The aroma of fresh coffee in silver urns mingles with the curls of smoke from his Lucky 100s, brought to life, one after another, with the gold Belgian lighter. He reaches for the pack on the table, and each time he fires one up, the $3,000 gold Patek Phillipe peeks from his cuff with the time.
The table is set as a kind of personal shrine to his success. There is his photograph, in a Coleman's Mustard apron, turning the knockwurst he flown to his villa in the south of France, all the way from Chicago, for the multitudes at his daughter's 13th birthday party. Another portrait leans against a vase of red roses. And all about the room sit stacks of his 14th novel, "Dreams Die First," about a young pulp magazine publisher described on the jacket as "handsome, hungry, powerful, sexually aggressive," who battles the mob and a rich uncle for his dream - to become richer than imagination.
The story of "Macho" magazine scion Garreth Brendan, which reads like days from the lives of Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt, was released just three weeks ago, and already 205,000 hardcover copies are in print; Publishers Weekly has it No. 5 on its best-seller list, and it's rapidly outdistancing the early sales of "The Carpetbaggers," "The Adventures," "The Lonely Lady." Robbins has already pocketed $500,000 from an option Universal Pictures passed because it was "not right for them," and Hollywood is chasing after the property, bidding up the half-billion dollars his books and films and TV serials have grossed since be started writing in 1946, at the age of 30.
You could feel the energy he'd channeled into making it, the self-confidence that he, Harold Robbins, despite critics' carpings, was America's greatest living novelist.
"I'm the best around," he says. "No one can compare with what I've done . . . Hemingway was a fantastic short-story writer, but as a novelist, he could never put it together."
Sucess hangs heavy in the suite at the Madison, where a secretary answers mail and a PR man scurries about. A PR woman cackles as Robbins reminsices about having personally sampled every drug (concaine, grass, poppers, etc) his characters savor. He says he's experienced every act of sex tucked between the toasty covers of the 200 million copies his books have sold world-wide.
So many people have sampled Harold Robbins - he's been translated into 40 languages - he has come to feel "like Coca cola." Each day rain or shine, 30,000 people by a Harold Robbins novel, claims his publisher. "He's making us a mint," says a Simon & Schuster official. "Everyone associated with his books gets rich."
Harold Robbins takes a long drag and looks around the room. A lot of people love him, but he wonders if, maybe, it doesn't have something to do with his . . . money.
"It's amazing how attractive I became when I had money," he says. "At 20, I made a million bucks and took an apartment at the top of the Edison Hotel across from the Diamond Horsehoe when it opened in New York. I went out with all the showgirls."
He coughs. The doctor told him to give up smoking, but he's 61 now, and he figures if he quit, the actuarial tables give him only 45 days extra, so what the hell. The voice, tinged with Brooklyn, rasps in a whisper, so you lean close.
"At 20, I was a big man. Then when I lost all the money . . ."
Money. It was inevitable money would lure him - it got him out of the Hell's Kitchen orphanage, where, in 1916, he was left on the doorstep. Never again would he line up for the Christmas Presents that ran out before he steeped up to the tree, as they did when he as 8 - the last time he lined up. Money would be his armor against the pain, and the lusty protagonists in his books, as they claw to the top over naked bodies, would struggle to feel love, reflecting the fortress their creator had built around his own emotions.
At 15, the quest for money would drive him out of the home of foster parents (New york druggist Harold Rubin and his wife whose name he sculpted into his own) and into the streets. It was the Depression, and Harold Robbins shoveled snow for 50 cents a day on a city relief project. He ran errands, pumped soda, peddled ice cream at Coney Island, ran numbers. At 19, he was taking inventory for a small grocery chain when he noticed housewives snapping up cheap canned goods. He heard crops were rotting in the South, so he borrowed $800, took flying lessons, rented a plane and flew to red-clay farms. He bought options on the barvest resold the crops to canners and brokered the canned goods to wholesale grocers. He made a million dollars, lived it bup briefly and blew it all speculating on sugar futures. A life that reads like a Harold Robbins novel.
"Wow, it was great to have a million at 20. That was when I came up with my theory: everyone should be born rich, spend it while they're young enough to enjoy it and never leave a penny behind. I ain't going to leave a cent. Trust funds should leave take care of the two girls. As the rest, what am I going to do with it, take it into the ground?"
A penniless Robbins took a $27-a-week job as a shipping clerk with Universal Pictures, caught a $37,000 overchange for freight and began climbing the corporate ladder, until, as director of budget and planning, he was reading properties he felt were schlock, and, on a $100 bet, wrote "Never Love a Stranger," for which Alfred A. Knopf gave him a $10,000 advance.
Save for a five-year interlude when he refused to write a word - Knopf wouldn't up his cut so he switched to Simon & Schuster - he has been writing ever since. Every book has been sold either to the movies or to television, which he feels gets him "closer to the people." His own film company, Harold Robbins International, has just finished producing "The Betsy," starts shooting "The Lonely Lady" (with Susan Blakely as Jerilee) and "The Pirate" next spring. And he likes to boast that his old novel, "79 Park Avenue," recently fashioned into a TV serial, won a "42 audience share against "All In The Family' the night got raped," and went on to outdraw Monday night foot-ball and the World Series.
What is says about contemporary taste the critics aren't sure. Most literaturs dismiss Robbins as little more than a good read - a writer whose words are about a nourishing as potato chips - and shovel him into a popular but tawdry class of novelties akin to the late Jacqueline Susann.
Critics, he sniffs, "write their reviews and are gone the next day. After 30 years, my first novel still sells 800,000 copies a year, and every one has dealth with a different story, a different subject, a different view of our time, a different portion of society. Sure, there are the novelists who have written a series of stories. The James Bonds, the Mickey Spillanes, the character novelists. But no one has done what I've done. . .
"Mailer could have been one of the great American novelists, but like Hemingway, he fell into the trap of masculinity and fought the typewriter. I like Norman. We're friends. I've told him all this. But after "The Naked and the Dead,' he wandered away. 'Deer Park' was fair. 'The American Dream' was desperation."
Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" he calls a "one-line joke." Bellow bores him. His favorite authors are John Steinbeck, along with John O'Para, Does Passos, James T. Farrell and Ford Madox Ford.
Robbins says he takes his writing seriously. To finish a novel, he hides out in the Elysee Hotel in New York, or secret apartments away from his lavish homes in Beverly Hill and Cannes. He never works from an outline, denies using notes and claims he sometimes types for 30 hours at a strect until he collapse. He literally sweats out a book, he says, dropping 14 pounds a novel from his normal writing weight of 146. He plans to follow this regimen when he gets to the crunch with his 15th novel, now in progress, about the rise of a powerful coalminers' union leader.
And afterward? He celebrates by spending money. He eats "caviar by the spoonful" and snarfs chocolate ice cream and cake. He no longer gambles at the casino in Monte Carlo, after his accountants pointed out that in his tax bracket, he would have to earn $4 million to recoup the $1 million he has dropped playing baccarat over the years. It is said he once lost $154,000 in a night.
So he deals out the $2.5 million novel advances to maintain a lifestyle as full as his books. For starters, there's the 90-foot yacht in the Mediterranean and the alimony and the two daughters (a 22-year-old by a previous marriage). He refuses to count ex-wives, saying only that, after 14 years of marriage to his current mate, Grace, "She's the only one who counts."
Does all this, uh, excess make him happy? "Irving Wallace said it best," says Robbins: "I've been rich and I've been poor, and, believe me, rich is better."