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Claude-Eric Lazard and Danielle Steel

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Claude-Eric Lazard and Danielle Steel, Will there be a fifth husband for Danielle Steel? If she were a character in one of her 35 best-sellers, you wouldn’t need to ask. Tragedy or fate knocks her heroines flat, but they bravely climb up off the canvas and carry on. As there is little point to life without romance in the time-tested Steel formula, a man usually looms. He is firm-jawed, warm and caring.

The mighty flood of words that flows from Steel’s aged typewriter — she turns out one or two novels each year that float like helium to the top of the best-seller list — are soap operatic sagas of riches, glamour, fame, crime, careers, ill-starred marriages, betrayals, intrigue and childbearing. People think she’s just making this stuff up. But a lot of it is based on her own life, which is sort of like a Danielle Steel novel.

With the O.J. Simpson trial now history, no really big movie in sight and the fall TV schedule the usual disappointment, diversion must be sought elsewhere. Which is why we ponder the possibility of a fifth spouse now that husband No. 4, John Traina, father of five of Steel’s seven children (there are also two stepchildren by her first and third husbands), has been given his walking papers after 14 years of marriage. San Francisco society circles are as much abuzz with speculation on the question as the novelist’s fans, who have made her America’s most popular author since Louis L’Amour rode off into the sunset.

The diminutive and secretive Steel, 48, declines direct comment on whether a new love in her life edged out the old, causing the separation. “She’s upset for her kids over the breakup of the marriage,” her New York spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, was authorized to say. “She’s not dating now.” But Now Doesn’t Mean Forever, as the title of a Steel novel might say.

The tightly knit San Francisco social circles that Steel broke into with her marriage to the handsome, reserved Traina (jilted husband of a Dow Chemical heiress, after a stage when her husbands ran to felons and drug users), 64, do not expect her to remain single after the anticipated divorce. That would be as strange as a Steel novel that didn’t sell well or one the critics actually liked.

With more than 215 million books in print, seven more manuscripts awaiting publication (she can knock out a novel in a couple of weeks), three made-for-TV movies from her books that rivaled ratings for Monday Night Football and the first game of the World Series, a deal with NBC for more adaptations and a feature movie rumored to be in the works, it has been a long time since Steel worried where her next Rolls was coming from. Her latest five- book deal with Delacourt is for $60 million. Her most recent book, “Lightning,” came out in June. Her next, “Five Days in Paris,” will reach the bookstores November 6 and two more miniseries are on the way (based on “Mixed Blessings” December 11 and “No Greater Love” January 29). Her books sell an average of a million copies in hardcover and 2.5 million to 3.5 million in paperback. So marriage to Steel is like marrying an industry. The most-heard gossip about a future man centers on two extremely wealthy and eligible widowers, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins, 63, and real estate tycoon Walter Shorenstein, 80. The wives of both died last year. Neither man returned calls asking for comment. For what it’s worth, Shorenstein is in Europe for a month and a Steel friend confided that Perkins was due back from abroad any day.

“She’s known him as a family friend for a number of years,” Rubenstein said of Perkins. “They never dated. He has been in Europe the past 5 1/2 months. That rumor’s been floating around for several months.”

Maybe the reason it has been afloat is that before going to Europe Perkins had been a fixture at Steel’s side at dinner parties. As servants swept away course after course, one source said, Steel grilled him on details about venture capitalism as grist for her fiction mill. Did love bloom during these interrogations?

“Maybe she wants someone more dynamic, somebody who has made his own money,” said an old friend.

Before their marriage, Traina was an executive with a cruise ship company that owned a single vessel, a converted ferry that plied Asian waters, not very profitably. His role expanded in retellings until the myth took root that Traina had been a shipping tycoon.

Students of Steel’s fiction have detected a change in recent books. “Steel has slicked up and modernized the formula,” observed Chronicle Book Editor Patricia Holt, “allowing her heroines to evolve into stronger, more authoritative and articulate women who never defer to men. They demand that their lovers regard them with respect and full attention to their needs and feelings — or they go on to someone else.”

After marriages in what Steel calls her “hippie” period, with men who stuck needles in their arms or mugged women — dangerous men, in short — Steel has seemed drawn toward more stable types.

Before she wed Traina, it was reported, she once asked self-made millionaire developer Al Wilsey, 28 years her senior, to marry her. “I’m old enough to be your father,” Wilsey is said to have pointed out in declining the offer.

“One of her husbands once said she wants to be somebody’s little girl,” said a friend, “but she also wants to be the boss.” (By way of showing what a claustrophobic world San Francisco society is, Wilsey later married Dede Traina after she dumped John.)

For his part, the saddened Traina — an exquisitely tailored man who lunches often in smart restaurants and collects antique cigarette cases — said Danielle had decided that the love story she was writing didn’t include him anymore. Traina, who told this to friends at a luncheon, did not return calls asking for an interview.

“It seems,” Steel once observed, “that every time you reach a comfortable spot, life kicks you in the a–, and you have to grow or something.”

Before Traina was told to pack his bags, the couple had lived in estrangement for some time on separate floors of the Pacific Heights Beaux Arts mansion built in 1913 for Alma Spreckels of the sugar family. Big as it is, the couple purchased two other buildings nearby (they also have a Napa Valley retreat) as a refuge from their sprawling family and the huge retinue of servants and staff. When the children were younger, each had a British nanny.

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