Lockdown Bookclub – Valley of the Dolls
In the ’60s, her name was synonymous with all things hip and swinging. Her fashion sense was imitated by millions. And on the day President Kennedy was assassinated, she ran into her publicist’s office, shrieking: “This is gonna ruin my tour!”
Jacqueline – or Jackie – Susann was America’s First Lady of Trash Fiction. The first woman to pen 500 pages of showbiz lust, drugs and shattered dreams and turn them into a bestseller, the first popular novelist to tackle such ‘taboo’ subjects as homosexuality, she paved the way for the bonkbusters of today. A former actress and model who favoured Pucci stretch tops, enormous black wigs and false eyelashes, Susann turned to writing in a desperate bid for fame. Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44, she wrote in her diary on Christmas Day 1962: “I can’t die without leaving something. Something big. I think I can write. Let me live to make it!”
Between 1963 and 1974, Susann published four books. The first, Every Night, Josephine was a biography of her pet poodle and received a fair amount of attention. But it was the follow-up that would become the “something big” she longed for. Valley Of The Dolls (1966) was an instant success. A cautionary tale of three wannabe starlets and their struggles with the pressures of fame and drug addiction, the book topped the New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks. It didn’t do the sales figures any harm when it was revealed that the book’s three starlets were based on Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, or that Broadway dame Helen Lawson was inspired by Ethel Merman (with whom Susann was rumoured to be infatuated).
A film, starring Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate and Patty Duke, made a splash the following year. By the time its author died in 1974, aged 56, Valley of the Dolls had sold a whopping 29 million copies.
How did she do it? Susann was never an especially good writer. The woman who had the nerve to compare herself to Nabokov and Shakespeare was also quoted as saying that she didn’t think any novelist should be too concerned with literature. Denounced by one of her own editors as “painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish”, she got where she did through sheer force of will.
The key to her success lay in her innate understanding of her audience. “I know who they are, because that’s who I used to be. All the people they envy in my books – the ones who are glamorous, or beautiful, or rich, or talented – they have to suffer, see, because that way the people who read me can get off the subway and go home feeling better about their own crappy lives.”
Barbara Seaman, author of the 1987 Susann biography Lovely Me, noted that Jackie was the first person to market a book as if it were a household product. When Every Night, Josephine was published, Susann sent a note to her editor informing him she would “go anywhere to sell this book”. And she meant it. In a promotional blitz unprecedented in publishing history, she toured bookshops all across the country, lavishing personal attention on booksellers and signing every copy they had in stock. She also appeared on TV and radio. Having once offended the powerful talk-show host Johnny Carson at a party, he vowed never to invite her on his show. But Jackie had the last laugh. Valley of the Dolls became such a massive it, he was forced to back down.
“There was a month when I was doing 10 shows a day, 18 interviews a day,” she recalled later. “I was killing myself.” Few people were aware of just how close to the truth this was. Her ongoing battle with cancer was kept a closely guarded secret, along with her dependency on slimming pills and the fact that she and her press agent husband Irving Mansfield had an autistic son who’d been institutionalised since the age of four.
Having carved out a new role for herself, Jackie played it to the hilt. Her books may have warned against the damaging effects of fame, but she never allowed those around her to forget that she was a star. She insisted on flying first class, together with her husband and her publicist, whose job description including carrying the author’s wig boxes. A chauffeur-driven limousine was also a standard requirement, together with the best suite in any hotel.
When her beloved pooch Josephine died, a grief-stricken Jackie announced: “I tried to be brave. I tried to think of Jackie Kennedy and Mrs Martin Luther King.” And she suggested that the 1960s would be remembered for three things – Andy Warhol, the Beatles and herself.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Shortly after she succumbed to cancer, her books went out of print. While the reputations of Andy Warhol and the Beatles lived on, Jackie went from being a major celebrity to a cult curiosity, imitated by drag queens and quoted by an ever diminishing circle of camp aficionados.
Then in the late ’90s she enjoyed something of a renaissance. Valley of the Dolls was republished. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art staged the first ever Jackie Susann Film Festival. There was a biopic starring Bette Midler, and a mini-series starring Michele Lee of Knot’s Landing fame (Jackie would surely have appreciated that since, in a sense, she invented Knot’s Landing).
When I sat down to write my second novel Star People, it was Jackie I turned to for inspiration. Like Valley, Star People is set in Hollywood and deals with the perils of fame. Like Valley, it revolves around three main characters, including beautiful, blond, doomed Billy West (named in honour of Valley’s Jennifer North). Unlike Valley, it didn’t sell millions of copies. But it’s still a book I’m proud to have written.
Why did Jackie succeed where others failed? Since they were standing up for her long before it became fashionable to do so, the last word should go to the authors of The Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly. “You may be asking, why Jackie Susann?”, they wrote in an early issue. “She’s camp, she’s glam, she’s frivolous, she typed her manuscript pages on pink paper, she understood the concept of modern celebrity better than anyone (except maybe Andy Warhol). She loved melodrama, and on top of it all, her heroines were always powerful, independent women who were not afraid of going after what they wanted. Jackie is a prophet of pop culture.”