CNN Memorializes America's Trashiest Romance Writer

Jackie Collins was a pop culture force to be reckoned with in the 1980s.


Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story. CNN. Sunday, June 27, 9 p.m.

Any worry I had that CNN's new documentary Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story would canonize its subject was quickly dispelled—well, obliterated—when her literary agent Morton Janklow came on screen in the first minutes to evaluate the literary merits of his client, who died in 2015. "There are people who are wonderful writers," Janklow declared. "By that, I mean people who use the language beautifully and elegantly. Which is almost the direct opposite of Jackie."

That's not the only gut-punch delivered to the work of Collins, who wrote 32 novels and sold something on the order of 500 million copies worldwide, if her publicists and accountants can be believed, which they probably can't. The otherwise affectionate Lady Boss positively revels on the critical carnage inflicted over the years on Collins' sex-violence-and-more-sex oeuvre.

Headline on a newspaper review of one of Collins' novels: "Ugh! I've never read a nastier novel!" Text from another: "Everyone is talking about, preparing for or engaged in sex virtually all the time. The effect is woefully detumescent."

Then there are clips from British television talk shows on which Collins appeared, where the audiences are rather more hardball than ours. "The first chapter is disgusting! Really disgusting!" shouts a woman sitting in the studio no more than a couple of feet from Collins. Another flatly dismisses Collins' claims that her books are feminist fables in which female protagonists prove they can murder and fornicate just as skillfully—and profligately—as men: "I think it's utter bilge, I mean this whole idea about having positive role models for women is total crap." Even romance novelist Barbara Cartland, whose literary corpus includes such opuses as Love Strikes Satan and Punishment of a Vixen, stares straight at Collins and labels her books "evil."

But it's not like Lady Boss isn't fair. It does have some interviews with people who liked Collins' writing. "She wrote great sex in great books," insists one of her daughters. Another recalls schoolmates telling her gratefully that her mom taught them everything they knew about sex. And I have to admit, I probably would have gotten a lot luckier in high school if I'd known what girls really want: "Salty flesh crushed against salty flesh. … She wrapped her long legs tightly around his waist … then she was lost in sensation, floating in paradise taken over by a throbbing release that sent her into spasms of delight." And so forth.

If you're getting the idea that I think Lady Boss is 1) a lot of fun and 2) not to be taken too seriously, you're right. Like Collins' novels, it's best read—err, watched—at the beach, Tom Collins firmly in hand. The younger sister of London-born actress Joan Collins, Jackie was barely a teenager when she came to Hollywood to visit in the early 1950s and promptly turned herself into the Samuel Pepys of Tinseltown sleaze, assembling mammoth scrapbooks and diaries of trollopy gossip from the parties she attended.

"Went to a party at Diana Dors'. Got very loaded!" exclaims one entry. "Marilyn Monroe—her walk could make a revolving door look stationary!" notes another. The commentary is enlivened by Collins sisters' home movies of the starstruck era. Watch in fascination as somebody like Marlon Brando scuffles unnoticed into a backyard pool party; then titillate yourself by wondering if this is the same party at which, a diary notes, the 30-ish Brando spotted the 15-ish Jackie across a room and sent word by a flunkie that he'd like to invite her to an afternoon-long boinkfest in an upstairs bedroom.

Jackie would eventually adapt her diaries to into the endless series of roman a clef, almost-porn novels that made her a jillionaire and saved her sister's movie career. It's hard to believe if you only know Joan from her cougar-of-the-century roles following her comeback in the lush and lascivious 1980s nighttime soap Dynasty, but she was once an immensely talented and versatile actress. (Watch the 1957 Steinback adaptation The Wayward Bus if you don't believe me.) But by the mid-1970s, her career had gone to the, well, bugs—until she starred in The Stud, an adaptation of one of Jackie's novels that really ought to have been filmed in Slut-o-Rama.

Though Lady Boss trafficks gleefully in lurid gossip—when one of Jackie's pals declares on-camera that "I came from the fashion world, so I accustomed to bitches," there were so many candidates for the designation that I couldn't even guess who she was talking about—both the Collins sisters emerge as rather amiable and easy-going. Though Joan does mention her suspicion that Jackie (who died of cancer in 2015) has been reincarnated as a fruit fly. I dunno. There's been a lot written about the copulating habits of fruit flies, but none of it contains a word about salty flesh crushed against salty flesh.