Danielle Steel shares her story -- The best-selling romance novelist talks about overcoming divorce

The sight of the palatial Spreckels mansion, perched on a San Francisco hilltop with spectacular views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, is daunting. But the owner of the Beaux Arts estate is almost as intimidating. She is one of the world’s best-selling — and most gossiped-about — authors: Danielle Steel.

Steel — whose image as workaholic writer, proud mother of nine, and elegant socialite took a hit in 1991 when tabloids revealed that two of her three ex-husbands had criminal pasts — has never let a reporter into her home. She has never commented on the revelations in the 1994 unauthorized biography The Lives of Danielle Steel about her marriages to Danny Zugelder, a convicted bank robber currently serving time for rape in a Colorado prison, or William Toth, who has been sporadically jailed for burglary and drug possession. Nor has she given any interviews about the recent demise of her 15-year marriage to John Traina, 65, a former shipping executive. ”There’s always some jealousy when a person has that much success,” says Larry Hughes, a former publicity director at Dell, which publishes Steel’s books. ”Her silence created a vacuum that people stepped in to fill.” But after months of thorny negotiations, the author of 38 best-sellers (her latest, Silent Honor, zoomed to No. 1 last month) has finally agreed to talk.

”Welcome,” says a tall, formal man, one of Steel’s three assistants, as he opens the heavy front doors. An elevator leads up to the enormous main floor, where Steel throws frequent parties. In a small drawing room just past the cruise-ship-size ballroom, the assistant abruptly departs. A white-jacketed servant arrives, silently bearing three silver salvers of tiny tea sandwiches and exquisitely shaped pastries.

More than 15 minutes pass. Then the quiet is broken by a tiny woman who rushes into the room, apologizing for being late. Dressed in a royal blue Versace pantsuit and brandishing a pack of cigarettes, Danielle Steel, 49, in full makeup and elaborately coiffed hair, looks almost as glamorous as her book jacket photos. She plops down on the sofa and grabs a dainty egg sandwich with gusto. ”God, I’m starved,” she says. ”I forgot to eat — as usual. I’m right in the middle of writing something really exciting, and I only got three hours of sleep last night.”

Surprisingly, given her famous reticence, Steel seems ready to dish, and does so with humor and candor. Her story, that of a lonely child from Manhattan who became a fabulously wealthy writer, as prolific in childbearing as in producing best-sellers, who finally found happiness with her handsome fourth husband only to watch her life fall apart when her past came back to haunt her… Well, if it sounds very much like a Danielle Steel novel, it is.

To hear Steel tell it, her life — in which she and Traina presided blissfully over San Francisco society as well as their large brood — started to unravel when tabloids began to dig up her background. Her first husband, whom she married at 18 when she was a New York debutante, was French banker Claude-Eric Lazard. (They divorced after nine years.) The unauthorized biography details her subsequent marriages: Her second husband was Danny Zugelder, whom she wed in 1975 inside a prison in Vacaville, Calif., while he was incarcerated for robbery and sexual assault. And her third husband, William Toth, was a recovering heroin addict — also with a record — when they met in 1977. (She met Zugelder by chance while visiting another inmate; she and Toth became acquainted when he was hired to help her move.)