The first gift was a gold ring... and then the jewels kept coming. One of the world's bestselling novelists, Barbara Taylor Bradford, tells Lucinda Bredin about her jewellery collection – and the man who bestows them upon her
We were in Capri," says Barbara Taylor Bradford, who is sitting in the dining room of her New York apartment looking at an array of jewels spread out on the table. "And Bob said he wanted to walk down to the town to pick up a newspaper. He had been gone some time and I thought, 'Where has he gone?' Eventually he returned carrying a shopping bag stuffed with newspapers. 'Here's some flowers for you,' he said, casually putting the bag into my lap. There amongst the newspapers I found a cream box. I opened it up. There were some flowers. Except they were made of multi-coloured sapphires set in a gold and diamond necklace. It was only 11 o'clock in the morning..."
While we are both roaring with laughter – Barbara is very funny – it occurs to me that she adores telling stories as much as her husband, Robert – Bob – loves buying her jewels. Clearly the pair have a pact: he surprises her by dropping diamond bracelets into her lap when she is least expecting it; she not only gets the jewels but also a great tale to tell. Here's another one. The pair of them were walking down the street in Paris – all these incidents seem to take place in glamorous places: via Veneto, place Vendôme, Acapulco – when Bob slipped into a shop and came out with a diamond bracelet. "You can imagine how I felt when the clasp was put around my wrist." I can imagine, though I don't think my experiences of jewel-getting will ever overlap with Barbara's. But one can always dream – or, more to the point, work every moment to make those dreams come true.
As the readers of her 29 bestselling novels know, this is exactly what Barbara Taylor Bradford has done. Now aged 80 ("I've never looked my age," Barbara says correctly. "I get that from my father"), she still gets up every morning at 6am to type at an IBM Lexmark to fulfil an eight-book deal she has with Harper Collins. And one only has to look around the Bradfords' 11-room apartment which overlooks New York's East River (Henry Kissinger is their neighbour) to see the life she lives. The house is filled with books and sofas – these rooms see a lot of entertaining – and the shelves are peppered with silver-framed photos of Barbara's eventful life. There's a picture of Barbara receiving the OBE from Her Majesty The Queen, with Tony and Cherie Blair ("a very nice woman") and meeting other celebrity landmarks: Margaret Thatcher, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, John Major... Barbara has met them all. In each photo, she is immaculately coiffeured – and, of course, wearing enormous jewels.
By her side in all the photographs is Bob. They met in London in 1962 when Barbara was writing celebrity interviews for women's magazines, which was already the equivalent of flying to the moon. Born in 1933, she grew up in Armley, a suburb of Leeds, the daughter of Winston, an engineer, and Freda, a "very encouraging mother", as Barbara puts it. "She certainly pushed me to where I am today." By dint of hard graft, an enormous talent and immense charm, Barbara had arrived in Fleet Street by the time she was 20, having worked her way into journalism via the typing pool of the Yorkshire Evening Post. In the heady, decadent early 1960s, Barbara was the one who interviewed stars such as Omar Sharif and Sean Connery. The photographer Terry O'Neill was a boyfriend. But when she was introduced to an American film producer, Robert Bradford, her life took a dramatic turn: it was a coup de foudre. "I knew by the end of the evening that we would be together," says Barbara. "People always tell me that I have a lot of coups de foudre in my books. But I clipped a story out of the Daily Mail the other day, which said that most people know after the first date if they've fallen in love. I think it was true of me."
However, it took Bob six months to give Barbara the first piece of jewellery, which was quite slow going considering his later track record. It was a gold ring, "and we weren't married then". She shows me the slender band which is mounted with twisting cogwheels. "Don't ask me how it works. It was in a window in the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and Bob took one look at it and said, 'C'mon, I'm going to get that for you.'"
Barbara and Bob were married in 1963 and she moved to the US where his production business was based. But all those years of dawn starts and deadlines were difficult habits to break and Barbara began to write novels. It was, however, 13 years before her breakthrough debut, A Woman of Substance, a family saga featuring her heroine, Emma Harte, was published in 1979. The book, one of the ten bestselling books ever, has sold more than 82m copies in 90 countries and 40 languages. Soon it was Bob whose life revolved around hers. He began to take charge of making the films of Barbara's books – and when each book was finished, he would present her with a piece of jewellery. As Barbara points out, "Bob always says he doesn't need an occasion to give me something. He only needs a reason. But that's the reason why my jewellery collection tells the story of our marriage: these pieces mark birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases, when books have been finished. On one occasion when I wrote with my arm in a sling, he gave me a brooch and said it was a badge of honour."
Looking at Barbara's superb – and extensive – collection, one has to wonder at Bob's generosity. Why jewels? I find myself asking. Barbara pauses. "You'll have to ask him... He says that it was the way he was brought up. His mother, Doris, had quite a lot of jewellery. And his aunt had an antique shop that sold jewellery." Another pause. "Bob last saw his mother when he was eight. She put him on a train in Berlin in 1939 and he never saw her again. She had stitched her jewels into his clothing." Barbara chooses not to pick over the psychology of this incident, but it's clear that every stone Bob buys is not bought lightly, even if sometimes he presents these gifts wrapped up in a bundle of newspapers.
And Barbara isn't selling them lightly. She is keeping some of her collection, but it's a wrench to let the other pieces go. "I was thinking about some Tahitian grey pearls I have. My father always said that pearls need to be worn, and they need to have light. You shouldn't lock them up. And I realised that there is so much that I don't wear." Barbara's two heirs – Barbara and Bob have no children – don't lead the sort of life that requires a daily outing for a pair of diamond single-stone earrings. Barbara says, "I talked to Bob about what we should do, and he said, 'I gave it to you. You must do what you want with it.'" That's very generous-spirited, I say. "Yes, he is. He suggested that if we sold it, we could give our heirs a nest-egg with the proceeds. You see, Lucinda, I've had a wonderful marriage, and I can offer these jewels at auction because I still have the man who gave them to me."
Lucinda Bredin is the Editor of Bonhams Magazine.