Judith Krantz, whose steamy, glitzy romance novels — about the obscene exploits of the obscenely wealthy — were devoured by millions of readers and transformed the former Good Housekeeping editor into a publishing and television sensation, died Saturday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 91.
Krantz burst onto the literary scene in 1978 with "Scruples" — a racy Cinderella tale about the making of a Beverly Hills boutique owner — that sold about 5 million copies in its first two years in print.
Though she was paid a relatively small sum for the book — $50,000 — Krantz would later garner record-breaking advances, earning millions of dollars from her top-selling romances and the TV miniseries made from them. Her novels, 10 in all, sold more than 80 million copies, were translated into over 50 languages and became fixtures of bestseller lists for decades.
Critics were not impressed
Critics rarely had kind words for Krantz's books, but she saw them as pure entertainment. "It's not Dostoevsky," she told the Washington Post in 1986. "It's not going to tax your mental capacities."
Krantz spun ornate, breathless tales with only-in-your-dreams endings. Her powerful heroines had showgirl names (Maxi Amberville, Kiki Kavanaugh, Jazz Kilkullen), fabulous wardrobes and beauty so astounding it defied the English language. "Her changeable eyes were an unnameable color that held in it the bewitchment of a thousand twilights," she wrote of one character in "Mistral's Daughter" (1982).
The books, like those of Jacqueline Susann and Jackie Collins, helped break taboos about women and sex — and about women writing about sex. They were mildly scandalous in a pre- "Fifty Shades of Grey" world. "They've done everything but tattoo a 'P' for Pornographer on my chest," Krantz told People magazine in 1978.
"Scruples" was rejected by Simon & Schuster, which said the novel — about a woman named Billy Ikehorn who transforms herself from an overweight frump into the svelte, stylish and wealthy proprietor of a Beverly Hills boutique called Scruples — suffered from an excess of characters and plot.
Crown swooped in and not only bought the novel for $50,000 but quickly snapped up an outline of Krantz's second novel, "Princess Daisy," for $400,000. Rights to the paperback edition of that book were sold for $3.2 million, then the highest price ever paid for a fiction reprint. "Daisy" hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list a week before its publication date in 1980.
That same year, a TV miniseries based on "Scruples" came out, with Lindsay Wagner in the starring role. Produced by Krantz's husband, Steve Krantz, it was the second-highest-rated miniseries of 1980.
Trump makes cameo
So began a fruitful family business: Krantz would publish a book roughly every two years, and a couple of years after that her husband would bring it to the small screen. Donald Trump even made a cameo in one production, "I'll Take Manhattan" (1987), which was set in Trump Tower.
Krantz was 50 when "Scruples" was published. "I was the world's latest bloomer!" she told the Boston Globe. The book, she said, was partly the result of empty-nest syndrome. Her sons had recently left for college, and she finally succumbed to the urgings of her husband that she try writing a novel.
For more than 20 years, Krantz had worked as an editor and writer at women's magazines. Her serious pieces, a profile, for example, about Golda Meir, were overshadowed by her more provocative ones, such as a much-discussed piece on "The Myth of the Multiple Orgasm" for Cosmopolitan (an article the sexually ecstatic characters in her novels seemed to have missed).
Krantz at first balked at the idea of writing a novel, saying she'd been reluctant to try fiction writing after receiving a B in creative writing as a student at Wellesley College. But because facing another anxiety — fear of piloting a small plane her husband had bought — was so liberating, Krantz said she became "overcome by a rage of ambition."
She sat down at her Smith Corona typewriter and completed "Scruples" in nine months.
Little seemed to faze Krantz, whose work was publicized in lengthy author tours, on billboards, in TV commercials and at lavish promotional events that melded fiction and reality.
Judith Tarcher was born in Manhattan on Jan. 9, 1928.