Revisiting Harold Robbins, the Forgotten "Dirty Old Man of American Letters"
Seventeen years after his death, THR flips back the pages on the world's most successful trashy book author — and one of the most debauched party-throwers Hollywood has ever seen: "He was Gatsby."
He lied about everything. His childhood, his military service, his wives, his mistresses, fortunes won and lost, a claim that he might have been the illegitimate son of the Czar Nicholas. And he was vulgar, both as man and later as writer, the boor who became the Rembrandt of the trashy novel. Toward the end of his life, Harold Robbins was asked by a radio host about the greatest compliment he had ever been paid. "'You're a great fuck,'" he replied. The host asked about the worst insult he'd ever endured. "'You're a lousy fuck,'" he replied.
Over the course of a half-century, Robbins became, in the words of British journalist Donald Zec, "the Onassis of supermarket literature," or, in the slightly more ennobled phrasing of The New Yorker, "the dirty old man of American letters." He owned a home in Beverly Hills, villas in the South of France and Mexico, a yacht on the Mediterranean — and ended up in a wheelchair, nearly penniless. He threw some of the most star-studded parties — and orgies — Hollywood had ever seen, their invites sought like a winning lottery ticket. He lived a life so big that two of his three wives wrote memoirs about what it was like to be along for the ride.
He crafted racy novels — sweeping literary cinemas bursting with beautiful, arrogant characters, rags-to-riches plots laced with betrayal, murder and passion — that readers gobbled up like printed popcorn, buying more than 750 million copies. "Mad Men is a very Harold Robbins kind of story," says his biographer, Andrew Wilson. "It's perhaps presented in a different way, but it's that milieu, that narrative arc of secrets, the corrupting nature of power and wealth, sex, all of the elements. One could argue that these kinds of series would not have been conceived without Harold Robbins' influence on popular culture."
And yet, 17 years after his death at age 81, Robbins has been largely forgotten. If he is remembered at all, it is a cautionary tale: the man who amassed a $50 million fortune and burned through it all in a haze of sex, drugs and louche living. "I don't want to finish up like Harold Robbins," Stephen King once said. "That's my nightmare."
It all began — actually, who can really say where it all began? So much of Harold Robbins' life was itself fiction, ingredients pulled from his imagination, plopped into a blender, then passed off as biography. He knew the power of a good story. His was that he was abandoned, placed on the steps of a Catholic orphanage in 1916, and adopted by a Jewish family named Rubin in Brooklyn. His childhood exploits included fetching cigars for Lucky Luciano, delivering beer to a whorehouse and cocaine to Cole Porter, and jerking off men in movie theaters for money. At 15 he ran away and joined the Navy, where his submarine was hit by a torpedo, he the lone survivor. Before he was 21, he'd made and lost $2 million in sugar futures. His first wife was a Chinese chorus girl at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe who'd died from a parrot bite.
None of it was true, except the Jewish Brooklyn family part (he was the product of his father's extramarital affair). "The thing about Harold was that he wasn't like anybody else," says his longtime publicist, Gene Schwam. "You never knew fact from fantasy with Harold, because some of the stories you didn't believe were [in fact] true, and some of the stories you did believe were true [in fact] weren't."
He ended up as an accountant at Universal Pictures, where he dodged World War II with a specious back injury, then climbed up to director of budget and planning while the GIs were away. His path to author seems more rooted in opportunism than calling; he once told actress Sylvia Miles that he started writing after reading the first 10 pages of Gone With the Wind and deciding he could do better. Using his signature two-finger typing method, he banged out a novel titled Never Love a Stranger, about a New York orphan conflicted by his Judaism and his youth in the mob. In other words, he turned his autobiography, already a work of fiction, into an actual work of fiction. Published by Knopf in 1948, it was an immediate smash.
Others followed. Robbins' grandiose soap operas — gritty, sex-injected sagas constructed from Proust blueprints — were built on a simple formula: strapping, brooding roués taking no prisoners as they conquered the worlds of Hollywood, high finance, fashion and organized crime, ultimately leading to either their redemption or demise. Their dangerous, carnal heroines were all variations of 79 Park Avenue's hooker with a heart of gold, Marja Flood: "Her high full breasts, tiny waist, slim yet generous hips seemed carved out of white marble."
