23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.
58. The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.
—from Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 1964
I KEPT RAISING SMALL CLOUDS OF SAND WITH THE huarachos as I walked toward the factory. The faint clinical smell of the sulphur they used in making gunpowder came to my nose. It was the same kind of smell that was in the hospital the night I took her there. It wasn’t at all the kind of smell there was the night we made the baby.
It was cool and clean that night. And there was the smell of the ocean and the surf that came in through the open windows of the small cottage I kept out at Malibu. But in the room there was nothing but the exciting scent of the girl and her wanting.
We had gone into the bedroom and stripped with the fierce urgency in our vitals. She was quicker than I and now she was on the bed, looking up at me as I opened the dresser drawer and took out a package of rubbers.
Her voice was a whisper in the night. “Don’t, Joney. Not this time.”
I looked at her. The bright Pacific moon threw its light in the window. Only her face was in shadows. Somehow, what she said brought the fever up.
The bitch must have sensed it. She reached for me and kissed me. “I hate those damn things, Joney. I want to feel you inside me.”
I hesitated a moment. She pulled me down on top of her. Her voice whispered in my ear.
“Nothing will happen, Joney. I’ll be careful.”
Then I couldn’t wait any longer and her whisper changed into a sudden cry of pain. I couldn’t breathe and she kept crying in my ear, “I love you, Joney. I love you, Joney.”
She loved me all right. She loved me so good that five weeks later she tells me we got to get married. We were sitting in the front seat of my car this time, driving back from the football game. I looked over at her. “What for?”
She looked up at me. She wasn’t frightened, not then. She was too sure of herself. Her voice was almost flippant. “The usual reason. What other reason does a fellow and a girl get married for?”
My voice turned bitter. I knew when I’d been taken. “Sometimes it’s because they want to get married.”
“Well, I want to get married.” She moved closer to me.
I pushed her back on the seat. “Well, I don’t.”
She began to cry then. “But you said you loved me.”
I didn’t look at her. “A man says a lot of things when he’s humping.” I pulled the car over against the curb and parked. I turned to her. “I thought you said you’d be careful.”
She was wiping at her tears with a small, ineffectual handkerchief. “I love you, Joney. I wanted to have your baby.”
For the first time since she told me, I began to feel better. That was one of the troubles with being Jonas Cord, Jr. Too many girls, and their mothers, too, thought that spelled money.
Big money. Ever since the war, when my father built an empire on gunpowder.
I looked down at her. “Then it’s simple. Have it.”
Her expression changed. She moved toward me. “You mean — you mean — we’ll get married?”
The faint look of triumph in her eyes faded quickly when I shook my head. “Uh-uh. I meant have the baby if you want it that bad.”
She pulled away again. Suddenly, her face was set and cold. Her voice was calm and practical. “I don’t want it that bad. Not without a ring on my finger. I’ll have to get rid of it.”
I grinned and offered her a cigarette. “Now you’re talking, little girl.”
She took the cigarette and I lit it for her. “But it’s going to be expensive,” she said.
“How much?” I asked.
She drew in a mouthful of smoke. “There’s a doctor in Mexican Town. The girls say he’s very good.” She looked at me questioningly. “Two hundred?”
“O.K., you got it,” I said quickly. It was a bargain. The last one cost me three fifty. I flipped my cigarette over the side of the car and started the motor. I pulled the car out into traffic and headed toward Malibu.
“Hey, where you going?” she asked.
I looked over at her. “To the beach house,” I answered. “We might as well make the most of the situation.”
She began to laugh and drew closer to me. She looked up into my face. “I wonder what Mother would say if she knew just how far I went to get you. She told me not to miss a trick.”
I laughed. “You didn’t.”
She shook her head. “Poor Mother. She had the wedding all planned.”
Poor Mother. Maybe if the old bitch had kept her mouth shut her daughter might have been alive today.
It was the night after that about eleven thirty, that my telephone began to ring. I had just about fogged off and I cursed, reaching for the phone.
Her voice came through in a scared whisper. “Joney, I’m bleeding.”
The sleep shot out of my head like a bullet. “What’s the matter?”
“I went down to Mexican Town this afternoon and now something’s wrong. I haven’t stopped bleeding and I’m frightened.” I sat up in bed. “Where are you?”
