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One fine day when I was fifteen, my aunt Betty went to the hairdresser.

Now, this is not an unusual occurrence by any means; Betty prided herself on her meticulous grooming, which included getting her hair professionally cut and permed, then carefully washed, dried, and put up in pin curls at night so she would look her usual dazzling self at the office the next day.  Even during the free-and-easy 70s, when I wore my hair long and loose and Mum got by with a blow dryer, Betty's routine did not change one iota.  She'd found her style and was sticking to it, and if it went from bouffant to layered to just below her shoulders as the years went by, the changes were so gradual that the end result in 2005 wasn't all that much different in spirit from the victory rolls she wore just after World War  II.

That this may have been a reaction to a most unfortunate shingle bob she received as a five year old in 1929 did not occur to me until years later, when I found a picture of her with her siblings and her mother.  She looks rather like a slimmer version of the little girl on the Fat Emma candy bars, and is scowling ferociously at the photographer (presumably my grandfather or possibly my uncle Julius, the only sibling who isn't in the shot).

Of course, the fury might have been directed at my mother, less than a year old, who had just displaced Betty as the spoiled little sister of six doting older brothers.  I didn't find the picture until after Betty's death, and never would have dared ask even if I had.  There were certain things one simply didn't bring up, and the slightly deranged sibling rivalry that later caused Betty to feed Mum an entire package of Ex-Lax under the guise of chocolate candy was one of them.

Regardless, Betty took great pains to ensure that her hair looked the way she wanted it to look.  Her hairdresser, Andy, patient man that he was, made the occasional suggestion, but over the years resigned himself to doing what he was told if he wanted a nice fat tip.  He had a wife and kids to support, after all.

That is the only explanation for why he went along with the temporary insanity that overcame my aunt that fine summer day.  You see, she'd recently turned 50, and found a gray hair (or two, or three).  Being Betty, my aunt decided that this normal (and unnoticeable until she showed it to you) sign of aging was Not To Be Borne.  And because she was Betty, my aunt, who prided herself on her stylish clothes, her perfect manners, and her flawless taste, decided that if she was going to go gray, why, she might as well go whole hog and get her hair frosted.

You remember frosting, don't you?  That strange little forerunner of highlighting that involved the oh-so-recent Youth Generation deciding that their carefully feathered and layered cuts would look just peachy keen with artificially induced gray and silver streaks?  Never mind that it added ten (or twenty, or…) years to one's apparent age.  Frosting was stylish and fashionable and too, too chic for words, especially when practiced by the best New York hairdressers and their disciples in the hinterlands.  Everyone from teenagers to dowagers was doing it, and if the results seldom looked as good on Mrs. Kovalchick or Ms. Andrade as they did on Lauren Hutton or Farrah Fawcett-Majors, well, it was good enough for Pittsburgh, so there!

And so Betty, whether out of a desire to keep up with the blown-dry, middle-aged panic, or a little of both, sallied forth to Andy's and, without telling anyone but Mum (she sure didn't tell me), had her naturally dark chestnut hair transformed in a veritable croquembouche of silver, platinum, and pale, pale blonde streaks, swirls, and poufs.

I don't recall what her brothers thought, although it's likely that Oscar, her usual chauffeur, shook his head and chewed his peppermint Chiclets rather than argue.  Lou, less polite and more profane, muttered something about her being a damned fool as usual and stalked out of the room to wash his hands.  I stared for a moment, then lied and told her it looked great. Mum, who had learned long since not to pick fights she couldn't win, contented herself with a terse nod and went back to making dinner.

Betty, who had thought that giving herself the gray hair that Nature had kindly refrained from unleashing on her quite yet would make her the belle of Pleasant Hills, was less than pleased to get such a graphic preview of the inevitable.  That is why on Saturday, less than a week after undergoing the long, dramatic, and expensive procedure that transformed her from a youthful fifty to a dead ringer for one of weird spray painted sprays of pampas grass that used to adorn furniture showroom windows, Betty went back to Andy and paid him even more money to dye her hair back to its natural brown.

