So long was Barbara Taylor Bradford’s novel A Woman of Substance – the book that would launch her career and go on to sell 32m copies – that she measured it by weight, not number of pages. It was 16 and a half pounds (7.5kg), she says, her eyes glittering. “I wrote more,” she says. “We cut a lot.” Her then editor made her take out a whole chapter – the one that followed her character Blackie O’Neill through the first world war (he was a friend to the book’s heroine, the kitchen maid turned retail tycoon Emma Harte). “I really fought this. But she took it out, and I was infuriated.”
It occurs to Bradford, with the 40th anniversary edition of the book on the table in front of us, that the chapter might have made its way back in. “I never thought of looking,” she says, flicking through the 800-plus pages, then she starts reading aloud. She looks up and says excitedly: “What a good beginning!” Then she goes back to it. Goodness, I think, she’s going to read the whole thing. A well-timed waiter comes to our table at the Dorchester hotel to pour tea; she closes the book, greets him by name and they have a chat.
Bradford is fantastic company. She fizzes with charisma, and because she seems to enjoy talking about herself, she makes a great interviewee, although – storyteller that she is – she can go on. Try to get her off a subject and she’ll solicitously pause to answer, then pick up where she left off. She is 86 and looks glorious. Her hair is beautifully styled, her eyes as sparkly as her jewellery. It feels as if there is no subject off-limits. Ask her about the sex scenes in her latest book – her women are as lustful as the male characters – and she smiles and says: “Oh, I love sex, don’t you?” The only subject she won’t talk about is politics, at the request of her publisher who once received a letter from a reader who said she’d never buy another Barbara Taylor Bradford book again after Bradford said nice things about Theresa May in an interview. (Bradford’s heroine is Margaret Thatcher; in the US, where she has lived since the 60s, she is a Republican.) Surely she must have stories about Donald Trump? Didn’t they mix in the same wealthy New York circles? (Bradford is worth a reported £160m.) “He lent us his boardroom,” she says, referring to her charity work. “He was normal, he was nice. I think it’s when he gets in front of a microphone he starts to …” For the first time, she doesn’t finish a sentence.
The day we speak, it has been announced that Bradford is to revisit A Woman of Substance in the form of a prequel, although we are meeting because she has written another book, In the Lion’s Den, which she wrote in a year. It is Bradford’s 34th book, and the second part of a trilogy, following James Falconer, a barrow boy turned businessman. She was scheduled to write the third book next, but suddenly it was beyond her – in July, Robert Bradford, her husband of 55 years, died after a stroke. “I knew that he wasn’t going to live and [I was thinking] how would I cope with all that was going to happen?” she says. She sat by his bed, in shock, for the week he was in hospital, and in the quiet of the room worked out the storyline of her prequel to A Woman of Substance. Next month, she will get to work on it.
With her late husband, Bob, in 2006. Photograph: Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
In preparation, she reread every book Blackie and Emma appeared in or were mentioned in (there are several). “When I read [her 1988 novel] To Be the Best, I’d forgotten I’d written it and I couldn’t help but think what a good book this is,” she says with a laugh, then adds, “and very sexy! And all I could think at the end was these women are all working hard. They’re all driven, ambitious and disciplined. I’ve written about myself in every book.” She looks thrilled with the discovery.
Bradford was brought up in a suburb of Le, a cherished only child (her older brother died before she was born). Her father was an engineer, and her mother took charge of her development, encouraging her to read Dickens and others. A biography of Bradford, published a few years ago, came up with the tantalising idea that her mother was the illegitimate daughter of a local marquis. When Bradford was 10, her mother sent one of Bradford’s stories off to a magazine, and – after it appeared in print, and she was paid for it – she was hooked. At 15, she joined the Yorkshire Evening Post as a typist, but persuaded the editor to take her on as a reporter. At 18, she was editing its women’s pages, and at 20 she was a columnist on the London Evening News. “I was very, very driven from the age of 10. That’s what I wanted to be – a reporter,” she says.
She met Bob on a blind date in 1961, and they married two years later. He was “movie-star gorgeous”, she says, and was already a rich and successful film producer. She moved with him back to New York, and started writing novels. Between them, they amassed a fortune – Bob turned Bradford’s books into films and miniseries, and, she says, shepherded her career. “He was building a brand. He believed you promote a book like you promote a movie.” All her books are dedicated to him.
Signing books in 1993. Photograph: Time Life Pictures
There are fabulous, although untrue, stories about the couple’s lavish lifestyle – including one that they heated the lake of their Connecticut home to keep their swans warm. Were they driven by making money? “Well, everybody likes money,” she says. “You want to get paid for what you do, but I think it was the enjoyment of working together. I think it was the love of writing and [his] love of making movies.” What was her biggest extravagance? “Maybe at one time when Oscar de la Renta was doing the collections for Balmain, Bob – having grown up in France – loved couture, so he thought nothing of buying me some nice things that were very expensive. But I’ve still got them.” He was always buying her jewellery – some of which she is planning to sell at auction (the last time she did this, in 2013, she made more than £1m).
