Cotswold Character: Barbara Taylor Bradford
PUBLISHED: 01:16 26 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:11 20 February 2013
She may have a butler, dine at the Dorchester and have 27 bestsellers under her belt, but fame and fortune haven't changed Barbara Taylor Bradford. Words by Katie Jarvis, photography by Antony Thompson
Cotswold Character: Barbara Taylor Bradford
She may have a butler, dine at the Dorchester and have 27 bestsellers under her belt, but fame and fortune havent changed Barbara Taylor Bradford. Words by Katie Jarvis, photography by Antony Thompson
Im sitting in the Dorchester, looking like something the cat dragged in. (Not the Dorchester cat, obviously, which probably wouldnt touch me with a barge pole.) There are various clues to the fact that Im not completely at home here.
Including having to ask a waiter the way back from the loos to the bar. (The lavatories? The washrooms? The euphemisms? The foyer I found myself wandering hopelessly around looked much like Louis XIVs Hall of Mirrors, with no discernible door.)
Then theres the 4.50 lime soda (4.50??), probably made from biodynamic fruit hand-squeezed by members of the Brazilian aristocracy, but which seems indistinguishable from Tesco squash to me. The barman instantly and discerningly offers me a receipt.
How long, I muse, as I await a summons from Barbara Taylor Bradfords publicist, would it take a humble northern girl to get used to luxury such as this? Because thats what Barbara and I have in common: both born in the north (she Yorkshire, me Lancashire), to loving but modest families; both beginning our careers on local newspapers. Where we diverge slightly is that she went on to make several hundred million from her best-selling novels, while Im still thinking up a plot.
And therein lies the answer to how one gets accustomed to the Dorchester. Weve been staying here over 20 years, Barbara expands, when I finally get to meet her (30 minutes late but, for reasons Ill explain in a second, this becomes absolutely fine). Bob [her film-producer husband of 47 years] loves Mayfair, so its a convenient local; but its a lovely hotel!
Everybodys very friendly and very sweet. And this is called the Promenade, she says, gesturing intimately down the Dorchesters slightly corridor-y but plushly decorated interior. You can have breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner here, if you want.
The reason why I turn out not to mind having to sit drinking expensive aristocratic Brazilian lime juice (or whatever) for a good half hour is this: the minute I start to chat with Barbara Taylor Bradford, she brings to mind every family-friend and relation we still have up north.
Shes sit-down-and-have-a-cup-of-tea friendly; genuinely sorry Ive had to wait so long but, she explains, shes working until gone eight tonight and had to squeeze in a bite to eat. Have I got spinach in my teeth? she asks me, before launching into the funniest story about Kevin Costner cosying up to her hopeful friend the former Miss America, Phyllis George at an awards ceremony, only helpfully to whisper that she had something stuck between her choppers.
Yes, life has changed for Barbara Taylor Bradford. Nowadays she has a butler, Mohammed, who looks after her in the luxury Manhattan penthouse apartment where she lives and works; and she makes reference to two live-out housekeepers when, over lunch, she describes to me the horrors of 9/11.
Shes gorgeously dressed (in palest aquamarine according to the Telegraph journalist, who meets her on the same day; Im rubbish at colours) and perfectly coiffed (despite her being 78, I cant see a mark on her still-beautiful face). But she doesnt seem super-rich, if you know what I mean.
An old friend of mine, who I knew when I was in Fleet Street, said to Bob: Isnt it odd? Barbara is so famous now but shes exactly the same as when I knew her at 20. And Bob said, Well, Barbara doesnt know shes famous. And thats what its all about, she tells me. Fame has not gone to my head. My feet are on the ground.
Most people couldnt get away with this without sounding startlingly disingenuous. But there is a surprising truth to what shes saying; moreover, its as if shes telling the story because even shes slightly surprised by the truth in it.
If you think about it, the answer probably lies in her lack of money focus. When Barbara published her best-selling first novel, A Woman of Substance, back in 1979, she was no JK Rowling, desperately scribbling away in cheap cafs. She was already married to Bob, a wealthy American film producer, whom she met on a blind date (a story she tells with the fresh delight of a teenager).
Shes a sheer grafter, who, even now, consistently works long days with no view to retiring. Its because I want to do it and I enjoy it, she protests. And what would I do if I didnt? Because I dont have children; I dont have grandchildren; Bob is at the office all day. I only have one dog now because the other went to sleep. And I actually enjoy what I call the razzamatazz: going to a studio and being on what was that show on Monday? The One Show Funny name for a show.
Shes here promoting her 27th novel, Letter From a Stranger, which packs all the winning Taylor Bradford characteristics into its 400-odd pages. There are twists and turns, devastating family secrets and some utterly harrowing scenes alongside details so domestic, you end up knowing that the strong and beautiful heroine prefers lemon and sweeteners in her tea. Barbaras typist found parts of it so moving, she was late delivering transcripts.
The harrowing scenes can be hard to do because I have a very vivid imagination and, before I can actually write something, Ive got to imagine it happening. I face a wall of books when I write and its like a screen. I see the people and I see the sceneryI dont know how to explain it, she says.
