The Sublime Danielle Steel: For the Love of Supermarket Schlock

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 1978, BILL GROSE, editor-in-chief at Dell, decided to make a star of a young author from San Francisco. Grose was a thumper of novelizations from popular film and television, a fan of media tie-ins, a man with his finger in the air to feel the direction of the wind. Dell, a mass-market house, had recently been acquired by the trade giant Doubleday, which also owned radio and television stations and would in two years buy the New York Mets. Grose and Dell were looking for the next big thing. This woman, Grose thought, was it. She had a made-for-marketing name, too. Danielle Steel.

She wasn’t born with that name, exactly. She cut it from Danielle Fernandes Dominique Schuelein-Steel. Her mother was a Catholic Portuguese American and her father a Jewish German refugee who fled to New York City from Hitler’s Third Reich. They divorced when Steel was eight. She had a lonely childhood living with her father in Manhattan at 45th and Lexington, “a very adult kind of childhood,” she said, attending dinner parties and watching adults flirt or talk politics. She attended the elite Lycée Français de New York, fantasizing about becoming a nun. In her teens, she attended haute couture shows in Paris and fell for fashion. Her grandmother gave her her first couture suit when she was 17. She married a wealthy French banker, Claude-Eric Lazard, when she was 18 and studied at Parsons School of Design and NYU. In 1968, at 20, she gave birth to a daughter, Beatrix, but she wanted more than to be a mother. She saw two women on The Tonight Show talking about their PR firm, Supergirls. The next day she called to apply for a job.

Steel arrived at work looking like Audrey Hepburn: big eyes, short hair, outfitted in the season’s high fashion. She was quickly named director of public relations and vice president of marketing. She buzzed around the office with incredible energy, chain-smoking, making needlepoint kitsch, and typing letters to prospective clients in French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese (if not always with perfect grammar). One of her clients, an editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, saw promise in Steel as a writer, and told her so.

She took him seriously and wrote her first novel in the summer of 1971. She hired an agent and sold the book to Pocket Books, which published it in 1973. The protagonist is a woman who works for advertising campaigns and women’s magazines, a young divorced single mother who moves to San Francisco from New York to restart her life. There she falls in love with a filmmaker who also works in advertising, a bad boy who gets her pregnant and, when she refuses an abortion, sends her back to New York. But she can’t quit him — until he dies in a freak accident on set. She has the baby, but the baby dies within the day. In the end, our heroine runs off with the art director of the women’s mag where she now works.

It’s a bawdy post-feminist romance, closer to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which came out that same year, than Kathleen Woodiwiss’s chaste The Flame and the Flower from the year before, which helped build a massive audience for historical romance. Steel’s debut bears traces of literary ambition, expressed by her avatar-protagonist who brings a short story anthology with her to set just in case she has time to read and is thrilled by a dinner party where the discussion rushes from “Japanese literature” to “the political implications of American literature vs Russian literature at the turn of the century.” But the novel was primly panned in Publishers Weekly; its protagonist, “for all her beauty, sophistication, and use of the proper four-letter words, is not very interesting, and neither is her story,” read the verdict. The book sold modestly.

Steel, like her protagonist, moved to San Francisco. She had separated from Claude-Eric and lived for a spell in a commune with a band of street musicians. She often visited a friend in the hospital who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam but who had negotiated an early release to participate in a medical study for NASA. The patient in the next room, Danny Zugelder, an inveterate bank robber, developed a crush on Steel, and the two began corresponding, which continued after he was sent back to Lompoc Correctional Institute. He says that they consummated the relationship in the prison’s women’s bathroom. She rented a flat in Pacific Heights and took a job as a copywriter for an ad agency and wrote fiction at night. Zugelder was released in 1973 but was arrested again and sent to the state penitentiary in Vacaville in 1975 for robbery and sexual assault. He and Steel married in the prison canteen that year. She published her second novel, a romance about a socialite and her ex-con, prison-abolitionist lover, in 1977, and her third, about a man falsely accused of rape, in 1978. Both did decently well for Dell, selling several hundred thousand copies.

