Harold Robbins was a prolific author of 21 books who worked as a cook, cashier and bookmakers’ errand boy before finding fame as a novelist.
His novels were laced with sex, violence and conflict and centered around the international jet set or troubled youths in conflict with their culture.
"Never Love a Stranger," "The Dream Merchants, "A Stone for Danny Fisher" and "79 Park Avenue" all preceded that all-time naughty favorite, "The Carpetbaggers" (1961), which was loosely based on the lives of Howard Hughes and Hollywood types.
“Carpetbaggers” was a page-turner in spite of (or perhaps because of) the one-dimensional characters and gratuitous sex. It was the sex, of course, that helped catapult the book's sales into the multimillions in its first edition.
Success did not humble him one iota. He called himself the "best novelist alive . . . you can find my books anywhere in the world in any language."
Abandoned on a church doorstep as an infant, he never met his parents or found out who they were. He was raised in a Catholic orphanage on 10th Avenue in New York City—a neighborhood so rough it was dubbed Hell's Kitchen.
He rarely talked about his childhood —"What's to talk about? Nothing!"— or about the Rubins, the family that adopted him when he was 11: "I liked them a lot." He stayed with them until he was 15, then left to make his fortune during the Great Depression.
He shortly found his first prosperity in the food business, buying options on farmers' crops and selling them to canning companies. At age 20 the product of poverty had become a successful businessman—a millionaire, he said.
But in 1939 crop speculation led to losses, and when farm prices were frozen by World War II, Harold Rubins was back to work, this time as a shipping clerk for Universal Pictures.
He saw a novel that Universal had regrettably bought to film and bragged that he could do better. On a $100 bet he did, and thus was born "Never Love a Stranger." It was a sexy tale of a tough orphan coming of age, not far removed from Robbins' (he had changed his name) life itself. Although he was chided for its steamy sex scenes, the book became an instant bestseller.
"A Stone for Danny Fisher" also told of a poor Jewish boy, trying to succeed in Depression-era New York, and remains his most praised work.
When "Stone" was first published in 1951, Life magazine said it was so good that even if Robbins never wrote another book, he would have "reserved for himself a small place in literature."
The novels that followed were not that well received.
"Spellbinder," "Never Leave Me" and "The Betsy," of the 1970s and '80s, were challenged for having all the depth of cartoon characters.
In the mid-1990s and with his last wife, Jann, he made a comeback with "The Raiders," which continued the saga of Jonas Cord, begun in "The Carpetbaggers." Publishers Weekly called it "his most entertaining novel in years [and] a lively follow-up to a commercial fiction classic," a phrase that might well sum up the author himself.