Passion, Picasso & Police

updated 06/02/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1997 01:00AM

WITH ONE HAND BARBARA Joslyn held a telephone to her ear; with the other she clutched a bloodied steak knife. "I've stabbed myself, I'm bleeding, I want to die," Joslyn, 48, told her lawyer Dana Cole over the phone on May 13 as FBI agents and Los Angeles police officers rammed a cement block against the door of her $40-a-day room at the Stars Inn in Century City. "She didn't know what to do," says Cole, who begged his client to surrender. "She felt she had come to the end of her rope." He heard loud banging and Joslyn scream before the phone dropped to the floor. "I thought," says Cole, " 'This is it.' "

Moments later, with law officers crashing into the room, Joslyn—a romance novelist on the lam for two separate crimes—crawled out of a small bathroom window and hid in a boiler room behind the inn. There, agents found her, huddled and bleeding, in a pink and orange nightgown, and arrested her on a federal fugitive warrant stemming from a 1995 burglary conviction. So ended the nearly two-year odyssey of a troubled woman who longed to be as rich as the characters in her two novels but who wound up becoming something she dreaded—a captive of the law. "She felt she could never handle prison," says Cole. "She often told me that she was just going to walk into the ocean."

Instead, Joslyn, on the mend from the several knife wounds in her chest and abdomen, is headed for the slammer. Though the matter of her 1995 conviction on attempted grand theft was finally settled by a Los Angeles judge on May 16 (she had originally failed to pay a $810 fine), Joslyn must still serve from 2½ to five years in prison for her role in the 1994 burglary of her friend Crawford Greenleaf's apartment on New York City's Park Avenue. In that heist, which she masterminded, her accomplice, Australian film director-producer Ian Pringle, stole a Picasso sketch and other valuables worth $800,000. "I acted out of despair and panic," Joslyn said in a 1994 confession to police, in which she claimed to have lost her savings in a stock swindle. "I thought that by stealing these articles I would be able to begin my life anew."

It was not the first time Joslyn sought to reinvent herself. Born in Toronto to a doctor and his wife, a dress designer, she was raised in New York's affluent Westchester County. She claims she studied literature at Oxford University in England (the school has no record of her) before becoming an actress. When a move to Hollywood in the mid-1980s failed to rev up her career, she tried her hand at writing. Mingling with Los Angeles socialites allowed her to write about the decadent rich in Strange Sins, a 1988 Jackie Collins-type novel published under the pen name Jocelyn Christopher. Her 1989 follow-up, Private Dancers, was another satire of the jet set she longed to join. "I love Saint Laurent" and other designer clothes, she told the Orange County Register in 1990. "Thank God I'm finally getting to buy them instead of admiring them from afar."

In fact, Joslyn's finances were dwindling due to her lavish spending. "She lived the high life," says Cole. "But then her father and mother died, and the money disappeared. She just kind of hit the skids." Unable to sell any books or screenplays, and desperate for cash, Joslyn turned to crime. She flew to New York in 1994 and booked a room at the Hotel Plaza Athenee, running up a 10-day $5,500 tab. She then lured her friend Crawford Greenleaf to lunch, leaving the front door open and allowing Ian Pringle, who was hiding in a stairwell, to steal a charcoal sketch of a nude by Picasso, a Vuillard painting, jewelry and credit cards from Greenleaf's apartment. But Joslyn quickly confessed to suspicious police officers and, together with Pringle, was charged with burglary. He served nine months in jail and now lives in Australia; Joslyn jumped bail and fled to California.

In May 1995 she was arrested for ordering $2,300 worth of goods from Gucci, Tiffany & Co. and other stores using a credit card number she had procured. Placed on probation and fined by the court, Joslyn never paid and slipped out of view. Last November she checked into the Stars Inn under her own name and spent time working on a manuscript about John Wilkes Booth. Cole says Joslyn may have scraped along by pawning or selling her belongings. "She went from jewelry piece to jewelry piece," he says. "Hand to mouth." And though he urged Joslyn to turn herself in, she vowed that she would kill herself rather than go to jail. "She kept the kitchen knife on the nightstand for that purpose if she felt they were ever coming to get her," Cole says she told him after her arrest.

They finally did, after tips from her acquaintances led the FBI and LAPD to her motel room. Joslyn's bloody final stand, more bizarre than anything in her fiction, did not surprise Cole. "She was always emotionally bare," he says. "She felt she had few if any options." As Joslyn herself explained while discussing her "flair for the overdramatic" with a California reporter in 1990, "I guess I'm sort of a passionate person."

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
LYNDON STAMBLER and LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles and HELENE STAPINSK in New York City

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