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The tragic love story behind Jackie Collins' house
CNN Films' "Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story" airs on Sunday, June 27 at 9 p.m. ET.
The year after British novelist Jackie Collins died following a private battle with breast cancer in 2015, a listing went up for her 21,784-square-foot house -- an 8-bedroom Beverly Hills property inspired by the clean lines and Pop Art color blocking of David Hockney's pool painting "A Bigger Splash."
The home's origins were fit for a love story -- something Collins knew a thing or two about.
She captivated millions of readers in the 1970s and '80s as a rebellious romance writer who spelled out the details of pulsating desire. Her self-assured female protagonists, who never settled, were the stars of more than 30 different novels and eight movie adaptations over five decades. Collins was a self-proclaimed feminist -- though her brand of sex-forward feminism wasn't always warmly welcomed -- and she was known for her big personality and ostentatious love of leopard print.
"She was putting female sexuality at the center of the world and people lost their minds," said pop culture critic Wednesday Martin in the new CNN Films documentary "Lady Boss," taken from the title of Collins' 1990 novel. "She changed the way women got to have sex; women got to be selfish in bed thanks to Jackie Collins."
But the house, which had a personality to match hers -- it had numerous writing desks and was populated with bronzes and paintings of big cats -- was a love letter born of Collins' own romance. Her second husband, club owner Oscar Lerman, had worked with architect Ardie Tavangarian to bring her architectural vision to life before Lerman died from prostate cancer in 1992.
"Oscar was more on the management side of it, and she was more on the creative side," Tavangarian said in a phone interview. "She was very clear on what she wanted. And we were basically helping her to bring it together."
"They planned out every element of this home," recalled Rory Green, Collins' daughter, in "Lady Boss." "It was quite beautiful; it was sort of almost museum-like. That was her fantasy."
A whirlwind romance
Collins met Oscar Lerman in the mid-1960s in his London club Tramp after a tragic first marriage to businessman Wallace Austin, who died by suicide, and when her ambitions to become a Hollywood actress were fizzling, according to "Lady Boss." Sister to Joan Collins of "Dynasty" fame, Jackie had always sought the spotlight but hadn't yet found her way into it.
It was Lerman who encouraged her to finish her first book, "The World is Full of Married Men," she said in an archival interview in the documentary. Published in 1968, the book was about an ad executive who begins an affair, but it's the two women who come out on top. It was an instant hit.
"I'd been writing all my life, I'd written a lot of half books that I hadn't finished, and he was the first person that said to me, 'It's absolutely terrific and you can do it,' and so I did it," Collins said.
Their courtship was the stuff of romance novels. Her daughter Tracy explained in "Lady Boss" that her mother actually had two marriage proposals, so she took them both on vacation with Tracy to see who would treat her daughter best. Lerman emerged the victor.
By the time Collins and Lerman had two more daughters together and settled their family in sunny California in 1980, she'd followed up with a string of bestsellers. She began writing her most famous titles of sultry romance set against high society, including "Chances," "Hollywood Wives" and "Lucky."
In 1989, when Lerman was diagnosed with cancer, he and Collins began to plan the new Beverly Hills house based on her ideas.
"I think in many ways she didn't know how to cope with (Lerman's diagnosis)," said Collins' longtime friend and business manager Laura Lizer in the documentary. "She just thought if she carried on with her life, it just wasn't there. And they decided to build a new home."
A house fit for Jackie
When the couple hired Tavangarian to design their home, he was in his late 20s and inspired by the clean lines of Swiss-French early 20th-century architect Le Corbusier.
"(Collins) wanted more modern European architecture, which is what I do," he recalled. "Their vision was to create something to entertain (guests), and to show their art in a very clean, contemporary light."
The two-story home had a guesthouse in the back, and they decided a 100-foot-long gallery displaying artworks would connect the two.
"She was also very much in love with Art Deco...She has this incredible number of Tiffany lamps and these different objects," Tavangarian said. "We created these vitrines and spaces to display them."
Tavangarian's photographs of the time show modern, light-filled airy interiors with beige walls and light wood and off-white furniture meant to offset her art. The minimal, white, geometric exterior punctuated by palm trees opened up to a long stretch of patio in the back, surrounding the deep turquoise blue of the Hockney-inspired rectangular pool.
After three years of planning and construction, the house was ready in 1992, but Lerman's health was failing him.
"He was just so intent on getting that house finished for Jackie," Collins' friend Barbara Davis said in "Lady Boss."
Lerman died before they could move in, and as Tracy recounted, after his death, Collins retreated to her new study to write in seclusion.
"She really didn't deal with (his death) very well," Tracy said in "Lady Boss." But, she added, Collins kept up a strong facade. "She had learnt how to survive and for her, what was always there for her was you know, Jackie Collins."
Collins stayed in the house she'd planned with Lerman for over two decades until her own death at 77 years old, following a six-year battle with cancer. The house sold for $21 million in July 2016, according to the Los Angeles Times, but in Tavangarian's opinion it will always be hers.
"The house was Jackie," he said. "The house was about her."