Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sidney Sheldon; Harold Robbins

The news is filled with the details of Sidney Sheldon's life and death. I was only able to finish one of his books, a passing fair suspense novel THE NAKED FACE that won the Edgar in its year. He was a cartoonist rather than a novelist, his characters so much larger than life that they rarely did anything true to human behavior as we know it. Super soap opera, to be fair to him. I just don't happen to have a taste for it is all.

While his books didn't interest me, his career did. Yes, he had career stalls in his sixty year run but when you consider that he had two Broadway shows running simeltaneously in his early Twenties and international bestseller well into his eighth decade, his achievements were notable. He also wrote several very good old-school movie comedies.

It helped that he was respectable. He was grandfatherly on TV, you could safely give his books to just about anybody, and his Hollywood novels contained the kind of legend and lore that we never seem to tire of.

I've contrasted his press today with that that Harold Robbins got when he passed.

There was a time when Robbins was at least marginally respectable. Back in the late Forties and up to 1958, Robbins managed to not only to entertain but to elevate the form of popular fiction. I agree with Mario Puzo who once claimed that A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER is a serious novel about America in the Thirties and Forties. I think even the fanatically maligned THE CARPETBAGGERS was, if not a serious novel, a damned good trashy one that was besotted with the Hollywood of our fantasies. There's some very nice stuff in that book.

I've never been able to find a believable explanation--or at least a consistently believable one--for why he then turned his books into rather silly soft core porn machines. The easy answer, and maybe the true one, is that he caught the wave of the counter culture, the whole swinging Sixties thing a few years before it became a part of our entire country. He wanted to sell more and more books. And he certainly succeeded.

During the Sixties and Seventies there were many press stories about his yachts, his women, his drugs, his sleazy contacts with international crime barons, etc. etc. In the later Seventies there were even rumors that he was so addled with his hedonistic life that his books were being ghosted. I remember opening one up at a newstand one day--this was about a preacher I think--and being struck by how unlike Robbins the writing was. Even at his worst he was never this awkward.

He was a real writer in the beginning. As I say, I don't know why he decided that being a gazillionaire was more rewarding than turning out a good book. He had to have had plenty of money by the time he turned to porn.

Esquire did a long piece on him shortly before he died. He was rich but in sad shape, boastful in spots but well aware that his time as a literary star had passed. I wish somebody would write a serious biography of his life. It would be a damned interesting book.

5 comments:

Bill Crider said...

When King Creole hit the theaters, I was there. Even then I was reading the credits, and when I saw that the movie was based on a novel called A Stone for Danny Fisher I knew I'd be headed for the public library right after the movie was over. I checked out the book and read it, learning then, if I hadn't known already, how different a novel can be from the movie. I read several of Robbins' novels after that, including The Carpetbaggers, which is my favorite of the ones I read. The Nevada Smith stuff is sort of a novel-within-a-novel and worth the price of admission. I quit reading Robbins right around that time, but I picked up another of his book 20 years or so later and couldn't get past the first few pages.

Anonymous said...

I just read a biography of Zane Grey, who put one or two books on the best-seller lists year after year, and earned a fortune from serializations, publication of his books, and films. Like Harold Robbins, his work deteriorated in the end, and Harpers slowly published the much-edited novels after Grey's death. He was a trophy hunter, always looking for the record fish, the largest yacht, the most gorgeous girls. He had a slew of them and he took them with him fishing and hunting and roaming the South Seas. His wife, Dolly, endured a lot of abuse and brilliantly managed his funds.

Richard Wheeler

James Reasoner said...

I like A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER, but THE DREAM MERCHANTS, about the early days of the movie industry, is my favorite Harold Robbins novel. I quit reading him sometime in the mid-Seventies.

I've enjoyed all of the Sidney Sheldon novels I've read. Not much in the way of style, but boy, they move right along.

James Reasoner said...

I like A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER, but THE DREAM MERCHANTS, about the early days of the movie industry, is my favorite Harold Robbins novel. I quit reading him sometime in the mid-Seventies.

I've enjoyed all of the Sidney Sheldon novels I've read. Not much in the way of style, but boy, they move right along.

James Reasoner said...

I like A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER, but THE DREAM MERCHANTS, about the early days of the movie industry, is my favorite Harold Robbins novel. I quit reading him sometime in the mid-Seventies.

I've enjoyed all of the Sidney Sheldon novels I've read. Not much in the way of style, but boy, they move right along.