It was a battle fought with dignity and bravery – and alone. Bestselling author Jackie Collins had breast cancer for six years, but told hardly anyone she was sick. Even her actress sister Joan, to whom she was close, didn’t know Jackie was terminally ill until two weeks before her death.
In her last ever interview – when she spoke for the first time about having cancer – Jackie (77) explained why she had chosen not to tell the Dynasty star.
“I just felt she didn’t need it in her life,” Jackie told People magazine. “She’s very positive and very social but I’m not sure how strong she is, so I didn’t want to burden her with it.”
Jackie, who was British but lived in Los Angeles for much of her life, said when she did break the news during a trip to the UK, Joan (82) “had no idea. But she was great. We were emotional”.
When Jackie died, Joan said she was completely devastated at the loss of her “best friend”.
“I admire how she handled this. She was a wonderful, brave and beautiful person, and I love her.”
In Jackie’s final interview, given just five days before she died, the so-called “queen of the bonkbusters” said she had told her daughters – Tracy (54), Tiffany (48) and Rory (46) – about her illness.
“I want them to feel, whatever happens, I’ll always be there,” she said.
“Looking back, I’m not sorry about anything I did. I did it my way, as Frank Sinatra would say. I’ve written five books since the diagnosis, I’ve lived my life, I’ve travelled all over the world, I have not turned down book tours and no-one has known until now, when I feel as though I should come out with it.”
Diagnosed with stage four breast cancer six years ago, Jackie underwent a lumpectomy, radiation and various drug treatments. Nine days before she died, while in the UK promoting her latest book, The Santangelos, she appeared on a TV chat show looking thin and drawn, but was as vivacious as ever. She even joked about doing research for the sex scenes in her racy books. She then flew back to the US, where she did the People interview at her Beverly Hills home, and died five days later.
Up until the day before she died, she was chatting to fans on Facebook and posting nostalgic photos of herself on Twitter, perhaps aware that the end was near. Jackie was best known for writing 32 bestselling books that have sold more than 500 million copies, but she started out as an actress, like her sister. Their father, Joseph Collins, was a well-known London theatrical agent and both girls seemed destined for a career on stage or in front of a camera.
But while Joan was in her element in the spotlight, Jackie was less than enthused. A wild teenager who used to sneak out of home to go to nightclubs, she was expelled from school for writing dirty limericks and selling them to her classmates, so her parents sent her to Hollywood to live with her big sister, an up-and-coming starlet. While she was half-heartedly trying her hand at acting, her curvaceous figure drew the attention of some of the biggest names in the movie industry.
She had a passionate fling with Marlon Brando when she was just 15 and he was in his early thirties. “He sent someone over to me at a party to say, ‘Marlon thinks you’re great-looking and have
a great body and would like to meet you,’” she revealed many years later in an interview. “We had a very brief but fabulous affair – he was at the height of his fame and glamour, the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.”
She was also pursued by Errol Flynn, who once chased her around a table at the famous Chateau Marmont Hotel in LA, and had to fend off the advances of Sammy Davis Jr. Her first marriage at the age of 23 to businessman Wallace Austin produced her eldest daughter but ended in divorce thanks to his addiction to drugs. He eventually overdosed.
Husband number two, American Oscar Lerman, was an art dealer and nightclub owner who encouraged Jackie to finish one of the many novels she had started writing. The World is Full of Married Men was published in 1968 and promptly banned in South Africa and Australia because of its graphic sexual content.
Romantic novelist Barbara Cartland denounced it as “nasty, filthy and disgusting”, and told Jackie she was “responsible for all the perverts in England”. Jackie replied, most sincerely, “Oh, thank you.”
That book kickstarted a hugely successful career. After the births of Tiffany and Rory, Jackie divided her time between being a mum, scribbling down stories by hand, and then spending hours every night in her husband’s nightclubs, stone-cold sober and observing the goings-on of the rich and famous. “I have to keep nipping to the loo to take notes,” she once said. She’d go to bed at 3am and be up again at 8am to get the girls to school.
“Although we had a nightclub life, I made sure I was the one who got the girls to bed or cooked their dinner, took them to school. There were years and years when I got no sleep whatsoever, when I got four or five hours a night.”
Once the girls were grown up, she still worked to a relentless schedule, starting her writing day at 5am. And she still wrote everything out by hand, usually with a black felt tip pen. Many of her characters were based on real people, and outrageous incidents from some of her books were in fact true, although “synthesised” for publication. “If anything, my characters are toned down.
The truth is much more bizarre.”
She would never lift just one particular person and drop them, unchanged, into her books. “If I was going to write about Charlie Sheen, it wouldn’t just be Charlie, it’d be a bit of Charlie, a bit of Robert Downey Jr, a bit of David Duchovny, all mixed up. And then you have an interesting character.”
She revealed the promiscuous eponymous lead in her book The Stud (later turned into a film starring her sister Joan) was loosely inspired by both Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger.
When her books went on sale, especially those set in Hollywood, people in the industry would try to work out who the characters were based on. When her most popular book, Hollywood Wives, came out in 1983, it was apparently a huge hit with valets, maids and chauffeurs in Beverly Hills, eager to see their employers in print.
As well as raunchy sex, Jackie’s books were known for strong female characters. “My heroines kick ass,” she once said. “They don’t get their asses kicked.” She could be as tough and courageous as some of her characters. Once held up in Beverly Hills by a man wielding an Uzi machine gun, she kept her head and reversed her car out of trouble, fast.
She needed to be strong in 1992 when her husband Oscar died of prostate cancer. The pair had been married for 26 years and she was devastated by his loss. Then she met businessman Frank Calcagnini, who swept her off her feet, and they got engaged. Tragically, in 1998, Frank was also stricken by cancer – this time a brain tumour. He was dead within three months of his diagnosis.
“Work was my salvation,” Jackie said. “But it was difficult for almost a year to even talk about him. It was too upsetting. After that, I just settled into the fact he’s gone and that’s that.”
Her work also provided an extremely good income. She had the glamorous home, the expensive cars and lots of bling. She was listed as the UK’s fifth richest author in 2011, with an estimated personal fortune of $152 million, although she later refuted that, saying that taxes and expenses like a manager, assistant and PR person hadn’t been taken into account. “I probably made a lot of money, but I haven’t got a lot of money – I mean, I’m very comfortable.”
She was a part of Hollywood’s inner circle, becoming pals with many A-list stars, including Sir Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Roger Moore.
When her death was announced, tributes poured in from her famous friends, including Oprah Winfrey, Kris Jenner and Sharon Osbourne.
Sandra Bullock was a huge fan – one of her earliest roles was in Lucky Chances, a TV adaptation of two of Jackie’s books. “That smart, talented and gorgeous woman paved the road for so many of us so that we could experience a much smoother journey… with or without heels,” Sandra said.
Chat-show host Graham Norton described her as “the definition of a class act” and fellow novelist Jilly Cooper said Jackie’s decision not to tell people about her illness was “a mark of her splendour”.
But one of the most touching tributes came from her sister Joan, who wrote, “Farewell to my beautiful, brave baby sister. I will love you and miss you forever.”