Cancer secret kept by bonkbuster novelist may have upset big sister Joan, but her pluck is admirable, says Lori Anderson
Have you ever asked anyone to keep a secret? Well, how did that turn out? It has been said that two people can indeed keep a secret but only if one of them is dead. Somewhere among the swaying palm trees of Beverly Hills, sits a white art deco mansion with more than a hint of a mausoleum, the starkness offset by a verisimilitude of a light-dappled, azure-blue Hockney swimming pool. Only the susurrus of the trees has whispered about the darkness to come. Here, for the past six years, in the home built by the success of her “bonkbuster” novel, Hollywood Wives, Jackie Collins kept her own counsel.
She always was a ballsy dame, armoured against the vicissitudes of life by her uniform of boxy Eighties jackets with linebacker-padded shoulders and perma-sprayed helmet hair. It was only four days before her death that she choose to reveal to the world, in an interview with People Magazine that she had been suffering from breast cancer: “I’ve written five books since the diagnosis. I’ve lived my life, I’ve travelled all over the world, I have not turned down book tours and no-one has ever known until now when I feel as though I should come out with it. I did it my way, as Frank Sinatra would say.”
Many people would find it shocking that the author only told her elder sister, Joan Collins, ten days before she announced it to the world. Many people have been surprised by her stoicism but this is because in this tell-all culture we are jarred by a well-maintained sense of privacy. One’s health was always considered private, only in recent decades has it been viewed as public. What makes Jackie Collins’ reserve so impressive was that she was living in the heart of the tell-all, emote-all, record-all culture of Beverly Hills, where no emotion should be suppressed or kept from the barista who makes your morning wet, decaf, soy, chai latte and yet she proudly maintained the stiff British Upper Lip.
Three years ago Nora Ephron took a similar approach to her imminent demise and refused to tell anyone but her husband and children that she was suffering from leukaemia. When Ephron’s death was announced her close friends such as Meryl Streep were both shocked and angry. “We’ve all been abused … she really did catch us napping and its really stupid to be mad at someone who died but somehow I’ve managed it” said Streep. Like all directors, Ephron craved control and she also knew that her chances of making another movie would reduce if the extent of her ill-health became common knowledge.
Jackie Collins didn’t have that problem. No-one could stop her sitting down each morning and writing long-hand in yellow legal pads, the latest adventure of Lucky Santangelo. She would go on to write and see published another five novels since her initial diagnosis. Yet if she had announced her ill-health every interview and book signing would be framed by the narrative of her ongoing “battle”. Her decline would have been documented step by step. I can imagine that she would have abhorred the pity that comes with such a diagnosis. Balzac wrote: “pity kills the spirit, it intensifies our weaknesses, it cripples us.” It also elevates people we don’t know who stand proudly on the raised plinth of the healthy while the sick sink down towards the grave.
“Poor Jackie” is an epithet that Collins would have rejected with all her heart. She had an abhorrence of ever being viewed as a victim. At the age of 15 she was flashed by a man to whom she quipped: “Cold day, isn’t it.” When later that year she began an affair with Marlon Brando, who was then in his early 30s, she saw herself as a willing participant having a fun time with a gorgeous movie star. Regardless of what society might say today, she certainly never viewed herself as the victim of a predatory older man. Even when every woman in the world appeared to be going to bed with Christian Grey to devour another sado-masochistic chapter of 50 Shades of Grey, Collins said she couldn’t understand the appeal: “I write women who kick ass, and don’t get their asses kicked.”
Her staple characters were strong women who enjoyed sex, knew what they wanted from life and went out and got it for themselves. Jackie Collins hit upon a winning formula with her first novel, The World is full of Married Men, published in 1968, and repeated it every two years for the next five decades. She was immune to criticism. When Barbara Cartland told her that her books were saturated with sex and that she was responsible for the rising number of perverts in Britain, Collins said: “Thank you.”
Yet while I can applaud Collins’ strength of character in wishing to keep her cancer secret, I do feel sorry for her sister, Joan. Over the years the pair have had their ups and downs but they’ve remained close and I’m sure Joan is feeling not only bereft at the loss of her “baby” sister but deeply regrets not being given the opportunity to help and support her. Joan Collins wouldn’t be human if she wasn’t scanning back through their regular lunch dates for clues she must have missed and the death of a loved one is hard enough without contending with “what if?”
Jackie Collins, like all writers, wanted to be in control of the plot right up until the end. It would be rude and disrespectful not to give her the last word. She said that on her tombstone she wanted the words: “She gave pleasure.” Who can disagree?