Jacqueline Susann and the 50th Anniversary of 'Valley of the Dolls'

Jacqueline Susann and the 50th Anniversary of 'Valley of the Dolls'

Fifty years later, it’s hard to imagine the world before Valley of the Dolls, but what the sensational novel exposed didn’t initially go down easy

Fifty years later, it’s hard to imagine the world before Valley of the Dolls, but what the sensational novel exposed didn’t initially go down easy

Text: NELL BERAM

Oh, Jacqueline Susann. What’s a feminist to do with you? Nora Ephron didn’t see you as a friend to the women’s movement in 1969 when she described your work as “first-rate kitsch” in the New York Times, although she admitted that when Valley of the Dolls came out in 1966, she couldn’t put it down. Gloria Steinem, reviewing Valley in the New York Herald Tribune, didn’t focus on its aspiring female characters. To her, Valley was “for the reader who has put away comic books but isn’t yet ready for editorials in The Daily News.” Susann retaliated verbally and allegedly threatened to punch Steinem should their paths cross. (A fan of Valley can be forgiven if this catfight-scented exchange conjures up the novel’s most famous scene, involving two divas, a wig, and a toilet.)

Courtesy the Jacqueline Susann Archive Collection.

Before Susann became a best-selling author, she was a highly driven, yet failed, New York actress and an uncelebrated playwright who had known more than her share of heartache. Her son, Guy, born in 1946, was autistic and lived in an institution. In 1962, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer. Overdue for some good fortune, Susann, who had been raised casually Jewish, made a deal with God: if he would give her just 10 more years on earth, she would become a successful writer. Susann somewhat realized her ambition with Every Night, Josephine!, a droll 1963 valentine to her poodle. The plaudits for Josephine emboldened her to try her hand at a novel—which is not to say a work of pure fiction.

Rereleased by Grove Press this summer in sync with the novel’s fiftieth anniversary, Valley follows three working women across two decades as they navigate midcentury Manhattan’s show business and social scenes. It’s Sex and the City (inconceivable without Valley) starring one Charlotte and two Samanthas. Conversations revolve around their must-haves—money to survive, a certain job, a specific mink, a particular man—and whether life is worth living without love, beauty, or talent. It’s a world of late nights at restaurants and clubs, of booze and cigarettes, and, eventually, dolls—Susann’s term for the barbiturates that she increasingly saw thrown back in her circle and in Hollywood. (She threw some dolls back, too.)

The 2016 reissue. Courtesy of Grove Press.

In the press, there was much conjecture regarding the models for Susann’s self-medicating strivers. She used every muscle to fan the flames of speculation, but she was firm about her intentions. In Ephron’s piece, Susann is quoted as saying, “I am a thematic writer. In other words, I pick a theme and then the characters fall into place. With ‘Valley,’ I never sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write about a prototype of Judy Garland or Ethel Merman.’” If the reader happened to picture Merman’s wig in Garland’s hand, all the better.

With its frank depictions of recreational drug use, an abortion pursued, and enjoyable non-missionary sex, the book caused a scandal—with a vertical line through the S. Valley’s scads of sales were abetted by Susann and husband/press agent Irving Mansfield’s marketing efforts, which borrowed from something they knew well: the acting world’s star-making machinery. Over the years, Susann did ads, TV and public appearances, and book launch parties. She and Mansfield essentially invented the modern author tour. The writer Michael Korda, who edited Susann’s second novel, The Love Machine, told Charlie Rose in 1995 that, before Jackie, “people weren’t so much interested in selling books as they were in publishing them...Selling books was regarded as slightly distasteful.”

Operating out of her Central Park South apartment, Susann was always camera ready with a bouffant, wearing Courrèges or Emilio Pucci. (Her friend Rex Reed apparently called the latter her “banana split nightmares.”) Lisa Bishop, whose mother married Irving Mansfield after Susann’s death, told me, “She made herself the first branded author, that’s for sure. In style, in fashion, in her specific voice, her wit.” The original self-branded woman would have been all over social media. Whitney Robinson, Bishop’s nephew and another steward of the Susann estate, says, “There’s no doubt that after getting dressed up completely in her wigs and her pancake makeup and her false eyelashes, she would’ve taken the best selfie of anybody in the business.”