"My only criticism of his books were that his women were either in the kitchen or the bedroom," Jackie Collins, who called Robbins a "huge inspiration" for her own career fictionalizing the badly behaved of Hollywood, told me before her death in 2015. "His sexual females were always so readily available for his males. And I think that had a lot to do with his persona, the fact that he was 'Harold Robbins, famous writer,' and that women are inclined to drop their panties for anyone who's rich and famous."
Robbins' early books — The Dream Merchants, A Stone for Danny Fisher — are effulgent, heart-rending chronicles that could claim a rightful place among any of the works of the literary lions of his day. Not that Robbins cared. "I'm a novelist, purely a novelist," he told Life magazine in 1968. "I tell stories and I want people to read them. Several of us were published right after the war — me, Mailer, James Jones, Irwin Shaw — but I'm the only one whose market has continually expanded. I think I know the reason, too. Jones and Shaw, people like them, lost touch. They jumped to Europe, they lost touch with America, they didn't grow as human beings or as writers."
Flashy and crass, with a nasal accent that screamed working-class Brooklyn and a sense of taste to match, he looked like a guy you'd see tearing up his betting slips at Belmont. Success changed the size of his bank account, but it didn't change him. He was still Harold: crude, loud, the deli-ordering mensch from Brooklyn. (He had lox and bagels flown in from New York to Beverly Hills regularly.) "He wore these bizarre kind of clothes and hats, and it was all very like he was a cross between Monte Carlo and bad Palm Beach," says actor George Hamilton, who became a lifelong friend.
"I remember the first meeting I had with him was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and he said he had a brown Rolls Royce and would park in front and meet me there," adds Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. "When I got out of my car, I see this brown Rolls and a guy leaning up against it. So I walked over to this schlump and said, 'Are you Harold Robbins' driver?' And he said, 'No. I'm Harold Robbins.'"
His goals were pure Tony Montana: As much sex as he could have, as much champagne as he could drink, as much cocaine as he could snort, and the money to pay for all of it.
"The first time I went to a party at his house, there was a huge silver bowl on the table, and there must have been 50 pounds of cocaine in it," says Flynt. "I had never seen that much cocaine in my life."
Robbins was hardly the first author to scandalize America. Several novels of the midcentury — Forever Amber, Peyton Place, Lolita — also triggered the country's moralists into finger-wagging overdrive, which only sent readers pouring into bookstores to see what all the fuss was about (and to dog-ear the dirtiest pages). While Robbins' epics often found themselves caught in the cultural crosshairs, they came with a marketing bonus: They were based on real people.
The roman à clef has long been a staple of commercial fiction, but Robbins proved master of the house, a tabloid Boswell. His novels exploited everything from the Lana Turner/Johnny Stompanato murder case (Where Love Has Gone) to Frank Sinatra's rough-hewn beginnings (A Stone for Danny Fisher). He fictionalized everyone: international playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (The Adventurers), pornographer Flynt (Dreams Die First — as a bisexual!), arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi (The Pirate), the Ford automobile family (The Betsy), and, most memorably, Howard Hughes, who became the ruthless cipher Jonas Cord in Robbins' biggest blockbuster The Carpetbaggers, a Homeric saga of aviation, the American West, and Hollywood. He was never at a loss for material. "Harold studied everybody," says Ginny Mancini, wife of the late composer Henry Mancini and a friend.
While the books were dismissed by the cultural literati as so much dime-store trash, the novels' mass popularity and Law & Order-ish, "ripped from the headlines" patina made them catnip for Hollywood producers. A steady stream of A-list talent signed on to star in film adaptations: Susan Hayward and Bette Davis headlined 1958's Where Love Has Gone, directed by Edward Dmytryk, who'd helmed The Caine Mutiny; Jack Jones crooned its title song, which was nominated for an Oscar. That same year King Creole, (loosely) based on A Stone for Danny Fisher, featured the unlikely pairing of Elvis Presley and Walter Matthau and was directed by Michael Curtiz, who had made Mildred Pierce and Casablanca. Despite flipping Robbins' searing portrait of the Depression-era Lower East Side into a quasi-musical staged largely in New Orleans nightclubs (the opening number is about … crawfish), the movie earned Presley the best notices of his film career ("As the lad himself might say, 'Cut my legs off and call me Shorty!' Elvis Presley can act," bellowed the New York Times in naked surprise). It even contained some Robbins-worthy dialogue, such as when Carolyn Jones, as the movie's spidery ingenue, purrs to Presley's Danny, "You're ignoring my God-given charms."
"God didn't give you the charms for what you're using them for," he retorts.
"That's funny," she says. "I read the instructions so carefully."
