IT IS A GLITTERING LIFE THAT READS LIKE one of her romance novels. For author Danielle Steel, home is a 55-room mansion with a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay. Her husband, former shipping magnate John Traina, is business manager. Prince Charming and confidant—all rolled into one. When she's not ministering to their brood of nine children, she spends her days writing the wildly popular fiction that brings her some 825 million a year. When, on rare occasions, the couple hit the town—she in her Dior gowns, he in his Versace suits—they are the toast of high society. And no less so at home, where they hold dinners in a gilt-ceilinged ballroom as waiters pamper guests with caviar and $110-a-bottle Cristal champagne. [P] But just like the heroines of her fiction, Steel, 44, endured some dark and stormy episodes in her climb toward this perfect world. She has a past that nearly rivals anything in such steamy Steel tales as Fine Things, Daddy, and her current No. 1 best-seller, Jewels, and she may have used material from her own romantic history in her fiction. As the glamorous Mrs. Traina of Pacific Heights, however, she has tried to leave all that behind, rarely acknowledging two troubled previous marriages to men who had long been on the wrong side of the law. [P] The first was Danny Zugelder, a bank robber behind bars, whom she met and fell for while her marriage to a reclusive French-American millionaire was foundering. Four years later she married Bill Toth, a recovering heroin addict. That union was also short-lived, ending in a bitter custody dispute—during which Steel found true love with Traina. [P] Zealously guarding her privacy, Steel has declined to be interviewed. But after years of silence, the two men are speaking out about their lives with Danielle—Zugelder, 42, from his cell at the Fremont Correctional Facility outside Canon City, Colo., where he is serving 40 years for rape, and Toth, 15, from his tiny apartment in San Francisco's seedy Mission District, where he is still struggling with his addiction. The men talk of love, passion, tribulations and, in the end, heartbreak—because for them there were no happy endings. [P] Danielle Steel was born in New York City, the only child of John Sehuelein-Steel, scion of Munich's Lowenbrau beer dynasty, and Norma Stone, the daughter of a Portuguese diplomat. After her parents separated when she was 8, Steel lived with her gregarious lather in what she described as a "solitary and lonely" childhood. Attending the Parsons School of Design and New York University, she was an ambitious student. At 18, she married Claude Eric Lazard, a French-American millionaire banker 10 years her senior. They shuttled between homes in New York City, San Francisco and Paris and in 1968 had a daughter, Beatrix. [P] For all the money and privilege, Steel chafed at her sheltered existence. Against Lazard's wishes, she began working at a Manhattan public relations firm, where one of her clients, John Mack Carter, then the editor of Ladies Home Journal, suggested she become a writer. Cloistering herself for three months, she wrote her first novel, Going Home. The theme, she told a reporter, was simple: "Every woman falls in love with a bastard at least once in her life." [P] By 1972, Steel had separated from Lazard. Later that year she accepted an assignment to write an article about conscientious objectors. Interviewing a friend who was incarcerated at the Lompoc Correctional Institute in California, she was introduced to Danny Zugelder. Then 22, he was a strapping 6'6" blond who had been in scrapes with the law as long as he could remember. His lather was a migrant farm worker and heavy drinker who had left his family in Redlands. Calif., when Danny was 3. By 13, Danny had turned to drinking, stealing cars and burglary. At 17, he began robbing banks; three years and eight heists later, he was arrested and sent to Lompoc. [P] Zugelder was instantly smitten with the petite (5'1" 100 lbs.) Danielle. "She was just bubbly, with smiling eyes," he says. "When she found out I was a bank robber, she; started laughing and talking. I think it really excited her that I was this dangerous person but so nice and pleasant. A longtime friend of Steel's agrees: "She never met those kind of people. They seemed dashing and macho, unlike the gentlemen she was around most of her life. It was a way of asserting her independence from her upbringing." [P] After four-month long-distance phone relationship, Steel moved from New York to San Francisco and began making weekly visits to Lompoc. She and Zugelder had picnics on the lawn with other inmates and, in what Zugelder describes as a "well-planned military maneuver," had other prisoners stand watch so they could enjoy their first sexual liaison in a women's bathroom at the visitors' center. [P] Paroled in June 1973, Zugelder moved in with Steel and Beatrix in their San Francisco flat. Going Home was published that year to lukewarm reviews and sales. Steel kept writing, working laic at night on a manual type-writer in their bedroom; by day she wrote copy for the Grey Advertising agency, while Zugelder got a job at an architectural firm. "It was great, the most happy time of my life," he recalls. She look him to plays and the symphony; he introduced her to drive-in movies and Mexican food. He loved her intelligence, her loyally—and her passion. "Danielle was very lusty," he says. "I remember at lunchtime shooting over to her office and locking the door. We had sex in restaurants...anywhere. [P] There were tensions as well. The couple longed to have children, but Steel suffered several miscarriages. And there was the inevitable clash of backgrounds. "All her friends were upper-crust. They looked down on me," says Zugelder. "When we had spats, she'd make me feel like a kept man. I just could not tolerate that." Zugelder was bingeing on drugs and booze. Then in early 1974. he was convicted of robbing and sexually assaulting a woman and was sentenced to seven years in the state penitentiary at Vacaville, Calif. [P] Then and now, Zugelder denies committing the crime, and Steel stood by him. She lent Zugelder some $17,500 to pay for his legal defense. Writing the county probation department in an attempt to keep Zugelder in a rehabilitation program. Steel poignantly acknowledged that she had inadvertently made life hard for Danny. "Everything was 'mine'—my house, my daughter, my friends, my job," she wrote. "I continued to expect him to conform and do all the adjusting.... Our attempt to blend our very different lifestyles was hopelessly clumsy, and painful for both of us." [P] In 1975, after obtaining a divorce from Lazard, Steel married Zugelder