The Lonely Lady, by Harold Robbins
March, 1977 Pocket Books
(Original hardcover edition, 1976)
“There’s no real story, no focus. It’s all open and spread out, like a kaleidoscope. Every time you turn it you lose the picture. By the time I finished reading it I was too confused to understand what I had read.”
This line of dialog, which appears on page 300 of this paperback edition, aptly sums up The Lonely Lady itself. Well, and every other novel ever written by Harold Robbins. But Robbins’s notoriously-loose “plotting” is especially messy in this doorstop of a book, one of his last big sellers, eventually turned into a trashy movie starring Pia Zadora.
Dedicated to Jacqueline Susann, who died before The Lonely Lady was published, the novel sort of takes Susann’s life and trashes it up; the heroine, JeriLee Randall, is basically Jackie Susann meets Brigitte Bardot. The novel is a surreally ridiculous morality tale of sorts in which poor JeriLee starts off life as a naïve hometown girl, briefly becomes an actress and playwright, and ultimately spirals into a sordid life of lesbianism, topless go-go dancing, drugs, psychosis…and eventual bestseller and movie blockbuster status. In other words the novel is a damned mess and seems to be three tales in one, none of them much connected to the other; indeed in the third of the three books which comprise the novel, JeriLee calls herself “Jane,” and you could easily be fooled into thinking it is a different character.
Part of the novel’s confusion is the awkward way it’s chronicled. Robbins generally hopscotches across various points of the lives of his characters, with none of his books really told in a simple A-Z format. But here he is all over the place. The Lonely Lady seems to open sometime in 1976, as a crying JeriLee, just having undergone her latest abortion (something due to an ongoing “RH issue,” which is not further elaborated or dealt with), flashes back to her teen years in smalltown New York; this flashback comprises the majority of Book One, Small Town. But Robbins will return to the “JeriLee sitting and crying” motif, even ending the book with the image, which would imply a full-circle loop of a tale, but for reasons mentioned below it doesn’t work.
I took The Lonely Lady with me on vacation, and to tell the truth I regretted my decision. Book One was hard going for me, as it’s 132 pages of like Peyton Place or something. JeriLee is an innocent 17 year-old in Port Clare, New York, who is wise beyond her years, has a brick shithouse bod, and can’t wait to have sex. Unfortunately she scares off her male suitors with her otherwise innocent pleas for a good screwing; when she forthrightly tells them “I want you to fuck me,” they cringe at how “girls aren’t supposed to talk like that” and shun her.
Brace yourself for this one, friends: there isn’t a single sex scene in the entirety of Book One! In very fact, there is a dearth of sexual or otherwise dirty stuff in The Lonely Lady, less than in any other Robbins novel I’ve yet read. None of the outrageously lurid stuff familiar from his other novels is present here, other than the occasional usage of the word “fuck” or some random mention of off-page sexual shenanigans. I mean, the one damn thing I read Robbins for wasn’t even here. Instead it’s doldrums of the first order, as the reader must endure the humdrum life of teenaged JeriLee.
The action only briefly picks up when JeriLee’s almost raped by a few boys, saved at the last moment by two of her friends. One of them’s a black pianist named Fred who will return later in the narrative. After this JeriLee becomes friends with Walter Thornton, the father of one of the boys who tried to rape her(!). Thornton is a famous playwright and old enough to be JeriLee’s father. They become close friends and Thornton writes a play about an older man falling in love with a teenaged girl(!?) and JeriLee clearly realizes the girl is based on her – but then the director of the play figures JeriLee would be a natural for the role, and JeriLee gradually accepts the part.
Then Book Two, Big Town, opens, and suddenly JeriLee is narrating the tale. Once again Robbins has jumped the timeline and JeriLee informs us that she’s about to divorce Walter Thornton…the play wasn’t made after all, though actually it was, after all, or something. But anyway Thornton has issues with impotency or something and JeriLee has taken to pleasuring herself with the Green Hornet, an electric dildo made in Japan. Whereas Book One was soapy and boring, Book Two is meandering and boring; JeriLee basically spends the entire book telling people she’s tired and going to bed.
Anyway it’s six years later and JeriLee has apparently made a name for herself in the theater business, but mostly because she was Mrs. Walter Thornton. She lives in New York City and has a frosty relationship with her mother, her dad having passed away – but then that’s her adopted father, as JeriLee’s real father died when she was a toddler and Robbins appears to make the tale about some sort of subconscious yearning JeriLee has for her real father – sort of like Jacqueline Susann’s relationship with her own father – but as usual for Robbins he plumb forgets all about it and it just comes off like another head-scratcher to confuse the reader.
JeriLee’s play does poorly and soon she’s sent around on various small acting roles – as mentioned she’s a writer but she has moviestar looks. Her agent gets her a nudie part in a low-budget film by a pair of producer/director brothers; the novel’s first sex scene occurs, off-page at that, on page 190, as JeriLee waltzes nude into the room of one of the brothers and demands he screw her. But the film part fizzles due to this guy’s jealousy trip, and JeriLee further serves to piss off various Hollywood professionals by spurning roles and refusing to do certain parts. This book winds up with JeriLee briefly engaging a Sophia Loren-type in a lesbian fling before finally reconnecting with Fred, now working as a DJ in the topless club owned by JeriLee’s mobster boyfriend.
