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Born Danielle Fernande Dominique Schuelein-Steel on August 14, 1947, in New York City. She was the only child of John Schuelein-Steel and Norma da Camara Stone des Reis. Her father was a German-Jewish immigrant who started up his own vitamin firm, Vegex, in New York, and her mother was born in Massachusetts to a Portuguese- American family. In interviews, Steel has explained that her father's family owned the Lowenbrau beer company in Germany and that her mother's father was a diplomat, but the unauthorized biography The Lives of Danielle Steel by Vickie L. Bane and Lorenzo Benet indicate that these were exaggerations; her uncle was once a director at Lowenbrau, and her maternal grandfather worked for the Portuguese government, but was not a diplomat. Steel's parents divorced when she was about seven, and she continued living with her father whom she called "a gay blade who was fun but not fatherly," according to Nancy Faber in People.
Because her father traveled extensively for his business, Steel was left in the care of relatives and hired help, and she has characterized her childhood as very lonely. She attended the expensive Lycee Francais de New York in Manhattan and became a dedicated student, spending hours and hours each night on homework. She graduated early at age 15, and in 1963, entered the prestigious Parsons School of Design, where she was eager to begin a career in fashion. However, the highly competitive atmosphere did not agree with her, and she developed a stomach ulcer. Around this time Steel also caught hepatitis from something she ate.
In addition, during college at age 16 she had surgery to remove a tumor and lost her left ovary. She left Parsons during her first year there and soon enrolled at New York University in 1963, where she studied French literature while minoring in Italian.
Throughout her teen years, Steel dated Claude-Eric Lazard, a French banker eight years her senior from an upper-crust family. They married on September 25, 1965, just after Steel turned 18. Living on Park Avenue, traveling often and entertaining her husband's guests, Steel found herself too occupied to finish college and dropped out in 1967, four months short of graduation. At 20, she had her first child, daughter Beatrix, but hired a nanny to take care of her. Feeling that something was missing, she took a job at the public relations firm Supergirls after seeing its female entrepreneurs on The Tonight Show. There, Steel began using her maiden name, and also about this time, converted from being Roman Catholic, as she was raised, to being a Christian Scientist. She was a success at the small company, although she did not make much money. Her well-to-do husband supported the family, though, so finances were not a problem. However, they separated in 1970.
In the meantime, one of Steel's clients, John Mack Carter, who worked with Ladies' Home Journal, encouraged her to employ an agent and become a writer. In the summer of 1971, she went to San Francisco and wrote Going Home in three months, about a woman who leaves a secure life in New York to start over on the West Coast. It was published by Pocket Books in 1973; she received $3,500 for the work.
Subsequently, she wrote poems and articles for women's magazines like Cosmopolitan and Ladies' Home Journal.
In 1972, Steel discovered a lump on her breast. She had surgery in early 1973 that thankfully revealed the tumor was benign, and she did not have to have the breast removed. After shuttling back and forth from New York to San Francisco, she finally moved to California in March of 1973. There, according to Bane and Benet, she fell in love with a convict, Danny Zugelder, and visited and corresponded with him frequently. They later lived together for a time, and as Bane and Benet reported, she spent a few years in a relationship with Zugelder before he was sent back to prison in 1974 for rape. In 1975, she married him while he was in prison, but would serve him with divorce papers in October of 1977.
In San Francisco, Steel took a job with Grey Advertising as a freelance copywriter and worked there part-time until 1974. Before her writing career really took off, she supplemented her income teaching creative writing at San Francisco's exclusive University High during the 1976-77 school year. She continued to churn out novels, but her second manuscript, a murder mystery, was rejected, as were her next four books and a screenplay. In 1977, her second novel, Passion's Promise, was published; the book was about a writer who puts her career on hold in order to devote herself to a social activist whom she loves. This was followed in 1978 by The Promise, based on a screenplay, and Now and Forever, concerning a woman who stands by her lover, who is accused of rape.
The Promise became a bestseller by 1979, and Dell signed Steel to a contract for three more books. She then sold Season of Passion (1979), about a woman whose husband, a football player, is put in a nursing facility after a serious head injury; the woman then keeps him a secret and raises their son on her own.
While her career was soaring, Steel had become involved with another unsavory man. She met William George "Bill" Toth in 1977 when she hired him to help her move. Like Zugelder, he had a criminal record. The firm where he was a supervisor, Delancey Street Foundation, had been set up as a program to help give a fresh start to ex-drug addicts, criminals, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the like. Toth was a recovering heroin addict who had served time for possession of stolen property. Steel began dating him, and they married on April 15, 1978, the day after her divorce from Zugelder became final. Their relationship produced her next child, a son named Nicholas, nicknamed Nicky, born on May 1, 1978.
Although Toth had started using drugs again, Steel kept the marriage together for a while and began cultivating her exotic image in the press, posing for photos in a full-length fox coat and staying mum on the sordid details of her failed and doomed relationships. She also thanked Toth for urging her to have her works printed in hardcover; her first book not to debut in paperback was The Ring (1980), which was brought out by Delacorte as opposed to the publisher's paperback line, Dell. However, she filed for divorce in 1980, and it was finalized on March 6, 1981.
