Monday, March 24, 2014

1966: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

The Author:

Jacqueline Susann (1918-1974) was born in Philadelphia to a painter and a schoolteacher.  After graduating high school, Susann left to New York City to pursue a career as an actor, landing a series of bit parts on film, television and the stage, eventually landing a steady gig on stage.  In New York, she met press agent Irving Mansfield, who she married in 1939.  Mansfield went on to manage her career and made sure that she appeared in the papers.  Susann got a recurring part on The Morey Amsterdam Show and landed bigger stage roles.

Susann's reputation, however, was tarnished with love affairs.  This included Joe Lewis, a comedian and singer.  When Mansfield was drafted to the US military in 1943, Susann filed for separation and planned to marry Lewis.  Lewis, however, signed up for a USO tour and ended the affair.  Susann and Mansfield reunited in 1944.  In 1946, they had a son they named Guy. Guy was autistic and was sent to an institution as young child.  The most recent article with any authority I could find was dated 1983, and at that time Guy was still institutionalized.

Susann continued to have a career in television, including hosting her own short-lived talk show.  In 1962, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.  In 1963, she published her first book, Every Night, Josephine! to commercial success.  In 1966 she published her most successful novel, Valley of the Dolls.  The book was critically panned.  Susann became a celebrity author and in 1969 ended up in a public feud with Truman Capote, both insulting each other on television.

In 1973, Susann was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.  The disease killed her in 1974.

The Book:

Length: 442 pages
Subject/Genre: Women's issues/Roman a Clef

I just want to put this up front:  I did not like this book.  Valley of the Dolls focuses on three women trying to make it in New York City, and for all its heavy-handed pro-independence messages, the women are unlikable and almost insultingly two-dimensional.  The novel is split into three sections, the first focusing on Anne Welles.  Welles comes from a small town to make a life for herself in New York City.  She's beautiful and wants to fall in love.  That last sentence is the sum of her character.  Susann consistently relies upon what is one of my biggest pet peeves in writing.  I'm sure you've heard the old advice, show don't tell.  Screw that advice, but don't tell me one thing, show me another, and expect me to believe both.  Other characters and even the narrator will state qualities about Anne's character, but Anne never exhibits any of these qualities!  We're told she's standoffish, but she's consistently a pushover.  We're told she's a remarkable secretary, but at that point the only task we've seen her perform was completed by someone else, in this case, Allen Cooper, the millionaire who fell in love with her.

That's another problem with Anne.  She never solves her own problems.  She comes to New York, and is immediately given a good job because she's so beautiful.  One could argue that this is a criticism of the shallowness of society, or that she's judged exclusively by her looks, but this argument would carry a lot more weight if Anne were not a complete Mary Sue with no personality of her own. In my research I came across a review of the book by Nora Ephron which is relevant here: "Valley had a message that had a magnetic appeal for women readers: it described the standard female fantasy--of going to the big city, striking it rich, meeting fabulous men--and went on to show every reader that she was far better off than the heroines in the book--who took pills, killed themselves, and made general messes of their lives." 

While the 'dolls' in the title refers to barbiturates, it can just as well refer to the characters, not just in the sense that they are seen as objects in a male-dominated world, but in the sense that they are vacant approximations of women for the reader to project a personality onto.  However, it's this very mirror-like effect, along with the controversy, that made the book so popular.  

A film version was released in 1967, starring Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, and Patty Duke.  The film, like the book, was a commercial success and a critical failure.  

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that the original screenplay (which was later revised to give it a happier ending) was written by SF demi-god Harlan Ellison, who is a significant figure in the Spec-Fic movement whose screenwriting credits include The Outer Limits and Star Trek (his episode of the latter went on to win a Hugo Award). I realize this is tangential, but it's always strange to see a writer who's a huge deal in one field write a movie in a completely different field, especially when the movie turns out badly (which may be why Ellison remained uncredited).    
Also notable was the would-be sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), which ended up as a satire of the source material, and is one of the three films that Roger Ebert helped write (the other two being Up! (1976) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979)).    

Look, this isn't a well-written book.  It's characters are flat and with no personalities of their own, the writing is rife with rhetorical questions to hammer in the point just made, because subtlety isn't a concern.  If your looking for a book about the position of women in the 20th century, read Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Read The Bell Jar.  Read Mrs. Dalloway.  Read Nightwood.  Read A Visit From the Goon Squad.  Read The Hours.  The fact is, this is a pretty poor book, and one that's tedious and frustrating to read if you ever stop to think about something as simple as character motivation.

Bestsellers of 1966:

1. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
2. The Adventurers by Harold Robbins
3. The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton
4. Capable of Honor by Allen Drury
5. The Double Image by Helen MacInnes
6. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
7. Tell No Man by Adela Rogers St. Johns
8. Tai-Pan by James Clavell
9. The Embezzler by Louis Auchincloss
10. All in the Family by Edwin O'Connor

Also Published in 1966:

Mikhail Bulgakov - The Master and Margarita
Truman Capote - In Cold Blood
John Fowles - The Magus
Robert Heinlein - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
Daniel Keyes - Flowers for Algernon
Thomas Pynchon - The Crying of Lot 49
William Styron - The Confessions of Nat Turner
Anne Sexton - Live or Die
Tom Stoppard - Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Hunter S. Thompson - Hell's Angels

"Jacqueline Susann." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource 
     Center. Web.


  1. I picked this up years ago thinking it would be a good guilty-pleasure type of book--after all, it doesn't aspire to be a literary classic. But I ended up having many of the same reactions you did.

  2. Great review! This book was the perfect read for me as a 14 year old, hiding a paperback copy I snitched from my aunt under the covers. That's about it, though!