Susann, Jacqueline (1921-1974)

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Susann, Jacqueline (1921-1974)

Jacqueline Susann, sometimes called the Joan Crawford of novelists, wrote only three works of fiction between 1966 and 1973, but her first novel, Valley of the Dolls, was one of the 10 most widely distributed books of all time. While her often maligned books eventually went out of print, Susann was still remembered as the first writer to become a media celebrity through her aggressive promotional appearances on television talk shows. A mid-1990s revival saw Dolls back in print again, some relatively serious re-evaluations of her campy, but charismatic work, and Susann's perhaps inevitable ascension into the pantheon of gay male pop culture icons.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1921, Susann moved to New York in 1936, a beauty contest winner anxious to crash show business. In 1939 she married Irving Mansfield, and worked as both model and actress, appearing in Broadway and road company productions, including The Women in 1937. Lacking the talent, luck, and angles to really hit performing big time, Susann was still addictively drawn to celebrities and their world, and her 15 years on the fringes of show business paid off in a shrewdly exploited literary career. This commenced in 1963 with the nonfiction success, Every Night, Josephine, about Susann's beloved pet poodle. But Susann's next book, the novel Valley of the Dolls in 1966, channeled her inside show business savvy into a best-selling combination of romance, lurid sex, and sensationalism which, as the publishing blurb used to say, ripped the lid off the entertainment industry. Susann and her press agent husband also launched the kind of hard-sell promotional campaign that had previously been exploited only by Hollywood. The first author to effectively exploit the television talk show circuit, Susann became as famous as her controversial books. In a legendary media incident she and Truman Capote traded insults during separate talk show appearances, Capote delivering his now infamous jibe that Susann reminded him of "a truck driver in drag."

While commercially successful, Susann's work was savaged by critics, instilling in her a longing for approval and prestige that was never to be truly gratified. While prestigious Random House distributed Susann's first two books, they often denied being her publisher because the titles were actually published by Bernard Geis, an outsider in the New York publishing world. James B. Twitchell observes: "… the modern phenomenon of celebrity-as-author was rediscovered by publishers like Bernard Geis after the collected wisdom of Art Linkletter became a best-seller. Geis realized that just as out-and-out hacks can be made into celebrities, celebrities can be made into authors"—and thus, Susann instinctively realized, authors could be made into celebrities. After Simon and Schuster published her second book of fiction, The Love Machine in 1969, an editor reputedly sent Susann a rose and a note saying simply "For us, once was enough," as her third and final novel, Once Is Not Enough, was being published by William Morrow in 1973.

Ironically, Susann's private life became more dramatic than any of her fiction. In 1962 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which a mastectomy failed to alleviate, and, until her death in 1974, spent the rest of her life on painkillers. Her condition was never announced publicly. In addition, Susann and Mansfield's only son, Guy, was autistic, a fact also concealed from the world at large. Thus while Susann pushed the envelopes of content in her fiction, in real life she adhered to what she perceived as the expectations of her era, believing the public demanded celebrities who conformed to a positive, if manufactured image, no matter what the actuality of their private lives.

Valley of the Dolls, a lurid, sudsy saga of three young women coping none too well with the challenges of show business, remains Susann's key work. Aside from its delirious camp excesses, the cult status of the 1967 film version (in which Susann briefly appears) was instantly certified when Judy Garland was replaced by Susan Hayward shortly after production commenced, and retrospectively by co-star Sharon Tate's brutal death in the Charles Manson clan multiple murder case. Leonard Maltin calls the film a "terribly written, acted, and directed BOMB"—he also cites an updated and expanded four-hour 1981 television remake as "superior to the 1967 theatrical version." A 1971 in-name-only sequel, Russ Meyer's equally cultish Beyond the Valley of the Dolls took Susann's hyperbole into the realm of deliberate (and violent) camp.

In late 1997 Grove Press reissued the long-out-of-print Valley of the Dolls, peaking a mainstream Susann renaissance which had been percolating within gay culture for over a decade—the cult status of Susann among American gay men was the subject of a detailed feature article, "Pink Trash," in no less than the usually staid New York Times, in July of 1997. The revival also included a New York City drag stage production of Dolls, the trendy popularity of gay smart-set VOD parties featuring jelly beans in the form of Susann's famous Valium pills (or "dolls"), a 1998 television movie bio, Scandalous Me, and the announcement of a theatrical film of Susann's life to star Bette Midler. But perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of 1990s Susann-mania was an "interview" with the deceased author published in Interview magazine in October 1997, and based on a seance involving drag performer Lypsinka and a medium named Miss Eek.

Nora Ephron comments on Susann's work: "With the possible exception of Cosmopolitan magazine, no one writes about sadism in modern man and masochism in modern woman quite so horribly and accurately as Jacqueline Susann. Valley of the Dolls had a message that had a magnetic appeal for women readers: it describes 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. It was, essentially, a morality tale." Art Forum editor Sydney Pokorny gushes: "She's camp, she's glam, she's frivolous, she understood the appeal of modern celebrity better than anyone else (except maybe Andy Warhol), and on top of it all her heroines were always powerful, independent women. Jackie is a prophet of pop culture."

Jackie herself put it this way: "People who read me can get off the subway and go home feeling better about their own crappy lives, and luckier than the people they've been reading about."

—Ross Care

Further Reading:

Carvajal, Doreen. "Pink Trash—Camp and Glam and Still Badly Dressed, Jacqueline Susann Stages a Comeback." New York Times. July 27, 1997, Sec. 1, 23-24.

Korda, Michael. "Wasn't She Great?" The New Yorker. August 14,1995, 66-72.

Mansfield, Irving, with Jean Libman Block. Life With Jackie. New York, Bantam Books, 1983.

Twitchell, James B. Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America. New York, Columbia University Press, 1992.