Celebrity Gatherings in Palm Springs: Harold Robbins – The King of Paperback Romance Adventure Novelists
When I met him he was a foul-mouthed old man and I think he had been for a long time. But he was also kind to me in ways that helped formalize a period in my life that led to owning and building Celebrity Books. Harold Robbins was my first big celebrity to do a book signing in my store and the first author to get a large number of autographed books, over and over again.
Look, it wasn’t always generosity that led Harold to sign books for us. It was more that he was perpetually behind on his New York Times bill. My dad got the New York Times home delivery in the 1980s and 1990s, and like most big-name people in the wilderness, Harold had a subscription. But he was known for not paying his bill. So once, around 1991, when my dad and I were starting our book association together, my dad said to Harold, “Why don’t we autograph a bunch of books and even call him?”
Harold jumped at the idea. My dad and I spent the next month scouring used bookstores and thrift stores looking for copies of his books for him to sign. In those days, used hardcover copies of Harold’s books could be found all over the city. We must have rounded up about 50 of them and once we were done my dad called Harold for the appointment and it was agreed that we would ‘send the boy with the books’. I was ‘the kid’, even though I was in my 30s at the time.
I went to his house, which was a nice mid-century modern house on an ordinary street in the posh Las Palmas neighborhood of old Palm Springs. It was one of those that everything is painted white on the outside of the houses with little grandeur but impeccably clean and elegant. There wasn’t even a tall gate or big bushy fence like so many properties in that area were. I just hung my banana box full of books on my shoulder and walked down the catwalk to ring the bell.
His wife Jan opened the door. She was a lady twenty years his junior and she came to find out during my visits, not his first wife. I’m not sure how many wives he had in his life, but there seemed to be more than two. She walked me into her living room, the white theme moved from the outside to the inside. The walls were white, the tiles were white, and the carpet and rugs were white. The house had a wall made of large glass windows that spanned the entire rear. I stood there letting my eyes take it all at once. The house was filled with paintings and expensive books and knickknacks on every shelf. The backyard was beautifully landscaped and it was an attractive pool that I noticed had a long ramp extending into it. I heard a man call me from the side. He said something loud in a booming voice, like, “Hello boy, the homeless bookseller’s son is coming back.”
Obviously my dad and Harold had talked about how I had recently moved to the desert from the beach. I turned to the man who had spoken and found him sitting in a wheelchair, very hunched over and overweight, with a big smile and a large crystal glass in his hand full of what I took for alcohol, since It was located in the bar area reminiscent of a glass collection: extravagantly cut glasses and sharply angled decanters filled with colorful liquids arranged on glass shelves set against mirrored walls. He rolled out to greet me and we shook hands. He asked about me and I told him.
Then he presented me with stories of his own making. His first book had been written for a bet. He was a young writer in Hollywood at the time, working for one of the studios, when he and a fellow writer got into an argument about how difficult it was to write a best-selling book. The other man had challenged him and he had accepted. As recounted by Harold, he immediately quit his job and began working on his novel: Never Love a Stranger (1948).
After that book, everything he wrote became a bestseller: The Dream Merchants, A Stone for Danny Fisher, which became a movie starring Elvis Presley renamed King Creole, and a few books later his further novel. famous The carpetbaggers, which was loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes. All his books were as obscene as his mouth and his daring for the profane helped make him famous and permanently etched him in my mind.
On one of the trips to visit him, because he had fallen behind on the newspaper bill again, he told me a story about himself and Sidney Sheldon. This story happened in the 1960s, he said. He and Sidney had already been friends for a long time and both had made a lot of money from their writing. Sidney also has a house in Palm Springs; two houses actually. Well, in this story, they were meeting on the French Riviera on a yacht that Harold had acquired. The difficulty was that Sidney had brought his wife, a very honorable lady, and Harold had two young women for both of them to enjoy. As Sidney and his wife approached the yacht, Harold leaned over the railing with the two women under each arm and grabbed one breast from each girl and said something like, “Hey Sid, you didn’t have to bring yours, we have a lot here for everyone “. Sidney and his wife never spoke to Harold again.
Harold happened to have Piranha, his first book in a long time, being published and my dad and I asked Harold to do a book signing at our store. Now keep in mind that our bookstore at the time was nothing fancy. It was 1,000 square feet. rough carpet footing and handmade plank shelving, most of which weren’t even stained and varnished. Our bookstore was primarily used books and we did not have a book signing history to assess whether it would be a success or not. Harold Robbins was to be our test case, our first author event. When it arrived we put it square in the middle of the store, right in front so that anyone passing by could see it and we had an aperitif table on a large folding table with a white tablecloth. He arrived in a limo and Jan took him to his perch. We sold a good number of books. I mean 50 or 60 and asked him to sign the hundred or more that we had left over, which he did.
The funny thing is that on my next visit to see Harold, he confided in me that the signing for us had been a test case for him too. It had been so long since he’d done something like that that he’d been a little scared that no one would show up or that he’d be too weak to make a show of it. As it was, he had considered the book signing a success for both him and us. A few weeks later, I read in the New York Times that Harold Robbins was signing his first book in almost twenty years. It was to be at the Barnes & Noble flagship in New York.
I know I mentioned Harold’s non-payment on his New York Times bills several times in this article. Let me be clear: he did not do this due to lack of finances. Harold was fine. His house was immaculate. His clothes were always fine. And his wife seemed to want nothing. In fact, on one of the first visits to the home of this literary giant, I noticed a painting on display in the living room. Now I am not an art critic, but I recognize a Picasso when I see him. So, I asked Harold about it. “It’s a Picasso, isn’t it?” “Yes,” he said and smiled mischievously. “And is that a portrait of you?” I asked. The person in the painting had a familiar tone, especially the style of the glasses. “Of course,” Harold smiled. “Pablo and I were friends. When I lived in Paris, I used to pass by him almost every morning when he took my dog for a walk and we would talk. One day he said to me: ‘I’m going to paint’ a picture ‘, and he gave it to me He did it for all his friends. ” Harold Robbins is the only person I ever knew who had a Picasso portrait of himself in his living room.
I met Harold around 7 or 8 years at that point in our lives. He had between 500 and a thousand books for my dad and I at that time. He signed so many that sometimes when I’m in thrift stores, I find myself checking Harold Robbins’ books on the shelves to see if it’s one that he signed for us. Many times I find that they are.
Once he died, I saw that a book was being sold with his name on it; a supposed lost manuscript of his. That could be it, I thought. Who knows how many started and unfinished stories a man like Harold might have left out in his life. After the sixth such novel came out, I re-imagined that this was just a way for Jan and the publisher to keep making money on their name. But who could blame them, Harold’s name would continue to sell books for a long time, and still would.