Some 14 years ago Patrick Reynolds, then 26, began to realize just how deep and twisted were his roots in one of America's great wealthy families. He was visiting Sapelo Island, the palatial 11,000-acre estate off the coast of Georgia that his father, R.J. Reynolds Jr., had bought with some of the vast family fortune originally founded on Camel cigarettes. Patrick had spent time at Sapelo as a child, reveling in its gold-flecked indoor pool and opulent rooms. But such visits with his father were rare after his parents divorced in 1952. Shortly before R.J. Jr. died in 1964, he decided to leave his entire fortune to his fourth wife, and nothing to his six sons by other women. "When I saw with new eyes the magnificence I had been disinherited of, it stung like a slap in the face," he recalls. 'That's when I started my quest to know more about my father."

In those days Reynolds was busy pursuing an acting career, sustained by the $2.5 million trust fund that had been set up for him by his paternal grandmother. But that day at Sapelo, he made up his mind to write a book about his extraordinary clan. The result is Reynolds's just-published The Gilded Leaf, a soap-operatic saga of movie stars, murder, adultery and chicanery that, according to the author's friend Larry Hagman, "makes Dallas look like a bowl of warm milk toast."

It is not the first time Patrick has shaken the family tree. In 1986, shortly after both his mother and his aunt died of smoking-related diseases, Reynolds publicly criticized the tobacco industry in testimony before a congressional committee. Two years earlier, Patrick (once a pack-a-day smoker himself) had sold all his R.J. Reynolds stock—one of the first steps in his disenchantment with the source of his family's wealth.

But in fact Patrick—one of two sons by R.J. Jr.'s second wife, a Hollywood starlet named Marianne O'Brien—never felt at home among the Reynoldses. "They were all judgmental and cold-type people and did not approve of my mother," he explains, "so I was ostracized before I was born." Perhaps this early rejection, and the cushion of a trust fund, explains some of the aimlessness of Patrick's young adulthood—hippie days at Berkeley, foolish investments, a failed marriage and a halfhearted acting career.

As an antitobacco crusader, however, Reynolds has had great success—even though his attempt to sell stop-smoking tapes flopped last year. These days Reynolds runs the nonprofit Foundation for a Smoke-Free America in Beverly Hills and gives antismoking speeches (when the client can afford it, he charges up to $10,000). "Am I biting the hand that feeds me?" he asks rhetorically. "If the hand that once fed me is the tobacco industry, then that hand has killed millions of people and may kill millions more. And I intend to wake people up to that fact."

—Patricia Freeman, Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles