Let's see, there's Stella, Stella by starlight. Then there's Eve, who has lately been sleeping with Peter, though only on weekends. And Marti, who is Eve's roomie and doesn't really dig men except as buddies. And Francie, who's 17 and into whippings. And Brant, who holds orgies. And David, damn him, who is "Eve's sickness, her obsession, her madness."
It's a little like trying to keep track of the cars at the Daytona 500.
The novel is "The Insiders" and it's the one with an orange navel and the bottom of a black bikini peeking back at you from the racks at Drug Fair and the Giant and the airport lobby.
In only three months since publication, there are 2 1/2 million copies of the Avon book in circulation, and it is perched on every mass-market paper-back best-seller list in America.
All of which would be remarkable for most writers. But "The Insiders" author, 45-year-old Rosemary Rogers, also has another torrid tale of sweet savage love perched on the bestseller lists -- this one a trade paperback (which means it costs a little more and is found mostly in bookstores). "The Crowd Pleasers" may not be as sexually explicit as "The Insiders," but there is still enough rape and sadomasochism in its 520 pages. There are 2,700,000 copies in print, and the publisher just put out another 100,000.
Five years ago, Rosemary Rogers was filling memos and typing letters for the Solano, Calif., Parks and Recreation Department, pulling down about $9,000 a year. Today, with six novels in print, four of them historicals, two contemporary, she is the undisputed millionaire superstar of romantic fiction -- the Mickey Spillane of passion pulp.
"Eve -- Eve! You're like your name. Woman. I like the way you don't hold back."
Passion pulp, mostly garbed as costume epic (the erotic gothic, some book people call it), has been around for decades. But it is only in the last four or five years, with the proliferation of such title as "Love's Tender Fury," "Moonstruck Madness" and "This Loving Torment," that the genre has exploded into one of the pop phenomena of the '70s. Rogers, leading the explosion, is edging it ever closer to softcore porn -- though no one, certainly not the buyer, wants to call it that.
As Walter Meade, editor-in-chief at Avon, has said, the wild popularity of the romantic novel in the '70s may be due to the lack of "man-woman romantic interaction. The husband is out earning money to keep the family in a fantasy suburb while the wife's either raising kids and running the home or has a job or career. Their lives don't touch them as much as they'd like them to.
"Historical romances deal with men and women who are obsessed with each other in a period seen through the filter of time. This fills what seems to be a void in people's lives."
Rogers' literary critics, and they are legion, call her the queen or rape and romance, but what do those twits know? They're all just frustrated ex-English majors anyway who wouldn't know a mind movie if they saw one.
Mind movie? "That's all I can think to call them," says a langorous voice coming off the brocaded couch high atop mid-town Manhattan on the kind of sun-luscious California afternoon Rosemary Rogers -- once of Ceylon and now of Carmel -- would know about.
"I don't even see them on a screen -- they're much too real for that. It's like I'm an onlooker to another, deeper reality. Did you ever have a dream that was so real that it didn't seem like a dream at all but some kind of live story you were somehow participating in, with characters and dialogue and everything?
"Well, that's exactly what its like in my mind movies. I can see backgrounds, pick out tiny gestures, hear the characters breathing. When I'm having one, it can last the whole night, I can't type fast enough.I make a lot of typos."
All this is said in measured, faintly exotic cadences. The narrow, angular, olive-toned body -- braless and clothed in a suit of pure milk-chocolate silk -- falls along the sofa, one spiked heel tucked beneath the other, an arm slumming elegantly down her hip. The other hand plays with a lime drowning in a glass of Perrier: Cleopatra on a new burnished barge.
"I love the feel of silk on my skin," she says, shivering with delight. "Oooh."
And jewelry, too. In fact, Elsa Peretti's Floating Hearts are Rogers' trademark. There's one on the cover of "The Crowd Pleasers." And there's one dangling from her throat -- in perfect concert with the mauve blouse.
She's had this apartment -- with its exotic plants and antiques and wicker and million-dollar view of the cable ferry from Roosevelt Island -- ever since she met up with Jill and Margery, two stewardesses for United Airlines. The three moved in together. It sounds like the outline of a sitcom.
"Oh, it was over a man, let's face it. It's always a man, isn't it? You see, I used to come in to New York once a month or so from California and stay at a suite in the Plaza. It was costing a fortune. I said, 'This is ridiculous.' I met Jill and said, 'Why not? Let's do it.'"
The apartment works out swell. The stewardesses are often gone on trips, and Rogers spends most of her time at one of her three California places (one near San Francisco, where her parents live, and two in Carmel). Whenever the twice-divorced mother of four feels the urge to go on a buying spree or to the theater or to Studio 54, she hops a red-eye. She usually stays in New York about four days. Then it's back to the coast.
"I love it here. I can dress up, feel real feminine. But of course I'm always so glad to get back. At home I just wear jeans or a swimsuit or nothing at all."
Her beach house, pointing toward Big Sur, sits at the apex of a V-shaped spit, she says. There is a hot tub sunk into the wooden deck. The whole place is made of wood and big chunks of stone and glass. At night, tuning up for the typewriter, she'll sit out there and wathc the waves slap the shore. That's when inspiration hits:
Words become lost and meaningless, with the only questions and answers given by their bodies.
What people invariably want to know, Rosemary Rogers says with a pert little smile, is: Have you actually experienced all that?
"I tell them, "Sure, in my fantasies.'"
They must be terrific fantasies.
"Oh, of course. And I think most women have terrific fantasies. I think the average American male is closed off about sex."
But she agrees the average male is undressing women in his head on the subway to work every morning:
"And there's nothing wrong with that. As long as you understand that women are doing the same thing. Even though they'll never admit it. The difference is, the women's fantasies will have more imagination."
The phone is ringing. She bounds inelegantly off the sofa and clacks across the wooden floor. She cradles the receiver with both hands, dangles one shoe, plays with the cord.
"Oh, hello, yes. You must come with us tonight. We're going to a new supper club around the corner. They have this old-fashioned piano bar and you can touch-dance all night." She hangs up with a giggle.
Stella wondered if Eve knew that she was the one who'd confided to David that Marti had once made love to Eve.
Rogers' background is more improbable than her plots. The eldest child of a wealthy owner-manager of a group of private schools in Ceylon, she grew up sheltered and in British colonial splendor. There were summers on the continent and much time for reading Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen, though very little time for the company of males.
"They let me learn to dance when I was 17. There was this airport ball that I desperately wanted to go to. My father was my date. It was mortifying."
She didn't finish at the University of Ceylon, and instead horrified the family by taking a job as a reporter.
Then she married a Ceylonese track star known as "the fastest man in Asia." They had two daughters and got divorced. She packed up and went to London.
She met a black G.I. named Leroy Rogers, married him, had two more children, moved to America, and got divorced again. By now it was 1964 and she had quit her billeting job at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., to work for the county parks department. She was supporting four kids, plus her parents, who had fled Ceylon with 50 pounds Sterling apiece in the face of a socialist takeover. At noon, Rosemary would go to the local library and read history books. She was trying to write a novel called "Sweet Savage Love."
"Sweet Savage Love" came in over the transom to Avon books one summer day in 1973. She picked Avon, Rogers says, because it started with the first letter of the alphabet.
"We had this list of paperback publishers, and my daughter said, 'There, mom, try that one.' I remember coming home from work a few weeks later, starting to change clothes. I had one leg of my pantyhose off when I saw the letter from Avon. I ripped it open and the first thing I saw were the words, 'I loved your book.' I went into screaming hysterics."
Afterward, leaving most of her clothes behind, Stella let Mim take her away. They went to Los Angeles first, and Stella became beautiful again as the bruises healed.
And now there are Mercedes 450 SLCs and minks with her name in monogram scroll inside the right pocket. Travis Air Force Base seems very far away. But money buys freedom, not happiness. There isn't a man just now, she says. "I had one till very recently. And I may have another..." It trails off. She smiles.
In the meantime, there is her work. She's finishing the trilogy she began with "Sweet Savage Love" and continued with "Dark Fires." And then there's another contemporary. And a TV screenplay.
No, she has no illusions of literary immortality: "If somebody reads me and says they are entertained, if they have escaped from reality for awhile, then that is enough."
There are increasing millions of escapees. Americans spent $515.9 million on mass-market paperbacks in 1977 (the last year for which figures are available), a growing number of them original paperbacks in the romantic fiction category.
The Association of American Publishers has no hard data on how many people out there are reading passion pulp, but says that women make up 98 percent of the audience, though more and more men are discovering that Rosemary Rogers can write as graphically as anybody.
"The Insiders" and "The Crowd Pleasers" have moved her out of the classic historical romance genre into a wider market. She now seems poised somewhere between a Jackie Susann and a Harold Robbins. Like Dolly Parton, she is crossing over. In a way, Rosemary Rogers' books are a barometer of the late '70s, when not anything, but almost anything goes. Even for middle-class America.
Which doesn't stop Rogers from fretting about her folks and what they think of her occupation. "I asked my mother, who's 69, not to read my last three books," she says quietly. "I was afraid they'd hurt her." She's very close to her parents. (Her dad is 80 and still hardy.) She'll care for them to the end. "That's taken for granted where I come from."
Later now. Rosemary Rogers, swaddled in fur, is out walking on Second Avenue. The afternoon light dapples the sidewalk.Yellow taxis blur by. She pauses before a window, studying her reflection. Behind the glass are tiny porcelain eggs."I love delicate things," she says, wistfully sounding 13.
Into Rocky Lee Pizza. The Lettermen are on the stereo. A poster of a wet-headed Frankie Sinatra in boxing shorts behind the bar. She climbs up on a stool, damn the mink, damn the suddenly curious patrons. Parenthood is still on her mind. Something she had said earlier.
"You never know if you're getting through to them. I'm closer to my second daughter, Sharon, I think, than to my older girl, Roseanne. I don't know, my relationship with her is kind of... tentative. Being a good mother is more important than making millions."
Though, come to think of it, making millions is nice, too. She is grinning. The mood in Rocky Lee's suddenly soars.
"You know, they came out to my house to film a commercial for 'The Crowd Pleasers.' They spent a whole day. There was a director, a producer, even some guy snapping those wooden things together.
"The director said, 'Be sizzling, Rosemary. Be sizzling.'"
Sizzle she does.
Sometimes she'll write all night, she says. She'll watch the sunset, run the dogs, put on Beethoven, then get down to her high-speed electric typewriter. Somehow, the mind movies always start.
"I think I get them subliminally from reading the papers, from hearing stories from my friends, and, well, from... being there."
She rakes a hand through her raven hair, holding it aloft. "You know, I'm still a romantic," she says a bit wistfully. "I'm still looking for that man."
"Yes. One strong in self. Self-confident, tender, romantic, tough when he has to be. But mostly, somebody I can respect."
She hesitates. "It's even hard to find him in my books."