Book Three, Any Old Town, returns to the third-person narrative of Book One. We’re suddenly back to the post-abortion moments of the very beginning of the novel, and we get some sort of quickly-abandoned subplot about a lesbian fling JeriLee’s had with a soap star named Angela. But from here it’s to the inevitable flashback, where we learn that JeriLee was in love with Fred and lived with him, but ultimately gave him up so that he could marry Licia, a beautiful cinammon-skinned lady. Licia is also a powerhouse in the music industry or something, thus has turned Fred into a veritable superstar of Stevie Wonder proportions. Meanwhile JeriLee is in love with Licia, and the two have a casual lesbian fling going on. Though again, no actual dirty stuff is written – it’s all relayed via dialog for the most part.
In the last hundred pages The Lonely Lady finally becomes the novel we’ve wanted it to be. It’s now the early ‘70s and JeriLee, relocated to Hollywood, has become “Jane Randolph;” we’ll learn this is a name Licia coined so JeriLee could dance topless in go-go clubs while protecting her real name, which is reserved for playwriting/acting work. (The go-go club scenes were the highlight of the book for me.) But the whole “working name” thing is nonsense, as eventually JeriLee gets a role in a drive-in biker flick which is based on a story she came up with; the producers want to make more of JeriLee’s stories into low-budget flicks, all crediting her as “Jane Randolph.” But JeriLee blows yet another opportunity, having begun an affair with her landlord, a joint-toking beach bum who turns out to be in deep with the Mafia.
When this guy is busted, “Jane Randolph” is taken down to the station with him, but a kindly older cop takes a shine to “Jane” and goes out of his way to clear her name and get her safely out of town – the Mafia has moved in on her, destroying her sole copy of her latest play and threatening her life if she informs on them. The cop puts JeriLee on a flight to New York…and then suddenly it’s a year later and the cop gets a letter from JeriLee. Still calling herself “Jane,” she blithely reports that she’s in an insane asylum(!) and would like the cop to come put in a good word for her, so she can be released!
The cop, feeling fatherly, JeriLee reminding him of his own daughter, heads on over to New York and finds out that JeriLee – all of it off-page – has become a drug fiend, busted multiple times in the past year for hooking and even appearing in a porn flick, one which was being shot in the massage parlor in which she was also working. Plus she went nuts and now, in an asylum, she seems to think “JeriLee” is her dead sister, and claims she’s just “Jane.” I mean what the hell?? The novel has suddenly become this bizarro tale of mental disturbance, and seems mysteriously similar in a way to Burt Hirschfeld’s Cindy On Fire, which also featured an innocent but precocious heroine who ultimately became a drug-addicted nutcase.
The final pages feature so many things happening that you just know Robbins wrote it all in a first-draft rush of coke and speed. Quickly we’re informed that JeriLee, having recovered her sanity (not to mention her name), moves in with the kindly older cop in Los Angeles and writes a book about her life titled Nice Girls Go To Hell. Robbins offers the first sentence of the book and it’s curiously Tom Robbins-esque. At any rate the novel is a super success – again this is only relayed via dialog, Robbins jumping all over in time with no warning – and three years later (or something) Hollywood wants to make a movie out of it.
Yet despite her bestseller status and her playwriting past, JeriLee still has to “fuck” every person involved with the film – from the lead actor to the old producer – to ensure it gets made. Why she cares enough to do all this is unstated; you would figure, given the 400 previous pages of JeriLee’s learning-from-turmoil, she’d have achieved a state of understanding. But no, she still “sucks and fucks” (again, all off-page) to get the picture made. And then like three pages after we’re informed there was even a novel, we’re told the movie’s been made and now JeriLee’s up for an Oscar for best screenplay.
The Lonely Lady climaxes with JeriLee winning the award and giving a venomous speech about how she’s had to screw everyone to get the movie done – again, it all has nothing to do with the rest of the book, because JeriLee’s just become involved with the movie biz! But she eviscerates her agent and her lead actor and etc, the director of the Oscars having to cut away from her tirade. Ultimately JeriLee strips off her dress and displays a golden Oscar painted on her nude body, the head pointed toward her crotch. One wonders if Robbins was inspired by a certain Pocket Books paperback cover from the previous year. (And if you want to check out a trashy masterpiece that features the greatest Oscars gutting of all time, be sure to read Boy Wonder.)
After getting a ride home from that kindly old cop(!!), JeriLee smokes a cigarette…and then sits outside her house and cries. And there the novel ends, thus taking us back to the opening image of the novel. This would imply The Lonely Lady is circular, but then that opening image was of JeriLee crying after her abortion, which apparently takes place after these closing events – or were they before? I must admit I got really damn confused, and likely Robbins did too. I even thumbed back in the book to confirm when all the opening/abortion stuff actually occurred, but ultimately gave it up due to the realization that I didn’t give a damn.
I didn’t much care for The Lonely Lady. It was probably my least favorite Harold Robbins novel yet. It seems to me he tried to write a Jacqueline Susann-type novel, honing back on the typical stuff you’d expect from a Robbins novel, but in the end I’d say it was a failure. At least for me. But then this one’s considered one of his best, so be sure to check out the positive reviews by Martin and Kurt.