How old was I when I discovered Judith Krantz? The joke works best when the retort is, "not old enough," because heaven help us, her books are filthy. But the truth is, when I picked up Mistral's Daughter at 16 and then tore through every other available novel, I was exactly the right age. Her books were brimming with minute detail about every single thing I was curious about, but couldn't possibly amass any firsthand knowledge of at the time: fashion, style, sex, New York, Paris, powerful people and very good restaurants. And not just a little! A LOT — as bestselling author Jennifer Weiner told NPR, reading her books was like eating a glorious sundae, pure "gluttonous, shameless excess."
But Weiner also points out that there was real heft and breadth to her work. It's something that's often lost in the bubbles and caviar of it all, but Krantz did her research (in fact, I came away with a real understanding of the difference between beluga and osetra). Here's a (highly edited for NPR) list of things I learned about from her books: cyclamen brocade, Elsa Schiaparelli, the Stork Club, the Avignon Synagogue (swear to God), the Great Depression, the magazine industry, David Hicks, caring for cashmere, Paris Match, and the power of a strong brow to make you look serious.
Krantz's books aren't really serious, though some highly literary folks used her as a way to examine American excess. Both Angela Carter and Clive James wrote lengthy essays about Princess Daisy, which are fun to read and I suppose make my hardcover first edition more valuable. But to try to examine the books as a kind of commentary on capitalism misses the point entirely — her books are fun with a capital C-H-A-N-E-L, and so is much of the sex, which was a welcome change from the dirty books that were popular when I was in high school. Jean M. Auel's evolution romance Clan of the Cave Bear and V.C. Andrews' incestuous gothic Flowers in the Attic were fascinating but ooze fear; they're packed with highly problematic rape scenes, some with actual Neanderthals. But Krantz's multipage sex odysseys are filthy and detailed and shameless, with plenty of post-coital cuddling and only a modicum of anatomically impossible acts, mostly performed in really good sheets.
The variations of faint praise that have suffused Krantz's obituaries over the past few days tend to refer to her novels as part of the "shopping and f***ing" genre, which feels like a way of denigrating not just the women who love these books but the women who like both those activities. It also fails to consider the fact that there are female characters in the books doing both the shopping and the f***ing — and they are likeable, and charming, and sometimes dastardly, but compulsively readable. There are warm female friendships, and feisty grandmothers, and at least one or two adorable guys who are more than the sum of their pecs and bank accounts (always large for both). The books are laugh-out-loud funny in places, and Krantz's tone is knowledgeable and sophisticated in a way that includes the reader — no one is left out of the club, even if it's the Stork.
I plan to keep my vast Krantz Kollection — because even as the fashion ages a little (so much chunky turquoise jewelry), there will always be a place on my shelf for those well-dressed, exuberant, desirous women — and strong eyebrows will never go out of style.
Petra Mayer contributed both reporting and glamour to this remembrance — and adapted it for the Web.