We rarely spoke of this incident in the years that followed; Betty was, understandably, a bit sensitive on the subject.  Mum did bring it up the day that Betty, who had found a few more gray hairs, came home from work with a bottle of Grecian Formula and demanded that Mum apply it to her scalp rather than doing it herself, but of course there are things that sisters can chew each other out over discuss that are forbidden to others.

Me, I stayed out of it.

That is, until the day I turned twenty-five and Betty casually mentioned that she thought I'd look wonderful if I went to her hairdresser the next time I was in Pittsburgh and got my long, straight, naturally brown hair cut, permed, and (you knew this was coming) frosted…..

Betty's one attempt at deviating from her usual style to look faddish rather than fashionable may have been a resounding flop, but she is far from the only person who's succumbed to the urge to have her hair altered in unflattering and hideous ways.  From frosted to layered, bouffants to frizzy perms, cornrows and dreadlocks on natural blondes to harsh chemical straighteners on African-Americans, Brylcreem on men and Kool-Aid on teenagers, mousse on everyone and blow torch trims on the brave, there's little we humans can't and haven't done to the product of our follicles.  Women in particular seem all but compelled to ape whatever outrageous style they saw on Lady Gaga or at the Oscars, but anyone who's seen a group of frat boys shave their heads to spell out the name of their college football team knows that men can be equally susceptible to the lure of the ridiculous hairstyle.

One of the silliest examples I've seen of this was in, of all things, a television mini-series.  The lead actress, a lovely and talented woman who seemingly hadn't aged a day since she'd co-starred on a popular sitcom a decade earlier, played a Manhattan socialite named Maxi who is determined to return her father's publishing empire to its former glory.  Maxi and her family, almost all of whom would make terrible neighbors, endure a truly astonishing variety of betrayals, illicit sexual encounters, suicides, underage sex, staged accidents, star-crossed love, overage sex, business reversals, did I say sex? and misunderstandings before finally triumphing over their enemies and finding true love, or at least the trashy miniseries version of same.  The entire mess ends with Our Heroine planning her next adventure with the man of her dreams, who loves her even though she's now - oh horrors! - on the cusp of middle age.  This is shown by an obviously fake spray of white hairs on the forelock of the dark wig the actress wore to show that even though she looked about eighteen, tops, she was a real, true, genuine adult woman.

All of the above played out against a backdrop of gorgeous houses, horse-country estates, glittering New York apartments, the 1980s version of slinky bespoke clothing, and pretty people stabbing each other in the back, jumping out of windows, lying shamelessly, and merrily fornicating in the best fade-to-black puritanical “imply but not show” style.  It was good trashy fun that bore as much resemblance to actual life as an Edward D. Wood, Jr., script does to the lesser works of William Shakespeare, and was the highest rated miniseries of the 1986-1987 season.

The source material for this prime example of why no one has ever gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public was Wellesley College's (eventually) blonde, beautiful, and extremely well connected gift to the word of terrible books.  Known to her classmates as “Torchy,” this 1948 alumna of the same school that produced Nora Ephron and Hillary Rodham Clinton made a name for herself by having thirteen consecutive dates with thirteen different boys, an academic career that all but defines the word "undistinguished," and an imagination that allowed her entertain, titillate, and chronicle high society hijinks that might be better described as hijunks.

I refer, of course, to the Queen of the Miniseries Source Novel, Judith Krantz.

Born Judith Tarcher in 1928 to an upscale Jewish family in New York, young Judith was early exposed to the best of everything.  Her mother, an attorney in the days when few women worked outside the home, made sure that her precocious daughter would be equally prepared to work if necessary; Judith prepared for college at an exclusive prep school, graduated in 1944 at the age of 16, and was promptly accepted at that bastion of upper crust WASP educational values for young women, Wellesley College.  There young Judith, busy dating the aforesaid baker's dozen of whatever eligible young men hadn't been drafted (at least during her freshman and sophomore years), coasted to a gentlewoman's C en route to the traditional well-rounded liberal arts education.  The one exception to this unremarkable experience was her major, English, where she routinely got good grades, but her spelling was so terrible that one of her professors deliberately marked her down a whole letter to teach her a lesson.

In a remarkable bit of prescience, this incident occurred in a short story writing class Torchy Tarcher (say that three times fast, I dare you) took in her sophomore year.  

