He was a foul old man when I met him and I think he had been that way for a long time. But he was also kind to me in ways that helped me formalize a period in my life that led me to own and build Celebrity Books. Harold Robbins was my first big celebrity to have 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 had New York Times home delivery in the ’80s and ’90s, and like most big name people in the desert, Harold had a subscription. But he was known for not paying his bill. So once, around 1991, when my dad and I were just starting our book association together, my dad said to Harold, “Why don’t you autograph a bunch of books for us and we’ll hand call it?”
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 me to sign. In those days, you could find used hardcover copies of Harold’s books all over town. We must have gotten about 50 of them together and once they were ready, my dad called Harold back for the appointment and it was agreed that, ‘We’d send the kid out with the books.’ I was ‘the kid’, even though he was in his 30s at the time.
I went to his house, which was a nice mid-century modern house on an ordinary street in the fashionable Las Palmas neighborhood of old Palm Springs. It was one of those houses with everything painted white on the outside, not grandiose but immaculately clean and elegant. There wasn’t even a tall gate or big bushy fence like many properties in that area. I simply slung my banana box full of books over my shoulder and walked down the aisle to ring the bell.
His wife Jan answered the door. She was a lady twenty years his junior, and she came to know about it during my visits, not his first wife. I’m not sure how many wives he’d had in his life, but it seemed to be more than two. He ushered me into his living room, the white theme brought from the outside in. The walls were white, the tiles were white, and the carpet and rugs were white. The house had one wall made of large glass windows that stretched across the entire back. I stayed standing letting my eyes take in everything at once. The house was filled with expensive-looking pictures, books, and knick-knacks on every shelf. The backyard was beautifully landscaped and an inviting pool that I noticed had a long ramp leading into it. I heard a man call me from the side. He said something out loud in a booming voice, like, “Hello boy, the wandering bookseller’s son is back.”
Obviously, my dad and Harold had talked about how I had recently returned to the desert from the beach. I turned to the man who had spoken and found him sitting in a wheelchair, very stooped and overweight, with a wide smile and a large crystal glass in his hand filled with what I took for alcohol, since he was located in the bar area reminiscent of a glass menagerie: fancy-cut stemware and sharp-angled decanters filled with colorful liquids arranged on glass shelves set against mirrored walls. He rolled over to greet me and we shook hands. He asked about me and I told him.
He then regaled me with stories of his own making. His first book had been written about a bet. He was a young writer in Hollywood at the time, working for one of the studios, when he and a fellow writer argued about how difficult it was to write a best-selling book. The other man had challenged him and he had accepted. As Harold told it, he immediately quit his job and began working on his novel: Never Love a Stranger (1948).
After that book, everything he wrote became bestsellers: The Dream Merchants, A Stone for Danny Fisher, which was made into a movie starring Elvis Presley and 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 his books were as obscene as his mouth and his daring for the profane helped make him famous and etched him forever in my mind.
On one of the trips to visit him, because he was behind on his newspaper account again, he told me a story about him and Sidney Sheldon. This story occurred in the 1960s, he said. He and Sidney had already been friends for a long time and both had already made a lot of money from their writing. Sydney also owns a house in Palm Springs; two houses actually. Well, in this tale, they were on the French Riviera on a yacht that Harold had purchased. The difficulty was that Sidney had brought his wife, a very honorable lady, and Harold had two young women for them to enjoy. As Sidney and his wife approached the yacht, Harold leaned over the rail with both women under each arm, grabbed a breast from each girl, and said something to the effect of, “Hey, Sid, you didn’t have to bring yours, we’ve got plenty for you.” everyone”. Sidney and his wife never spoke to Harold again.
Harold happened to have Piranha, his first book in a long time, coming out 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 not fancy at all. They were 1,000 m2. foot of rough rugs and shelves of handmade planks, most of which were not even stained and varnished. Our bookstore consisted mostly of used books and we didn’t have a history of book signings to gauge whether or not it would be a success. Harold Robbins was going to be our test case, our first author event. When he arrived we put him squarely in the middle of the store, right at the front so anyone passing by could see him and we set up a snack table on a large folding table with a white tablecloth. He arrived in a limousine and Jan took him to his position. We sold a good number of books. I mean 50 or 60 and I asked him to sign the hundred we had left over, which he did.
The funny thing is, on my next visit to see Harold, he confided in me that signing for us had been a test case for him too. It had been so long since he’d done anything like that that he’d been a little afraid that no one would show up or that he’d be too weak to show 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. He was going to be at the Barnes & Noble flagship in New York.
I know I’ve mentioned Harold’s failure to pay his New York Times bills in this article several times. Let me be clear: he did not do this due to lack of funds. Harold was fine. His house was immaculate. His clothes were always fine. And his wife seemed to need nothing. In fact, on one of the first visits to the house of this giant of literature, I noticed a painting on display in the living room. Now I’m not an art critic, but I know a Picasso when I see one. So, I asked Harold about it. “That’s a Picasso, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes,” he said and smiled mischievously. “And that’s a portrait of you?” I asked. The person in the painting had a familiar look, especially the style of the glasses. “Of course,” Harold smiled. “Pablo and I were friends. When I lived in Paris I used to spend almost every morning with him when he took my dog for a walk and we talked. One day he told me: ‘I’m going to paint’. a photo’, and he gave it to me. He did it for all his friends.” Harold Robbins is the only person I’ve ever met who had a Picasso portrait of himself in his living room.
I knew Harold about 7 or 8 years ago at that point in our lives. He had anywhere from 500 to a thousand books for my dad and me at the time. He signed so many that sometimes when I’m in thrift stores, I find myself checking the Harold Robbins books on the shelves to see if he’s one of the ones he signed for us. Many times I find that they are.
After he died, I saw that they were selling a book with his name written on it; an alleged lost manuscript of his. That could be it, I thought. Who knows how many stories started and unfinished a man like Harold could have left behind in his life. After about the sixth such novel came out, I realized that this was just a way for Jan and the publisher to keep making money off his name. But who could blame them, the Harold name would continue to sell books for a long time to come, and still would.