April 12, 2001
Success and Shopping
Catching up with best-selling author Judith Krantz.
Best-selling author Judith Krantz lives on a quiet street in Bel Air -- the exclusive area west of flashier Beverly Hills. Her home is a tasteful European- style palace hidden by a high wall -- somewhat surprising for the author of 10 blockbusters. I am admitted through the imposing iron gates, and the writer opens the front door herself. "Hi, please call me Judy," says the tiny woman -- 5 feet 2 1/2 inches, she claims -- before me, whose talent for spinning a yarn about beautiful heroines, sex and money have produced sales of more than 80 million books in 52 languages.
She ushers me through the vaulted entrance hall into a feminine sitting room filled with antiques and soft floral furnishings.
Like her living room, Krantz presents a polished and opulent appearance. Her short hair is expertly dyed blond, her make-up immaculately applied. She is wearing a creamy Chanel jacket, white slacks and a crisp man's shirt. Only extravagant gold earrings and a gold bangle hint to the flamboyant side of her personality. Krantz is 72, not that she looks it. Two facelifts have left her in a strangely ageless place, looking neither middle-aged nor old.
"When I turned 70 I felt suddenly wise. I thought: I've had an interesting life and it was time to get it down before I forgot it. A magazine also asked me to write 600 words on coming of age sexually in the 1940s. 600 words! I realized you could write three chapters just on how important it was to be a virgin and save yourself for your husband," said Krantz, who notably ignored this convention in her own life.
She decided to pen her memoir and called it "Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl" (St. Martins, 2000). "I added 'An Autobiography' at the bottom just in case anyone thought it was another novel," she says.
Krantz didn't start writing books until she was 50 and her two sons had left home. Before then she wrote for magazines for many years, contributing to Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan in its golden years under editor Helen Gurley Brown. A glimpse of her early talent surfaced when Brown asked her to compile some of the readers' sexual fantasies. Krantz found the results tame, so she spruced up the story with a couple of fantasies of her own. "Helen called me up and said: 'You know, we're very old-fashioned. Three of these scenes are going to have to come out.' I said: 'Which three?' And they were all my own."
Eventually she got bored with magazine journalism, and her husband, movie and TV producer Steve Krantz, encouraged her to write a book. It took her less than a year to write "Scruples," the story of gorgeous Billy Winthrop, who opens a successful boutique in Beverly Hills. After one rejection, it was bought and published in 1978, and soon after reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, the first time in a decade that a novel by an unknown had done so. Krantz never looked back. A year later the miniseries with Lindsay Wagner appeared on American television. The auction of Krantz's next novel, "Princess Daisy," set a world record at $3.2 million, and her next eight novels were best-sellers in the United States and Britain.
Literary acclaim has been harder to come by. Early on, a critic accused her of inventing the so-called sex-and-shopping genre, and the label has stuck. "For years I got angry every time I read that," Krantz said. "Didn't they realize that my topic was actually successful working women? It was quite obvious to me that the reader always wants to know what the heroine is wearing. Finally, after some years, I embraced the term, as I realized it was helping to sell my books."
The explicit sex scenes got her into trouble, too. "When I first started writing, nobody had read anything by Jackie Collins in the States, so my books were the first really sexy novels to be popular," she said. "Interviewers had great fun on TV castigating me as if I was a pornographer. Worse was my mother's reaction -- she was incredibly embarrassed that her daughter could write this stuff, even though I was 50! My two boys and I have also never talked about my work. They are supportive, but there is one person who wrote those books and another person who is their mother."
From her autobiography it is clear that sex and shopping have played an important role in Krantz's actual life, too. She was born in New York into a wealthy if unaffectionate family.
Her mother, Mickey Tarcher, dropped out of school at 14 to work in a candy factory to help support her family. After she married J. D. Tarcher, who became a successful advertising executive, she earned her college degree, a master's in economics and a law degree. She spent her career at the Legal Aid Society and her time at home raising, and often criticizing, her daughters, Judy and Mimi, and her son, Jeremy. She also endured a lifetime of cheating from her husband; when he died in 1960, she sold the weekend home he loved and its contents within two days. She dressed her children cheaply, withholding material rewards as consistently as she withheld emotional ones.
"My mother admired my academic achievements," Krantz once told an interviewer. "There was the feeling that I would be the smart one and follow in her footsteps -- not ahead of her, behind her. And we looked very much alike. Considering the hardships she went through, she was really as good a mother as she knew how to be. [My father] was a greater mystery than my mother. He was a totally dominant alpha-male in his business, then he came home and shut up. When you have parents who are both mysteries to you, you're more likely to write fiction.
"The idea of unconditional love didn't exist in our house -- love was based on performance. Where did the idea come from that you get unconditional love from your parents? Where was I when that happened?"
