Judith Krantz, a phenomenon, with everything hanging out

On Books

May 28, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Judith Krantz is an immensely successful professional writer. Twenty-two years after her first novel was published, her 11 books have sold tens of millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, translated into 47 languages. They leap, and then cling with Rottweiler tenacity, onto worldwide best seller lists.

For my sins, I have read two of them: "Scruples" (1978), her first, and "Mistral's Daughter" (1982). They were breezily swift-paced, overrun by caricaturish glitterati, and brimming with raw, vulgar sex. Not my kind of novels. They are commercial contemporary fiction, not noted in circles concerned with literary novels. They are of a genre that lies somewhere between "airport reading" and pornography -- perhaps "airporn" is their niche.

Now comes Ms. Krantz with a memoir: "Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl, An Autobiography" (St. Martin's Press, 352 pages, $23.95).

Some of my colleagues say I am too kind to books -- but then, most usually, I pick books to review because I have hopes they have some exemplary significance.

I set out to detest this book. Over the first 80 pages, I became enchanted, seduced. Then, gradually, ultimately, I was repulsed, revolted.

Krantz was born on Jan. 9, 1929, Judith Tarcher. She begins this book at 20, in Paris, with a PR job and as a parents-subsidized paying guest of a French family. It was a good time to be in Paris.

The detail of her recall is astonishing. She wore a turquoise-and-white smocked silk dress when, at age 7, she was taken by her parents to her first theatrical performance at Carnegie Hall. Her sister, Mimi, a year and a half younger, wore coral and white. This sort of effective minutiae permeates the book. The breathless energy of Krantz's narrative voice carries such baggage quite lightly.

Her father owned a successful advertising agency. Her mother went to law school after Judith was born and practiced mainly as an American Civil Liberties Union counsel for good causes. As a mother, she was determined, demanding, utterly unaffectionate, casually cruel. Krantz presents her father as elusive, distant -- an indefatigable philanderer.

Globe trotter

Krantz published her first article in Good Housekeeping in 1949. So for 50 years she has been writing professionally. She remains unabashedly devoted to her husband, Steven Krantz, a television executive and program entrepreneur who produced, among many other things, miniseries of several of her novels. They lived first in New York, briefly in Canada, a great deal in Southern California and intermittently in Europe, particularly France.

Weary of doing magazine articles for Cosmopolitan -- which was beginning to reject her work as too sexy -- she drifted into beginning her first novel. She finished it in six months and then spent three months on revisions. The novel was "Scruples." The year was 1978.

It was rejected by the first publisher to whom her agent sent it -- her last rejection. The second house to read it gave her an extraordinary $50,000 advance. Quickly, a paperback rights auction set a record -- $3.2 million. Before "Scruples" was published, she got a $400,000 advance for the hardcover rights to her second book, "Princess Daisy."

Krantz decided to write this memoir in July 1998, as she approached 70. She calls herself a "Nice Jewish Girl Who Had Some Amazing Fun and Went Interestingly Askew." (The Tarchers were entirely secular, but proudly Jewish. As a child, and adult, Judith had no religious participation or training. Throughout the book, she insists she is a lifelong atheist.)

For its first 80 pages or so, her book lured me in and held me. Krantz is a seductress. Then, as her narrative moved onward, it became gradually clear that she is relentlessly superficial, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, self-contrived and contriving.

Writing of herself in her 20s, she observes, "Blind passion wasn't within my potential. I was a fundamentally logical American girl and it was contrary to every fiber in my being to make a decision that could only end tragically. In the last analysis, unlike any woman in all the songs of [Edith] Piaf, I was in control of my heart."

So much for Paris' -- and the world's -- devotion to the very idea of romance. From adolescence onward, she reveals herself as a relentless manipulator, a heartless cynic.

A whine cellar

She belabors her years of psychoanalysis -- and savagely repudiates her analysts as uncaring mercenaries, while insisting that some good may have come from the process. There are endless stories of a honeymoon that went utterly wrong, of a mother and father who never loved her, of slights, of people failing to serve her needs. On promotional tours, she is treated in a manner almost any living writer would find exquisite: stretch limos, bookings on every possible show and venue. She whines about every step.

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