How I reinvented myself after losing my soulmate
They were inseparable for 57 years. Now, five months after the death of her beloved husband, novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford, 86, shares the heartbreak of losing your soulmate . . .
FOr more than 50 years, the Yorkshire-born, multi-millionaire author Barbara taylor Bradford OBe reigned as a queen of New York, her film producer husband Bob by her side.
their property portfolio included a 13room penthouse apartment on New York’s east 52nd Street and a holiday house in Connecticut (Barbara even heated the lake so the swans didn’t drink freezing water). When in London, they took an apartment at the Dorchester hotel.
I met them at the hotel 15 years ago. Warm and effusive, Barbara chatted nonstop. Bob interjected wryly (if he got the chance). He called her ‘Bonaparte’; she called him ‘the General’. But it was clear they were devoted. today, when we meet, there is a new softness to Barbara, now 86. She is dignified, but raw.
It is almost five months since Bob, her ‘golden husband’, died in hospital at the age of 92, after having a stroke at their Manhattan home. He was rushed into hospital and Barbara slept in a camp bed in his room. He died peacefully a week later, holding her hand.
‘I was married to Bob for 55 years and knew him for two more, so it’s really like half of you has been cut off or
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disappeared,’ Barbara tells me. ‘But I’ve come to terms with it. He died on July 2.
‘Of course, it was a shock and it was unexpected. He had a stroke — he wasn’t ill. So you feel a bit devastated, but I’m very disciplined and I don’t like things undone.
‘Bob had left everything in perfect order, which was his nature. Both of us had very tidy minds, so I just got on with the legal processes, the probate and insurance, and closing his office but not closing his businesses. And I got it all done mostly by doggedness, which is my middle name,’ she chuckles.
There’s no doubt that Barbara is A Woman Of Substance — the title of her first blockbuster, in 1979, the domestic saga of a servant girl who becomes a tycoon.
Born in Armley, Leeds, in 1933, the only child of a nurse and an engineer who lost his leg in World War I and was unemployed during the Depression, Barbara was made an OBE in 2007 and her personal fortune is estimated at £200million.
But Bob, whom she met on a blind date in 1961, was her rock. It was love at first sight and she went on to dedicate every book to him.
He was her business manager and, as a producer, made nine miniseries and films based on her novels, with stars including Deborah Kerr, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jenny Seagrove and Liz Hurley. Thanks to Bob, she became one of a handful of novelists whose name goes above the title in screen adaptations.
Today, BTB, as she is known, looks wonderful in her Chanel coat and pearls, her candyfloss hair set off by dark glasses and red lipstick. But you can tell that she’s in deep mourning: her appetite has disappeared and she’s lost 25lb since her husband’s death. ‘Just English breakfast tea with lemon,’ she instructs the waitress. ‘No food.’
She tells me her shin bones had started protruding — she waggles an elegant leg in a dark wedge shoe — so her doctor insisted that she eat more protein. She now lives on omelettes.
She also underwent a hip operation in August, only a month after losing Bob. ‘I was determined to come to London without a cane,’ she says.
THIS visit is to promote the special 40th-anniversary edition of A Woman Of Substance, as well as her 34th novel, In The Lion’s Den, the second in her Victorian-era saga.
It’s her first trip to The Dorchester since Bob’s death. Was she dreading the memories?
‘We’ve been living here for 30 years, so I thought I’d be too emotional — but it’s been like coming home. We have the same suite, so I know where everything is. And, of course, they had all sorts of people waiting when I got here.’
It sounds like a scene from one of her novels, where the rags-to-riches heroine is greeted by loyal retainers at her stately home.
But, in real life, Barbara is much funnier and more down-to-earth. Yes, she loves art deco antiques and impressionist paintings, and Bob used to buy her spectacular jewellery and a Hermes bag every year.
Yet she says she hates shopping. And ‘I would never ask for favours because of who I am. I don’t believe in that’. Although, she adds, her name did help after Bob’s death. ‘Probate, which can take a year, took three weeks.’ It turned out the female clerk at the court was a Barbara Taylor Bradford fan.
Returning home alone was hard. Condolence letters poured in, recalling acts of kindness even Barbara didn’t know about. Bob had sent food baskets to friends going through hard times and paid one man’s phone bill for ten years.
He had known hardship, though. Bob was Jewish and born in Berlin. After his banker father’s death in the Thirties, Bob was smuggled out of Nazi Germany, at 11, to live with a relative in the South of France.
