Abandoned on the steps of a Roman Catholic orphanage, raised in a Jewish foster home, a millionaire by age 20, bankrupt soon thereafter, the self-styled Harold Robbins adapted his own stranger-than-fiction background to the plot of his first novel, 1948's Never Love a Stranger.

Some 750 million book sales later, Robbins' titillating career has come to end. The novelist died of respiratory failure Tuesday at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs, California. He was 81. Robbins' literary life was made on sex, power and money, and while he rarely earned critical respect, he was one of the world's best-selling authors, his steamy works translated into more than 30 languages and adapted into such films as The Carpetbaggers and The Betsy and the TV miniseries 79 Park Avenue.

Robbins was rising through the managerial ranks at Universal Pictures when he wrote Never Love a Stranger to win a $100 bet that he could come up with a better story than those the studio was buying. The book was later adapted to a movie featuring Steve McQueen.

As his bankbook swelled, he began living the sybaritic lifestyle of his characters, luxuriating on his yacht, maintaining villas on the French Riviera, Acapulco and Beverly Hills, gambling at the world's casinos and marrying so often that not even his friend and publicist Dick Delson could pinpoint the exact number of brides. He claimed to have experienced all the vices he chronicled in his novels, many of which revolved around thinly disguised versions of the rich and famous such as tycoons Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis, the playboy Porfiro Rubirosa and the movie star Lana Turner, who actually starred in the miniseries adaptation of his The Survivors.

Since suffering a stroke in 1985, Robbins spent much of his time confined to a wheelchair suffering from mild aphasia, a partial loss of word use and understanding. But with the help of Jann Stapp, his assistant whom he married on Valentine's Day 1992, he continued to produce more novels, their explicit content clear from their pithy titles: The Piranhas, The Raiders, The Stallion and, this year's offering, Tycoon. He has, according to Delson, just completed another book, Wishing Well.

Robbins boasted of never rewriting and never figuring out his plots in advance. His 1952 A Stone for Danny Fisher, a story of sensitive boy turned prizefighter, received better reviews than his later, steamier stuff. It was adapted in 1958 into one of Elvis Presley's best screen efforts, King Creole.

Robbins was writing his life's legend right up to the end. In a 1996 interview he said: "I won't leave any unfinished manuscripts. I'll live till I'm 200 years old, and I'll write all the stories that are in me. Put it on my tombstone: 'He finished his job and went home.' "

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