Yes, really.

Torchy didn't write fiction again for 31 years, but she certainly didn't stop writing, far from it.  After she graduated in 1948, she spent a glorious year in Paris working as a public relations flack for a fashion house.  This dream job entailed rubbing shoulders with the rich, talented, and notorious, losing her virginity, and wearing borrowed couture gowns to parties large and small.  Despite all the fun, she decided that there was no place like home, moved back to her natal city, and started working for the top women's magazines.  She went freelance after meeting the love of her life, television cartoonist Steven Krantz, at a party hosted by an old high school buddy (an otherwise obscure television personality named Barbara Walters) and getting married in the early 1950s, but her journalism career proved a rich source of celebrity gossip, fashion tips, and information on sex.

Life was busy but fulfilling during those halcyon years of the 1950s and 1960s; America was Top Nation, and that sense of confidence and security pervaded the Krantz household.  They started out in New York, but eventually moved to Los Angeles as Steve made his mark as a film producer of wholesome family fare like Fritz the Cat.  Torchy, who now had reverted to the classier but less memorable "Judith," bore and raised two fine sons, all the while continuing to write non-fiction.  She was best known for an article titled “The Myth of the Multiple Orgasm” for Cosmopolitan during its glory years under Helen "I will help you have great sex and find great men, mouseburgers!" Gurley Brown, but it was scarcely the only salable prose that flowed from her typewriter during the heyday of the women's magazine.

As good as all this was, Judith had never forgotten (or, most likely, forgiven) the professor who had downgraded her story because she couldn't spell.  She hadn't written fiction since that traumatizing experience, but midway through the 70s she changed her mind, and with it, the course of her life.

It seems that only did Judith write for the women's magazines, she also read them.  Thanks to this, she became aware that for all the importance of the female consumer to the magazine and popular fiction market, very, very little of the said popular fiction outside of category romances was actually written by women.  Jacqueline Susann was the great exception, but she was already ill with the cancer that would kill her in 1974.  There were the romantic suspense writers like Susan Howatch and Mary Stewart, and the spicy romance writers like Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, but there was almost nothing for women who preferred what one critic dubbed the money/sex/power novel.  These chronicles of high finance, wealth, and as much bedroom hopping as the laws would allow were almost all written by men, starred men, and treated their female characters as beautiful but disposable plot devices.

Judith decided that this would not do, not at all.  And so she screwed her courage to the sticking place, put aside the bad memories of being dissed by a mere professor, and started to write.  She was a big girl, now, after all, and a professional wordsmith, so all she had to lose was time.  Besides, she now had more than enough money to hire someone to proofread her copy before she sent it off to a publisher.

Her first book, Scruples, came out to absolutely no critical acclaim in 1978. The story of an ugly duckling girl from Boston who goes to Paris (just like Judith), opens a boutique on the then barely-known Rodeo Drive, and has all sorts of incidents, accidents, triumphs, and tragedies before finally getting very rich as a film producer (just like Steve) with her loving, handsome husband.  Heroine Wilhelmina "Billy" Ikehorn, born into money, has to suffer along her way to Scrooge McDuckesque piles of money, but she never loses her taste for the finer things in life as she climbs the ladder of success.

That includes men who are gloriously rich (her original husband), gloriously handsome (the male nurses Billy takes to bed as the gloriously rich Ellis dies), or both (the dashing European aristocrat she marries in the end).  Billy, who seems not to have read her creator's article about the myth of the multiple orgasm, has the sort of astonishingly healthy sex life that most of us can only experience by reading back issues of Penthouse, to the point that critics wondered just what sort of secrets this outwardly respectable Jewish wife and mother was concealing.  