Steve McQueen starred in two Robbins adaptations, 1958's Never Love a Stranger (as a blond Jew, no less) and 1966's Nevada Smith (as a blond half-breed, no less). As late as 1978, Robbins' books were still big-screen draws: the cast of The Betsy included Laurence Olivier, Robert Duvall, Katharine Ross, and a young Tommy Lee Jones.
The films often contained more behind-the-scenes drama than their source material. On the set of 1964's The Carpetbaggers, Carroll Baker, a star after 1956's Baby Doll, found the treatment of co-star Alan Ladd, in his last film role, appalling. "They would write down when somebody missed a line or misread or couldn't remember," she recalls, "and Alan had a lot of trouble. He would get hysterical. So we would all step up and take responsibility and say, 'Sorry, that's on me,' except that little shit George Peppard. Of all the people I ever worked with, he was really a terrible person."
The set turned into its own Robbins novel. The married Peppard, in the starring role of Jonas Cord, began a very public affair with his married co-star Elizabeth Ashley, who fueled gossip by coyly replying, "Well, we're not just good friends" when asked by the press about the relationship. The spiciness was evident onscreen as well: there was an at-the-time scandalous nude scene by Baker, and risque dialogue such as when Peppard's Jonas asks Ashley's Monica what she hopes to see on their honeymoon. "Lots of lovely ceilings," she replies airily.
Robbins hated the film — "This movie is a piece of shit!" he whispered to his wife at the time, Grace Palermo, during a preview screening, causing her to throw a leg over his to keep him from walking out — furious that all of his carefully raked dirt had been vacuumed out. Reviews were mixed, but the film banked $36 million at the box office ($274 million today), and was the year's top-grossing film. Robbins climbed on board and threw a swanky premiere party at the Four Seasons, where at each table he planted a model wearing a fur coat and sparkling diamonds. "After the drinks were served, the girls started to strip," Baker recalls today, "until eventually they were naked." Each then proceeded to sit primly, in the nude, for the rest of the dinner.
Given their sheer breadth — The Carpetbaggers runs more than 1,300 pages — Robbins' books proved problematic to cram into a feature-length film. With a then-immense $16 million budget and location shoots in New York, Italy and South America, 1970's The Adventurers, a thinly veiled portrait of jet-setting race car driver Porfirio Rubirosa, was directed by Lewis Gilbert (coming off a Cannes jury prize for Alfie), who commissioned Robbins to write the screenplay. After getting a draft, Gilbert called the author to inform him the script was "too dirty, too violent and too long." Gilbert wrote one himself. It, too, turned out to be too dirty, too violent and too long.
Joseph Levine, who had made The Graduate and The Lion in Winter, was producer; the director of photography was Claude Renoir, the grandson of the painter Auguste Renoir; the cast a Pu Pu platter of global stars that included Candice Bergen, Rossano Brazzi, Ernest Borgnine, John Ireland, Olivia de Havilland (who did a sex scene), Charles Aznavour, and seemingly thousands of extras. Clocking in at a mind-numbing three hours, the film centers on a Latin playboy who returns to his South American homeland to free his people, stopping along the way to bed various women — Che Guevera as James Bond. It was full-on Robbins. The movie included a car race through the back streets of Rome; graphic nude scenes; half a dozen bloody battles, including two full-scale massacres; two gang rapes; a lesbian affair; gigolos having sex for cash; two government overthrows; a full-scale fireworks display; two fashion shows, including one done to a psychedelic theme; a train explosion; a hanging tramcar explosion; a plane crash; a society wedding; a miscarriage; two military parades; an opera performance; and, for good measure, a man sealed off alive in an S&M torture chamber. "It was all just very exciting. It was moviemaking at its grandest," says Jaclyn Smith, who at 24 played a comely magazine reporter in one of her first screen roles. For her, the experience — including fending off the advances of the film's star, an unknown and miscast Albanian adonis named Bekim Fehmiu — proved so overwhelming she passed out during the opera scene. "I mean, who does that?" she says. "I fainted right as Anna Moffo was singing! Slid down in somebody's lap."
For leading lady Leigh Taylor-Young (who also fended off Fehmiu), offscreen intrigue came in the form of a Playboy magazine photographer who slipped onto the set the day of her racy nude scene, snapped pictures, then published one of her naked in an article celebrating "the vixens of cinema." "It's a very Harold Robbins anecdote," she says wryly.
