The Washington Post
Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sexby Andrew Wilson
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During his fifty-year career Harold Robbins, the godfather of the airport novel, sold approximately 750 million copies of his books worldwide. His seventh novel, The Carpetbaggers, a steamy tale of sex, greed, and corruption loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes, is the fourth-most-read book in history. As decadent as his fiction was, however, his life was just as profligate. Over the course of his five-decade career, Robbins spent money as quickly as he earned it, reportedly wasting away $50 million on everything from booze and drugs to yachts and prostitutes. Based on extensive interviews with family members and friends, including Larry Flynt and Barbara Eden, Harold Robbins examines the remarkable life of the man who gave birth to the cult of the modern bestseller and introduced sex to the American marketplace.
The Washington Post
Harold Robbins (1916-1997), whose potboilers sold 750 million copies worldwide during his lifetime, was born into a middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family. But as Wilson relates in this shallow biography, Robbins often fabricated a past as Czar Nicholas's illegitimate son or a lonely orphan who became a sailor indulging in gay sex on a submarine. Early works like the autobiographical, Depression-era A Stone for Danny Fishershowed talent, and his fictionalized portrait of Howard Hughes, The Carpetbaggers, was made into a film and catapulted him to fame. But, Wilson says, Robbins's novels grew schlockier and repetitive as he wrote to sustain his cocaine-fueled lifestyle of fancy cars and mansions, prostitutes and gambling. Particularly damning is the testimony of Robbins's Simon & Schuster editor, Michael Korda, who recalls a bitter, sneering writer tossing off pages in exchange for a check. Hustlerfounder Larry Flynt's inflated claim that Robbins was as much a celebrity as Tom Cruise is repeated by Wilson with scant skepticism or analysis, and it's doubtful that this lackluster effort will gain Robbins new fans. This misfire by the Edgar-winning biographer of Patricia Highsmith (Beautiful Shadow) is more an extended magazine article intended to titillate than a serious biography or a fruitful dissection of the American bestseller. 8 pages of photos. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
“Meticulously researched...Wilson debunks the lies in between a thorough accounting of Robbins' career as novelist and Hollywood celebrity.” Chicago Sun Times
“Besides answering nearly every question about its subject…[Harold Robbins is] also better written than an of Robbins's own behemoths…I doubt any future biography of Robbins will equal this one…Wilson is impressively…determined to uncover the reality behind Robbins's fabulations.” New York Times Book Review
“[An] interesting book for anyone who wonders what set of circumstances produced Robbins and his wild imagination.” Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Andrew Wilson's even-handed biography is both fascinating and deeply disturbing. Wilson illuminates the emotional bankruptcy of a self-made man who got everything he ever wanted -- but who died bitter and alienated. You don't have to remember or even to have read Robbins to relish this spooky bio. Wilson has written a cultural exploration of post-World War II America, when the country appeared to cast off the last shackles of Puritanism in order to embrace guilt-free hedonism--sex, drugs, money and pleasure.” USA Today
“Reading this excellent biography, you can't help but think of ' The Great Gatsby, ' as though stacks of silk shirts or plates of lettuce with a lot of fish roe on it would be the ticket -- to what? -- to something bigger, stranger, wilder, weirder. ...Andrew Wilson has written perhaps a better biography of Robbins than Robbins deserved...a fascinating narrative.” Washington Post
“The writer's life is almost as fantastic and riveting as his debauchery-driven plots.” Columbus Dispatch
“A titillating portrait.” Sacramento Bee
“A frank look at the not-always-likable man behind the blockbusters.” Bookpage
“Today's Hollywood movers and shakers think they know how to throw wild parties - but none of them can hold a candle to best-selling author Harold Robbins.” New York Post
“[A] lot of juicy stuff.” Chicago Sun Times
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Harold RobbinsThe Man Who Invented Sex
By Andrew Wilson
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2007 Andrew Wilson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Of all the people I knew, I knew myself least of all." -Never Love a Stranger
The tired-looking woman clutched the bundle of rags closer to her breast. Weak and exhausted, she steadied herself on the railings outside the orphanage, before sitting down on the step. Although it was dark, she looked around to check that no one was near before peeling back the swaddling to reveal the face of her newborn baby. As she traced her fingers over his skin, she felt the tears that she had tried to suppress form in her eyes and fall onto her little boy's cheek. Biting her lip, she willed the tears to stop, but they kept flowing, waking the child from his sleep. Knowing that she did not have long, she raised the boy upward toward the sky and asked God's forgiveness for what she was about to do. She said a silent prayer to herself, placed an envelope inside the rags, kissed him on the forehead, and then placed him on the step. Almost instantly the baby cried out, and although every cell in her body ached for the child, she knew she dared not pick him up. As she walked away into the night, she told herself that the monks who ran the orphanage would look after her boy better than she could ever do. She had done the right thing.
