Scenes from a Sisterhood: Joan and Jackie Collins Turn Sex and Passion into a Family Plot

UPDATED 11/12/1984 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/12/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

When she awoke, dawn was breaking and the storm was long gone.... She had given him what he wanted. What all men wanted. He might have come on with that phony fatherly concerned act, but he was only a man after all.
Jackie Collins, Hollywood Wives

Telephoning was secondary to his main passion, which was making love—and he was also able to accept phone calls at the same time. I had heard that men were at their sexual peak between the ages of 17 and 23. If Warren was anything to go by, this was true. I had never known anyone like him before. It was exciting for the first few months, but after a while, I found myself feeling like an object.
Joan Collins, Past Imperfect

They're not the Brontës, but judging from the size of their respective audiences, Joan and Jackie Collins know how to steam up a story better than any pair of siblings around. Ever since Joan put the nasty in Dynasty, her career has taken off (she did a takeoff on her own image on Sunday's NBC-TV movie The Cartier Affair), and coasting in the tail wind is her tattletale memoir, Past Imperfect. First published in Great Britain in 1978, this bed-and-bored account of love with Warren Beatty, Ryan O'Neal, Harry Belafonte and others rode the best-seller lists for four months when issued here earlier this year. Younger sister Jackie frequents those lists herself. In the last few months, several of her nine sex-and-scandal novels have appeared on the paperback list simultaneously. Her most recent best-seller, Hollywood Wives, has earned her more than $1 million, and the five-hour ABC-TV mini-series, scheduled for February, should only flame those questions about whether Sadie La Salle is modeled after Sue Mengers, or if Elaine Conti is based on Gregory Peck's wife (Jackie denies any connections) and whether it is really possible to get literally stuck in conjugal bliss, which occurs in Chapter 38 of Hollywood Wives. It's not just that Jackie Collins knows how to imagine a sex scene that outdoes the Sonny and the bridesmaid episode in The Godfather or the goldfish trick in Lace. Here's how wise she is about writing a best-seller: In Hollywood Wives she puts many of the sex scenes in italics for easy reference.

To hear them tell it, these sisters are caught somewhere between sibling rivalry and sibling revelry.

Jackie: I can criticize Joan, but God forbid if anyone should criticize her to me.

Joan: I really feel with Jackie that when the chips are down, she'll always be there for me. Sometimes we may not see each other for three or four weeks. She has her set of friends and I have mine, although we mix socially. But we're not joined at the hip like some people are. When I was going through my rather traumatic divorce, I spent a lot of time with Jackie.

Jackie: Joan is not the kind of person to come running to pour out her troubles. She handles things very well herself. But there have been occasions when she has come over and spent the night.

Joan: We both have had to face a lot of flack from people. She about her books being just purely commercial. And me, about how I sold myself like a bottle of tomato catsup when I was resurrecting my career.

'Twas on the good ship Venus, My god, you should have seen us: The figurehead was a horror in bed, And the mast was the captain's penis.
—Limerick composed by Jackie Collins in elementary school

Along with baby brother Bill, Joan Henrietta Collins and Jacqueline Jill Collins grew up in London in the comfortable household of a theatrical agent. Daddy teases the sisters about their infamy. When the British press chronicles every move, "He sends me all the crap written about her," says Joan, pointing to Jackie, "and he sends her all the crap written about me."

In a sense, both daughters developed their feistiness in response to their mother's lack of it. "She was a mother who was totally caught up in the business of being a mother. There were no outside interests at all," recalls Joan. "I think that is one of the reasons why Jackie and I are both so independent."

Early on the sisters developed the preoccupations that would fuel their careers—as well as their reputations. Depending on whose calendar you are checking, there is an eight-year age difference between Jackie, now 43, and Joan, now 50-something. "Jackie and I were not that close as children," observes Joan, "because of the age difference, and I was always really interested in writing off to film stars." One of those, Maxwell Reed, became her first husband. Reed later tried to sell her to an Arab sheikh at the cost of £10,000 for one night of love. For Jackie, commercial fiction was an early instinct. She composed dirty limericks and fantasies as a preteen, then charged pals for a peek at her diary. "I knew that sex sold at an early age," she says.

In their youth the sisters complemented each other's interests. Recalls Jackie, "Joan quite liked the idea of designing fashions, and she used to sketch things. I'd say, Those are lovely, can I have them?' " Joan complied, which set her sister on her career. "I would cut out all these little doll-like drawings, and she would stick them in a book and write stories about them," recalls Joan.

As a teenager Jackie was the stuff of which her stories are made. She was kicked out of school for smoking at 15, but that was the least of her offenses. "I guess I was really a juvenile delinquent. I would pad my bed at night with pillows and be out the window. My parents were constantly threatening juvenile hall. Joan wasn't like me at all. She just went off and became a star."

It was Joan's invitation to Hollywood that took Jackie out of England and into a new network of friends—and potential material for her fiction. The seedy apartment complex where the stud, Buddy, lives in Hollywood Wives was based on the Los Angeles apartment that she shared with Joan in the late '50s. "Having a sister who was a movie star was sensational," reminisces Jackie. "To have entree into meeting more or less anybody, because she knew everybody—"

"I did," Joan interrupts. "And I still do actually."

