Jackie Collins epitomizes one of the 20th century’s favorite types of star: the celebrity novelist who gets rich and famous writing scandalous best-sellers about fictionalized scandalous celebrities. She rode in from England to Hollywood to take up her throne as the queen of the delectably trashy sex-and-shopping paperbacks, peaking in the Eighties, right around the time her real-life big sister Joan Collins starred in the prime-time soap Dynasty. Jackie turned herself into a wildly successful one-woman factory for fantasies with nuanced titles like The Bitch and The Stud. Yet she always lived up to her code: a glitzy setting, a glamorous heroine, and a sex scene every 40 pages means never having to say you’re sorry.
The new CNN documentary Lady Boss, which premiered last night, tells the tale of how Collins became a legend before her untimely death in 2015. She wrote 32 bestsellers, starting with her 1968 debut The World Is Full of Married Men. Her schtup-and-shop pageants were part of a long and noble literary heritage — before Collins, there was Jacqueline Susann, famed for Valley of the Dolls. It all goes back to Elinor Glyn with her 1907 novel Three Weeks and Kathleen Winsor with her 1944 book Forever Amber, if not Madame Bovary.
But Jackie Collins cranked up the dish. Her heroines are plucky gals from the wrong side of the tracks who climb the ladder to fame and fortune by learning to weaponize their libidos into a king-conquering force of nature. They mingle with aristocrats and tycoons, from the bedroom to the board room. They go into detail about their lavish wardrobes, expensive hair, erotic kinks. As you turn the pages, you can practically hear the shoulder pads rustle.
Other authors picked up the torch from Collins, like Judith Krantz (the G.O.A.T.) and Pat Booth. These two were the Chandler and Hammett of this purple-and-proud prose empire. But they learned the key trade secret from Jackie: take care of the ridiculous sex scenes, and the ridiculous sex scenes will take care of you, at least when it comes to parting readers from their $3.95 at the supermarket checkout line. Actual sentence from a Pat Booth sex scene: “He was the unforgiving marauder, pillaging her bowels with the cruel delight of his alien invasion.” Actual sentence from a Judith Krantz sex scene: “Deep within her something sounded, as if the string of a great cello had been plucked, a note of remote, mysterious, but unmistakable warning.”
Still, Collins was more shameless than her American cousins. Actual sentence from a Collins novel: “Belle Sventlana surveyed her nude image in a full-length mirror, readying herself for a thirty-thousand-dollar-an-hour sexual encounter with the fifteen-year-old son of an Arab oil tycoon.” That’s an opening sentence, by the way, from her 2009 hit Poor Little Bitch Girl. As you can see, Collins liked to get to the point and was always on the nose, even if her characters’ noses get less of a workout than the rest of their anatomies. She took pride in pillaging the bowels of her readers.
Lady Boss makes the case for Collins as a serious artist, scripting feminist fantasies for her readers in a transitional era. She was reacting against the tyrannical men in her life — her bullying father, her unstable pill-popping first husband. Her stories focused on the theme of revenge, striking back at men who’ve done her heroines wrong. Her oppressed readers responded to her blunt, unsentimental depiction of la vie horizontale. As Lady Boss director Laura Fairrie told Variety, “She was my sex education as a teenager. Her books were passed around in school, and we’d read them sort of hidden in our lessons.”
A shy and mousy child, Collins got her mind blown at 16 when she joined Joan in Hollywood. Joan became a 1950s starlet by flaunting a flamboyant sexuality that was years ahead of her time. (In Hollywood, she was affectionately known as “the British Open.”) Joan kissed and told with no shame, starring beside Bette Davis in The Virgin Queen (definitely not in the title role), as a lusty lady-in-waiting at Queen Elizabeth I’s court. She was a sensual Egyptian princess in Land of the Pharaohs, a sensual Hebrew in Esther and the King, a sensual nun in The Sea Wife. She’s the sensual social worker who tempts Captain Kirk to violate the Prime Directive in one of the most iconic Star Trek episodes; she played the villainess “the Siren” in the Batman TV show. While Joan was living the dream, dating her pick of the red-carpet elite, Jackie was watching and taking notes.
But after her career waned, Joan launched a surprise late-Seventies comeback by starring in movie versions of Jackie’s books. She even wrote her own nonfiction version of a Jackie novel, with her excellent memoir Past Imperfect, which reveals way more than you ever wanted to know about Old Hollywood perviness.
You could say the sisters were a trifle competitive — they were practically the Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine of Eighties glitz-trash culture. Lady Boss has a touching scene where Jackie visits Joan at the end of her life, to say one last farewell. (Even then, you’re wondering if Joan is going to say something catty about what Jackie’s wearing.) The doc focuses on the human side of Collins’ life, based on her diaries and home movies. But what makes it compelling is the fact that this was a private woman determined to live in public, becoming a unique type of celebrity at the exact right moment in history. As Lady Boss argues, we won’t see Jackie Collins’ like again. Now let’s just pray for a docuseries about Judith Krantz.