The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins
The Carpetbaggers is a vintage 1960s best selling novel. The story is ‘brain candy’ that makes for easy summer reading and light entertainment… complete with all the typical Robbins’ fare including corporate board room drama, Hollywood hype, illicit sex, and crimes of passion.
Taking the reader from 1925 to 1945, Robbins tells this epic tale from the point of view of five different people, jumping back and forth to the primary character Jonas Cord, Jr. Jonas is just turning 21 when he inherits his father’s multi-million dollar portfolio of businesses: Cord Explosives, Cord Plastics, Cord Aircraft, Inter-Continental Airways, and a motion picture company. Jonas Jr.’s primary ambition is to live up to his father’s standards. Indeed, that is quite a challenge. The character of Jonas Cord Jr. is very loosely based on the the life of Howard Hughes.
Other important characters are the motion picture sex goddess Rina Marlowe, a career prostitute- Jennie Denton, and two of Jonas’ work associates … the fearless whiz-kid David Woolf and Nevada Smith- a half-Indian rugged ranch-hand turned western film star. As the story unfolds, Robbins traces each of their individual backgrounds from childhood to the point at which their lives become intertwined through their association with Jonas. This takes the reader from Jonas Cord’s elitist- yet secluded life of luxury- to a state penitentiary in Louisiana, to the Jewish neighborhood on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, a Catholic nursing school and religious convent, and stage-sets in Hollywood.
Moving at a brisk pace there is lots of action. The variety of characters illustrates a cross section of American life during the depression and pre-World War II which focuses on the evolution of the movie industry and aeronautics development. One great scene depicts the sexual revolution with a hands-on discussion held by movie executives (all male) and the actress Rita Marlowe about what is appropriate attire for women in films. It begins with Jonas calling in his top aeronautics engineer to design a more natural looking voluptuous bra for Hollywood’s sex goddess. The result ends with the collapse of the pointed cone shaped bra… literally.
Another entertaining scene occurs with Jonas clinching a major business deal with several associates in a public men’s room. Battling over the final point of whether Jonas would net $10 million or $15 million- he agrees to compromise, “For two and a half million dollars, I bet you can’t pee into that urinal from where you’re standing,” Jonas said, “pointing to one about four feet from him, ‘If you do, the deal is yours for twelve five. If you don’t I get fifteen.” Generally Jonas drives a tough bargain, though he does display a good sense of humor. Jonas’ philosophy on life is that “people would pay any price for what they really wanted… people all have their price. The currency might differ. It could be money, power, sex. Anything. All you needed to know was what they wanted.” That attitude made for an exciting novel.
Robbins is good at diverse dialogue- all the way from the corporate executives to tough street kids. It is hard to believe he never finished high school himself. He certainly was street smart and knew how to present believable scenes.
What always amazes me in re-reading the old classics and best sellers of prior eras is the age at which young adults took responsibility for their own lives. It’s hard to visualize kids from today’s Millennial generation taking on life with so much gusto and passion.
Is The Carpetbaggers a little on the trashy side? Sure. But humorous, and- as I said-very entertaining.
Rated 4 Stars June, 2016
All contents © 2016 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.