Harold Robbins's beginnings were as dramatic as anything found in his fiction. Born to unknown parents in 1916, he was abandoned on the steps of an orphanage run by the Paulist Fathers, a Catholic missionary group, on West 59th Street and Tenth Avenue, in the notorious Hell's Kitchen area of New York. "I was apparently delivered there fully blown and circumcised at the age of eight days, which is odd because it was a Catholic orphanage-I spent eleven years there," he said. "The orphanage assigned me the name Francis Kane on my birth certificate, I don't know where it came from," he added.
After waking in the dormitory, he would have breakfast and then play in the yard, romping and running with his friends, but at the sound of the eight o'clock bell he would get into line and march into school, up the winding staircase to the classroom. The school day would begin with a prayer, followed by lessons that seemed to last forever. He would amuse himself by shooting spitballs at his friends in the class, and whenever the oppressive summer heat descended on Manhattan, he would escape to the nearby docks on West 54th Street, where he would sunbathe and swim in the Hudson. As he grew older, he felt stifled by the narrow rules and regulations of the orphanage. "I'm nothing but a prisoner here," he would think. "People in jail have as much freedom as me. And I didn't do nothin' to deserve it-nothin' to be in jail for-nothin' to be locked away at night for."
The experience was a tough one. In a 1971 television interview with Alan Whicker, Robbins said that "of the sixteen boys that were in this, I guess you'd call it a dormitory, only about four or five of us are still alive. Three of them have been electrocuted [by the electric chair], four are in jail, the others are all more or less respectable citizens-except myself."
He had an independent, rebellious nature and soon started to play hookey from school. "I was in trouble all the time," he said. When he was eight, he remembers waiting in the street to have his tonsils "yanked out," but he was so scared, he ran off, only to be caught and held down for the "instant surgery."
After being rejected by dozens of potential foster couples-he would have to endure the humiliation of standing in line with other boys and being scrutinized by discerning would-be parents-when he was eleven he was finally adopted by a middle-class Jewish family from Brooklyn, who renamed him Harold Rubin. Despite the love they showered on him, the young boy did not feel at home. "They were nice people in their way, but we just couldn't make it together," he said. "As much as I hated the Catholic dogma, it was difficult having to suddenly adjust to a Jewish family. They called me the 'goy.' My friends from the orphanage started calling me 'Jew bastard' and 'kike.'" Feeling unwanted and out of place, he started work running errands for a local bookie, and the experience of memorizing long lines of numbers become useful later, when he started work at Universal Pictures as a statistician. It was, he said, "great for memory training, as I had to remember all the bets; I didn't dare write anything down." Soon he began to mix with the low life of Manhattan, fetching cigars for mobster Lucky Luciano, doing odd jobs for Frank Costello, and acting as a drug courier for a Jamaican bootlegger.
"It seemed to me the greatest job in the world," he said. "I'd get a dollar a time for delivering dope and there was always a little left so I would see what it was like." He started to smoke grass at eight and sniffed cocaine when he was eleven or twelve, the same year he lost his virginity to a prostitute.
Sometimes men would come up to him on the streets of New York and proposition him. Did he want an ice cream cone? they would ask. And he would jerk them off for a quarter or a dime. "I thought that was normal," he said. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with it." He progressed to dropping by the matinees held at the Apollo Theater in Harlem to make a little extra cash. "You'd see two movies, and then the burlesque would start and the old men would come in," he told Ian Parker of The New Yorker. "And I would get a quarter to jerk them off. I didn't think it was a wild thing. You know, I made a dollar, a dollar and a half, and I had enough money for the day. The only trouble, now I think about it, was they didn't have Kleenex in those days. I had to go to F.W. Woolworth and buy a package of handkerchiefs."
When his adoptive parents told him they were going to leave Brooklyn for Florida, the fifteen-year-old boy decided not to accompany them, opting for a life in the military instead. He ran away, forged his parents' signature of consent, and joined the navy, stationed in Pensacola. One day his submarine was hit by a torpedo, but he swam to the surface, the only survivor.
