The last we saw of Joan Collins, she was tumbling off a balcony in 1989's final episode of Dynasty. It might have been curtains for bitchy Alexis Carrington, but Joan had the look of a girl who was just going to get her hair done, and then somehow, dahling, carry on after she got her feet on the ground again.

Figuratively that's just what happened. Now a rather incredible 57, Joan has turned grande dame and philosopher. She has spent the last two years jetting between her "very unglitzy" house in the south of France (where she scribbled her sizzling new novel, Love & Desire & Hate) and her flat in London, where she has been camping out since playing the sophisticated Amanda onstage in Noel Coward's Private Lives.

Her novel hits U.S. bookstores this week, and the American tour of Private Lives begins later this year. In addition a Dynasty reunion is in the works for the fall. Dressed in a low-cut pink T-shirt and light workout pants, sipping wine on a white raw-silk couch in her immaculate 10-room Hollywood Hills house, Joan says with an un-Alexis-like sincerity, "I'm very happy, happier than I've ever been."

The transformation has been hard won. Though Dynasty brought her from a 1976 unemployment line to a reported per-episode fee of $120,000, Joan is still struggling to shed her character's abrasive image, which she claims was never really her. As she told charmed fans on the Oprah Winfrey Show last week. "You have to be a very nice woman to play a bitch, or it doesn't work."

Much of her newfound peace is the result of changes in her personal life. "Joan's happy now because she's so positive that she attracts people around her who are positive," says old friend George Hamilton. "In the past there was a sense of things really weighing on her. I don't see that anymore."

During her eight seasons on Dynasty, says Collins, "There was more drama going on in my personal life than in front of the camera." She split from her third husband, Ron Kass, in 1983, but he remained a close friend until his death from cancer in 1986. When Joan had to tell their daughter, Katy, then 14, about her father's death, "it was very, very sad," she says. "And I was not getting any sympathy at home from the man I married."

Joan says she married that man, fourth husband Peter Holm, an erstwhile Swedish pop singer, "in a rebound situation." Thirteen months later, she called upon her personal nemesis, Alexis Carrington, for help. "I was thinking, 'Would Alexis put up with this?' And the answer was no." At their 1987 divorce hearing, Holm failed to wrest away $2.6 million of her fortune but scored $180,000 and a $40,000 custom-made car. The marriage, she says, was "the biggest mistake of my life, and what I paid for it was to be an object of ridicule."

After giving Holm and Alexis the slip, an exhausted Joan spent a year and a half writing her novel and "staring into space." she says. "I feel that one's body and soul are a bank, and after you've depleted a lot of your resources, you have to put money back in."

She pooh-poohs any notion that she novelizes to compete with her sister, Hollywood pulp princess Jackie Collins. "I've always written," says Joan. "I wrote my first novel, The Gypsy and the Prince—30 pages long—when I was 11." Her autobiography, Past Imperfect, was a best-seller, as was her 1988 novel, Prime Tune, a veiled account of her Dynasty days. Her latest effort is more complex. It focuses on the murder of a film producer in the '50s and required Joan to spend hours researching postwar London and Paris. She loved the discipline. "Writing," she says, "gives me a tremendous amount of control over my life." She'll get more chances too. A $4 million contract with Random House promises two more novels.

Daughters of a British showbiz impresario and a dancing teacher (their brother, Bill, 45, sells real estate), the Collins sisters feud in a bloodless British way. Says Joan: "We love each other, but we've never been close. We never discuss writing or very personal things."

So Jackie can't know much about Joan's current constant companion, tall, blond British art dealer Robin Hurlstone, 33, whom Joan met at a dinner party in London. "It was the first relationship I've ever had with a man where we became friends before we had anything else." says Joan. "With Robin, there's no pressure about getting married. He's got his job, and I've got my thing. He wants nothing to do with becoming part of the circus that goes with Joan Collins, and he is incredibly supportive, funny, kind and gentle."

Joan is in daily touch with her three children, all in London. Katy, now 18, is pondering her career options. Her daughters by her second marriage, to singer-composer Anthony Newley, are Tara, 26, who sings and plays guitar in a folk-rock band, and Sacha, 25, who is studying directing. Joan's first marriage, to actor Maxwell Reed, lasted less than a year.

These days, says Joan, she sees much less of her "crazy, wild, stupid side. I've been very immature and made a great deal of mistakes. On the other hand, I think I have a certain basic atavistic wisdom that enables me to plow through." And if all the world's a stage, and if all of life's a play, she says, "I intend to have a third act that is better than my first or second."

But first, she'll have her hair done.

—Louise Lague, Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.