Bradford could have afforded to retire years ago, but says she will write until she can’t do it any longer. She writes in longhand or on an electric typewriter. Since having had a hip replacement in August, she has been told not to spend so much time sitting down so she sets an alarm clock to go off every two hours to remind her to walk around. “What happens is I become so immersed in what I’m doing that any pain that I have goes away,” she says. Before that, she would start work at 5.30am and work until lunch, and then again until about 4pm. I tell her that I read the romantic novelist Danielle Steel sometimes works 22 hours a day. “Oh, bullshit,” says Bradford.
She is not dogged by self-doubt, and rarely has writer’s block. If she does, she will simply power through (or perhaps take a break “for an hour or two”). And she has ideas for books all the time. “I could give you four here out of my head now,” she says.
Bradford is a curious mix of staunch feminist – her heroines are headstrong, independent women – while admitting that at home, her husband “wore the trousers; he was very much the boss”. This romantic novelist – she would narrow her eyes at that description – worries that the #MeToo movement has made men wary of women. “I’m glad somebody had the guts to come and start talking about Harvey Weinstein,” she says. “But, somehow, it has gone a bit over the top. I can’t explain it. But there are decent men out there – they’re not all monsters – and I think a lot of decent men don’t want to be alone with a woman. They think they might get falsely charged. I’m glad it happened, but I think it ought to sort of stop.”
In her latest book, Alexis Malvern is an heiress to a property company and, after the death of her fiance, gets back to work. “I do think women work hard, and I think women deserve to – what is it called? – break the glass ceiling. I’m a great believer in women being paid the same as men. The problem is, whatever we do and however good we are, somehow, it is still a man’s world.” We know Alexis is suffering because – horror – she becomes fat. Does Bradford think it’s important for women to be thin and pretty? “I personally have never been made up and dressed up for a man,” she says. “I’ve been made up and dressed properly for me, to make the best of what I have. I don’t like to tell women what to do, but I think it’s a good idea to try to look nice. It cheers me up.”
Bob liked it, too, she adds. Everything comes back to Bob. They didn’t have children – Bradford had a couple of miscarriages, but wasn’t interested in seeking medical assistance to become a mother. Why did their marriage survive more than half a century? “I think that you can’t just be in love with someone because that changes, [although] Bob and I never lost any of our sexual drive for many years. I think it’s because we thought alike in many ways. We had different views about some things, but we got along very well, we were very compatible. He was good at giving me my space to write. We liked each other, we loved each other. And I think respect is important.”
Bob had drilled it into me for 20 years: ‘If anything happens to me, don’t stop working. You’ve got a God-given gift.’
How has she coped with losing him? “When people ask me that, I do start to cry,” she says and her eyes suddenly brim with tears. “I’m lonely without him.” She takes a breath, her voice airless. “It’s like half of me has been chopped off. I was married to him for 55 years and I knew him for two years before that, and he was a very dominant presence. He had a great personality and very dry humour. I used to say to him: ‘You make me laugh every day.’ We were sort of joined at the hip. And he was my best friend. When I went into his den, his face would light up. So I miss that.”
His death was shocking – Bob, who at 94 had been perfectly well, had a stroke one night in July, and went into hospital. Three days later, on a Friday, doctors told Bradford he wouldn’t recover. She talks in great detail about those frantic days, reliving it, from the nights in the hospital room by his bed, to picking out his plot in the cemetery. “I’d do this,” she says, taking my hand, “and he’d do this.” She squeezes my hand. “It was a tight grip, although not so much by Thursday.”
She knew that at some point after his death she would be getting back to work. “Bob had drilled it into me for the last 20 years: ‘If anything happens to me, don’t stop working. You’ve got a God-given gift. You can sit down at your desk and write a book that people want to read. And it gives you great solace.’ I didn’t want to talk about that. I’d say: ‘No, nothing’s going to happen to you.’” It’s hard to believe it has only been four months since he died. Bradford seems so together. “I’m wearing my public face,” she says with a sad smile. “I always cry a bit when I go to bed at night.” At first, she says, “I was so shocked and so exhausted and I cried myself to sleep at night. And there’s only so many tears in the end, you’ve just got to get on with it. You’ve got to gather your sword, stand up and go out and fight. He wouldn’t want me to crumble like some stupid, silly woman.”
I wonder if it has made her more aware of her own mortality and she instantly says, “No,” as if it’s unthinkable that something as trivial as death could stop her. “I mean yes and no. I say to people: ‘I’m not going to die yet.’ All I wanted to do was go and lie in his plot next to him for quite a few weeks. But I guess if you’re a practical, down-to-earth Yorkshirewoman … we’re rather stoical, and I’m strong. I’ve always had a backbone of steel. I’ve gone through all sorts of things and come out the other end.” I think about what she had said earlier about how all her irrepressible, tough characters are based on herself, and it feels as if she is writing the end to her own story – not a happy ending, exactly, but one in which the heroine refuses to give up.