This, like all these stories he told about his birth and upbringing, was not true. Over the course of nearly fifty years Robbins spun an intricate web of lies that served to obscure his real origins. He invented, sensationalized, exaggerated, and elaborated, massaging the truth, shaping it into more and more outlandish forms, until it bore little resemblance to the reality of his existence. Few bothered to question his version of events, and so with each passing year the mythology that Robbins created for himself took on the patina of truth. With a professionalism and intelligence that have to be admired-Robbins had nothing if not chutzpah-he marketed his untruths with all the energy of a world-class advertiser. He reveled in the playfulness of the game, stretching his stories into ever more excessive and bizarre forms, tailoring his lies according to his audience.
For instance, knowing that the readers of the gay magazine The Advocate would appreciate hearing about his homosexual experiences, he told the journalist that he regularly had sex with other men while serving in the navy. "I was on a submarine, and if you're on a submarine for 22 days you want sex," he said. "We were either jacking each other off or sucking each other off. Everybody knew that everybody else was doing it. If you were able to handle it, you could get fucked in the ass, but I couldn't handle it that well. We jerked off too, but you get bored with that. You'd jerk off so you could relax and sleep. You'd start jerking off, and some guy would come over and say, 'I'm gonna blow you.' So we did it, it was fun, and it was over."
Toward the end of his life Robbins's already vivid capacity for self-reinvention reached near pathological proportions when he told George Christy of The Hollywood Reporter that he thought he might be the illegitimate child of Czar Nicholas of Russia, "who came to New York in 1916 to raise money to fight the Bolsheviks, and I like to think he banged the chambermaid at the Waldorf and I'm their son. I'm often very very czar-ish."
One of the themes that snakes its way through all of Robbins's work is the quest for identity. His books are littered with the corpses of dead parents, a common trope that expressed the writer's sense of dislocation and unease. The opening chapter of Never Love a Stranger details the death of a woman, Frances Cain, during childbirth; her surviving son, Francis Kane, grows up in an orphanage and feels unsettled by the absence of a personal history: "He was a ghost, a wraith, a name without a body." Similarly, at the beginning of The Pirate-a tale of excess wealth, heady sex, and copious amounts of drug-taking set against the exotic backdrop of the Middle East-a woman dies during childbirth, a plotline that Robbins created in order to interrogate the identity of the hero, the handsome and powerful Baydr Al Fay.
In The Dream Merchants Robbins's study of the pioneers of early Hollywood, the book's central character, Johnny Edge, loses his parents in an accident at a carnival when he is ten, while in The Inheritors, about the television industry, protagonist Stephen Gaunt is orphaned at sixteen when his mother and father die in a car crash. In The Carpetbaggers nearly every main character-Jonas Cord, Nevada Smith, and Jennie Denton-loses one or both parents when they are still children. The character of Rina Marlowe, whom Robbins roughly modeled on the movie actress Jean Harlow, is forced to endure the death of her father in a shipwreck, the death of her mother from illness, and then the loss of her adoptive brother and mother in a boating accident off Cape Cod.
Plotlines like this may sound both absurd and melodramatic, but they reflect Robbins's own insecurities surrounding his birth. "My heroes are usually restless characters ready for a change of scenery, looking for something without quite knowing what it is," he said. "I'm that way. What am I looking for? As an orphan, I never had the sense of identity one gets out of being special to one or more family-like persons. Perhaps I'm on a reconnaissance mission, trying to discover experiences that are already a normal part of living for others."
Robbins articulated these feelings of rejection and abandonment in a series of intimate conversations with friends. However, his confessions were far from true ones. "He told me that Never Love a Stranger was completely autobiographical," says Diana Jervis-Read, Robbins's personal assistant and one of his closest friends. "He told me that he had used his real name in that book, the name of Francis Kane, which was given to him in the orphanage." The actress Sylvia Miles, a friend from the early 1950s who starred in a staged version of his novel A Stone for Danny Fisher, distinctly remembers him telling her that he was an orphan. "He told me he didn't have a mother or a father and that he was deprived as a kid," she says. "He sounded like a 'street' person and he came from nothing."
Ini Asmann, whom Harold employed to take his author photographs and who later became a lover, believed she knew everything about him. "He told me that yes, he was an orphan and that he had been found abandoned on the steps of the church," she says. "I didn't question him, I believed him."