With Steel fast becoming a celebrity, she left her convict ex-husbands behind and began seeing John Traina, a San Francisco shipping executive and socialite. They married on June 14, 1981, and the wedding was covered extensively by the media. For 14 years, Steel led a seemingly ideal existence. She wrote hit after hit, pumping out the bestsellers at a phenomenal rate, seeing three on The New York Times bestseller list at once. In addition, Traina adopted Nicholas, and Steel's family grew to include Traina's two sons, Trevor and Todd, and she gave birth to four daughters (Samantha, Victoria, Vanessa, and Zara) and a son (Maximillian) within five years. Though she had a number of employees helping out, including a nanny, housekeeper, cook, secretary, and baby nurse, she stated to Glenn Plaskin in Family Circle, "I don't delegate raising the children to them." She told Plaskin that she got everything accomplished by being well organized, disciplined, and keeping a positive attitude.
By the late 1980s, Steel's catalog of works consisted mainly of romance novels, except for the poetry collection Love Poems: Danielle Steel, in 1981, and a piece she wrote for the 1984 nonfiction collection Having a Baby. She began releasing children's books as well in 1989, starting with the "Max and Martha" series, which she originally wrote just for her own children to help them cope with life issues such as having to say goodbye, or making a trip to the hospital. After that, she followed up with the "Freddie" series, with titles like Freddie's First Night Away and Freddie's Accident (both 1992).
However, her adult novels continued to be more popular, and many of her books were made into highly rated television movies and miniseries. Her fees continued to double for each work released, making her quite wealthy, despite the fact that it only took her less than two weeks to write each tale, though the outlines and rewrites required more time. She and Traina were living the high life in an old Victorian mansion in San Francisco, with a country retreat in Napa.
However, Steel's marriage to Traina dissolved by the mid-1990s, after the release of the unauthorized biography by Bane and Benet. Before its release, Steel filed a lawsuit to prevent the authors from conducting research in order to halt its publication, but the suit was thrown out. In an article for Entertainment Weekly, Steel told Dana Kennedy, "The book absolutely ruined my life," and blamed it for the breakup of her marriage, contending that her husband was embarrassed about her past. She remarked to Kennedy, "I had two indiscretions in my youth and they came back to haunt me.... I'm very religious... which is why I married those two morons instead of just sleeping with them." However, Traina told Kennedy that their marriage was already on the rocks. They were separated by 1996 and later divorced. In a 20/20 interview with Steel, Barbara Walters noted that Steel married Thomas Perkins, a venture capitalist about 15 years her senior, in May of 1997, but other news reports indicated that they married on March 27, 1998.
Steel's oldest son, Nick Traina, committed suicide by a drug overdose in 1997.
Predictably, Steel kept the situation very private for a while, but then decided to write the story of her son's struggle with mental illness. His Bright Light: The Story of Nick Traina was published in 1998 and outlined Steel's battle to help her son in any way possible. She knew he was plagued by a problem from a very early age, but found that doctors and teachers dismissed her fears and suggested she use more discipline. By age seven, her son went into frequent rages, although he could also be astonishingly charming. As a teenager, he began using drugs, but was finally diagnosed as a manic-depressive and put on lithium at age 16, which helped until he stopped taking it at age 18. Though Nick Traina was finding some success singing for the rock band Link 80, which released a CD and a couple of singles and went on tour, his illness got the best of him. He tried suicide a few times, and had appeared to be on the road to recovery when he injected a fatal dose of heroin.
Steel is the national chairperson for the American Library Association, a spokesperson for the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, and a national spokesperson for the American Humane Society. Though as one of the top-paid writers in the business she could afford a top-of-the-line computer system, she prefers to produce her works on a 1948 Olympia manual typewriter. She credits much of her success to her unflagging optimism and her ambition, telling Plaskin in Family Circle, "After five of my early books flopped, what if I had said, 'Oh, the hell with it-I can't do it'? I'd never have all this.... You have to keep at it.
Although I've been lucky and blessed in my life, my success has not been handed to me-I've worked very, very hard."
The reigning queen of romance novels since the late 1970s, Danielle Steel has become an institution with her constant stream of best-sellers. Unlike the traditional gothic bodice-rippers set in historical venues, however, Steel's characters usually function in contemporary society, and her heroines often lead glamorous lives or retain positions of power. The recurring theme is having to choose priorities in life-love versus career is the most common dilemma-and her stories generally reward readers with happy endings. Though she has not found favor with critics, Steel is one of the most popular writers out there, with hundreds of millions of books in print in several languages. In 1981, Steel made the Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on the New York Times' best-seller list for 381 consecutive weeks, but she later broke her own record when other books stayed on the charts for more than 390 weeks.
Biography Resource Center, © 2001 Gale Group