That all this fun was expressed in the form of prose that probably would have made Torchy Tarcher's old professor long for death in the icy waters of Lake Waban only made it more exciting for the average consumer.  Not only were a man's reproductive organs once termed "pouchy globes" during a scene depicting the said globes being used as nature intended, the book contains masterfully written passages like the following:

It is strange, is it not, how an accident of a millimeter here, a millimeter there, makes one face so important. Think about it Elliot, she has two eyes, a nose, a mouth, just like everyone else. It's all in tiny degrees of placement, such small area of magic to make such a big difference. For me, Elliot, I must tell you it is a hard thing to understand- why these things, these millimeters, are so crucial to you, you of all men.
At least this opaque excuse for dialogue is properly spelled, although that may be as much to the Linotype operator as anything else.
“Did she make you laugh? Did she love you as much as you loved her? Did she protect you and warm you and keep you from suffering?" Valentine turned her eyes away from him, unable to face the empty answer in his face but not wanting to stop saying what she had thought for so long. "I saw how fascinating her mystery was to you. For my part, I think that the mystery is always greatest where there is the most-emptiness. A person full of life is never mysterious, on the contrary.”
Isn't that romantic?
Some questions are not meant to be asked as long as the answers are right.
And some aphorisms belong on the little slips of paper in fortune cookies, not between the covers of a book.

Regardless of whether this saga would have gotten an A at a Seven Sisters college, regardless of whether anything but Billy's Parisian adventure and her husband's background in Hollywood were actually drawn from real life, Judith Krantz's exciting but poorly reviewed story of a gorgeous girl who pulls herself up by her bra straps touched something in the American female soul. It sold briskly from the get-go, was at the top of the bestseller lists shortly after publication, and sold over 4 million copies in its first two years in print.  

Take that, Dr. Pedantic!

Judith, thrilled at her success if somewhat wounded by the accusations that she was nothing more than the female Harold Robbins, went straight back to her typewriter.  The paperback rights to her second novel, 1980's Princess Daisy, sold for over $3 million before the hardcover was even in print.  It, too, soared straight to the top of the bestseller lists, proving that a book about a Russian aristocrat with a secret handicapped twin who is raped by her half-brother, loses her mother early, has fraught relationship with her remaining parent,and has a and eventually triumphs over all obstacles, will sell just as well as one about a socialite who marries well, has sex with her husband's hospice caregivers, and then marries a Roman aristocrat. So did her third book, Mistral's Daughter, which centered on a brawling, sprawling, wenching painter based not particularly vaguely on Picasso, his former mistress, the former mistress's daughter Teddy (who also falls in love with Mistral), and Mistral and Teddy's daughter Fauve (!!!???), who must deal with her father's less than savory reputation and legacy.

All of these books, and the later, solid, but less stratospherically successful tomes that followed (Till We Meet Again, The Jewels of Tessa Kent, I'll Take Manhattan, and the inevitable Scruples II) were all the sort of juicy, racy, spicy, ludicrously overblown stories that are a perfect diversion on the beach, at the airport, or while waiting for one's wash to dry at finer coin-op laundromats across this great land of ours.  The heroines are always beautiful (though quirkily so), their lives among the (real, genuine, not-concealed-by-a-pseudonym) rich and famous are always minutely described, and, like a Horatio Alger with magnificent breasts and legs that go on for miles, they always, always, always triumph through that all-American combination of pluck, luck, and hard work.  

To quote 1990's interviewer Roy H. Campbell, the Krantz novel is a combination of the following:

1) Create a super heroine: a beautiful, sensual female who faces villains, tragedy and unhappy love affairs (not to mention the difficulty of deciding which designer ensemble to wear) before finding happiness.

2) Give the heroine a glamorous job: supermodel, celebrity photographer, World War II fighter pilot.

3) Set the heroine in exotic locations: Paris music hall of the pre-World War I era, the royal courts of pre-revolutionary Russia, the modeling runways of New York. Populate her world with well-off characters, gay, straight and bisexual, who seduce one another with consummate skill.

Doesn't that sound just like the sort of diversion we all need while the sneakers and winter comforters are thumping away in the triple-loader?  Oh, academics might compare the typical Krantz novel to the traditional 19th century bildungsroman, or coming of age novel, only starring an ambitious woman instead of a man, but the average Krantz reader was more interested in reading about how Maxi Amberville defeated her evil uncle Cutter while hobnobbing with Donald Trump (she even lived in Trump Tower, and wasn't that something else?) and having enough sex that it's a wonder her Sealy Posturepedic didn't snap in the middle and crash through the floor into the Donald's latest cocktail party.

