Judith Krantz, the prolific author and novelist whose salacious stories of sex and excess defined the 1980s, died on June 22, 2019. She was 91 years old. Scorned by “serious” writers and readers for her books that were widely considered Harlequin-esque pablum, she was also partly responsible for mainstreaming one of the crucial messages of second-wave feminism: that female sexuality, desire, and satisfaction matter.
Sure, her charactes are heteronormative and her writing today appears hopelessly male-gaze-y. (From Mistral’s Daughter: “She offered herself to him on every level with simple generosity, as if she were a field filled with tall, blowing flowers, that grew only to be gathered at his pleasure…”) But she could write the hell out of a sex scene. Take, for instance, this lurid fantasy from her debut novel, Scruples:
“After that first time he used every art he knew to bring her to an orgasm, as if that might be the key that would unlock the door between them. Sometimes she achieved a fleeting little spasm, but he never knew that it came from her one recurring sexual fantasy. In her mind she was being made love to by an anonymous lover, lying on a low bed surrounded by a ring of men who were watching her avidly, men with unzipped pants, whose cocks got harder and bigger as they watched her lover work on her, men who concentrated completely on her reactions as she was being fondled.”
And like Nancy Friday, Jackie Collins, and sex researcher June Dobbs Butts, Judith Krantz brought sexuality out of the closet. Her particular gift was to contort the conventions of the romance novel, updating it for the era of oversized shoulder pads and Pat Benatar,
Though she would come to write nearly a dozen novels, many of which would hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, selling more than 85 million copies in more than 50 languages in total, Krantz didn’t write a word of fiction until she was 50 years old. Her career before that was the perfect CV for a future chronicler of the ridiculously luxurious lives of the wealthy and libertine upper classes: After a brief stint as a fashion publicist in Paris, Krantz wrote for outlets like Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Cosmo, where she published perhaps her most well-known article, “The Myth of the Multiple Orgasm” in 1972. In this piece, Krantz used science to break down the difference between multiple orgasms and sequential serial orgasms, in order to assure the reader that she can “be a truly sensuous woman, even if you only reach one climax each time you make love.”
Leveraging off her life among the well-heeled and moneyed, her novels—whose characters attended Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent shows (Scruples), spent time on yachts, or might be titled nobility living on the DL in New York (Princess Daisy)—were meticulously and rigorously researched. Ever the journalist, Kratnz amassed binders upon binders of information before she began writing, though she told the LA Times she only used about 1% of the information she’d collected. From elsewhere in that profile: “When Red Appleton, a 40ish-but-still-beautiful fashion model, goes to Louis Vuitton at South Coast Plaza to check out an 18-karat-gold Gae Aulenti fountain pen for Mike Kilkullen, her 60ish-but-still-virile fiance, Krantz herself has visited the place and priced the thing.” (Dazzle.) Unsurprisingly, several of her novels were made into TV films, produced by her husband, Steve Krantz (who famously produced the 1972 X-rated cartoon, Fritz the Cat).
Krantz’s career is one defined by embracing what highbrow literature was determined to demean; indeed, she was so aware that her novels defined the “sex and shopping” genre, she would use that title for her 2000 memoir. Her novels were intended to give women a delicious taste of a particular kind of escapist decadence that might help them feel entitled to better sex and more of it. About her first novel, Scruples, Krantz told the New York Times, “My novel gives women a big bubble bath. It’s a chocolate eclair. It’s the kind of novel people love. I loved it myself.” Ingeniously fusing the genres of the “one-handed read” and the fashion magazine, she is a founding mother of today’ pleasure revolution and “sex positivity” movement. Next time you feel entitled to get yours and turn on your vibrator, or even post a thirst trap on Instagram, thank Krantz.