aphasia. I slipped in the shower on the morning of Caryn's wedding. I hired Dr. Cooper, a speech pathologist, to help me get out of this shit. We work together every day, two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon. I'm exhausted after I finish. You'll meet him."
Again the intercom interrupted him. "Dr. Cooper is here."
"Send him up," Harold said.
"Cooper says this fuckup in my head can be corrected. But I'll have to work my ass off." He laughed. "My head's always been fucked up; that's why my books are crazy."
I understood Harold's dilemma. I, too, had faced battles. When I was born the doctors told my parents I might never walk. My father refused to accept this and came home from work early each day and for months forced me to walk up and down the sidewalk, like a Marine Corps drill instructor. Finally, I took steps on my own with only a slight limp remaining. That battle I fought every day of my life, taking physical therapy throughout my life. I knew Harold was facing a similar battle and I knew intuitively that he would never give up.
"Mr. Robbins," I said. "You'll do just fine. You're a strong person."
He looked at me curiously, a mischievous glint in his eye. "Yeah?"
Dr. Cooper, a tall, athletic-looking man with a balding head and gray hair fringed around his temples, entered the room. Cheerful and energetic, he looked at Harold. "What are you doing up here with this bombshell blonde?"
"She's my new assistant," Harold said proudly.
I did a quick double take. "I got the job?" I asked.
He looked at me, a little surprised. "Isn't that why you're here?"
He never looked at my résumé or questioned my office skills. I assumed this was how moguls and superstars did things in Hollywood. Still, I had no idea how much I would be paid, when I would work, and what if I couldn't do the job that he needed? But I was already hooked. I had a job and I liked Harold Robbins.
Linda, the secretary, showed me around the house. "You'll like working for Harold," she said as we walked through the spacious and beautiful rooms. She pointed out the paintings on the dining room walls as being Marc Chagall's four-canvas medley titled The Seasons. As we walked through the foyer, she pointed out a caricature of Harold in pen and ink, signed A Mon Ami, Picasso.
As we sauntered through her tour chatter I wondered if she knew that Harold wanted to get rid of her. She seemed like a nice girl but never stopped talking. She filled in the blanks for everyone, not just Harold. She led me up the stairs and into the study where Harold worked. A dramatic and impressive room with black textured walls, black ceiling, and black Roman shades. The only other colors in the room were red and a touch of white, a red bedcover on a queen-size bed pushed flush against the wall. I'm not sure why, but this room reminded me of a volcano. An explosion of creativity. The black walls gave an "aloneness" feeling against the red flares of ideas erupting scenes that seared the pages of Harold Robbins novels. The black carpeting was plush, the black sheen walls tastefully textured, and the black credenza highly varnished and opened into the tools of his trade. Piles of scripts, paper, pens, and a small television monitor. On the black varnished built-in desk was his black IBM Selectric typewriter sitting ominously silent. On the desk were a red ceramic ashtray, with a red and white with black print package of Lucky Strike cigarettes. White unlined typing paper stacked on top of onionskin carbon pages were neatly piled to the right of the typewriter.
A sexy naked female mannequin knelt in a corner of the painted deep red and black room. Her rouged, pouty lips were open slightly, with long, chicly tangled blond hair falling provocatively over one eye. Her naked derriere faced the open door of the bathroom tiled in black and white with sheen-varnished red walls. When the black drapes were lowered, the room was pitch-dark, other than the pin light that haloed down above Harold Robbins's typewriter.
When we left the office and walked back across the landing to the stairs Linda stopped and pointed out another oil painting. "This one is an original by Bernard Buffet, Les Pines."
I felt like I was in a museum. "These are all very beautiful."
"They have a house in France," Linda chatted. "Harold knew Picasso from the South of France. They walked their dogs together before Picasso died. He got those paintings downstairs in the dining room from Mrs. Chagall. Paid her under the table. They have stacks of paintings by Dalí sitting in their closets," Linda said casually. "Do you know Grace?"
"No, I don't," I said.
"She's a real trip," Linda said, rolling her eyes as we went downstairs and into the kitchen.
Harold buzzed the intercom in the kitchen. "Jam, are you down there?"
