On the treadmill yesterday, watching a TV special on "Women Who Love Men in Prison," I learned that Danielle Steel was more interesting than I'd given her credit for.  I've never read one of her books.  But I like it when I find out that a bestselling author is screwed up.  It suggests that she didn't arrive at fame without some hard personal struggle or what psychologists call the painful process of "working-through."


Steel was born into relative wealth in New York City at the dawn of the 1950's, daughter of a descendent of the Lowenbrau beer family and a beautiful Portuguese diplomat.  She spent her childhood between France and New York, meeting "the upper crust," as her second husband called it.  Her parents divorced when she was seven, leaving her shy and lonely ("I don't think I really had a chance to be a child," Steel's written of herself).  She studied fashion at Parsons before marrying a rich banker at 18.  Unsatisfied with moneyed married life, she started to write.  At 25, she visited a jail to write a magazine article, and there met Danny Zugelder, a 22-year-old, handsome, 6'6" blond who had robbed eight banks. 


Partly enticed by the irony that she could leave her banker for a bank robber, she fell in love.  She started a long-distance love affair with Zugelder, including long bouts of phone sex and writing him up to a dozen letters a day.  She eventually moved near the jail in San Francisco to make this romance work: Those happy days included picnics with Zugelder on the jailhouse lawn, touching his penis through pants whose inside pockets he had removed, and illicit sex (likely resulting in a failed pregnancy) in the women's bathroom at the visitors' center.


In 1973, Zugelder was released from jail, and he moved in with Steel, who put him in nice clothes and helped him land a job at an architecture firm.  He struggled to fit into her society, going to the symphony and cocktail parties, leaving private space for passion: "I remember at lunchtime shooting over to her office and locking the door. We had sex in restaurants...anywhere," Zugelder said.


But Zugelder felt dwarfed in a world in which Steel had more authority than he had.  He had the power in jail, he's said; she had the power outside.  She needed control, of most things: of their time, their money, and their schedule.  Feeling unsatisfied, Zugelder soon returned to drugs.  In 1974 he was arrested for raping a woman and sentenced to seven years in the state penitentiary at Vacaville, California.


Steel stood beside her man, and in 1975, they married in the jail.  Zugelder wore his prison outfit; Steel wore white. But as all that was happening, she was also feeling some romance out in the real world.  She met William Toth, a heroin addict whom she'd hired to move her from one house to another.  She got pregnant with Toth's child, and four weeks before the child was born, she sealed a divorce from Zugelder.  The next day, she married Toth.  That's another long story for another blog, or another Steel novel.


Cut to further tragedies and romances in Steel's real life: She divorced Toth after two years; their son Nick died of a heroin overdose, himself; Steel married two more times; she has nine children; she collects art and ran an art gallery from 2003 to 2006; she owns many, many dogs; and she supposedly writes for up to 20 hours a day.  She likes, um, control.  ("Danielle's a control freak," her third husband has said.  "[My] being famous is a handicap [that] scares most men to death," Steel has said.)  She has certainly tapped the grit of her personal life for her books.  Passion's Promise (1977) is about a socialite who falls for an ex-con.  Now and Forever (1985) features a hero who goes to jail at Vacaville for raping a woman. Remembrance (1981) features a beautiful woman who marries a heroin addict.


There's such interesting psychology here.  Steel has turned grime of her life into famously candy-apple delights of the Romance variety: Here all rough ends get gloriously tied by the finale.  Indeed, she wrote a mission statement for her art gallery which probably summarizes her notion of the relationship between art and life: "I like art that makes me feel happy. I want to wake up in the morning and love it, and be thrilled I own it....  I hate paintings that are so somber and dark that it's easy to discern that the artist was profoundly psychotic and at a low point in his or her life.  Life is tough enough without being surrounded by art that makes you feel bad....  I [collect] art that makes me laugh or smile or feel just plain happy.  ...I suppose I am childlike in my taste, because I love bright colors, and red is almost always a sure winner with me." 


Fascinating.  Danielle Steel: A woman with sexy attraction to dirt and the ability to wrap it in lace.


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Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 07-28-2009 05:21 PM
by Lurker on ‎07-29-2009 05:22 PM
What a great post!  I have not read any of her novels, either, but it sounds like her life may be more interesting than her books!
by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎07-29-2009 06:02 PM

Thanks, Lurker.

I agree that she sounds more complex than her books do.  On the TV show I watched, her bank-robber ex-husband said he loved Steel, the woman, but "really hate her books!"

by on ‎07-29-2009 11:42 PM
hmm all I'm thinking is that her bad taste in men is directly linked to her need to be in control.
by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎07-30-2009 08:55 AM


That seems insightful.

by on ‎07-30-2009 05:10 PM

(nod) an often discusion in our house when we encounter other couples, their balance sheet so to speak. Who's the dominate within their relationship, or do they not even seem to have one.




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