I’ve spent much of my life in libraries. From 14-18, the most stimulating novelist I read was Harold Robbins. I finished about 20 of his books. I loved them but felt guilty afterwards.
They were great whack material, particularly The Betsy.
But once “The Carpetbaggers,” reputedly “the fourth-most-read book in history,” transforms Robbins into, well, “Harold Robbins,” his story grows tiresome, despite Wilson’s stabs at tarting up the author’s later career with such reflections (there’s no evidence his subject shared them) as “by catering to the lowest common denominator, Robbins sacrificed his integrity.” Say what? He’d found his gimmick: exploitation, with garish facsimiles of Lana Turner (“Where Love Has Gone”), the South American playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (“The Adventurers”) and the Ford automobile dynasty (“The Betsy”), among others, paraded en déshabillé for our enjoyment. Besides churning out novel-like objects with the monotonous implacability of a batting-practice machine, Robbins never stopped trying to brand himself in other ways. These efforts included “The Survivors,” a notoriously wretched TV series he spitballed to ABC one day and had forgotten about by the time it was green-lighted.
Wilson quotes several of Robbins’s intimates as saying he behaved just like a character in his novels, and the insult, not that they mean it as one, rings drearily true. Making big bucks let him live out his grossest fantasies, like owning a yacht and having orgies. But his excesses are unlikely to fascinate any reader who isn’t a) 15 or b) Donald Trump, the first tycoon who seems to aspire to being a Robbins hero. The detail that may best evoke the milieu Robbins lived in is the “set of 14-karat-gold fingernails” he bought his second wife; according to presumably awed friends, “the effect of the sun reflecting off them was enough to nearly blind you.” There’s also something disconcerting about a biography in which George Hamilton, who starred in “The Survivors,” figures as a voice of reason: “I thought reading his books was as good as it got and getting to know him would not improve on that in any way.” Even the gentlemanly Korda’s verdict is blunt: “He was as disagreeable and odious in the days of his success as the days of his failure.”