“I checked into the Westwood Hotel this afternoon. Room nine-o-one.”
“Get back into bed. I’ll be right down.”
“Please hurry, Joney. Please.”
The Westwood is a commercial hotel in downtown L.A. Nobody even looked twice when I went up in the elevator without announcing myself at the desk. I stopped in front of Room 901 and tried the door. It was unlocked. I went in.
I never saw so much blood in my life. It was all over the cheap carpeting on the floor, the chair in which she had sat when she called me, the white sheets on the bed.
She was lying on the bed and her face was as white as the pillow under her head. Her eyes had been closed but they flickered open when I came over. Her lips moved but no sound came out.
I bent over her. “Don’t try to talk, baby. I’ll get a doctor. You’re gonna be all right.”
She closed her eyes and I went over to the phone. There was no use in just calling a doctor.
My father wasn’t going to be happy if I got our name into the papers again. I called McAllister. He was the attorney who handled the firm’s business in California.
His butler called him to the phone. I tried to keep my voice calm. “I need a doctor and an ambulance quick.”
In less than a moment, I understood why my father used Mac. He didn’t waste any time on useless questions. Just where, when and who. No why. His voice was precise. “A doctor and an ambulance will be there in ten minutes. I advise you to leave now. There’s no point in your getting any more involved than you are.”
I thanked him and put down the phone. I glanced over at the bed. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be sleeping. I started for the door and her eyes opened.
“Don’t go, Joney. I’m afraid.”
I went back to the bed and sat down beside it. I took her hand and she closed her eyes again. The ambulance was there in ten minutes. And she didn’t let go of my hand until we’d reached the hospital.
On the life of Harold Robbins:
“Guy Gone Wild” — A Review of Andrew Wilson, Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex
By Tom Carson
October 21, 2007
“An autopsy wouldn’t make any difference now.” That marvelous line cries out to have been scripted for Leslie Nielsen in one of the Naked Gun movies. But it’s uttered by the virile, easily riled Jonas Cord, the Howard Hughes stand-in at the center of The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins’s fabled 1961 novel — or novel-like object, anyhow. And Cord’s real-life enabler (“creator” would be pushing it) shared his assessment, judging from Robbins’s indifference to the verdict of posterity. As the world’s best-selling speed typist told a journalist in 1970, “When I’m gone, they can grill me and throw the ashes where they please, say what they like.”
Nobody has seen fit to say much of anything about Robbins since his death in 1997, decades after his vogue had — how to put this? — climaxed. But doesn’t a hustling subliterate whose oeuvre changed American publishing deserve at least one kudo, to usea solecism Robbins himself would have been likely to commit to print? Crammed with moronic prurience, achieving logorrhea with the barest of resources, your average Robbins page turner read as if he’d clacked it out using 10, if not 11, thumbs, and his 20 or so engorged books sold more than 750 million copies combined. If you’ve ever wondered just when quality literature and commercial fiction parted ways for good with a shudder, call him Harold Rubicon.
As Robbins’s fellow Brooklyn boy and close contemporary Arthur Miller might have put it, attention must be paid. So, duly making the beast with two hardbacks, Andrew Wilson — author of a well-regarded, as they say, life of Patricia Highsmith — has given us Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex. Besides answering nearly every question about its subject that any halfway brainy reader couldn’t be bothered to ask, it’s also better written than any of Robbins’s own behemoths, something I assume Wilson can’t help: he’s British. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I doubt any future biography of Robbins will equal this one, but make of that claim what you will.
Wilson is impressively if inexplicably determined to uncover the reality behind Robbins’s fabulations about his early years, some of which proved sturdy enough to show up in his obituaries. Not too surprisingly, the tales he fed compliant interviewers — about growing up in a Catholic orphanage before his adoption by a Jewish family, servicing lonely men for cash during his mean-streets adolescence and the like — turn out to have been fibs. The lone seedling of fact from which these Grade-Z Scheherazadisms sprang was that, unlike his siblings, young Harold Rubin (not Robbins, just his way of going Gentile into that good night, and in the heyday of the Jewish American novel, too) was the spawn of a previous marriage his father tried to conceal after Harold’s mom died young.
