Judith Krantz, whose steamy, glitzy romance novels — about the obscene exploits of the obscenely wealthy — were devoured by millions of readers and transformed the former Good Housekeeping editor into a publishing and television sensation, died June 22 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 91.
The death was confirmed by her publicist, John Tellem, who did not give a precise cause.
Ms. Krantz burst onto the literary scene in 1978 with “Scruples” — a racy Cinderella tale about the making of a Beverly Hills boutique owner — that sold about 5 million copies in its first two years in print.
Though she was paid a relatively small sum for the book — $50,000 — she would later garner record-breaking advances, earning millions of dollars from her top-selling romances and the TV miniseries made from them. Her novels, 10 in all, sold more than 80 million copies, were translated into over 50 languages and became fixtures of bestseller lists for decades.
Critics rarely had kind words for Ms. Krantz’s books, but she saw them as pure entertainment. “It’s not Dostoevsky,” she told The Washington Post in 1986. “It’s not going to tax your mental capacities. It’s not ahhrtt.”
Ms. Krantz spun ornate, breathless tales with only-in-your-dreams endings. Her powerful heroines had showgirl names (Maxi Amberville, Kiki Kavanaugh, Jazz Kilkullen), fabulous wardrobes and beauty so astounding it defied the English language. “Her changeable eyes were an unnameable color that held in it the bewitchment of a thousand twilights,” she wrote of one character in “Mistral’s Daughter” (1982).
The books, like those of Jacqueline Susann and Jackie Collins, helped break taboos about women and sex — and about women writing about sex. They were mildly scandalous in a pre-“Fifty Shades of Grey” world. “They’ve done everything but tattoo a ‘P’ for Pornographer on my chest,” Ms. Krantz told People magazine in 1978.
“Scruples” was rejected by Simon & Schuster, which said the novel — about a woman named Billy Ikehorn who transforms herself from an overweight frump into the svelte, stylish and wealthy proprietor of a Beverly Hills boutique called Scruples — suffered from an excess of characters and plot.
Crown swooped in and not only bought the novel for $50,000, but also quickly snapped up an outline of Ms. Krantz’s second novel, “Princess Daisy,” for $400,000. Rights to the paperback edition of that book were sold for $3.2 million, then the highest price ever paid for a fiction reprint. “Daisy” hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list a week before its publication date in 1980.
That same year, a TV miniseries based on “Scruples” came out, with Lindsay Wagner in the starring role. Produced by Ms. Krantz’s husband, Steve Krantz, it was the second-highest-rated miniseries of 1980. (First was a show about Jim Jones in Guyana.)
So began a fruitful family business: Ms. Krantz would publish a book roughly every two years, and a couple of years after that, her husband would bring it to the small screen. Donald Trump made a cameo in one production, “I’ll Take Manhattan” (1987), which was set in Trump Tower.
Ms. Krantz was 50 when “Scruples” was published. “I was the world’s latest bloomer!” she told the Boston Globe. The book, she said, was partly the result of empty-nest syndrome. Her sons had recently left for college, and she finally succumbed to the urgings of her husband that she try writing a novel.
For more than 20 years, Ms. Krantz had worked as an editor and writer at women’s magazines. Her serious pieces — a profile, for example, about Golda Meir — were overshadowed by her more provocative ones, such as a much-discussed piece on “The Myth of the Multiple Orgasm” for Cosmopolitan (an article the sexually ecstatic characters in her novels seemed to have missed).
Ms. Krantz at first balked at the idea of writing a novel, saying she had been reluctant to try fiction writing after receiving a B in creative writing as a student at Wellesley College. But because facing another anxiety — fear of piloting a small plane her husband had bought — was so liberating, Ms. Krantz said she became “overcome by a rage of ambition.”
She sat down at her Smith Corona typewriter and completed “Scruples” in nine months.
Critics, when they bothered to notice it at all, were typically dismissive of Ms. Krantz’s work. “Sometimes reviewers lament that good trees have been felled to produce a book,” Michael Dirda wrote in a Post review of her 1990 book “Dazzle.” “In this case, I even feel bad about the ink and glue.”