Jackie Collins on the early days in Hollywood with her sister: "I remember coming to visit her once, and she had a suite at the Chateau Marmont—a great, glamorous suite. And I said, 'Oh, this is lovely, great!' She snapped, 'Yes, you won't actually be sleeping here. There is a little room at the top of the hotel where you will be sleeping.' I found at night Warren would change places with me. He would sleep in the suite, and I would be in his little attic room."

The Collins sisters share a lot of interests—Art Deco design, a good gossip session, a passion for all things American—but one thing that they have never shared is the same man. "Like everybody else, I got propositioned by Warren," says Jackie. "But since I turned his proposition down, we never shared a boyfriend. The possibility was there, let's put it that way. But Warren would proposition a chair if it looked at him sideways."

Joan Collins on the subject of men: "Obviously I like them a lot."

Here are the vital statistics: After Maxwell Reed, Joan married Anthony Newley for seven years. They had two children, Tara, 21, and Sacha, 19. Then she married producer Ron Kass—for 11 years. They had one daughter, Katy, 12. After their divorce last year, Joan took up with Swedish entrepreneur Peter Holm, whom she met at a London pool party. He is 37. "Please get it right," she says. "One paper said he was 28."

At 18, Jackie married businessman Wallace Austin, 30. "He was a fabulous, dynamic man," she says. "And he was also a manic depressive." Austin died four years after the wedding. "I led a very wild life before I got married the second time," she says. Three years later she wed American businessman Oscar Lerman, and their union has survived 18 years. They have two children, Tiffany, 17, and Rory, 15. Although Jackie lives in a Beverly Hills home just a few miles from Joan's Coldwater Canyon spread, Jackie Collins says she is not a Hollywood wife.

Benjamin was away, so I took him in my lift and enjoyed him there. Well, I mean to say there is nothing more dreary than always doing it on a bed. When I got his clothes off, I thought "not bad," but after it was all over, I knew there was a lot to teach him.
The Stud

The Stud was their first collaboration since the childhood fashion book. The 1979 film version brought Joan's career out of a slump. Eleven years before, Jackie had debuted as a novelist with The World Is Full of Married Men. One review called it "the most disgusting book ever written." A week after publication, it was the No. 1 best-seller in England. In The Stud, Jackie created a heroine named Fontaine, who in her way was the forerunner of Dynasty's Alexis Carrington Colby. In fact, when the book first came out, it was Jackie who said to Joan, "You'd be perfect as Fontaine." Eventually that notion changed their lives.

Jackie: Joan came to me one day. Her career was not going too well. She was guesting on Starsky and Hutch and things like that. She said, "I've decided if an actress is to get anywhere today, she has to get properties for herself. Can I have The Stud?" How can you possibly say no to your sister?

Joan: Let me tell you the whole story about The Stud. I was the one who flogged that book around Hollywood for two years, and nobody wanted to know about it. In 1977, at the Cannes Film Festival, I met some people who said that they'd do it. I suggested Jackie write the screenplay. She said, "Oh, I've never written a screenplay," and I said, "Listen, we can't afford to hire a good screenwriter. Write the screenplay!"

Jackie: Joan can be extremely persuasive. I wrote the screenplay in six weeks.

Joan: I did blatantly exploit myself as a commodity. I definitely needed to put bread on the table.

Jackie: It became a cult movie in Europe, and it was one of the most successful movies of 1979 in England. It was very good to both of us.

Jackie Collins on the subject of religion: "My mother was Church of England and my father was Jewish. So we didn't practice anything. I've brought my children up the same way. I went to church twice and fainted and thought, 'Well, I've done that.' "

The world may see them as libertines. But the Collins sisters see themselves as liberators. In their lives and in their books, they have ranted against the double standards that double-cross a woman these days. "Joan has always said,'——convention, I'm going to do what I want.' " Although Jackie insists she has never modeled a character after Joan, she has incorporated some of that streak of sexual independence into her characters.

Jackie: I don't believe in a double standard. I think there should be a better balance between the sexes and maybe in my own teeny way, I might help. I was once being interviewed by a very good journalist in New York, and I gave all my views on the double standard. And I get up to leave and he pinches me on the ass! I thought, this is exactly what I am talking about!

Joan: I think Jackie felt for a time that men are takers and women are used. I don't feel that way. I feel that sexual relationships are equal, and that women are entitled to have as free a sexual life as men. Absolutely. I'm not the sort of woman who can say, "All I need is my career, my children, my family." I very much need to love somebody and to be loved.

Jackie Collins on the subject of love: "It's all right in its place."

Not everything is all in the family. The actress loves high fashion. The writer hasn't worn a dress in years. The actress doesn't like pets. The writer does. According to Jackie, "She hates dogs and I have one. Every time Joan comes into the house, he attempts to mount her leg."

But the main difference is not one of style but substance. "I'm a watcher," says Jackie. "I like to observe, and she very much likes to participate. She likes to be center stage and I like to sit in the background."

Jackie Collins on sisterhood: "I don't trade off her name, she doesn't trade off mine. You will never find one of us bringing up the other one unless someone brings it up to us."

One network wants Jackie Collins to concoct a series for Joan, but so far she has refused. But in case Jackie doesn't see the story, here goes: It's a tale of two sisters who become England's ambassadors of amour. They migrate to L.A. and terrorize and vitalize the town. The hell with Hollywood Wives: For Jackie and Joan, Hollywood Sisters could be the greatest story ever told.

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