Obituary: Jackie Collins, OBE, novelist

Jackie Collins, English-born novelist credited as being the creator of the 'bonkbuster' genre. Picture: PA
Jackie Collins, English-born novelist credited as being the creator of the 'bonkbuster' genre. Picture: PA
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Born: Hampstead, London, 4 October, 1937. Died: Beverley Hills, California, 19 September, 2015. Aged 77.

Jackie Collins OBE was an English-born novelist who was widely credited as having pioneered the “bonkbuster” genre of popular writing. As the word suggests, her books were racy and glamorous, and though not in the least critically favoured were incredibly popular with and beloved by an international audience. Her website credits her as having sold 500 million books in 40 different countries, with 31 consecutive books having hit the New York Times bestseller list.

In her early adult years, Collins worked as an actor – the same vocation which made her elder sister Joan famous – and it wasn’t until she was into her thirties that she published her first novel. The World is Full of Married Men appeared in 1968 and earned her a significant degree of infamy at the very beginning of her career. Telling of a middle-aged married man who has an affair with a much younger aspiring actress in Swinging London, the novel’s content caused it to be banned in Australia and South Africa, and to earn the distinctive recommendation of being described as “disgusting” and “pornographic” by romance writer Dame Barbara Cartland.

Collins’s second novel, The Stud (1969), told of the sexual liaisons of a female nightclub owner – and it relaunched the acting career of Collins’s sister when she starred in the low-budget but financially successful film adaptation in 1978. A year later came the sequel The Bitch, both Collins’s novel (her seventh) and Joan’s film version, and the latter proved to be even more successful, directly winning the elder Collins sister her career-defining role as the Machiavellian Alexis Colby in 1980s soap Dynasty.

Jackie Collins’s transfer to the United States coincided with her sister’s. Although she became an American citizen in 1960, Jackie divided her time between London and America for two decades, finally settling in Los Angeles in the early 1980s as both of her significant continuing novel brands emerged. Chances (1981) introduced her readership to gangster’s daughter Lucky Santangelo, whose family inspired eight furthers novels – the final instalment, The Santangelos, was published just days before Collins’s death.

Meanwhile, Hollywood Wives (1983) promised a behind-the-scenes insight into the private lives of fictionalised film stars. It spawned four more books, from 1986’s Hollywood Husbands to 2003’s Hollywood Divorces, and in later years she referred to her family’s Beverly Hills mansion as “the house that Hollywood Wives built”, so successful was the book in the US.

Collins was born Jacqueline Jill Collins in Hampstead, London in 1937, to Joseph and Elsa. Her South Africa-born father was a theatrical agent whose clients at various points in his career included Dame Vera Lynn, Peter Sellers, Roger Moore, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. He also worked with The Beatles, including organising their London Christmas concerts in 1963 and 1964. As well as Joan and Jackie, Joseph and Elsa had one other child; their youngest, a son named William (Bill).

Jackie’s first stories were written at the age of eight at the family’s house on Marylebone Road, and illustrated by Joan, while she wrote tales filled with sexual subject matter for her friends at school in her teenage years. Schooled at the independent Francis Holland day school in London, Collins was a rebellious teen. She was eventually expelled for regularly playing truant by forging her mother’s signature and, as she told Vanity Fair, “waving at the resident flasher … I would point, and I would say, ‘Oh, it must be a very cold day today!’” Upon leaving the school, she threw her uniform in the Thames.

Despite ambitions to be a journalist, it was her father who insisted that she follow her sister into acting, which she did for a number of years. A regular in small roles on British TV, she appeared in action series Danger Man and The Saint in the 1960s, and also worked as a nightclub singer alongside performers including Des O’Connor.

Between 1960 and 1964, Collins was married to Wallace Austin, with whom she had a daughter, Tracy. Suffering from a drug addiction to methedrine prescribed to him by a psychiatrist, Austin’s problems caused Collins to file for divorce; a year later he took his own life.

In 1965, Collins was to marry the art gallery and nightclub owner Oscar Lerman, who lit the spark that instigated her career as a novelist. She recalled in interviews that her ability as a writer was never encouraged at school, despite being first in her class and an hungry reader of authors such as Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins. It was only when Lerman told her that she should try to make something of writing that she decided to give it a go; the result was The World is Full of Married Men.

Collins and Lerman had two daughters, Tiffany and Rory, and Lerman formally adopted Tracy. The couple were together until his death from prostate cancer in 1992.

Collins later became engaged to American businessman Frank Calcagnini; he died of a brain tumour in 1998.

A prolific writer whose work was inextricably linked with the large and particularly small screen since early in her career, Collins also wrote the screenplay for the Ian McShane and Adam Faith-starring 1979 movie Yesterday’s Hero and saw Hollywood Wives turned into a star-studded mini-series in 1985, which featured among its cast Candice Bergen, Anthony Hopkins and Stefanie Powers. The 1990 mini-series Lucky Chances – based on the Lucky Santangelo books – also featured a young Sandra Bullock.

A self-confessed pop culture addict, even in her elder years Collins was something of a renaissance woman. An active social networker, the soul music fan told the Hollywood Reporter in the months leading up to her death that her favourite music at the time included that of rap artists Drake, Usher, Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg. Noting in the same interview that she hoped to write “another 32” books, she said “I love what I do. I’m passionate about what I do. I’m a storyteller … I wanted to tell stories, I wanted to grab my readers, I wanted to have fun with my books.”

Although Collins was diagnosed with breast cancer six years prior to her death from the disease, she kept it secret from all but her closest confidantes so as not to trouble them – her sister Joan only found out the truth two weeks ago.

Active until the end, Jackie Collins flew from Los Angeles to London to appear on ITV’s lifestyle show Loose Women nine days before her death, which was also the UK date of publication of her final novel, The Santangelos. She is survived by her sister, daughters Tracy, Tiffany and Rory, and six grandchildren.