Some publishers complained that the Krantz phenomenon was an affront to serious literature and undermined the industry. “I was staggered and think it reflects a certain lack of professionalism,” David S. Snyder, then president of Simon & Schuster, said in 1980 of Ms. Krantz’s mammoth advances.
Others wondered how someone her age could write in such graphic detail about intimacy. “It’s always been: ‘Gee, you look so small and helpless. You look like a lady. Where did all this sexual imagination come from?’ ” she told the Los Angeles Times. Ms. Krantz bit back: “I don’t see what my height or my having two kids or my being married for 36 years has to do with it. It’s there.”
Little seemed to faze Ms. Krantz, whose work was publicized in lengthy author tours, on billboards, in TV commercials and at lavish promotional events that melded fiction and reality. A 1980 party for “Princess Daisy,” held at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, was an opulent charity ball that played the novel’s Russian theme to the hilt. The party room was “transformed into a Russian Winter Palace by cold borscht and sour cream,” the New York Times reported, and strewn with daisies; Ms. Krantz came dressed in a gown made by the costume maker from the prime-time soap “Dynasty.”
In her novels, Ms. Krantz was fond of the rags-to-riches theme, but her personal narrative was one of riches to more riches. Judith Tarcher was born in Manhattan on Jan. 9, 1928, and raised in an expansive apartment on Central Park West that featured paintings by Soutine and Renoir. Her father was an advertising executive, and her mother was a civil rights lawyer.
After graduating in 1944 from the Birch Wathen private school in New York and then from Wellesley in 1948, she set off for Paris before settling into an entry-level job with Good Housekeeping.
Soon afterward, Birch Wathen schoolmate Barbara Walters introduced her to Steve Krantz, a TV comedy writer and producer who later produced films such as “Fritz the Cat” (1972), an X-rated animated feature, and “Cooley High” (1975), which inspired the ABC sitcom “What’s Happening!!” They married in 1954.
At Good Housekeeping, Ms. Krantz wrote a column called “Tips to the Teens” and later became accessories editor, a job that capitalized on her love of handbags, scarves and especially jewelry. (Ms. Krantz’s novels often offered a voyeuristic look inside the world of high fashion.) She had stints at McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, where she became a contributing West Coast editor after settling in California in 1971.
Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown became a close friend and such a fierce defender of Ms. Krantz’s novels that she once threatened to pull out the fingernails of certain book critics “one-by-one, then put a bullet through their heads.”
A petite blond of about 5-foot-2 who for years had her hair done weekly at a Beverly Hills salon, Ms. Krantz immersed herself in high-end fashion trends. She confessed to The Post that she had once spent $25,000 a year on clothes, not including fur coats and jewelry. Her label preferences ran toward Chanel or Adolfo, except when she was writing — an activity that called for sweatpants and layers of sweaters that she would shed as she warmed up.
She became a regular at luxury shops such as Giorgio, the inspiration for the fictional store in “Scruples.” Ms. Krantz rarely bought clothes off the rack, and the thought of entering a mall turned her sour. Clothes, she said, were vital to a woman’s sense of self.
“I write about clothes as magical things that can change you,” she told the New York Times. “I feel that women are comforted by having clothes and accessories. I have every scarf I’ve ever bought.”
Steve Krantz died in 2007. Ms. Krantz’s survivors include two sons, Nicholas Krantz and Tony Krantz, both of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.
That she would be remembered as the “sex and shopping” novelist was a foregone conclusion, Ms. Krantz sighed in her 2000 memoir — archly titled “Sex and Shopping: Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl.” She even anticipated (wrongly, it turns out) that the label would “unquestionably be in the first line of my obituary.”
She quipped that she was “resigned” to that view of her legacy and not troubled by it. “On balance,” she wrote, “sex and shopping are both excellent things, activities people love to talk about — even do!”
Read more Washington Post obituaries