in Vacaville's inmate canteen—he in prison garb, she in traditional white. "Danielle was tremendously supportive," he says. "We had a parole hearing set for 1976, and she thought they would cut me loose right away." But Zugelder wasn't released, and that, he believes, hastened the demise of the marriage. Even though the couple enjoyed regular conjugal weekends, in 1977 Steel asked for a divorce. [P] It was granted the following year—but not before Steel, according to Zugelder, used him as grist for two novels that helped launch her brilliant career. In Passion's Promise, the heroine, a socialite writer, [alls in love with a poor ex-con. And the hero of Now and Forever is accused of raping a woman he says consented to sex and is then imprisoned at Vacaville. Having read the galleys of those two novels ("I can't stand her writing," he says. "They're such mushy, trashy books"), Zugelder is certain the stories are based on him. And even though he says Steel has completely written him out of her life, Zugelder still has affection for her. "Just because something's over," he says, "it doesn't take away from what we had." [P] Meantime, like one of her plucky heroines, Steel was moving on with her life. In 1978, the day after her divorce from Zugelder, she married husband No. 3, Bill Toth. She was 8½ months pregnant with his child. [P] The only son of a life-insurance salesman and a homemaker, Toth had been raised in San Francisco. He attended Catholic schools and Santa Clara University. But he dropped out in 1967 and began doing drugs—hashish, LSD, heroin. By 1971 he had become a junkie and was committing crimes to support his $100-a-day habit. After a string of arrests, he entered a rehabilitation program in San Francisco in 1975. He had gone clean and become supervisor of the program's moving company when, one spring day in 1977, his office got a call from a young novelist moving across town. [P] When he met Steel at her Pacific Heights apartment, "there were vibrations—a mutual attraction," Toth says. "I don't know how else to describe it." They went out on a few dales; within a couple of months. Steel became pregnant. By fall, Toth moved in and the couple began taking Lamaze classes in preparation for little Nicholas, who was born by C-section in May 1978. [P] For a while, life was good. With enough income from her books to hire a Full-time nanny. Steel kept at her writing; Toth worked as a counselor with troubled teens. Though he occasionally slipped back into heroin, the couple stuck together. "I was in love more with her than she was with me," Toth says. "I always wondered, 'What was a woman like this doing with me?' " And what of Steel? "Sex may have started it, but she really loved him," says a close friend of Toth's. "She wanted to make it work, but Bill didn't have it in him. There are people in their 30s who act 5 years old. He's one of them." [P] In 1979, after the publication of Steel's fourth hook. The Promise, the money started rolling in. Steel became more involved in society life, going to parties, plays, the opera. Toth, feeling more and more like a hireling, grew resentful. "Danielle's a control freak," he says. "She needs people who'll let her call the shots." Late that year the couple separated and began seeing a marriage counselor, says Toth—to no avail. Steel divorced him in March 1981. [P] He received a $50,000 settlement—not much considering Steel was already pulling in six-figure advances for her books. Depressed, Toth blew the money on a drug binge, was arrested for shoplifting and sentenced to Folsom prison for 10 months. After his release, he had supervised visits with Nicholas. "She accused me of being on drugs every time I went to visit," says Toth, who admits only to showing up once or twice while in methadone treatment. Citing Toth's heroin addiction and criminal record. Steel persuaded a court to withdraw his visitation privileges in May 1985. He has not seen his son—now 14—since 1984. [P] "I would like to see him," Toth says quietly. "I don't claim to be much of a role model. But it doesn't mean I don't love him. Toth believes Steel had a more personal motive for severing him from his son. "I was an embarrassment to her," he says. "Here I was, this middle-class ex-con. So she got rid of me and pretends never existed." Steel apparently saw it differently. "She gave Bill every chance," says a close friend. "Only when he proved he couldn't be a responsible father did she end his parental rights. And she did it for the sake of the child." [P] For Steel, perhaps all three former husbands are just fading memories. Lazard, who refuses to discuss his marriage, works in the investment business in New York City. Zugelder, released from Vacaville shortly after his divorce, went on a nine-month crime spree—shooting cocaine, robbing banks, kidnapping and sexually assaulting the daughter of a Colorado police chief. He will be eligible for parole in 1998. Toth, who has been in and out of prison on drug-related charges during the past seven years, cannot hold a job and still shoots heroin from time to time. [P] Meanwhile. Steel appears, at long last, to have found Mr. Right. She had met Traina socially while married to Toth and called him when she heard his wife, the rich Town & Country deb-of-the-year cover girl Dede Buchanan, was divorcing him. They married in June 1981, after a four-month courtship. Traina, 58, now works in real estate and investments in addition to being Steel's manager. "They are the ultimate couple," says a longtime friend. "They're very romantic and surprise each other with gifts, small and large. After all she went through, she was rewarded with John. He was God's gift." The couple, who collect antique cars and frequent art and jewelry auctions, have five children—Samantha, 9, Victoria, 8, Vanessa, 7, Max, 6, and Zara, 5—in addition to Nicholas and Beatrix, now 24, and Traina's sons from his first marriage, Trevor and Todd. [P] Steel has credited her success to her husband, the help of servants, and her faith as a Christian Scientist. Even the men she left behind acknowledge that Steel was determined—and somehow destined—to have it all. "Danielle has always had this fantasy life," says Zugelder. "Where is she now?... Well, let's just say she got what she wanted." Perhaps so, but not without suffering losses along the way. "She's benevolent and kind and sincerely thought she could rescue these two guys. She loved them both," says a close friend. "Danielle was naive enough at the time to believe that romance and love conquer all." [P] PAULA CHIN [BR] LORENZO BENET in San Francisco and VICKIE BANE in Canon City [P]
  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Vickie Bane.