His friend and writing partner Caryn Matchinga, who had a brief affair with Harold, remembers him telling her that his original name was Francis Kane and that he had been brought up in a Catholic orphanage. "He told me that he didn't realize he was Jewish until someone found a necklace with a Star of David motif on it beyond a bureau in the room where he was born," she says. "It belonged to the woman who had given birth to him. That's how he realized that he was Jewish, not Catholic as he had assumed. But I suspect he didn't really know the truth, he was always searching for it. He was a sad, lonely man who didn't believe anybody loved him, including his wife and children. There was always an emptiness in him."
So what was the truth about Harold Robbins? "All I know about Harold's childhood is what is in the books," says Michael Korda. "But, out of instinct, I'm inclined to believe it was not as rough as he made out. While it is perfectly plausible that Harold had such a childhood, it is something of a standard growing-up story, especially for those who moved from New York to Hollywood-the poor Jewish boy learning to fight his way out, the father who doesn't make any money, the black or Irish kids who beat the shit out of you. It's a cliché."
Harold's close friend, the writer Steve Shagan, was also deeply suspicious of the version of his life Robbins chose to present to the world. "All that business of him being an orphan and being discovered on the steps of the orphanage-all that was an invented yarn," he says. "He made things up in every interview he gave, and yet everyone bought it. He was the master of selling himself." "He certainly liked spinning stories," says Ken Minns, captain of Robbins's yacht. "There was a Walter Mitty element to him."
Not only did the author, in publicity blurbs, publish two different birth dates-1916 (his true one) and 1912-but he had three different names: his writing name, Harold Robbins; Harold Rubin, the one he said had been given to him by his adoptive parents; and the one he maintained had been assigned to him by the Paulist-run orphanage, Francis Kane. However, although the Paulist Fathers, an organization created in the nineteenth century for the "pursuit of the holy missions, in the conversion of souls and in the dissemination of Christian doctrine," ran a day school, St. Paul the Apostle, they had nothing to do with running a New York orphanage."
The writer had always maintained that he never knew the true circumstances of his origins, and his death certificate certainly seems to support this claim: in the space given to record the names of the mother and father of the deceased, the entry reads "UNK" or unknown. However, Robbins told friends that he suspected that his adoptive father, Charles Rubin, was in fact his real father, but he believed that his adoptive mother, Blanche, was not his biological mother. "His father was Jewish, his mother wasn't," Paul Gitlin, Harold's agent and confidant, told The New Yorker. "His father remarried, and the woman [Blanche] had children of her own, so he was a stray, so to speak, and the new wife didn't particularly want him around."
During his lifetime, Robbins said, he spent thousands of dollars trying to trace the identities of his parents, but apparently he failed to turn up anything of substance. Diana Jervis-Read remembers a conversation in which he outlined his frustrations. "He told me that he thought Charles was his real father, but the wife [Blanche] was not his mother," she says. "Harold asked Charles to tell him the truth, but for some reason he wouldn't. He asked him when Charles was approaching death, but he wouldn't be drawn on it. That really upset Harold, the fact that Charles wouldn't tell him even when it didn't matter anymore. Harold wouldn't have shouted-that wasn't his style-but I can imagine that he might have asked in a slightly aggressive manner in order to cover up the fact that he was so upset. I can hear him saying, 'Why don't you f-ing well tell me?' It was his one great regret, the fact that he never knew."
Recently released public records such as census returns make it possible for us to piece together a picture of Robbins's past. In 1930 forty-four-year-old Charles, who ran a drugstore, and Blanche, who was thirty-three, were living in Brooklyn, at 1184 Schenectady Avenue, with four children: Herbert, four, Doris, ten, Ruth, eleven, and Harold, thirteen. While all the children had been born in New York, both Charles and Blanche had immigrated from Odessa, Russia. These documents contain nothing to suggest that the Rubins were anything but a conventional Jewish family. The couple presented themselves to the world as a perfectly respectable and middle-class unit, who had married in 1915 and had subsequently reared four healthy children.
Excerpted from Harold Robbins by Andrew Wilson Copyright © 2007 by Andrew Wilson . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Andrew Wilson is the author of Beautiful Shadow, which won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Critical Biography. He lives in London.
Andrew Wilson remembers secretly reading Harold Robbins as a teenager, and has spoken to many friends, lovers and enemies of this most provocative of writers. Wilsons other books are the award-winning Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, and the novel The Lying Tongue.
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