Barbara Parkins and Jacqueline Susann in the 1967 film based on the book. Courtesy the Jacqueline Susann Archive Collection.

Susann was the first author to take three consecutive number one spots on the New York Times Best Seller list, with Valley, The Love Machine, and Once Is Not Enough. All three novels were later adapted into films. Her successes led many to conclude that the prize on which she had her eye was money; David Frost said that she typed “on a cash register.” There were also green-eyed personal attacks, as when Truman Capote said that Susann looked like “a truck driver in drag” on Johnny Carson. (Capote later apologized—to truck drivers.) Capote had hit Susann where she hurt: the public didn’t know about the mastectomy. Nor did they know about Guy’s institutionalization. If Susann and Mansfield were running for the money train, it was largely to ensure that there would be enough of the stuff to pay for their son’s needs after they were gone.

If Susann in fact only saw dollar signs, it would be hard to explain why she stormed director Mark Robson after an early screening of the movie version of Valley, calling it “a piece of shit.” She knew the film would only move more units, yet she was protective of her work. As Lisa Bishop says, the movie “diverges so much from the book that I don’t think it really speaks through her genuine voice.” Susann does make a cameo in the film, playing a reporter, which makes sense. Whitney Robinson sees the novel as Susann “reporting, really, on the front lines of what she’s seeing…real, flawed people and not products of PR and the studio system.” As Bishop puts it, “The genius of Jackie was that she really just pulled back the curtain and showed [Hollywood] for what it was.”

The film stars a prim Barbara Parkins as blue-blooded Anne, an eye-meltingly beautiful Sharon Tate as glossy Jennifer (rumored to be molded on the tragic actress Carole Landis, Susann’s friend), and, as Neely, Patty Duke, whose performance as a Garland-ish, weight-battling, pill-popping singer didn’t just invite parody; it was indistinguishable from it. Then there’s the middle-aged, borderline washed-up Broadway star Helen Lawson—the Ethel Merman surrogate. (Susann and Merman had been friends, too.) The role, played by Susan Hayward, originally went to Garland herself, who was famously fired a month into shooting for, well, being Judy Garland (read: Neely). If the book wasn’t a B novel, then the decidedly B movie confirmed highbrow types’ suspicions about Susann’s work. Although the movie made money, she feared that it would hurt her carefully cultivated brand, and it did—until it didn’t.

Courtesy PhotoMedia.

Having kept her cancer’s return private, Susann died in 1974, at age 56. She got two more years than the 10 she’d prayed for after her first diagnosis, but it wasn’t long enough to allow her to see what became of the movie version of Valley. Today there’s a Rocky Horror Picture Show–like devotion to it, mainly because it’s so howlingly overboard that it’s a theatrical marvel. The film has a mammoth gay following in part because, as Robinson points out, “Jackie was the first author to write gay people into her novels in a really palpable way.” True, they’re called “fags” and “dykes,” but at least they’re at the party. Susann was indefatigably loyal to her fans, and it’s easy to imagine her posing for photos with drag queens before sitting back and enjoying the film, maybe even reciting the lines along with the audience: “Sparkle, Neely, sparkle.” Patty Duke made her peace with the movie before her death this past March. Surely Susann would have been able to by then as well.

As for her novels, any work that begets a publishing gold mine, like that of Danielle Steel or Jackie Collins, requires reevaluation. While Susann didn’t march for the freshly hatched feminist cause of her day, she probably wouldn’t have threatened to punch the professors who have taught Valley in women’s literature courses. Which brings us back to that needling question: what’s a feminist to do with you, Jackie?

In his recent piece for the Nation online, “Jacqueline Susann’s Queer Feminism,” Tim Murphy writes, “Ultimately, Valley of the Dolls can probably not be called a feminist book. A certain female vitality and optimism that animates the beginning of the book devolves into familiar midcentury tropes by its end.” Come now, aren’t Anne, Jennifer, and Neely’s fates Susann’s indictment of the midcentury male animal? Thinking about Susann and her motives, I kept returning to another Steinem quote: “A movement is only people moving.” If, instead of marching with feminists, Jackie was walking to the bank, so be it.

Valley of the Dolls 50th Anniversary Edition is available now from Grove Press.

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