Paramount's Robert Evans hosted the premiere, on the first transatlantic 747 flight from Los Angeles to New York, packing it with actors, executives, and press. "The debut of the movie was on the plane," Taylor-Young says, "so there was really no place to run and hide." Which was too bad: the film was savaged by critics.
For his part, Robbins was too busy cashing the checks and buying houses, jewelry and cocaine to worry about movies. "It didn't matter," says Palermo, who divorced Robbins in 1992. "He just wanted to go on to his next book. If they were filming he rarely went. Sidney Sheldon was always visiting sets to see what they were doing to his books. Not Harold. He didn't care."
The movie industry was not Robbins' only suitor: In 1968, television had come courting — specifically ABC, which was running out of gas with its weekly series adaptation of Peyton Place and was looking to double down on a grand soap from the prince of paperback pulp. In a meeting with executives at Universal, Robbins looked out a window onto the East River and, on the spot, invented the story of a wealthy banking family mangled by greed, deceit and other assorted treachery extracted from the Robbins toolbox. Debuting in 1969, the resulting drama would be titled Harold Robbins' The Survivors — the most expensive television series ever produced up to that time.
In a promotional spot filmed at the Beverly Hills Hotel's poolside bungalows, Robbins, sitting with props of a silver coffee pot and bikini-clad models, wears a mauve shirt, a fluffy white sweater, an ascot, and an impossibly bored expression. In a flat affect he intones that "The Survivors are the kind of people who have always fascinated me and my readers: the power elite; the tough, amoral people who move and shape our world." In truth, he seems far more fascinated by the bikinis.
The cast was headlined by Hamilton, who — through cagey mentoring from Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' guru — got ABC to fork over an unprecedented $17,500 an episode to get him to play the role of Duncan Carlyle, the black-sheep son of patriarch Baylor Carlyle (Ralph Bellamy, huffing and puffing his way through the show like a bull facing the red cape). For Duncan's icy, stylish sister Tracy, the producers reeled in Lana Turner, in her first television role.
At Robbins' insistence, filming was begun near his home in the South of France. "Our lifestyle was beyond anything any human being could possibly imagine. They just told me to do whatever seemed normal, so I ordered a souffle and a bottle of champagne for breakfast," Hamilton says, laughing. "And then Harold would come over and say, 'Come to the casino with me.' It was like people had gotten crazy with a lot money. I kept saying, 'Where's the script?!'"
Unaccustomed to the quick pace of television filming, Turner made constant costume demands in order to delay production. One day she sent designer Nolan Miller stomping off in search of furs. "Well, that should give me time for two vodka tonics so I can learn these damned lines," she said.
"We usually had to wait anywhere from two to five hours for Lana Turner to come onto the set," says Diana Muldaur, who played Bellamy's secretary. "But when she did, she was perfect."
As taping quickly descended into chaos, Robbins played court jester, scooping up his fees and letting his personal Rome burn when fun and games beckoned, such as the day Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton pulled up in their yacht. Robbins "had no intention of writing anything, as far as I could tell," Hamilton says.
"Lana by then had everyone completely in shreds," he continues, recalling one day where a war erupted over wardrobe. In the ensuing melee, Turner slapped Bill Fry, the Universal executive in charge of production. Then he slapped her. "It had turned into the third world war," Hamilton says.
Astonishingly, the finished pilot of The Survivors is rather entertaining, even if it does come off as a sort of odd European pastiche, a kaleidoscope of beautiful people glaring, then pivoting to make dramatic exits amid swelling violins, horns and the occasional bossa nova. Toward the end, Bellamy's patriarch suffers a fatal heart attack, setting the stage for the battle over his estate that was to propel the rest of the series. Only it didn't. In the second episode, Baylor Carlyle walks into his office at the bank as if nothing's happened (his heart attack is never mentioned), which was a metaphor for the entire show: Every scene seemed to have nothing to do with anything that had come before it.
Hamilton hosted a premiere party for the cast and crew featuring Ralph Bellamy's chili, which he burned "but we all ate and told him how wonderful it was," Muldaur says. At that point a young, naïve theater actress, Muldaur never lost her sense of wonder during all the crazy. "When I arrived at George's house for the party, his mother greeted me at the door with a champagne glass, then promptly fell to the floor, and no one helped to pick her up," she says. "Everybody just watched and then went back to their conversations, as if she fell all the time. I don't think she spilled a drop of champagne! That was my first introduction to a real Hollywood party."
