On “Valley of the Dolls” and Beyond

August 20th was the birthday of author Jacqueline Susann (1918-74)

It should not shock anyone familiar with her best known works to learn that Susann was originally a Broadway actress. Susann was in eight shows between 1936 and 1946 including Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 potboiler The Women (a clear influence), and Eddie Cantor’s Banjo Eyes (1941-42). Her first literary efforts were a couple of not-very-successful plays. She broke onto TV as a regular on The Morey Amsterdam Show (1948-50) and then hosted Jacqueline Susann’s Open Door (1951) on the short-lived Dumont Network. From 1952 through 1956 she was a frequent guest on a program called This is Show Business.

Susann was friends with Joyce Mathews, former wife of Milton Berle, and third wife of Billy Rose. Rose encouraged her to publish Every Night, Josephine!, abook about her poodle, in 1962. The book was a success and paved the way for her best known book Valley of the Dolls (1965), which was nothing short of a major publishing phenomenon. It was also widely panned by the critics. It’s the sort of book my mom used to devour, and she was precisely its target audience. Leading question to young people: What did unintellectual people do before in the days cell phones to kill time when they weren’t near a TV or a radio? Shocking as it may sound to you, they used to READ. Books and magazines and newspapers. ALL THE TIME. I’m sorry if that sounds like kale salad to you. Anyway, it wasn’t all Finnegan’s Wake. Some of it was Valley of the Dolls, an over the top soap opera about three girls who go into show business where they are forced to battle drugs (the titular “dolls”), booze, lecherous men, and their own character failings.

The novel and resulting 1967 were so notorious that they influenced extremely outre filmmakers like John Waters and Russ Meyer. In fact, it was the latter’s camp parody/sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1972) cowritten by critic Roger Ebert (!) that was my backward pathway to the original. They’re both among my favorite films, now, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls tops the original. It’s hysterically funny, semi-pornographic and a glam rock musical, to boot, with a cast that includes several folks I’ve written about, including Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Edy Williams, Erica Gavin, John Lazar,and Charles Napier. and I’m planning a post on Michael Blodgett,

The orginal Valley of the Dolls is a little more subdued than its comic send-up, but not much. Naturally, its camp is unintentional, so the experience is like watching an old Batman serial as opposed to the 1966 Batman TV series, or like watching an Airport movie as opposed to Airplane! But that should not deter you from plumming its looney depths, or scaling its stratospheric heights.

The central triad consists of Patty Duke as the monstrous musical movie star and drug addict Neely O’Hara, future Manson Family victim Sharon Tate as a girl whose body takes her on a downward slope to porn, and Barbara Parkins from the TV version of Peyton Place as a nice girl who works at talent agency, whose unrequited love will steer her toward a suicide attempt. Susan Hayward plays an aging diva whose wig gets thrown into a toilet by Patty Duke in one of the film’s best scenes. There’s also Lee Grant, Martin Milner and Tony Scotti among the principals. Directed by Mark Robson, who’d also directed Peyton Place (1957) and From the Terrace (1960), the film, like the movie, was critically panned — and one of the hits of the year.

Susann published two more novels, The Love Machine (1969) and Once is Not Enough (1973), both of which were successful, but not on the scale of their predecessor. In 1974, Susann died of lung cancer. It’s like something she would have written into one of her own novels. Two earlier works Dolores (1976) and Yargo (1979) were published posthumously.