He was a foul mouthed old man when I met and I think he had been that way for a long time. But he also was kind to me in ways that helped formalize a period of my life that led into owning and building Celebrity Books. Harold Robbins was my first big celebrity to do a book signing at my store and the first author who let get a large amount of books autographed, over and over.
See, it wasn’t always generosity that drove Harold to sign books for us. It was more that he was perpetually overdue on his New York Times bill. My Dad had the home delivery of the New York Times in the 1980’s and 1990’s and like most people of renown in the desert, Harold had a subscription. But he was notorious for not paying his bill. So one time, in about 1991 when my Dad and I were just starting our book partnership together, my Dad said to Harold, “Why don’t you just autograph a bunch of books for us and we’ll call it even?”
Harold jumped at the idea. My Dad and I spent the next month or so scouring used book stores and thrift stores looking for copies of his books for him to sign. In those days, you could find used hardback copies of Harold’s books all over town. We must’ve gathered about 50 of them and once ready my Dad called Harold back for the appointment and it was agreed that, ‘We’d send the kid over with the books.’ I was ‘the kid,’ even though I was about 30 at the time.
I went to his house, which was a nice mid-century modern home on a regular street in the fancy Las Palmas neighborhood of old Palm Springs. It was one of those everything is painted white on the outside homes with little grandeur but impeccably clean and elegant. There wasn’t even a high gate or big bushy fence as so many estates in that area were like. I simply slung my banana box full of books onto my shoulder and strode up the walkway to ring the doorbell.
His wife Jan answered the door. She was a lady twenty years his younger and come to find out over my visits, not his first wife. I’m not sure how many wives he’d had over his life, but it seemed to be more than two. She walked me into their living room, the white theme carried from outside to the interior. The walls were white, the tile was white, and the carpet and rugs were white. The home had a wall made of large paned glass windows that stretched across its entire backside. I stood letting my eyes take in everything at once. The home was filled with paintings and books and expensive looking knick knacks on every shelf. The back yard was beautifully landscaped and it an inviting pool which I noticed had a long ramp extending into it. I heard a man call to me from off to the side. He said something loud in a booming voice, like, “Hello boy, the son of the vagabond book dealer returns.”
Obviously, my dad and Harold had talked about me having recently moved back to the desert from the beach. I turned to the man who’d spoken and found him sitting in a wheel chair, very stooped of back and overweight, with a big grinning smile and a large crystal glass in his hand filled with what I took to be alcohol, as he was located in bar area reminiscent of a glass menagerie: extravagantly cut glasses and sharp 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 me about myself and I told him.
Then he regaled me with stories of his own making. His first book had been written on a bet. He’d been a young writer in Hollywood at the time, working for one of the studios, when he and a fellow writer had gotten into an argument over how difficult it was to write a bestselling book. The other man had challenged him and he’d accepted. The way Harold told it, he’d immediately quit his job and started to work on his novel: Never Love a Stranger (1948).
After that book, everything he wrote became a best seller: The Dream Merchants, A Stone for Danny fisher – which became a movie starring Elvis Presley renamed King Creole – and a few books later his most famous novel The carpetbaggers, which was loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes. All of his books were as raunchy as his mouth and his daringness for the profane helped make him famous and etched him permanently in my mind.
On one of the trips to visit him, because he’d fallen behind again in his newspaper bill, he told me a story about himself and Sidney Sheldon. This story occurred in the 1960’s, he said. He and Sidney had already been friends for a long time and both had made a lot of money already with their writing. Sidney owns a home in Palm Springs also; two homes actually. Well, in this tale, they were meeting in the French Riviera on some yacht that Harold had acquired. The difficulty was that Sidney had brought along his wife, a very upstanding lady, and Harold had two young women for them both to enjoy. As Sidney and his wife came walking up to the yacht, Harold leaned over the railing with both the women under each arm and grabbed a breast of each gal and said something like, “Hey Sid, you didn’t have to bring your own, we’ve plenty here to go around.” Sidney and his wife never spoke to Harold again.
It came to pass that Harold had 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 book store at the time was nothing fancy. It was 1,000 sq. ft. of rough carpets and hand-made plank shelving – most of which wasn’t even stained and varnished. Our bookstore was primarily used books and we had no history of book signings to gauge whether or not it would be a success. Harold Robbins was to be our test case, our first author event. When he arrived we put him square in the middle of the store, right in front so anyone who came by could see him and we had an appetizer table on a large folding table with a white table cloth. He came in a limo and was Jan wheeled him to his perch. We sold a fair number of books. I want to say 50 or 60 and asked him to sign the hundred or so we had left over, which he did.
Funny thing, 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 anything like that he’d been a little afraid no one would show up or that he’d be too weak to make a show of it. As it was, he’d considered the book signing a success for him as well as us. A few weeks later, I read in the New York Times that Harold Robbins was having his first book signing in almost twenty years. It was to be at the flagship Barnes & Noble in New York.
I know I’ve mentioned about Harold’s lack of paying his New York Times bills in this article several times. Let me be clear: He did not do this for lack of finances. Harold was very well off. His home was impeccable. His clothing was always fine. And his wife appeared to want for naught. As a matter of fact, on one of the early visits to this giant of literature’s home I noticed a painting on display in the living room. Now I’m no art critic, but I know a Picasso when I see it. So, I asked Harold about it. “That’s a Picasso isn’t it,” I asked. “Yes,” he said and grinned slyly. “And is that a portrait of you?” I asked. The person in the painting had a familiar cast to it, especially the style of the glasses. “Of, course,” Harold beamed. “Pablo and I were friends. When I lived in Paris I used to pass by him most every morning when I would take my dog for a walk, and we would talk. One day he said, ‘I’m going to paint you a picture,’ and he gave me that. He did it for all his friends.” Harold Robbins is the only person I ever met who had a portrait of himself by Picasso in his living room.
I knew Harold about 7 or 8 years at that point in our lives. He somewhere between 500 and a thousand books for my Dad and I in that time. He signed so many that sometimes when I am at thrift stores I find myself checking the Harold Robbins books on the shelves to see if they are one that he signed for us. Many times I find they are.
Once he died, I saw that a book was being sold with his name penned on it; a supposed lost manuscript of his. That could be, I figured. Who knows how many started and unfinished stories a man like Harold could have set aside in his lifetime. After about the sixth such novel came out I refigured that this was just a way for Jan and the Publisher to continue to make money off his name. But who could blame them, Harold’s name would continue to sell books for a long time to come, and still would.