Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex
By Andrew Wilson
(Bloomsbury, $25.95)

Life was a joke to the novelist Harold Robbins. “When I’m gone, they can grill me and throw away the ashes,” he once said. In the meantime, he had a fortune to spend. In 1966, Robbins was the highest-earning author in the world. His biggest title, 1961’s kinky The Carpetbaggers, was tucked into bedside tables across America and said to be the fourth best-read book in history. Repeating the formula was easy. So the balding, potbellied Robbins bought himself a yacht, a fleet of cars, and houses in L.A., Acapulco, and the south of France. He dumped his wife of 28 years and coaxed wife No. 2 into co-hosting cocaine-fueled orgies. The ’70s flew by in a blur—before Robbins’ hedonism all but killed him.

British author Andrew Wilson “has written perhaps a better biography of Robbins than Robbins deserves,” said Carolyn See in The Washington Post. The sex that sold every Robbins novel was “crawly, smarmy sex,” and the writing in between “pure-awful.” But Wilson spotted a great American story: how a Brooklyn-born pharmacist’s son painted—and tainted—the dreams of a generation, then was destroyed by his success. This is The Great Gatsby for everybody who once thought that mounds of caviar, bowls of blow, and piles of silk shirts were tickets to “something bigger, stranger, wilder.” Because the whole culture was enamored of that possibility, said Deirdre Donahue in USA Today, “you don’t have to remember or even have read Robbins” to relish Wilson’s “spooky” true-life fable.

Robbins’ downfall came as if handcrafted by “a wrathful god,” said Corinna Honan in the London Daily Mail. A minor stroke at 66 robbed him of his capacity to write orderly sentences. Then a cocaine-induced fall in the shower broke his pubic bone. He spent his final years in a wheelchair as ghostwriters failed to keep his name atop best-seller lists, and his third wife helped spend him into $1 million of debt. Robbins had grown contemptuous of his readers and his own talent long before, said Scott Eyman in the Palm Beach, Fla., Post. But it would be wrong to say that he paid dearly for selling out. Greed was both his fuel and faith from the beginning.