Monday, 22 March 2010

HAROLD ROBBINS THE BEST-SELLER

Francis Kane (Harold Robbins), writer: born New York 21 May 1916; married Muriel Ling (died 1937), Lillian Machnivitz (marriage dissolved), Grace Palermo (two daughters; marriage dissolved), Jann Stapp; died Palm Springs 14 October 1997.
Greed for sex, money and power brought worldwide success and many millions of pounds to Harold Robbins. The greed was that of the larger-than-life characters in his 23 massive bestsellers, novels that created a "bedroom and boardroom" genre of popular fiction since developed by the likes of Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele and, on television, by the makers of Dallas, Dynasty and all their clones.
Robbins was indisputedly the most popular writer in the world, and his books - not one of which has ever been out of print - are said to have sold, in 42 countries, three-quarters of a billion copies. His most popular, The Carpetbaggers (1961), has sold 30 million copies, making it, apparently, the fourth most read book in history.
Robbins's life was almost as extraordinary as his success. When the millions started to roll in, he began to live the gaudy life of the rich, raunchy characters in his novels, perhaps recognising, as an astute and entertaining self-publicist, that this would help shift more books.
He lived a celebrity life of conspicuous consumption: a fleet of high- class cars in which several Rolls Royces were little more than runarounds; villas in the South of France, Acapulco and Beverley Hills; cruises around the Mediterranean on his 85ft yacht with guest lists that at various times included Hollywood film stars, globetrotting European jet- setters, Middle Eastern millionaires and high class hookers. He loudly proclaimed that he had researched first-hand all the vices he described in his novels; and that he would one day be recognised as the best writer in the world.
The arc of his success also read like something from his novels. He was born Francis Kane in 1916, in Hell's Kitchen, New York. A foundling (like his fellow best-seller James Michener) he was brought up first in a Roman Catholic orphanage then in a succession of foster homes. He took the name Rubins from one foster family and changed it to Robbins when he began writing.
After dropping out of High School he worked during the Depression as a bookie's runner, errand boy and a clerk in a grocery store. In the grocery store he saw a way to make money from speculating on crop futures. He borrowed $800, put his plan into operation and was a millionaire within a year. He was 20.
In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, however, he lost the lot when he speculated that sugar would shortly become scarce and bought four shiploads at $4.85 per 100 pounds just before the government fixed the price of sugar at $4.65.
Bankrupt, he went to work in 1940 as a clerk at the New York warehouse of Universal Pictures. Sharp with figures, by 1942 he had become executive director of budget and planning and he remained an executive with the film company until 1957.
He began writing in 1946, to win a bet after scorning the quality of the stories the studio was buying. His first two novels, Never Love A Stranger (1948) and The Dream Merchants (1949) were immediate successes and he even got critical praise (a rare commodity where a Harold Robbins novel was concerned) for his third, A Stone For Danny Fisher (1952), a coming of age novel set on New York's East Side.
Later all three novels became films - Danny Fisher was transplanted to New Orleans as Kid Creole, a vehicle for Elvis Presley whilst Never Love A Stranger provided an early role for Steve McQueen.
Other novels followed in the Fifties - "picaresque novels about doomed people", he called them - but it was with the 1961 publication of The Carpetbaggers (with a central character based on Howard Hughes) that Robbins's career really took off. The 16 novels which followed over the next 37 years (including The Adventurers, 1966; The Betsy, 1971; The Stallion, 1996 and Tycoon, 1997) were snapped up by readers and film companies alike. Virtually all his novels have been filmed for either the big screen or as television mini-series.
In them he often used real life figures like Hughes, Aristotle Onassis, Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner as templates for his central characters. "All my characters are real," he said once. "They are written as fiction to protect the guilty." Readers loved the intricate plots, fast narrative, and what seemed like Robbins's insider view of Hollywood, industry bigwigs and the super-sexed super-rich.
Robbins loved the life of the playboy, albeit one who produced a big book every couple of years. He did this by working 12 to 16 hour days, never rewriting nor working out his plots in advance. As he got wealthier, in addition to his glamorous lifestyle and outrageous parties, he got serious about art (he bought Chagalls amd Legers, Picasso sketched him), fine food and gambling.
His extravagant lifestyle came to an end in 1985 following a stroke and then a fall in which he fractured both hips. Confined to a wheelchair he remained in his palazzo in Palm Springs for the rest of his life. He underwent a series of operations to repair his damaged bones, including one in which he suffered painful nerve damage. An attempt to implant an electric painkiller in his stomach failed and thereafter he took over- the-counter painkillers every day to alleviate the constant pain.
He continued to type his books two fingered but now could only manage three or four hours a day. The wild spending, the divorces (he admitted to three wives but it seems there were three other brief, unpublicised marriages, two possibly to the same woman) and the medical bills put a big dent in his bank balance. The houses, the cars and the yacht went.
