Less than two weeks ago, as she contemplated her looming 78th birthday, Jackie Collins was in a firmly optimistic mood. “I couldn’t care less about my age,” she said. “I’m still here, I love what I do, and I have a passion for it … it’s better than the alternative.”
They did not seem like the words of a woman facing a terminal illness. And yet in Los Angeles on Saturday, the British-born author whose 32 books on glamour, sex and affairs in Hollywood were international best-sellers, died of breast cancer after being first diagnosed more than six years ago. She had kept the illness secret from all but her closest family and friends.
Even her sister, Joan, had only been informed in the last fortnight. After the news broke on Sunday, Joan posted a picture of herself and Jackie, writing: “Farewell to my beautiful brave baby sister. I will love you and miss you forever. Rest in peace.”
Sitting in a London hotel suite to discuss her latest book, The Santangelos, with the Observer, Jackie had been equally effusive about their bond. “Joan and I are the best of friends,” she said. “We had tea a few days ago and she sent me beautiful flowers when I arrived in London. We’re very close. People are always trying to pitch us against each other … Because we’re both successful. But we’re very different. Joan is incredibly social and flamboyant and she loves to dress up. I’m much more low key and much less likely to go out for lunches and dinners. She loves being out and about, and I love being home, writing.”
She was, she said, working on her autobiography, Reform School or Hollywood. “Yes, I am a private person,” she said. “But I have so much in my memoir I can talk about.” She was ready, she said, to talk for the first time about the death of her beloved second husband, Oscar Lerman, who died from prostate cancer in 1992, and about her fiancé, Frank Calcagnini, who she lost to a brain tumour six years later – and of what it means to care for a sickly loved one. “I want to talk about losing my husband and nursing two men through terminal illness because I think it will help people. And I want to help people. In the past all I’ve said about Oscar and Frank’s deaths is that I wanted to celebrate their lives, not mourn their deaths.
“But I wanted to write about the experience of caring. Caregivers who look after someone have a lot on their plate, and I know there’s people out there who would appreciate hearing how I coped with it. It’s very stressful and you are worried about them all the time and have to make sure they take their meds.
“My fiancé, Frank, was amazing. He was this handsome Italian who looked like a hero from one of my books. I remember taking him to the doctor because he didn’t feel well and had flu and so they took a chest X-ray. I’ll never forget that day. Frank came out of the doctor’s office to where I was sitting in the ante room and just said: ‘I’m fucked, I’ve got three months to live.’ Three months later he was gone. When he lost his black, thick curly hair, he didn’t want to go on. I lost my mum to cancer, too.”
But the memoir, Collins said, would also include plenty of the kind of salacious detail used to such riotous effect in the “bonkbuster” genre with which she is so indelibly associated.
“I might get to the end of my memoir and decide I don’t want to publish it but I don’t think I will,” she said. “I think I want it out there.” Smiling mischievously as she spoke, she explained: “I’ll talk about a couple of secret affairs I’ve had – one with a very famous man – which I think will shock people. We were destined to be together but when he was free I was attached and vice versa.” Still, she said, “I’m not going to write anything to wholly embarrass my children … But there’ll be some interesting things in there.”
Those secret affairs may now remain secret. For their part, her daughters expressed nothing but the deepest affection for their mother when they announced her death. In a statement they said: “She lived a wonderfully full life and was adored by her family, friends and the millions of readers who she has been entertaining over four decades. She was a true inspiration, a trail-blazer for women in fiction and a creative force. She will live on through her characters but we already miss her beyond words.”
Perhaps that affection was part of what made Collins able to take a philosophical view of her mortality. “As you get older you get wiser,” she said. “I can do whatever I want – I don’t give a shit about anything any more. As long as I have my family and my friends I’m happy.”