Krantz was sent to expensive private schools but was unpopular and came to believe that this was because she didn't have nice clothes. "My deep and early fixation on clothes, which grew stronger every year, has stood me in good stead during my life, as a fashion editor but even more so as a novelist," she writes.
When she returned to New York from a year in paris in 1949, at age 21, Krantz thought she "was a woman of the world. I was wearing a black suit made by a French dressmaker and I had experiences none of my friends had." Then sex before marriage was "almost unbelievable" and unmarried girls lived at home. But Krantz had her own key and for five years had numerous boyfriends. She received many marriage proposals because "that was how it was then" but had a "strong feeling you should sow your wild oats for as long as you can."
Krantz has always attracted men. "I wasn't beautiful, but I was cute," she said, referring to her button nose and big eyes. "Cute is easy. Cute is what men are not afraid of. They think, she'll laugh and giggle when I talk to her. Being small is also good. We get the small guys, the middle-sized ones and the tall ones!" she said.
In 1954, her promiscuous years abruptly ended when Barbara Walters introduced her to Steve. It was love at first sight. Six months later they were married. "We were strangers, but we've been happily married ever since," she said.
Krantz soon gave birth to her sons and concentrated on being a mother and shopping. Steve let her keep all the money she made from writing and paid her income tax. "Every penny of my earnings went on my back for 25 years," she says. "At one point I remember looking in my closet and seeing four outfits that had cost $4,000. That was more than our yearly rent."
Now, thanks to Steve's successful career -- he was responsible for children's cartoons like "The Incredible Hulk" and "Marvel Superheroes" -- and Krantz's as a novelist, the couple live the lifestyle of a character from one of her novels. Krantz says her personal wealth has taken some of the thrill away from shopping: "It's more exciting when you can't afford it." However, Chanel is still her favorite designer. "After each trunk show I go to the Chanel Boutique here in Beverly Hills, where I have a wonderful sales person. She shows me all the photographs, and I order my outfits for the next season. For the evening I tend to buy Oscar de la Renta."
She is also passionate about bags. "I go the whole way. Gucci isn't nearly expensive enough, so I buy Hermes. I just ordered a new one in blue. I agonized for a while because they cost around $5,000, but then I thought, I am not Shirley MacLaine, I won't live again."
Krantz employs a live-in housekeeper, a cook, and a full-time assistant. She also does Pilates with a personal trainer three times a week. When she first moved to Los Angeles, her Pilates classmates were Candice Bergen and Ali MacGraw.
Her husband is now retired and occupies himself with golf and painting. Son Nick is a stockbroker, son Tony is the chief executive of Imagine Television, and the Krantzes, married 47 years, have two grandchildren.
Last November, Hadassah Southern California saluted Krantz at its third annual Women of Distinction gala at Beverly Hilton Hotel's International Ballroom. Krantz spoke about a magazine assignment she had back in the 1950s to capture "Golda Meir as a housewife," an encounter that wound up serving as inspiration for the budding writer.
"She was particularly proud of her stuffed carp," reported Krantz on the late prime minister of Israel.
Is Krantz going to retire? "No way," she said. "I am a workaholic. When I am writing I am as happy as a lark. Currently I am looking for an idea for my next novel." It is still incredibly important to Krantz to get on the New York Times best-seller list, and she is competitive with rivals like John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel. "Grisham's books are horrible. None of those boys' books interest me remotely," she says. Steel? "I've only read one of her books," she said dismissively.
Krantz has been talking for two-and-a-half hours now, and I suspect she prefers doing that to answering questions. But I am keen for a tour of her house. Hardcovers of the collected Krantz are lined up on her desk. "There are almost two feet of books here," she says. Miles away at the other end of the room is a circular table cluttered with framed best-seller lists. In the downstairs powder room hangs a painting by Chagall.
Krantz shows me the beautifully tended garden complete with swimming pool and olive grove. This is all very lovely, but I am itching to see her wardrobe. Nervously, I ask, and for the first time that day there is a frosty silence. But she agrees. "You'll be the first journalist to see it; just don't make me out to be horrible," she says.
Her bedroom is so large that the king-size bed looks tiny. Outside, a terrace looks out across the trees and neighboring golf course. "Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere bought a house on the other side of that course but broke up before they could move in," she says. Her wardrobe does not disappoint. It is a lengthy walk in an L-shaped closet stuffed with Chanel dating back to 1964. All the jackets, blouses, trousers, skirts and evening wear are neatly divided into separate sections. She pulls out a favorite lime green jacket. "This is just perfect. I've been photographed in it many times over the years," she says. She shows me her collection of bags and cashmere sweaters. One side is devoted to lingerie and nightwear, but Krantz doesn't linger there. "I saw this house four times, and all I could remember was this closet," Krantz said.