"Did you say 'Jam'?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's your name! Strawberry Jam!"
"Okay," I said. I didn't know Harold well enough yet to know that he was kidding me. I would soon realize he wanted a provocative answer. And I certainly didn't know him well enough to correct him. He could call me anything he wanted as far as I was concerned.
"Get up here; Cooper wants to talk to you about the flowers in Oklahoma. He thinks you're a farm girl!"
Dr. Cooper was standing on the balcony outside the sliding doors with Harold when I came into the bedroom. They called me outside.
"Do you see those white flowers down there?" Cooper asked.
The view from where we were standing was magnificent, overlooking Los Angeles and beyond to one side, looking into the lush and beautiful Benedict Canyon with hills, and looking down I saw the well-manicured grounds of the Harold Robbins estate. I pinpointed the flowers. "Yes, I see them."
"I told Robbins they looked like mistletoe blooms and I said that you were a farm girl from Oklahoma who would know what they are."
I looked up at Cooper and laughed. "The only thing I know about mistletoe is getting kissed if it's over your head. I'm a city girl, Dr. Cooper, and besides, I made a D minus-minus in botany at Oklahoma University!"
Harold cracked up with laughter. "Cooper, I told you she was no farm girl." He stepped back and patted my ass. "With an ass like that!"
I laughed and moved out of his reach.
We went back inside after a few moments and the doctor and Harold began his therapy. Harold held the telephone up to his ear, repeating words and sentences that Dr. Cooper was giving him. I sat down and watched. The exercises lasted about an hour.
When they were finished, Harold turned to me. "You ready for lunch?"
"Sure," I answered.
"The Oklahoma kid," Dr. Cooper said, laughing. "Have you ever had bagel, lox, and cream cheese?"
"I don't think so," I answered. "But I'm sure I'll like it."
"She knows about 'southern-fried' ...," Harold said, teasing.
I looked back at him and smiled.
As he looked at me, he said in almost a whisper, but loud enough for Dr. Cooper and me to hear, "Southern-fried pussy, the best, Cooper."
"Robbins, give her a break; she's just a kid," Cooper said.
We went down the back stairway and through the kitchen, where Rick was preparing lunch for us, and into the dining room. The meal was elegantly served on the twelve-foot-long dining room glass-beveled tabletop placed majestically atop two large artistically sculpted Lucite bases. The table was set with silver chargers and beautiful china, sterling silver knives and forks, and white linen napkins.
Harold told Dr. Cooper he had to start working on a new novel soon. He wanted to know how long it was going to take before he could start working. "Paul says I need the money! Christ, I always need money, just to pay for you." He directed his last comment to Dr. Cooper. Harold claimed Dr. Cooper's visits were costing over a thousand dollars each day.
During lunch, I sat and listened as Harold and Dr. Cooper talked about the news, Hollywood gossip, and Harold's writing. I absolutely had to pinch myself in amazement! I thought about how life could change in seconds. During my dry Grape-Nuts breakfast this morning, I could never imagine I would be having lunch with the world's bestselling novelist.
After lunch, Harold, Dr. Cooper, and I went upstairs to the study. Harold pulled out a shoe-box-size container stacked with photographs. He handed them to me and asked me to sort them into groups.
He picked up a tape recorder and told Cooper he had a tape to play for him of his speaking exercises. He saw the pack of Lucky Strikes on the desk. He took a cigarette out of the pack, lit it up, and turned to me.
"When I start working, I use these carbon sheets." He pointed to the stack of papers. "I save everything and I like to have copies. I once wrote a whole section of manuscript and the fucking publisher lost it. Assholes!" He took a drag off the cigarette, blew out the smoke, and walked out of the room.
I suppose he was still thinking about the publisher losing his manuscript. Cooper followed him. I sat down at the round glass table in the center of the room, poured all the pictures out of the box, and began to look at them. Some of the pictures had celebrities in them whom I recognized: Buddy Hackett, Tony Martin, Cyd Charisse, Red Buttons, Henry Mancini, Marty Allen, Irving Wallace, Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins, and others whom I didn't know by name. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Harold and Me by Jann Robbins. Copyright © 2008 Jann Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.