The fuse was lit once Robbins’s first father-in-law got Harold, then a failed grocer and lowly clerk, a job at Universal Pictures, where he soon clawed his way up from shipping clerk (by some accounts) to the bookkeeping department. Thwarted in his ambition to turn producer, he started typing what became Never Love a Stranger, his scandalous 1948 debut. In Wilson’s high-flown formulation, “writing, for him, was not about creative expression or artistic ideals; rather, what fueled his ambition was a mercantile instinct, a desire to explore his dreams and fantasies and sell them off to the highest bidder.” The rude version of this aria is that Robbins was always in it for the money.
Nonetheless, his early novels got some halfway decent notices — A Stone for Danny Fisher, for one, the unlikely source material for the Elvis movie King Creole. In the 1940s and ’50s, outside of (mostly paperback) genre fiction, even the worst junk seldom candidly announced itself as such. Not only could “serious” mainstream novelists aim at best-sellerdom, but even hacks were presumed to covet respectability. Wonder of wonders, Robbins’s first publisher was Alfred A. Knopf, and the publishee liked to boast that he was one of only three authors with a “lifetime” Knopf contract. The other two? Thomas Mann and André Gide.
That changed with The Carpetbaggers, brought out, after delays and much wrangling, by Simon & Schuster. Or rather, by Trident Press, a new imprint devised by Leon Shimkin, the founder of Pocket Books and then one of Simon & Schuster’s owners, to overcome Max Schuster’s horror while guaranteeing Robbins unheard-of paperback lucre for this and future works. In the words of his later editor, Michael Korda, “Thus was the ‘hard/soft’ multibook contract born … après nous le déluge.” When Robbins sent Alfred Knopf a copy of his masterpiece, he got a frosty note back: “Thanks, but I don’t read such trash.” Rubicon!
All this is interesting in an archaeological way. But once The Carpetbaggers, reputedly “the fourth-most-read book in history,” transforms Robbins into, well, “Harold Robbins,” his story grows tiresome, despite Wilson’s stabs at tarting up the author’s later career with such reflections (there’s no evidence his subject shared them) as “by catering to the lowest common denominator, Robbins sacrificed his integrity.” Say what? He’d found his gimmick: exploitation, with garish facsimiles of Lana Turner (Where Love Has Gone), the South American playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (“The Adventurers”) and the Ford automobile dynasty (The Betsy), among others, paraded en déshabillé for our enjoyment. Besides churning out novel-like objects with the monotonous implacability of a batting-practice machine, Robbins never stopped trying to brand himself in other ways. These efforts included The Survivors, a notoriously wretched TV series he spitballed to ABC one day and had forgotten about by the time it was green-lighted.
Wilson quotes several of Robbins’s intimates as saying he behaved just like a character in his novels, and the insult, not that they mean it as one, rings drearily true. Making big bucks let him live out his grossest fantasies, like owning a yacht and having orgies. But his excesses are unlikely to fascinate any reader who isn’t a) 15 or b) Donald Trump, the first tycoon who seems to aspire to being a Robbins hero. The detail that may best evoke the milieu Robbins lived in is the “set of 14-karat-gold fingernails” he bought his second wife; according to presumably awed friends, “the effect of the sun reflecting off them was enough to nearly blind you.” There’s also something disconcerting about a biography in which George Hamilton, who starred in The Survivors, figures as a voice of reason: “I thought reading his books was as good as it got and getting to know him would not improve on that in any way.” Even the gentlemanly Korda’s verdict is blunt: “He was as disagreeable and odious in the days of his success as the days of his failure.”
Robbins himself once said, “I just happen to think I’ve done better than anyone else in reflecting the times in which I live,” meaning his work rather than his personality — and the claim isn’t completely absurd. If nothing else, he did know where the action was, though it took Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version of The Godfather, a novel that wouldn’t exist without Robbins’s example, to prove that greatness can be spun from sensationalist claptrap. If flimsily disguised lives of famous people strike you as meretricious by definition, remember Citizen Kane. The real pity is that, stamina aside, Robbins was talentless, and he made his preferred subject matter radioactive for more gifted novelists for a number of years. If he hadn’t gotten his mitts on Howard Hughes first, mightn’t Norman Mailer have been tempted?