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The Dream Girl

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"Sheiks are nice," says Swift. "They're a way of having an unbelievably macho guy, who's macho not because he's a jerk but because he was born into a culture that expects him to be that way."

Swift says she read her first romance novel in eighth grade, when she was assigned Pride and Prejudice. Some people -- Jane Austen, for example -- might argue that this book belongs in a different category than The Catch of Conard County. That's not how Swift sees it. "I think everyone extracts something different from what they read," she says with a shrug. "And for me, the thing that continues to challenge and intrigue is the relationship. I see War and Peace as a romance."

Swift heads out of the production library, toward the main hallway, and stops at a life-size cutout of Ricardo Montalban, who in the eighties was the television spokesman for Silhouette. ("Rrrromance," he purred, "like eet once was, and could be again.") Ricardo is wearing beads.

"We dress him up for the different holidays," she says. "This must be left over from Mardi Gras."

Then she starts down the main hall -- a cheerful snuggery that looks not unlike a girls' dorm at boarding school, with posters of hunks lining the walls (Russell Crowe, David Duchovny, Mel Gibson) and Harlequin paraphernalia strewn about (mouse pads, Valentine's cards). One half-expects the editors to emerge from their offices wearing mud masks.

Swift's company traffics almost exclusively in "category" romances. Each line (Romance, American Romance, Superromance, Temptation . . .) has its own special character and dimensions, like different phyla in a kingdom. The books of the "Harlequin Presents" line, for example, all have white covers with red trim and weigh in at 192 pages. They come out in clusters of six (this month: The Italian's Revenge, The Pleasure King's Bride, His Secretary Bride, Outback Mistress, The Unmarried Father, Rhys's Redemption) and tend to favor wealthy heroes and fabulously international settings.

Single dads are hugely popular with Silhouette Intimate Moments and Harlequin Superromances. Any genre, it seems, can be improved by a doctor, a cowboy, or a horse. And Texas . . . ! Texas is huge, not only a state but a state of mind. According to Harlequin's latest newsletter, three books due out in September alone have Texas in the title (Deep in the Heart of Texas, Slow Waltz Across Texas, The $10,000,000 Texas Wedding). And at the end of every month -- whoosh! -- they all get wiped off the racks, just like magazines, to be replaced by the next month's shipment.

"Taming the beast," Swift resumes. "That's a classic theme -- how you get a sexist guy who doesn't like women. And there are different ways of playing out the fantasy, too, like the cranky guy with the teenage daughter, and you're the one who can relate to her."

If anyone can reinvigorate Harlequin Enterprises, it's Swift. She is not, as one expects a romance publishing executive to be, a lacquered diva with eight rings on her fingers and an unnatural attachment to poodles. Actually, she's fonder of rats, frogs, and guinea pigs, all of which she kept as pets when she was a kid. For her 30th birthday, she gave herself motorcycle lessons and drove across Montana on a Suzuki 500.

Swift spent the first nine years of her childhood bouncing from Tokyo to Baghdad to London before settling in Washington, D.C. Her father, now retired, worked in the clandestine-service element of the CIA. Her mother, at 73, still goes fox-hunting in Middleburg, Virginia. "Her mother's a bit off the wall, actually," says Davidson, Swift's cousin. "She does exactly what she feels like doing; she doesn't care what anyone else thinks. She doesn't try to impress."

Mary Swift's eccentric streak found its way into the DNA of her child. Alessandra Stanley remembers her friend's bedroom in Georgetown being decorated with all sorts of weird animal skulls "that looked prehistoric but were probably roadkill." In seventh grade, Swift took her pet rat to school and sat through an entire French class with it wrapped around her neck, concealed behind a mop of curly hair. ("Are rats affectionate?" I ask. "When they're your rats," she answers.) In college, Swift wore glitter in her hair and dressed for parties as if they were casting calls for The Rocky Horror Picture Show -- if she didn't come dressed in drag, complete with a mustache made of dog hair, pretending to be her cousin's boyfriend from Harvard.

Judging from her life at Radcliffe, no one would ever have divined that Swift was destined for a career in romance novels. She and her clique of female friends terrified men; they were outrageous, blisteringly self-assured, unconcerned with male approval. "We didn't take that stuff seriously," says Davidson, who lived with Swift. "We didn't want to be arm candy, and when we had boyfriends, we didn't want to be seen as part of a couple. We were really badass girls in that way."

To this day, friends describe Swift as tough, self-contained, and intensely private. She lives through her mind, not her feelings or raw nerves. "She doesn't confide," says Stanley. "It took me several months just to figure out the basic . . . premise," says her husband, Steven Phillips, whom Swift met at Smokey's Barbecue fifteen years ago. "What intrigued me was the opaqueness."

Just what, then, does a bright, no-nonsense, unsentimental woman like Swift see in The Lone Star Country Club?

"When I'm on the subway," she says, "I just want to read something that gives something back. With romances, it's the author saying, 'Here's a bit of sky!' They're exciting and fun and rejuvenating. They're not dark or difficult. Plus," she adds, "they're a lot sexier than people think."

Swift's friends say it goes even deeper than that. "For Isabel," says Elizabeth Glazer, a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office who went to Radcliffe with Swift, "romance novels were Thomas Aquinas. She'd deconstruct them the way others deconstruct Foucault. And once you finished discussing it with Isabel at some length, you questioned yourself -- this wasn't some piece of junk you picked up. This was The Red and the Black."

Glazer adds that Swift does, if you look past her idiosyncrasies, have an old-fashioned, impeccably refined streak, which seems appropriate for a romance aficionado. Yes, she came to Harvard Fly Club parties dressed as a man, but as an exceedingly well-tailored one. She has perfect manners. Her fridge is stocked with wine and cheese. "There's something slightly nineteenth-century about Isabel," muses Glazer. "For all her eccentricity, she's very civilized. She's at home pouring tea."

Swift loves to proselytize. At lunch with a new friend, Swift will casually slip her the latest from Nora Roberts, hoping to make a convert. Shortly after she began dating her husband, Swift gave him a romance novel, which he dutifully consumed on a three-legged flight from New York to Denver to Butte. "I discovered it was the greatest way to meet women with blue hair and polyester jumpsuits," says Phillips, a warm, engaging M.D. who's the international medical director of Exxon Mobil Corporation. "They'd stop in the aisle and look at me adoringly."


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