HIS mother escaped to New York, but tragically died three weeks before Bob arrived after the war. ‘A sad story, but I made up for it,’ says Barbara. ‘I gave him a good life.’
In the States, Bob became a film producer and met Barbara on a rare visit to London. A friend of Barbara’s had told him to look her up. He called mutual friends and her next-door neighbour Dorothy and her husband Jack Davies, a well-known screenwriter, and they arranged a lunch.
But Barbara, then a journalist, was on deadline for a piece and refused to attend. She was 28, had just split up with a boyfriend and had no desire to be tied down.
Eventually, she was persuaded, but turned up casually dressed. ‘Dorothy was a little surprised I hadn’t changed. “You’re going to regret this,” she said.’
When Robert Bradford — ‘tall, dark, handsome and extremely charming’ — walked in, Barbara was smitten. ‘I was too proud to go home, but I asked Dorothy if I could go to her bedroom and use some of her make-up. She nodded and gave me a knowing look.’
Bob was six years older. But BTB — who had gone on dates with the late photographer Terry O’Neill (‘a nice man’) and turned down a spotty young Peter O’Toole — was off younger men. They couldn’t cope with her workaholic tendencies. But Bob could.
They never had children. ‘I had two miscarriages, then I said: “I’m not going to worry about this any more. If it happens, it happens.” I tend to be a bit of a fatalist.’
It made the bond between them stronger. ‘I’d take a bullet for Bob because I love him more than I love myself,’ Barbara told this newspaper three years ago.
Bob, for his part, said simply: ‘She’s everything.’
Barbara had no intention of being a trophy wife. They lived in New York for Bob’s career, but she wrote a newspaper column and began and abandoned four suspense novels.
Then, one day, she read a quote by Graham Greene that ‘character is plot’ and, suddenly, everything fell into place. She sent an outline of A Woman Of Substance to an editor, who commissioned it on the spot.
It was published when BTB was 46 and went on to sell 35million copies worldwide.
I can’t help noticing that she published A Woman Of Substance
the year that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
‘Someone once wrote that if Margaret Thatcher had not existed, Barbara Taylor Bradford would have invented her,’ she laughs. ‘I was an admirer of hers. I think she took England off the brink of disaster.’
Once, BTB was invited to Downing Street with Bob and she sneaked off to admire a painting of Churchill (her hero). Then she turned round and found Thatcher standing alongside her.
‘I said to her: “When I was a little girl in Leeds, I never dreamed I’d be invited by the Prime Minister to 10 Downing Street and be standing here looking at that portrait.” And she said: “I know what you mean.” ’
Barbara tells me Bob made everything in her life easier. He understood she needed to get up at 4.30am and write all day.
But he wore the trousers, she laughs. Theirs was a traditional marriage. Despite having two housekeepers, she boiled his eggs every day (four minutes exactly) and polished the furniture herself. Even late in their marriage, the chemistry was strong. ‘Bob still wanted sex. It was not quite the same. But he was very sexually involved with me, put it that way. And I with him.’
Sex scenes in her books have a refreshing emphasis on female pleasure. ‘They are explicit without being vulgar. I don’t talk about the size of anything,’ she says, gesticulating with her index finger, ‘but I do talk about what they’re thinking.’ Men tell her she writes well about them sexually. ‘And I let them cry.’
Bob was away a lot filming. ‘A so-called female friend said: “Don’t you worry when he’s on location surrounded by women?” And I said: “No, he’s making a movie. He’s too damn busy. If he wanted to have an affair, he can leave the house and go down to The Sherry-Netherland hotel and book a suite and get laid!” ’
‘I never asked him questions about anything, and he never asked me,’ she continues. ‘My attitude is: as long as I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. To my knowledge, Bob Bradford never had an affair. But if he did, I hope he enjoyed it.’
‘Are you putting this in the paper?’ she hoots.
When a girlfriend complained of her non-existent love life, she told her frankly: ‘Don’t assume it’s an affair. He’s a certain age now, he supports you and your children in great style. He’s probably too tired to get an erection.’
That’s the joy of BTB. She tells it like it is. After she’d had her hip operation, she was told she needed physio every day. A blow for BTB, who has never exercised in her life. ‘I had the operation at 8am — by 6pm, they had me up on a walker.’
She loved the Polish physio, Pavel, who came to her home. ‘Boy, did he make me move.’