It's little wonder that the combination of tough, hardworking heroines, multiple and lovingly described orgasms, and plausible if overwrought descriptions of the wealthy made Judith very, very rich.  This formula also made her very, very famous. Now as blonde as a good hairdresser could make a nice Jewish girl from Central Park West, Judith was constantly on the road promoting her books and herself.  Talk show appearances, book signings, interviews - she did it all, did it well, and did it while still churning out her signature overwrought prose and staying happily married to her beloved Steve. If she was upset that reviewers regularly compared her books to advertising copy, or slagged her for featuring heroines so perfect they should have all been named Mary Sue instead of Maxi and Jazz and Fauve, she covered it well.

"I don't even think about (critics) when I am writing. I think of my readers. I think of the women who write me and say my book got them through a rainy weekend or a depressing time. I want people to read my book and escape," she told Roy Campbell, and went straight back to her typewriter.  Like Maggy or Eve or Teddy, working hard and living well was its own reward.

And if it weren't enough that her books were outselling everything but the Bible, that her sons were healthy and successful, that Steve still worshiped her and rejoiced in her success, that she was better known and blonder than ever, by the early 1980s Judith Krantz found her work conquering yet another medium, this one a form of entertainment that exposed her tales of the wealthy and the wicked to an audience large enough to put her book sales to shame.

I refer, of course, to television.  

Beginning with Scruples in 1980, it was a rare year between then and 1995 that did not see a Judith Krantz miniseries hit the airwaves.  These lavishly filmed and extravagantly acted spectacles, usually produced by the experienced and canny Steve Krantz, were every bit as breathless, overwrought, and Algeresque as the books on which they were based, albeit far less sexually explicit thanks to network standards.  Aside from Scruples itself, the list included the following gems:

Princess Daisy (1983)

Mistral’s Daughter (1984)

I’ll Take Manhattan (1987)

Till We Meet Again (1989)

Torch Song (1993)

Dazzle (1995)

There was even a miniseries that wasn't based on a novel, Judith Krantz's Secrets, which was the usual farrago of wild plot developments, pretty people doing naughty things, and lovingly described material goods, not an expose of how a nice Jewish girl from Central Park West and her nice Jewish husband had made it big as, respectively, the author of sexy books and the producer of x-rated animated films.

Usually starring a cast of skilled thespians on the downside of their careers such as Stacy "I snorted my success up my septum" Keach, Valerie "I will never look older than sixteen despite having a kid and being married to Eddie van Halen at his drunkest," and Maxwell "I starred in Grease 2 Caulfield," these productions drew critical raspberries for their ridiculous plots and high ratings for their name dropping and escapism.  Many were still being rerun as late as ten years ago on WE, the Women's Entertainment channel that featured cozy little teatime chats with pseudo-aristocrats like Fiona Hutchison, reality shows about Bridezillas, and catty gossip with Joan Rivers and her marginally more sane daughter Melissa.

It couldn't last forever, of course; Judith's last novel, The Jewels of Tessa Kent, was published in 1998 to respectable but not stratospheric sales.  It was never filmed, possibly because the miniseries had died several years before that in favor of longer, grittier, more explicit shows on cable.  American women's tastes have changed as more and more have achieved personal success instead of simply reading about it, and if this might just be accompanied by a backlash against Reagan-era adulation of the wealthy and naughty, well, Judith and her creations had a good long run as trashy books go.

At the same time, most of Judith's books are still available on Amazon.com, for e-book, and on the tables at your better sort of tag sales in suburbs throughout the United States.  Judith, whose last actual book was her 2000 autobiography, Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl, may even be undergoing something of a revival; no less an actress than Oscar-winner Natalie Portman is evidently working on producing a remake of Scruples, starring as Wilhemina "Billy" Winthrop Ikehorn Orsini.

Take that, literary critics!

%%%%%

I'm sure that many of you have a well-thumbed Judith Krantz novel shoved deep into a closet, or a faded VHS copy of I'll Take Manhattan stuffed in the back of your entertainment center.  Now is the time and place to confess all - I mean, it worked for Torchy and her creations, so why not here?

%%%%%

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Mar 16, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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