His marriage to his second (or fifth, depending on who is counting) wife, Grace Palermo, ended in divorce after 28 years in 1992. A week later, on Valentine's Day, he married his assistant, Jann Stapp, vowing it would be his last marriage.
He was writing almost to the end and had just completed another novel, Wishing Well. Of his writing he never had any doubts: "I'm the best around - no one can compare with what I've done. I'm the world's best writer in basic English. Everybody understands what I write - except maybe the critics."Harold Robbins, the self-proclaimed "best novelist alive," was born to parents of suspected Jewish origin on May 21, 1916, in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. His parents deposited the illegitimate infant on the steps of a Roman Catholic orphanage where he was given the name Francis Kane. Francis Kane, who later became the main character of his first bestseller, spent time in various foster homes and was adopted at age ten by the last of his foster parents. His father was a Jewish pharmacist in Manhattan pharmacist. Upon adoption he took the name Harold Rubin, but later he changed it legally to Harold Robbins when his writing career began in the 1940's (Daily Telegraph 31). From 1927 to 1931, his jobs included grocery clerk, cook, cashier, errand boy for prostitutes and a Jamaican drug dealer, and bookies' runner. He claimed to have delivered cocaine to Cole Porter. At age fifteen, Harry Rubin lied about his age and joined the navy but was thrown out when his age was discovered. Robbins spent four years at George Washington High School - his only formal education. At nineteen, he dropped out of high school and borrowed eight hundred dollars. With this money he made a million dollars in sugar crop futures. Due to over-speculation however, he lost all of this money by the age of twenty and took a clerk job with Universal Pictures. While working at Universal Pictures he bet another executive one hundred dollars that he could write a better novel than the one that the studio had just purchased. In 1948, the result of this bet - Never Love A Stranger - was published and became an instant bestseller (Gale 4). Robbins once boasted that in his lifetime he had experienced all of the vices that he depicted in his works (Year in Review 1). When his writing career took off, he adopted a purely hedonistic Hollywood existence. He vacationed in the French Riviera, "took all kinds of drugs," and married very frequently (one source says six times and another states that even his friend/publicist Dick Delson could not exact the number of marriages). Robbins acknowledged only three of the marriages: Lillian Machnivitz in 1937, Grace Palermo in 1964 with whom he had two daughters Caryn and Adreana, and Jann Stapp in 1992 (The Guardian 20). In 1982, Robbins suffered a stroke that left him with a slight case of aphasia and resulted in a partial loss of word usage and comprehension. He continued to write until his death citing the following reason, "I have to keep writing, I haven't any money" (The Detroit Times 1). Due to excessive spending during his glory days and his expensive divorce from Grace, Robbins was indeed forced to continue writing with the help of Jann until his death. The king of the "sex and scandal airport novel" died on October 14, 1997, of respiratory heart failure in Palm Springs Desert Hospital. During his career, Robbins penned over twenty novels, and sold more than 750 million books worldwide. In fact, none of his books sold less than 600,000 copies (Gale 10). At the time of his death, despite an earlier claim that he would "[leave] no unfinished manuscripts…live till I'm 200 years old, and …write all the stories that are in me," he left two works in progress - a novel and an autobiography.


To quote the New English Library publicity blurb in "The Bookseller", "Harold Robbins has done it again with his novel "Memories of Another Day". A reviewer in "The Booklist" suggests that Robbins's success hinges on the fact that he has "invented his own genre of good bad novels." True to form, "Memories of Another Day" in November 1979 was his most recent novel to combine "the corrupting influence of power, money, and sex." As the 16th novel of 25, "Memories of Another Day" debuted in the book world "at a point in his career, when his writing had achieved an almost artless quality." This is indeed the quality that panders to the same mass audience's penchant for Harold Robbins's novels ("The Booklist" 542). An article in Harper's Magazine sub-titled "The rewards of vulgarity," searches to find just what exactly it is that makes Robbins's novels worthy of being purchased by more than 25,000 people a day and being translated into such languages as Urdu and Bengalese. Simon and Schuster estimates that "Memories of Another Day" would be the novel of the year and author Gene Lyons deigned to admit that the book-buyers would be in agreement. However, Lyons contends that the average literary guru would say that Robbins's work "places him beneath consideration, regardless of how many less obviously commercial authors" may have been supported indirectly with the funds accrued by his books (Lyons 82). Lyons points to the typical Robbins formula to explain his success. The sex and violence of Robbins's novels appear no more graphically or copiously than in those of his contemporaries like Norman Mailer and John Updike, but Robbins attracts readers with his usage of the hackneyed theme - the American Dream. In stark contrast, his more intellectual contemporaries focus on suburban disillusionment with the American Dream. Lyons describes Robbins as "the laureate of postindustrial capitalism...Robbins is the Horatio Alger of the book-buying world who do not embrace the notion that honesty and hard work bring rewards." Lyons concludes