When Iris Rainer Dart's cousin was diagnosed with schizophrenia decades ago, the illness sent shockwaves through her Jewish family. "They were from the shtetl and superstitious," said Dart, 59, the best-selling author of 1985's "Beaches." "They thought that the illness was a curse, that the parents must have done something wrong and that it was perhaps contagious."
Dart's cousin was spoken of in hushed tones and kept behind closed doors, a fate that haunted the author.
"I've always carried with me the wishful thinking that had I been older and had the resources I could have become involved in her life and made a difference," she said.
That wishful thinking led Dart to write a novel, "Some Kind of Miracle" (William Morris, $24.95), to be published Oct. 21, about a Jewish schizophrenic and the cousin who helps her. As young women, Dahlia and Sunny Gordon are best friends and songwriting partners, but they're separated when Sunny develops schizophrenia and disappears into the mental health system. Years later, Dahlia, a frustrated songwriter, needs the rights to one of their songs and tracks Sunny down to a halfway house for mentally ill adults.
In going to find her cousin, the previously flaky Dahlia "takes on the responsibility for her care and reintroduces her to the music they wrote and the possibility of an independent life," the author said during an interview in Malibu.
"Miracle," which like "Beaches" revolves around a dramatic, lifelong friendship, is Dart's latest three-hanky book; she outdoes fellow women's novelists, such as Jackie Collins, with her proclivity for tear-jerkers (even The Rock said "Beaches" made him cry). The author, who peppers the angst with laughs, is proud of the distinction: "I do schmaltz," she said.
But it's schmaltz with a message.
"All my work is about finding meaningful human connection," she said.
Dart, née Ratner, learned the concept from her Lithuanian-born father, who assisted fellow immigrants at a Pittsburgh settlement house where he ran milk programs for poor children, among other efforts.
"We had no money," the writer recalled of her childhood. "We lived in a tiny house that was always falling apart. But ... I don't remember ever feeling deprived or unhappy. I give credit to the Yiddishkayt."
When the teenage Dart began writing songs with her cousin, not unlike the fictional Dahlia, she naturally migrated toward performing at charitable groups, such as the Bikur Cholim society.
"We'd go around to all the organizations and meet with the women and write their stories up into a show," she said.
Dart eventually studied theater arts at Carnegie-Mellon University; she moved to Los Angeles to become an actress in the early 1970s and changed her surname when a manager called Ratner "too Jewish."
"[But] I was a terrible actress," she said.
So she switched to writing and landed a television job with the diva Cher, where she was the only woman in the writers room.
"Every day I'd sit next to her in her dressing room as she made herself up and we would talk," Dart said of her tenure on "The Sonny and Cher Show." "I became fascinated by this kind of a woman: uneducated, but streetwise and funny, who operated by the seat of her pants."
Cher became the inspiration for "Beaches" heroine CC Bloom, ultimately portrayed by Bette Midler in the 1988 film adaptation of Dart's novel. The story focuses on the Jewish Bloom and her blue-blood best friend, played by Barbara Hershey in the movie; their relationship mirrors one of Dart's friendships from the 1980s.
"At the time, I was between marriages and living this wild, Hollywood single life, while my friend was happily married and living in Cleveland," she said. "She'd come and stay with me in Hollywood and think, 'This is so exciting,' and I'd visit her in Cleveland and go, 'This is wonderful, I want this.'"
Dart went on to write a total of eight novels, including "'Til The Real Thing Comes Along," "The Stork Club" and 1999's "When I Fall in Love," about a TV writer who falls for her physically disabled boss.
She began "Miracle" two years ago, when she was impressed by the co-founders of "The Friendship Network," an organization that provides social programs for schizophrenics living alone. With her mentally ill cousin in mind, she immersed herself in research, interviewing psychiatrists and pharmacologists, and reading about the latest drug therapies, among other endeavors.
The story of the two women -- one feckless, one disabled -- "is a 'Rain Man' for women," she said. "It's really about advocacy."
The concept comes from her Jewish roots: "In Judaism, we're supposed to be taking care of one another," she said. "It's about repairing the world."
Dart will read from her new novel Nov. 4, 6-8 p.m. at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 476-6263. For information about The Friendship Network, visit www.friendshipnetwork.org.
Arts & Entertainment Editor Naomi Pfefferman contributed to this story.