That’s about when Bill Grose decided it was time to make her famous.

. . . .

When I met Sean Fader, he was wearing a pink tee that said, “Ask Me About Danielle Steel.” His beard was auburn, thick, well trimmed, and flecked with gray. His eyes were cobalt and intensely present. Fader is a conceptual artist working with photography and performance and at the moment he — like I — was obsessed with Steel. “Please,” he said, “come into my studio.”

There, on a small table, sat a typewriter, a bowl of grapes, and a copy of Steel’s novel Daddy. On learning that Steel writes on a 1946 Olympia, he rebuilt the closest he could acquire, a 1954 Smith Corona Silent Super, and used it to type her a very long letter with a strange request. He wanted her to collaborate with him on a photographic project about the original sugar daddy.

In 1990, Steel bought the Spreckels Mansion, a French Baroque chateau in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, built in 1913 by Adolph Spreckels for his wife, Alma. Spreckels inherited a Hawaiian sugar plantation staffed by Japanese immigrants and the largest sugar refinery on the West Coast. Fader wrote to Steel, “Since he was 24 years older than her and his money came from sugar, she called him her ‘sugar daddy.’” (Fader acknowledges that the couple didn’t popularize the phrase: that happened a few years later with a serialized story in a Syracuse paper and then the still-extant candy, which rebranded after trying “Papa Sucker.”) Alma chose the site for the chateau because of its views of the San Francisco Bay. “Is it still true that you can see six counties from the circular observatory?” Fader asks Steel. “Did you know that she put the pool in her/your backyard to swim naked while drinking pitchers of martinis in order to piss off the neighbors?”

After seven typed pages, including a description of how he worked with a milliner to build a replica of a flamboyant wool-and-ostrich-feather hat of Alma’s, Fader comes to his request: “I want to take a picture in your home with me as Adolph and a twinky boy 24 years younger than me as Alma. I want to model the photograph after several Rodin sculptures and a few early 20th-century paintings that Alma had in her collection.” And he wanted Steel in the background.

Trying flattery, he wrote, regarding her Instagram, “If you find you are getting a lot of followers in the Southeast, it may be because of me.” To be candid, reader, it may also be because of me.

. . . .

It was unexpected. She used to be like Muzak to me, or JonBenét Ramsey: supermarket schlock. I have no memories before she was there, so I assumed she always had been, ageless, outside of time, a brand like little Debbie from Little Debbie is a brand.

But then I started studying the publishing industry. Why, of all possible book worlds, had we ended up with ours? Once I posed that question, I could see that Danielle Steel was a cosmic accident whose story revealed the hidden logic of contemporary publishing, what I call the conglomerate era for reasons I will explain in a moment. This is to say, at first my interest was professional. How long could it stay that way, though, given the life she’s led and the books she’s written? The more I learned about her, the more obsessed I became. Soon she was the only topic I wanted to talk or tweet about. I went out with friends and harangued them for hours: Claude-Eric, Supergirls, the Vacaville wedding; the vault into superstardom; novels with titles such as Message From Nam, The Klone and I, and Toxic Bachelors. Eventually we’d arrive at the difficult present.

Something unsettling has happened to Steel. For the first couple decades, she published one or two novels most years. From 1997 through 2014, she plateaued at a steady three. In 2015, she ticked up to four. Then, in 2016, an alarming six. She’s done six or seven annually since. That’s a novel every 50 days or so for a woman now 74 years old.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books and thanks to K. for the tip.

2 thoughts on “The Sublime Danielle Steel: For the Love of Supermarket Schlock”

  1. I am definitely not a fan of her writing – but… Go, girl! Seventy-four and going stronger than ever!

    “Unsettling” to the “literary” mavens, perhaps – “inspiring” to those of us that aren’t all that much younger.

  2. The whole middle section of that article about her house and its previous owner is downright bizarre. I feel like it was meant for another article entirely but was dropped into this one by an errant copy/paste.

    FWIW, the book she wrote about her son who committed suicide was written about as well as such a book could ever be written. Very touching.

Comments are closed.