that Robbins's typical protagonist has a past that somewhat resembles his own: a bastard child or a child born to negligent parents who claws his way to the top of an "indifferent world" (Lyons 84). A New York Times Review by Martin Levin broaches the same subject of the Lyons review. "You're not going to learn much about the American Labor Movement from 'Memories of Another Day,'" says Levin. The story's protagonist, Big Dan Huggins, like an earlier character from a Robbins novel is "' a young man who came into the world with clenched fists and a hungry heart.'" Robbins enthusiasts want "upward mobility tinged with sentimentality and violence." Little has changed between Robbins first protagonist in 1949 and Big Dan Huggins thirty years later, Levin questions why it would when Robbins enjoys the kickbacks from two hundred million readers daily (Levin 14). Maude McDaniel of the Washington Post points out that "Memories of Another Day" represents a change of pace in Robbins's writing style. Though "Memories" contains the same "coitus virtually uninterruptus against interchangeable backgrounds," there is less dialogue, more narrative, and the sex scenes are less steamy. Some of the actual facts of the labor movement get more attention than sex scenes which McDaniel notes as a positive change. As a female reviewer, McDaniel is struck by the notion that "Memories" seems to be a very male book with characters that have been plucked directly from a "male fantasy." The men are "powerful, good-hearted; the women, adoring, lusty, insatiable, and all sex objects." McDaniel returns to a recurring theme among Robbins's critics in her conclusion. "Robbins's style is plane geometric, all surface with little depth...the pleasure is in the arrival, not the journey...this can be a relief...but the overall effect is curiously flat (McDaniel 14)." Jim Moore in the Los Angeles Times takes a more informal approach to critiquing Robbins's work by writing a letter to the author with disclaimer title ringing of flippancy "Dear Harold, you probably don't care, but..." Moore feels that the book lacks energy and the two stories told in sections creates a disjointed effect, as if the book were written separately and glued together. His "basic objection" is tiredness. Robbins's male characters are flat; his female characters Moore felt he had already met before. Moore likes the "strong, plain dialogue," but finds some of the colloquial West Virginia expressions like "mebbe" to be overdone. Moore admits that Robbins's publishers reminded him of the fact that Robbins recently sold 200 million copies and therefore, Robbins probably would not be heeding Moore's advice. In that case, "I wrote these words for the record...unfortunately I think that you wrote ["Memories"] for the same reason (Moore 6)."
Subsequent Reception:
I did not find any subsequent review because as mentioned above, "Memories of Another Day" was Harold Robbins's 16th novel out of 25. Reactions to his next novel "Goodbye, Janette" replaced the reviews to "Memories of Another Day."
Assignment 5
Critical Essay:
Published in November 1979, Memories of Another Day by Harold Robbins appeared immediately on Bestsellers lists. Therefore, we can look to it for some insight into the nomenclature "bestseller." As a modern-day bestseller with success that derives from its formulaic nature, Memories of Another Day finds itself a member of several categories of books. In 1979, the combination of the names Harold Robbins and Simon & Schuster ensured a considerable amount of success for a novel in its plight for bestsellerdom. In addition, Memories of Another Day enjoyed the kind of fame that books by authors like Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, and Jackie Collins knew. But Memories of Another Day propels itself into another category when Robbins attempts to intermingle events from the life of Teamster organizer Jimmy Hoffa with sexy prose and dialogue. The effect is something more similar to a romantic historical fiction by John Jakes' book. The final category in which Memories of Another Day falls is that of the quintessential Horatio Alger-type story of hard times and realization of the American Dream. This category not only classifies Robbins's novel and his contemporaries also appearing on the bestsellers list, it also separates them by treatment of the American Dream theme. These categories help us to draw a conclusion as to what Memories of Another Day signifies about the best-selling book. During the second half of the twentieth century, consumer America became increasingly obsessed with the reputation of a product before purchase. An entire market has grown up in the United States with the wary buyer in mind. We have Consumer Reports, Buyer's Guide, critics for everything, money-back guarantees, and most recently collaborative filtering. Therefore, it is no secret in the publishing world that author recognition and publisher recognition attract the book-buying public and signify quality. Memories of Another Day fell nicely into this category of books already inhabited by several Harold Robbins books. The Harold Robbins/Simon & Schuster partnership promised readers the typical Robbins formula in the latest form. That formula is a contrived plot replete with sex, violence, inner struggle, and a catharsis. Most importantly, the plot and resolution must be easily construed. Memories of Another Day did not disappoint. The protagonist, Big Dan Huggins rises from the oppressive West Virginia coal fields to become a powerful figure in the American Labor Movement. The novel begins with Big Dan's death, then nestles itself into the head of his seventeen-year-old son Johnathan while taking on Johnathan's personal quest to understand his father and resolve his own inner demons. Along the way there are bar brawls and sexual scuffles to offset the prose describing the execution of the American Labor Movement. In addition to assuring the familiarity of Robbins's style, Simon & Schuster also proved to be forerunners in some aspects of publishing. CEO Michael Korda in his autobiography writes that he approved the use of obscene language for the first time in a Harold Robbins novel (Korda 135). Though the help of Simon & Schuster and Harold Robbins's name were important to the success of Memories, a bestseller cannot just rely on name recognition. Many books would be dismissed if this were the case. Robbins's novels were not the only airport sex-scandal novels famous for the name of the author. Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, and Jackie Collins belonged to this category as well. These authors and their books share some distinct qualities in addition to author recognition, qualities that bind them even more strongly together. All are highly readable, all present no challenge to the reader in prose style or vocabulary, and all illicit similar snubs from critics. However, while literary critics for The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine mourned the passing of generations of great literary works, book-buyers everywhere embraced the replacement works penned by these authors and published in Simon&Schuster and HBJ ink. The phenomenon of the highly readable book with a balanced blend of sex and violence seems to have appealed to the feeling of the times in the late 1970's. This generation of hard-workers propelled by the American Work Ethic avidly sought entertainment for rest and respite. Books by these authors found something of a kinship with television; they made for effortless entertainment. The Robbins fan found more release in his novels than in a literary masterpiece that contained sentence structures no more easily parsed than simple subject and simple predicate. In addition, these authors chose topics which interested the masses. Like Sidney Sheldon's Rage of Angels protagonist Jennifer Parker who fights the mob, Dan Huggins takes on the injustices of the American Labor system despite the fact that he is merely an impoverished, teenage country boy (Caples). Danielle Steele uses the backdrop of he Viet Nam war in Message from Nam to give a different view of life during war and that is the female perspective (Pratch). Similarly, Robbins loosely depicts the American Labor Movement but mixes love and family relations in the process. Both Robbins and Steele use dialogue to create character sketches that prove vivid. Robbins novel departs from Steele's novel here because it does in fact claim to be based loosely on the real-life events of Jimmy Hoffa. Robbins's novels also bear a resemblance to John Jakes's novels which are written on the historical fiction vein (Landis). There is no doubt that Robbins owes some of his success to these writers who perpetuate this genre of books, but it is sometimes in the more stark contrasts that one finds even more insight. The final category to be discussed is the one which provides the more telling contrast. Perhaps, Robbins embraces this genre of story because of the similarity with his own life. This is the Horatio Alger-type story. Critics of Harold Robbins's Memories of Another Day often draw comparisons between Robbins's novels and those of his contemporaries to explain his success. The typical Robbins protagonist is a bastard abandoned first by his family then by the world who manages to claw his way to the top of a many-runged ladder writes a reviewer in Harper's Magazine (Lyons 83). Compared to other novels that were on the bestseller list at the time, Robbins's books epitomize the spirit of the American Dream. Books such as Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song depict disillusionment with the American Dream. Mailer's book is the story of an articulate death row inmate who decided not to fight his death sentence (amazon.com). Big Dan Huggins is obviously a character of questionable moral character and yet when he murders, it is justified as an act of vengeance. In fact, the majority of the killing in Memories of Another Day goes unpunished. Mailer's work includes sexual explicitness as well, but The Executioner's Song escaped the harsh tongue of the critics because the material came from a true event and Mailer researched and interviewed to produce the story. Robbins may have spent some time learning West Virginia colloquialisms and researching the American Labor Movement, but these were not steps of his writing process that critics applauded. Another novel appearing on the bestseller list in late 1979 was Jailbird. This book created another literary contrast to Robbins's style of writing about the American Dream. In Jailbird, one reads the account of the rise and fall and subsequent fall of the protagonist (Williston). The Robbins protagonist starts from the dregs of society, rises to the upper echelon and maintains this status. During the late 1970's there was room on the bestseller's list for both types of novels. An interesting point is that the non-fiction bestseller's list featured the Robert Ringer title Restoring the American Dream. The waning prosperity of America on the international economic scale seems to have been a preoccupation in the domestic literary arena. I think that if nothing else, studying Robbins's novel with respect to the entire category of bestsellers shows us that in many cases, the Robbins book had only one aspect in common with another bestseller. On the other hand, we can surmise that the formulaic approach to writing that some critics call "the artless quality" is not uncommon among the bestsellers. It is, in fact, its own sub-genre of books that sells millions of books a year.

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