I had to figure out in advance what would appeal to women,” says Helen Van Slyke, 58. She is speaking of shades of lipstick and other cosmetic trends from her four years as vice-president of creative activities at Helena Rubinstein. She might just as well be referring to her novels, of which she has written six since 1971. Van Slyke shrewdly developed a formula for selling beauty products and then adapted it to peddle books.
“I take a contemporary topic,” she explains, “and do a storytelling job with romance.” In The Best Place to Be it was young widowhood. Mixed Blessing dealt with interracial romance. The Best People is about discrimination in a New York co-op.
Her latest novel, Always Is Not Forever, is about a famous concert pianist’s dissonant marriage. It was published in hardback by Doubleday in September and is doing well. But Helen’s big sales have always been in paperback—four million copies of the first five books. Although the novels are highly romantic, they are never erotic. “I lead my readers up to the bedroom door,” she says, “and then let them imagine. Women are great fantasizers.”
Like the heroine of her third novel, The Heart Listens, Van Slyke was an only child in search of glamor. Her wealthy father, who was 35 years older than her mother, died when Helen was 14. Taught by cousins to read before she reached kindergarten, Helen graduated at 16 from a Washington, D.C. high school and talked her way onto the ad sales staff of a newspaper. “That was the last time I looked for a job,” she recalls. “They always came when I wanted them.”
Two years later Van Slyke was hired away to be fashion editor of the rival paper. From there she went to Glamour as beauty editor, a post she held until she was given a crystal bowl on her 15th anniversary. “I thought, ‘My God, I’m 40. I’ve got to get out of here.’ ” She became an executive at Bendel’s department store, vice-president of an international advertising agency, division president of Genesco and then she went to Rubinstein.
At a dinner party in 1970 she met an editor seated next to her. She told him she wanted to write a book someday, and so for the next few months he sent her popular novels as encouragement. Van Slyke decided she could do better. After her first book, The Rich and the Righteous, came out she signed for a second and quit her job. “I guess I’m shot through with luck,” she says. “If I had known then how slim the chances of making it were, I might not have acted so quickly. I’m not willing to live in a garret.”
Married for five years to William Van Slyke, a restaurant supplier, and divorced in 1952, Van Slyke lives alone, enjoys giving small dinner parties and often plays canasta with pianist Vladimir Horowitz. She loves to travel and recently fulfilled a lifetime wish to visit the South Pacific.
Home is an elegant 10-room Park Avenue co-op where she works six days a week, producing some 2,000 words a day. Each novel takes about seven months. “In the beginning I’d get the guilts about working only five hours a day after putting in 10 as a business executive,” she says. “But those hours of writing are more concentrated than any I ever put in at the office with coffee breaks and long lunches.” She never outlines a book but does keep family trees since she killed off a character in the war in one novel and then brought him back as a guest at a wedding two years later in another novel. “Women like to read for escape, pleasure and identity. They like a good, absorbing book,” she says. “I call my readers the blue-haired ladies in the cocktail hour of life.”