June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

For seven decades, English author Barbara Cartland charmed readers by conjuring up a fanciful version of her own primly mannered youth: the genteel dances and elegant ball gowns, pure damsels and wealthy suitors, and no sex—please!—until the man slips a wedding ring on his lady’s finger. Lovemaking was “like going to the lavatory,” she said. “You never spoke about it.”

Before the 98-year-old Cartland died in her. sleep at her 400-acre estate in Hertfordshire, England, on May 21, she had spun a remarkable 723 novels of old-fashioned courtship, from The Devil in Love to The Goddess and the Gaiety Girl. Sales reached 1 billion copies around the globe. Cartland, whom Queen Elizabeth made a Dame in 1991, played the role to the hilt with her big hair, jewels, white fox furs and her trademark pink chiffon. The color, she said, “helps you to be clever.”

Born near Birmingham to army major Bertram and Polly Cartland, she and brothers Ronald and Anthony led a pampered life. After completing high school and finishing school, Cartland wrote newspaper gossip columns and published her first novel, Jigsaw, at 24. (By the ’60s she was the premier romance novelist in the world.) She married wealthy Scotsman Alexander McCorquodale in 1927—and had a daughter, Raine, now 70—before a wrenching divorce six years later. In 1936 she wed her ex’s cousin Hugh McCorquodale—a blissful union that produced two sons and lasted until his death in 1963. Sons Ian, 62, and Glen, 60, ran the business and researched her books.

Cartland hobnobbed with high-profile friends such as Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. She was also step-grandmother to Princess Diana (Raine married Di’s father in 1976), whose fantasies of Prince Charming were stoked by the books she read as a youth, some of them Cartland’s. Because “Prince Charles did not match these heroes,” the writer said, “the marriage began to crumble.” Cartland’s own romantic dreams, son Ian recalls fondly, had a happier denouement. “She found real love with my father,” he says. “That was her ideal.”

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