Does that make it hard when her books are made into films and mini-series? It doesnt affect it, because the book is always written a long time before the film comes out. Besides, she points out, shes married to the man who produced them. A lot of Hollywood producers buy a book because its been a bestseller; they keep the title and throw away the book. Bob always makes a movie as if its for a release theatrically and not for television, so you get all that glamour and lushness but the content is there as well.
I only meet Bob fleetingly in the Dorchester, but hes with us all the time. When I count, later, how many times Barbara mentions her husband, there arent many paragraphs without him (To cut to the chase, as Bob says), though she has banned him from interviews.
Bob once joked that I had 2,000 pairs of shoes and the journalist went away and wrote that, she grumbles, fondly. Its one of several super-rich rumours shes constantly having to deny, which include the myth that she heated the lake of their former Connecticut holiday home to keep the swans comfortable. Previous owners put that heater in because you cant let a lake freeze with swans on it, she says, with mild indignation. So, no, I didnt heat the water to keep the swans warm!
Its interesting, though. I dont think those sorts of rumours necessarily persist through bitchiness or jealousy. Its more because her own real life corresponds to most peoples wild fantasies: write a book, make millions, become mega-famous. If this can happen to a Yorkshire girl, then surely anything could be true.
Because, lets face it, her story could be straight off the fiction shelves. She was born Barbara Taylor to a seemingly ordinary couple in Leeds. Her dad, Winston, was a naval engineer who, having lost a leg in an accident, spent many years out of work. But it was her mum, Freda, who proved the bigger influence. Barbaras brother, Vivian, died of meningitis when still a toddler, and it doesnt take a psychologist to imagine that Freda poured her resultant love and loss into her daughter.
She encouraged her to read Dickens and the Bronts, as well as taking her round Yorkshires stately homes. You can hear guide-book echoes of those visits even now: It belonged to the Halifax family and has 365 windows one for every day of the year, she says, en passant, of one property. People ask if I was bored but I wasnt. I always wondered about the people whod lived there long ago and what happened to them. In my minds eye, I saw ladies in long crinoline dresses floating round.
Its clear there was ambition in her mothers actions: The woman that you see sitting here today was created by Freda Taylor, Barbara says. Her biographer, Piers Dudgeon, however, has produced convincing evidence that there were other implications to Fredas actions, claiming that she was, in fact, the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Ripon. The idea came as a shock to Barbara; but, if true, there are fascinating and unconscious echoes in her Woman of Substance plot. When I mention this to her publicist, Im told that Barbara is bored of the story. Im not sure I really believe that but theres little point in bringing it up: its a hypothesis unlikely to be proven one way or another.
Certainly, Freda was disappointed when, at 15-and-a-half, her daughter turned her nose up at the idea of Leeds University and instead took a job in the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post. But Barbara was her mothers daughter. She watched and learned how the all-male reporting staff presented their stories, and began to sneak her own onto the news desk.
One, she remembers in particular, was about the sister of the richest man in Leeds, living the existence of a hermit in a hovel. When the accounting team tried to pay the stringer called Taylor, it was clear the paper had a mystery on its hands. Eventually, they rumbled Barbara as the only Taylor on the books, and she was summoned to the editor. He was amazed to see a girl of almost-16 standing in front of him! So he said to me, You want to be a reporter, do you? and I replied, Oh, I dont want to be, Sir. Im going to be. He loved that.
She joined the newsroom, alongside the young Keith Waterhouse, who took her under his wing on the condition that she buy him lunch. He was a rebellious character with flaming red hair. The company was called the Yorkshire Conservative Newspaper Company and hed walk along the corridor singing the Red Flag. I was always rather in awe of his audacity.
By the age of 20, she was fashion editor for Womans Own and an established Fleet-Street writer. Her subsequent career as a novelist almost floundered with her numerous attempts to write thrillers. But it was when she switched to a rags-to-riches story about Emma Harte, a young servant-girl who rose to become a business magnate, that she hit the big time. Since then, shes sold more than 85 million books worldwide and is showing no signs of stopping; this autumn, shell be working on her 28th novel, a story about war photographers.
She must have repeated these now-legendary tales about her life ad infinitum, but she shows no sign of being bored or jaded. Each retelling is as lively as the first: I once said to John Major, I shouldnt really tell people I left school at 15. And he said to me, Well, so did I, Barbara! I became a novelist and he became Prime Minister, so we must have done something right!
A few days after our London interview, I meet Barbara Taylor Bradford at Calcot Manor where shes giving a lunch-time talk, followed by evening cocktails at Barnsley House. She circulates as naturally as if shes with a group of friends, charming everyone she meets. (She knows and loves the Cotswolds, which feature, briefly, in Letter From a Stranger.) Shes delightfully and unmaliciously gossipy, frequently telling me things she doesnt want repeated (my lips are sealed) which, from a journalist to a journalist, is bondingly trusting.
She certainly has the look of a glamorous American grande dame and much is made in the press about her supposedly Yorkshire/Stateside accent. (I only detect one Americanism, when she pronounces the word later as lad-er. Otherwise, to my ears, the voice is pleasantly Mollie Sugden.) But the more I see of her, the clearer it is: Barbara Taylor Bradford is still a solidly Yorkshire lass.
She laughs. Of course I am! she says. Im just an English woman living in New York. Thats me. Just an ordinary woman.
Letter from a Stranger by Barbara Taylor Bradford is published in hardback, price 17.99, by HarperCollins.