Viewers turned out to be as confused as everyone else, and ABC canceled the show after 16 episodes. Universal fired Turner but placed Hamilton in a new series, Paris 7000, another Europe-based adventure that also made no sense. Turner called Hamilton at three in the morning and hissed, "You son of a bitch."
"Lana, it's not that way!" Hamilton protested.
"You schemed to get this TV series for yourself!" she screamed.
Ignorant of all of the hullabaloo, Muldaur packed up, simply thankful for the experience. "I came out of the series probably better than anyone," she says. "I was the lone survivor of The Survivors."
Churning out one frothy best-seller after another, Robbins quickly acquired the trappings of fame. He ditched his first wife for the younger Palermo, a glamorous advertising casting director who had both the background and body of Mad Men's Joan Harris — though he insisted on an open marriage; no monogamy for him. (Junius Podrug, who later ghostwrote some of Robbins' last novels, remembers meeting Robbins and telling him with some pride that he had been with the same woman for more than 20 years. "Instead of a 'good boy' nod, Harold stared at me with a mixture of pity and puzzlement," Podrug recalls, "and said, 'Why?'") He played cards in Monte Carlo with Ari Onassis and Darryl Zanuck; collected artwork by Leger, Chagall and Picasso; bought a $4 million Beverly Hills mansion with its own guard out front; wore custom suits by Douglas Hayward; and even scored a private audience with Pope Paul VI. "I have read two of your books," the pontiff told Robbins. "And that's all I'll say about your writing." Leaving, Robbins turned to Palermo. "Which two of my books do you think he read?"
Once, when appearing on The Tonight Show, he slowly realized that host Johnny Carson had not read a word of his latest novel, The Inheritors. Slowly stewing through Carson's banter, Robbins at last stood up, gave the host a withering stare, and said, "Johnny, I'll tell you what. Read the book and I'll come back another time and we'll discuss it." He then stalked off the set. (Robbins later made amends by hosting Carson on his yacht in the South of France.)
But Robbins' true legacy among the cognoscenti came via his legendary soirees. Held in Beverly Hills, the South of France and Acapulco, the parties drew a veritable who's who of midcentury Hollywood. His New Year's Eve fetes in particular became must-attends. Over the years they drew Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Laurence Harvey (who actually got married during one), Diana Rigg, Michael Caine, Rita Hayworth, Tony Bennett, Bette Midler, Tony Curtis, Diana Ross, Ryan O'Neal, Bob Newhart and Shelley Winters (who once ended up in the pool, fully dressed). A then-unknown Barbra Streisand once showed up, as did Mia Farrow, who crashed after a particularly gruesome fight with Frank Sinatra. Comedian Marty Allen once arrived wearing nothing but a diaper.
Grace ended up in a lunch circle with wives like Shirlee Fonda, Altovise Davis, Betsy Bloomingdale, and Rosemarie Stack. Dancer Cyd Charisse became a trusted friend of the couple, as did actor Vince Edwards, then at the height of his stardom as television's Dr. Ben Casey. Robbins threw Edwards' engagement party at the Cocoanut Grove, flying in nude go-go girls from Vegas. "He was Gatsby," says Schwam.
To celebrate the publication of The Pirate in December 1974, Robbins — in a dark, slouchy leisure suit adorned with epaulets and a colorful shirt slashed open to the navel — took over a Burbank soundstage and welcomed more than 500 people for a soiree that drew Peter Finch, Irving Wallace, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sandra Dee, Ringo Starr and Jack Klugman. A slightly bewildered Walter Cronkite, in L.A. on vacation, remarked to the host, "Fabulous party. But isn't this what you do every night in Hollywood?"
With every party, Robbins kept upping the ante. The more stimulus he produced, the more he craved. "I never saw a really good orgy, but I went to several of his parties, because Harold just played it like he was king of the world," says Hamilton.
"I got to go to some of the orgies," adds Flynt, predictably one of the few who admits to attending one. "It was the stuff you read about, but never think you're going to get to experience."
Robbins' life slowly devolved into profligate spending and cocaine addiction neither his earnings nor his health could keep pace with. While never a critical darling ("It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory," sniffed the Times in 1961), by the '80s any pretense Robbins held of producing even passable literary fiction had gone the way of his money. His novels took on an assembly-line feel, paint-by-numbers filth that swapped in shock for titillation.
With each ensuing book the sex got more graphic, more brutal and certainly more plentiful, leaving little room for things like plot. In 1981's Goodbye, Janette, two generations of cold-blooded fashion mavens engage in every deviant sex act one can possibly imagine (and a few that should not have been imagined). "Unless you like your sex with whips … you'll want to say Goodbye, Janette without ever saying Hello," cautioned Kirkus Reviews.
