Judith Krantz obituary: A writer of sex and shopping fantasies

Krantz brought generous self-awareness to her best-selling but critically panned writing

Judith Krantz shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Photograph: Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Judith Krantz shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Photograph: Ruby Washington/The New York Times

 

Judith Krantz almost single-handedly turned the sex-and-shopping genre of fiction into the stuff of high commerce, making her one of the world’s best-selling novelists, if not one of the most critically acclaimed. She died on Saturday at her home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, aged 91.

Though she did not publish her first book until she was 50, Krantz reigned for decades afterward as the international queen of poolside reading. Her 10 novels – beginning with Scruples in 1978 and ending with The Jewels of Tessa Kent in 1998 – have together sold more than 85 million copies in more than 50 languages.

Most became television movies or miniseries, many of which were produced by Krantz’s husband, Steve Krantz. What drove Krantz’s books to the top of bestseller lists time and again was a formula that she honed to glittering perfection: fevered horizontal activities combined with fevered vertical ones – the former taking place in sumptuously appointed bedrooms and five-star hotels, the latter anywhere with a cash register and astronomical price tags.

A hallmark of the formula was that it embraced sex and shopping in almost equal measure, with each recounted in modifier-laden detail.

Elements of Krantz’s formula had existed piecemeal in earlier fiction for women, conspicuously in the work of Jacqueline Susann, the author of Valley of the Dolls (1966) and other steamy novels of the 1960s and 1970s. But Krantz was almost certainly the first writer to combine the steam and the shopping in such opulent profusion – and to do so all the way to the bank.

Fantasy genre

In a sense, Krantz was a fantasy novelist. Her heroines – invariably rich, thin, savvy, ambitious and preternaturally beautiful – are undisputed princesses, their castles the opulent hotels, condominiums, casinos and boutiques of New York, Paris, Beverly Hills and Monte Carlo.

“I’ve never written about real people,” Krantz told Town & Country magazine in 1998, adding: “In a way, I write Horatio Alger stories for women.” Not surprising, Krantz’s novels took regular drubbings from reviewers. The English novelist and critic Angela Carter once likened reading them to “being sealed inside a luxury shopping mall whilst being softly pelted with scented sex technique manuals”.

To such criticisms, Krantz brought a generous dose of self-awareness. “I write the best books that I know how; I can’t write any better than this,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1990. “People think that because I had a good education, I’m not writing on the level that I should. They think I’m harbouring some slim little intellectual volume, that I am really Isaac Bashevis Singer in disguise.”

In the end Krantz appeared to have the last laugh. Of all the luxury brands that loom large in her books, there is none larger or more luxurious than the Judith Krantz brand itself – a brand, impeccably built, that allowed her to lead the jet-setting, Chanel-clad life of a character in a Judith Krantz novel.

Judith Bluma-Gittel Tarcher was born in Manhattan on January 9th, 1928; her middle name means “lovely flower” in Yiddish. Her father, Jack, ran his own advertising agency and was later a vice-president of the Madison Avenue powerhouse Doyle Dane Bernbach. Her mother, Mary (Brager) Gittel, was a lawyer who became an executive of the Legal Aid Society. Her younger brother, Jeremy, grew up to found the publishing house JP Tarcher, which specialises in New Age and self-help books. She also had a sister, Mimi.

Young Judy was reared in a Central Park West apartment awash in Renoir, Degas and Soutine and attended the private Birch Wathen School (now the Birch Wathen Lenox School) on the Upper East Side. But her mother, wanting her not to take wealth for granted, dressed her in unfashionable clothes, a condition, Krantz later said, that made her deeply unpopular at school.

“I didn’t have romantic fantasies; I had clothes fantasies,” she told Redbook magazine in 2000. “I thought that if I had absolutely perfect clothes, everyone would like me.” After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Wellesley in Massachusetts, Krantz worked as a fashion publicist in Paris before returning to New York. She married Steve Krantz in 1954.

Magazine writing

Krantz became an accessories editor at Good Housekeeping and later wrote for women’s magazines, including Cosmopolitan. For one article for Cosmo, she was assigned to compile readers’ sex fantasies. In doing so she added a few of her own, only to be told by the magazine’s editor, Helen Gurley Brown, that her fantasies were far too racy for Cosmo to print. Years later, Krantz cheerfully repurposed them for one of her novels.

At her husband’s urging, Krantz turned her vivid imagination to fiction in the late 1970s. With the aid of a vigorous publicity campaign by a press agent she had hired, Scruples, issued by Crown Publishers, reached No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in the summer of 1978.

By the end of 1979, the novel had sold more than 220,000 copies in hardcover and more than three million in paperback. That year, in a highly publicised transaction, Bantam Books bought the paperback rights to Princess Daisy for $3.2 million, then a record for a softcover sale.

Krantz, who moved to southern California with her family in the early 1970s, lived for many years in an 8,000sq ft Bel Air home that was a riot of chintz, the silver snuff boxes and 19th-century opaline glass she collected, Chanel suits – she owned at least 40 – and Hermès.

Krantz is survived by her sons, Tony and Nicholas. Steve Krantz died in 2007. Her brother, Jeremy Tarcher, died in 2015. – New York Times