Long before I saw Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, I knew all about Howard Hughes. It wasn’t that I’d read many biographies of the man, just that I had read—when I was in my teens—Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers. If you are of a certain age, then you’ll remember The Carpetbaggers. It was one of the great airport best-sellers of the 1960s and told the story of Jonas Cord Jr, who inherited a tool company from his father but went on to build planes, make movies and love actresses.
Though Robbins never came out and actually said it, everybody knew that the book was based on Howard Hughes’ life. Nor was this the only one of the author’s books to offer us a novelization of a real person’s life. The Adventurers, the follow-up to The Carpetbaggers, was about the South American playboy Porfirio Rubirosa and one his wives, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. The Pirate was based on Adnan Khashoggi’s life (his ex-wife even sued in a London court to prevent the book from coming out); The Inheritors was inspired by James Aubrey, a one-time head of CBS-TV.
Though the idea might strike us as faintly quaint in this day and age, the roman-à-clef, or a book about real people and real events disguised as fiction, was a staple of the best-seller lists for many decades. It wasn’t just Harold Robbins who churned them out. Jacqueline Susann struck gold with The Valley of the Dolls, in which one character was clearly based on Judy Garland, and followed it up with The Love Machine (also about CBS’ James Aubrey) and Dolores, about Jacqueline Kennedy.
Leonardo Di Caprio played Hughes in Scorsese’s award-winning biopic
Other best-sellers, such as William Woolfolk’s The Beautiful Couple (about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) mined the same seam and whenever a potboiler appeared in the 1960s and the 1970s, the big question was not “how good is it?” but “who is it really about?”
Except that I’m not sure that any of the authors really knew very much about the people they were writing about. In the case of Robbins’ books, the formula was simple. He would take the bare bones of a character’s life and then flesh out the story from his imagination. Inevitably, he would glamorize his heroes. The real Hughes was a nutcase (captured in the Scorsese film), but in The Carpetbaggers, the hero is a romantic buccaneer. The real Rubirosa was a sleaze ball famous for a single physical attribute (which is why the French call a pepper mill a “Rubirosa”) but Dax, in The Adventurers, is a patriot willing to die for his country.
Jacqueline Susann knew even less about the people she wrote about. Truman Capote, who did know Jackie Kennedy, went on TV to trash Susann’s Dolores, pointing out that it was based on no inside knowledge at all (he also said that Susann looked like a truck driver in drag. But when she protested, he apologized—to truck drivers!).
Sadly, people who did know the truth rarely got away with publishing it. Capote himself tried to distil his experiences into a novel about the rich called Answered Prayers. But when excerpts from the book—in which Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwill were described as “a couple of geisha girls”—appeared in a magazine, Capote’s friends all dropped him. He had a nervous breakdown and died soon after: The full manuscript of Answered Prayers has never been found.
One exception could be Dominic Dunne, whose books in the 1980s and 1990s were essentially romans-à-clef, about American society. Dunne continues to have access to New York and California society even though he has written romans-à-clef about the William Kennedy Smith rape trial and the murder of department store millionaire Alfred Bloomingdale’s mistress (in which, a side plot concerns the missing manuscript of Answered Prayers).
The British equivalent would be Susan Crossland, wife of former foreign secretary Anthony Crossland, whose romans-à-clef feature such characters as diplomat-economist Peter Jay and press baron Robert Maxwell.
But, of course, there are enough people writing about the likes of Maxwell without the benefit of any inside information. Jeffrey Archer’s The Fourth Estate about the rivalry between Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch is so poorly researched that Murdoch told me in an interview that it was just as well that Archer had fictionalized the story because every detail was wrong.
There are relatively few Indian romans-à-clef. You can recognize some of the characters in Shobhaa De’s books (especially in Starry Nights, her best novel) and I’ve read a trashy book that is clearly based on Rekha, but these are exceptions. None recently; Neelima Adhar’s Merchants of Death is obviously based on the Jains of The Times of India, but its bilious tone seems to have done the media magnates no damage.
And romans-à-clef seem to have gone out of fashion all over the world, anyway. Some of this may have to do with our impatience with the sex-filled romps that Susann and Robbins specialized in. These days, it’s men such as John Grisham and Michael Crichton, who include no sex in their books, who top the best-seller lists. In an age where porn is so easily available on the Internet and on DVDs, nobody needs the suggestive raunch of the old best-sellers.
But, mostly, I think that media overexposure has finished off the roman-à-clef. Once, we knew so little about the private lives of famous people that we longed to learn their secrets. Now, we have too much information. When Angelina Jolie tells the press that yes, she did keep a vial of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck once and yes, she loved sleeping with women, then what’s left for any putative Harold Robbins to write about? Can the central character in any novel be weirder than the real Michael Jackson? And why bother with inventing a life story for Richard Branson, when he has done such a good job of it himself?
Now, Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann are dead and today’s airport best-sellers are the magazines.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his previous column on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi