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Secret Reading: A Tribute to Jackie Collins

Through her strong female characters, the mega-selling author taught a generation of young women that ambition was sexy

Rachel Shukert
September 24, 2015
 Scott Wintrow/Getty Images
Jackie Collins in New York City, February 7, 2006. Scott Wintrow/Getty Images
 Scott Wintrow/Getty Images
Jackie Collins in New York City, February 7, 2006. Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

There’s a moment in Troop Beverly Hills, my favorite movie since I was 8 years old, when Stephanie Beacham, who plays the romance novelist Vicki Sprantz, pulls up outside her daughter Claire’s Wilderness Girls troop meeting in a black Lamborghini. Then, and in a sultry yet plummy British accent, Beacham begins dictating a passage of steamy and overwrought prose into a small hand-held tape recorder (the height of technology at the time). Though I can no longer quote the passage verbatim—I am old now and my brain is slowly turning into a hunk of Havarti cheese—I do still remember it ending with: “…felt his manhood rise into a pulsating frenzy.”

In that instant I felt with absolute certitude that this woman—with the giant earrings and even bigger hair, and the clear and explicit knowledge of exactly what happened between the moment when networks closed the door on Dynasty and when its came back from commercial break to find Fallon Carrington Colby lying in bed with her head resting on some man’s hairy bare chest—was exactly who I wanted to be when I grew up. Luckily, there was a real life role model for that: Jackie Collins. The mega best-selling novelist (and sister of the incomparable Joan, who I always liked to think of as her muse) died on Saturday from breast cancer at the age of 77.

When I was growing up, my mother didn’t approve of leopard print or eye shadow for the pre-pre-pubescent. But luckily, I had the Doris Shukert Library of Romance to help me in my quest to become the most worldly third grader in Nebraska. My grandmother loved to read escapist commercial fiction, especially Jackie Collins, bringing home giant hardback doorstoppers straight from the bookstore at least twice a week. After school I ploughed through them all in her shag-carpeted basement, drinking in every tawdry scene between predatory film producers and gorgeous, conniving trophy wives like giant gulps of sugary soda. I never asked my grandmother if I could borrow any of them to take home; I knew, even then, that a Jackie Collins novel had to be read in absolute secret. It’s something Collins knew herself, joking once that her novels were still read by 15-year-old girls under the covers with a flashlight. (I was precocious.)

The point is: none of their mothers should be worried. You might not be prepared to buy your incoming fourth grader a pair of skintight leather pants and a giant brooch in the shape of a panther to wear to school picture day (not that I know anyone who ever asked for that), but you could do a lot worse in your search for positive female role models. Unlike the dewy-eyed virgins of Barbara Cartland, or the Nora Roberts characters who always seemed to be taking care of some farm someplace, or even the heroines of Danielle Steel, who exhibit a disturbing propensity to fall in love with their rapists, the Jackie Collins girls desire things beyond a man to love them and a home to call their own.

They wanted money and casinos and international recognitions. They wanted to have anonymous sex with other people’s husbands on barrier reefs; and only after many years of such, could be persuaded to marry, say, Lennie Golden (the great love of Lucky Santangello, Collins’s greatest creation, and perhaps the first and only explicitly Jewish male sex symbol in a romance novel that was not written by Leon Uris), and have a couple of kids who were just as driven and passionate as they were. Collins’s women were ambitious and strong and never took “no” for an answer. They taught a generation of little girls growing up in the reactionary culture wars of Reagan’s America that it was okay—in fact, that it was sexy—to be those things, too. It was so inspiring that in her lifetime, Jackie Collins sold more than 500 million copies of her books (and counting). Not bad for a women who never quite grasped the concept of a dangling participle. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some secret reading to do.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.