Her only worry was that she needed a chaperone if her housekeeper was out. Not for her, for him. ‘I told him: “Look, we live in funny times and I don’t want you to feel awkward. It should matter to you because it’s very easy for a woman to say she’s been attacked and she hasn’t.”’ Barbara talks admiringly of the MeToo movement. ‘It was wonderful that it happened, but it’s gone a bit too far now. I think there’s an awful lot of decent men out there who are afraid to be with women.’
Her surgeon was amazed by her recovery. She’s barely had a day ill in her life. She doesn’t smoke and has only the occasional glass of champagne. She gets the Daily Mail delivered every day and loves watching Bull, a TV drama about jury selection on Monday nights.
She socialises less, though, after one nightmare trip to a ‘millennial restaurant’ in New York — ‘it was a ghastly restaurant and I was sitting on a pole that just had a piece of cloth nailed on it’. She could feel Bob’s spirit admonishing her. ‘I thought: “Oh, Bob, if only I’d listened to you.” ’ She still chats to a photograph of him.
With no intention of retiring (‘What would I do?’), she is now researching her autobiography.
Fifteen years ago, her biographer, Piers Dudgeon, presented her with documents suggesting her mother, Freda, was actually the illegitimate daughter of the 2nd Marquess of Ripon, for whom she’d worked as a servant. BTB was in shock.
Her grandmother, Edith, had died before she was born. (Edith had never disclosed who fathered her children — Freda also had a brother, Fred, and a sister, Mary.)
It turned out that all the houses she lived in were owned by the Marquess of Ripon — though painfully, at one point, her grandmother and Freda spent time in Ripon workhouse.
At first, BTB was adamant her grandmother’s past stay out of the book. But, eventually, she agreed to keep the passages in. We’ll never know for certain if it’s true, BTB tells me. But it’s fascinating how she has spent a lifetime writing about aristocrats having affairs with servants (in A Woman Of Substance, Emma has an illegitimate child by her master).
Looking back, she has always been a feminist pioneer. ‘I found it more interesting to write about women who went out and conquered the world — athough I do understand it’s still a man’s planet in terms of politics and control.’ But things are changing, I say. ‘I’m glad that some of these monsters have been fingered,’ she says, sternly. ‘Because Bob was a movie producer, there were always these jokes about casting couches and everybody just laughed. But I’m glad somebody pointed the finger at Harvey Weinstein.’
She talks enthusiastically about Catch And Kill, the book by Ronan Farrow, the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen who helped uncover the Weinstein abuse allegations.
Though the novelist in her can’t help adding: ‘I’m positive he’s Frank Sinatra’s son. Sinatra was Mia’s first husband, and I checked the dates and he was definitely still alive. He was in his 80s, so I don’t know if he could impregnate her. It’s possible that at one point they froze his sperm.’
YOu can’t be a novelist without two qualities, she advises me: ‘An imagination and an ability to tell a lot of lies.’
Though many of her own stories have basis in fact. The novel of which she is proudest, The Women In His Life, is partly based on Bob’s childhood as a Jewish boy caught up in the Holocaust. ‘I cried the entire time I wrote it.’
She talks passionately about the rise of anti-Semitism. ‘Bob was very sad lately, as he watched the news. He said to me when we were in England in February: “I can’t believe the anti-Semitism here, and it’s worse in Paris and it’s back in Berlin. I never thought I would live to see the day when Nazism rose to the surface again.” ’
In the last days of Bob’s life, she couldn’t write. She was due to pen a third instalment in her House Of Falconer saga, but could not face the research. Yet, sitting by his bed, she had an idea for a prequel to A Woman Of Substance.
After Bob died, she scribbled a synopsis. She has decided to take readers back before the start of her bestseller with the story of Blackie O’Neill (played by Liam Neeson in the TV adaptation), Emma Harte’s closest friend.
The novel Blackie And Emma will open five years before they famously meet on the Yorkshire moors, with Blackie, aged 13, orphaned in County Kerry.
Bob was by her side when she wrote A Woman Of Substance. ‘I rather like the idea of visiting Blackie again and inventing a life we never saw. My editor said to me: “It’s Bob’s final gift to you,” ’ she says, poignantly.
IN The Lion’s Den by Barbara Taylor Bradford is out now (harperCollins, £16.99)
To my knowledge, Bob never had an affair — but if he did I hope he enjoyed it! As long as I don’t know, it doesn’t matter...
Devoted: Barbara and Bob at their home in New York in 2016 and (above) the young author