Sex, Success and Joyce Carol Oates

Illustration by Bruce Eric Kaplan

Somehow, I am in Bel Air at the home of best-selling novelist Judith Krantz. I’ve been a big fan of hers ever since I was 21 and almost lost my summer job because I couldn’t put down Princess Daisy. As the years pass, my fondness for the book and its creator only grows. So now that I’m meeting her, and this being my first time interviewing someone, I am slightly nervous. Actually, I’m always slightly nervous, but this is one of those occasions where I am even more so. As she will do several more times during the course of our afternoon together, an empathetic Krantz tries to put me at ease, telling me not to worry about her. She smiles and says, “What could be nicer than talking about yourself on a nice spring day? This is delightful.” I laugh, and we begin talking about her newest book, Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl. It’s an autobiography, and it’s charming — as warm and candid as the woman who wrote it.

No surprise, Judith Krantz came from money. However, she did have a difficult childhood with an unusual mother and a remote father. After graduating from Wellesley in the late 1940s, she landed in Paris. One night, she found herself at a ball wearing a headdress made of white doves fastened to her hair. When I read the book, I got stuck on this sentence. After re-reading it a dozen times, I moved on. So the first question I ask is why didn’t the doves try to fly away or peck at each other. She laughs, saying, “They were dead. I promise you, they were stuffed. People came with very elaborate, Marie Antoinette–type headdresses. Mine was very modest. But at least it didn’t fall off. I arrived all by myself with all these doves and this pink dress with a big, big skirt, and I remember the whole thing seemed very unreal. I was only 20 at that time. And it was marvelous — I just walked around feeling absolutely invisible because, really, everyone was much more dressed up than I was. But I felt perfectly confident because I had my three dead doves on top of my head.”

After a year abroad, Krantz moved back to New York and began working as a magazine journalist, which she would continue to do for the next 20 years. She also dated. A lot. In fact, that’s how this book came about. A magazine editor asked her to write 600 words on coming of age sexually in the ’40s. Which she did, but realized, “This wasn’t telling the whole story. This is just the fringe of the fringe. I had chapters and chapters to say about it.” And let me say this: She was right. This section of the book is wonderfully touching, funny and — from the perspective of a guy with a sadly sparse love life — very informative.

Eventually she fell in love with tv producer Steve Krantz, married and raised a family. Unlike most women of her generation, she continued to have a career, albeit not one that was completely satisfying to her. After interviewing people for so many years, she says, she finally thought, “I’m just as interesting as that person — why am I the one asking the questions?” So at the age of 48, she sat down and wrote Scruples, a commercial-fiction classic. Then Princess Daisy. Then Mistral’s Daughter. Then seven more best-sellers over the next two decades.

In talking to Judith Krantz about the creative process of writing a novel, her joy is palpable. As is her pride in being such a success. But she is very forthright about where she fits in the literary community, saying, “I know the limits of my talent, and I would be overjoyed to have more talent. But I don’t. And I’m glad that since I don’t have the talent to be Joyce Carol Oates, I do have the talent to sell millions of books. It’s a trade-off. She has undoubtedly made a lot of money, but unquestionably she hasn’t made as much as I have. So which would I rather be, a great writer, like Joyce Carol Oates, or make more money? I don’t know.” Krantz gives a slight laugh, then adds, “The devil never came around and said, ‘You can be a commercial writer and make a lot of money or not very commercial but a great writer. Which do you want?’ I would have really had a tough time with that.”

 

Bruce Eric Kaplan is a writer for television (Seinfeld), and a cartoonist for The New Yorker and the Weekly. His cartoon collection No One You Know was published last year by Simon & Schuster.


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