Readers began drifting to authors like Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran and Jackie Collins, whose raunch was at least covered in Rodeo Drive wrapping paper. "The later books became so hard and cutthroat and nasty," says biographer Wilson, "that it became obvious that the only thing he was doing was writing them for money."
The magic was clearly gone, both in Robbins' writing and his marriage. After almost three decades of holding on during the roller-coaster ride, Palermo had had enough. She has lived quite a life — including affairs with Sammy Davis Jr. and Sean Connery, among others — but today voices some regret for making the Faustian bargain of an open marriage. "I would have been less naive," she says now, sitting reflectively in a restaurant in Palm Springs. "That was a mask, and it made everything OK. It was the only way I could do it. I feel if I had been more astute, or perhaps stronger at the time, it would have been different. But I didn't want it to be different. I wanted it all to continue like it was. It was a fairy tale. Every day was a day at the villa with our cook, or out on the yacht with our crew, and I felt like I really had the Cinderella life."
Trying to stay interested, Robbins formed an entertainment company with director Blake Edwards and music producer Quincy Jones. "For two and a half years they would periodically meet at the office and talk about things," Schwam says. "Blake would say, 'Harold, when are you going to write a book I can do a movie about?' And Harold would say, 'When are you going to direct a movie I can write a book about?' And Quincy would say, 'There's no movie for me to do the music for.' So for two years they all had a very good time together, and I did publicity for pictures that never happened, recordings that were never made, and books that were never written."
As book sales dried up and the IRS came hunting for back taxes, Robbins and Palermo were forced to liquidate almost everything just as a lifetime of drug abuse began to cause Robbins' health to fail. They moved to Palm Springs but their marriage was already essentially over. After their 1992 divorce, Palermo began spending more time in Los Angeles, pursuing a late-life career as a lounge singer and being profiled on a segment of Robin Leach's unctuous Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Sitting at lunch, I ask her how she would respond to people who would charge that once Harold got ill and the money disappeared, she cut bait. She looks at me thoughtfully. "I would say they were absolutely right," she says quietly.
Robbins remarried an aspiring writer named Jann Stapp, whom he'd initially hired as an assistant. Stapp recalls the job interview, which took place under the mirrored ceiling of his master suite as Robbins, wearing a white T-shirt, red jockey briefs and dark sunglasses, told her dirty jokes (one of his favorites was, "The three most boring things in life are home cooking, home fucking, and Dallas, Texas.") "I was sitting there thinking, 'Is he going to rape me or hire me?'" Stapp says.
Many of his final books were ghostwritten (a practice Stapp continued with Podrug after Harold's death, based on outlines he'd left behind). "They didn't have the essence of a Harold Robbins book," lamented Jackie Collins. "If you're not going to write your own books, then don't have someone else do it. That's not a good idea."
Except Robbins needed the money. Badly. "It was difficult to not have the money you used to have," Stapp says. "I mean, at one point we had 20 dollars."
At another point Robbins, by then on crutches, walked across the street to see his neighbor Bob Pollock, who had been one of the head writers of the ABC soap opera Dynasty. He told Pollock he had no money to pay for his prescriptions. Pollock lent him $5,000. "This was a man who had dealt in millions," Pollock, who died in 2016, once told me. "So what was 5,000 dollars to him? But he wasn't going to rest until he paid me back." Which he did, right before his death in 1997.
Stapp has made it her mission to keep her late husband's legacy alive, which included striking a deal with Forge Books to reissue some of his novels (and, not surprisingly, publish her own memoir). In the process she took out all of the dedications, almost all of them to Palermo, a symbol of the women's pursed-lips relationship. (Though Robbins left his meager estate to Stapp, some of the proceeds of his early works still go to Palermo.) When I ask Palermo about Stapp, she says, "I had the good times and she didn't." When I ask Stapp whether she has any relationship with Palermo, she responds, tartly, "No."
Upon his death, Robbins left a mountain of debt. His legacy was less firmly established. He is, perhaps, one of those authors whose work will be revived and celebrated, though it's unlikely he'd care. In an interview with The New Yorker's Ian Parker in 1996, he said that his hero had been John Steinbeck, and that they had actually met a few times. What did he think of your work? Parker asked. "He never talked about writing," Robbins said. So, what did they talk about?
"C**t," Robbins replied.