Paperback King Harold Robbins Writes An Almost Happy Ending to a Battle with Excruciating Pain

updated 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

On the evening of Feb. 23, 1985, Harold Robbins was a man who had every reason to think that fate was with him. Author of 18 steamy potboilers, including the pulp classic The Carpetbaggers, the brassy New Yorker who began life in a foundling home had become one of the world's richest writers. Robbins fans in 81 countries have purchased a staggering 500 million copies of his novels, and Robbins collects a $2 million advance for each new effort. With his fourth wife, Grace, the now 72-year-old writer lived like one of his own high-rolling protagonists, with props including a yacht, Rolls-Royces, a house on the French Riviera and another in Acapulco. He and Grace were just getting settled in their latest spread, a lavish $3.5 million hilltop home in Beverly Hills, which they had christened in true Robbins style with a showy fete and rivers of Dom Perignon.

That February day, Grace, an aspiring country singer, was in Acapuico, making her performing debut at a charity gala. In Beverly Hills, Harold had put in 12 hours at the typewriter, churning out a loosely autobiographical work called The Storyteller. At 11 p.m., after dinner with Jann Stapp, his assistant, he had gone to the second floor of the Tudor-style mansion to relax in his elaborate steam bath.

Minutes later, Stapp was walking through the kitchen when she noticed water seeping through the ceiling. She rang the phone in Robbins' bathroom, but there was no answer. Hurrying upstairs, she was shocked to find Robbins sprawled on the bathroom floor, unconscious. Stepping out of the shower, he had tripped on the four-inch-high splash panel and struck his head on a marble counter. "They tell me I slid unconscious across the bathroom floor with such force that I hit the toilet bowl, knocking it off its pipes. The water began pouring out," Robbins says. "My legs wound up on either side of the bowl."

With that single incautious step, the author's life had taken a nightmare turn. At UCLA Medical Center, Robbins was told that his left hip had been shattered and his right fractured. After three operations in eight months, he graduated from a wheelchair to a walker to lightweight crutches. But the agonizing pain stayed with him, preventing him from writing. He felt himself a prisoner in his own body. "It was terrible," he says. "I was crazy. I was absolutely nuts." Grace was an anguished witness. "It was the inactivity that drove him crazy," she says. "I would invite friends over for dinner or lunch to keep him occupied."

Three-and-a-half years (and more than $1 million in medical bills) later, Robbins is still on crutches, still at war with his slowly mending body. His continent-hopping travels are over; the yacht, the houses in France and Mexico and Beverly Hills (all stair-filled and too tricky to negotiate) have been sold, and he and Grace have moved to a suitably excessive single-story palazzo in Palm Springs. There, Robbins does daily battle with his disability.

In addition to massages and therapy in his own pool and at Desert Hospital, where a hydrotherapy facility he has funded is under design, he has been given an electrical device that helps him fight off the worst of the pain. Implanted in his spine last April, it is wired to a mechanism implanted below the skin in his lower left abdomen. Using a remote-control trigger, Robbins can deliver a pain-masking electrical shock to nerves in his damaged hips. The setup has its drawbacks—"If you pour on too much juice," he says, "it can knock you on your ass"—but it does allow him to get on with his life. "Drugs are either a high or you go to sleep," he says, "neither of which I wanted. I just wanted to stop the pain, period, and get back to work."

Even now, however, Robbins writes without benefit of any painkiller save massive amounts of Tylenol. Concentration, he says, is the best anodyne. "I can't stand the buzzing from the implant," he says. "It drives me crazy when I work, so I don't use it."

While a less determined man might have given up long ago, Robbins never considered it. "Harold was terrific," says neighbor and fellow book mason Sidney Sheldon. "He did the best thing possible: He went back to work as soon as he could, despite the pain." With just one-third of The Storyteller completed, Robbins returned to the typewriter in October 1985. He has since finished the novel—his 19th—along with a screenplay, outlines for two television series and early chapters of yet another novel. "It would have been a little faster if I weren't hurting," says Robbins. "But what keeps me going is something called creative conceit. I always think I can do it better next time."

Still struggling to recover all the mobility he can, Robbins is now capable of driving his fleet of cars, and doctors promise that he will eventually be able to trade his crutches for a cane. "The pain will always be there, but you can take it if you can move around," Robbins says. "The main thing is I believe I'm going to walk. I believe I'm going to move. I believe I'm going to get around." Somehow one senses that, in Robbins' case, believing is next to achieving and that the scenario of his recovery is already written.

Michelle Green, and Doris Klein Bacon in Palm Springs

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