“A good writer is one who produces books that people read. So if I’m selling millions, I’m good.”
50+ years after Valley Of The Dolls was first published, gay guys are still obsessed with the feuding, boozing, pill popping ladies of the camp classic novel and film. Neely O’Hara, Anne Welles, Jennifer North and Helen Lawson have all evolved into top Gay Icons.
Susann is camp, glamorous, and frivolous. Except for maybe Andy Warhol, she is the most understood modern celebrity. Her female characters are always powerful, independent women who are not afraid of going after what they want. The men in her stories are pieces of meat, or fags, or both.
In the film version of Valley Of The Dolls (1967), the bodaciously fashioned, big haired, heavy mascara wearing creatures just could never choose a decent guy. Their over-sized egos matched their over-sized hairdos and high histrionics while these girls frolicked, tripped and dipped through nutty adventures in glorious Technicolor.
Susann put herself out there as a WASP, but she was Jewish; she appeared to be a woman happy to not be encumbered with children, but she had a son who was institutionalized. She claimed to be born to high-society, but her family were working-class from Philadelphia.
Her novels are not what they appeared either: they are not exactly literary but they do take on issues like society’s taboos and people who feel marginalized.
At 442 pages, Valley Of The Dolls was considered so candid in its portrayal of showbiz lifestyles, plastic surgery, abortion, gay sex, suicide and Demerol that my mother hid her copy and so did the mothers of my friends. The characters were based on celebrities like Ethel Merman and Judy Garland, making Valley Of The Dolls a must read for a little gay 12-year-old like me. I thought at the time that the book was a rather impressive, fast moving Broadway-Hollywood soap opera and morality tale about the trials and tribulations, sex lives and problems of an aging group of 1945 era girls and their dependence on drink and drugs. The pills they took to pep themselves up, go to sleep and stay slim were nicknamed “dolls” by Susann. The novel made sense to me and I liked it so much more than Lord Of The Rings.
One of the ten most popular books in publishing history, ranking just below The Bible and Dr. Spock’s Baby And Child Care, it initially sold more than 20 million copies, spending 22 weeks at Number One on The New York Times Bestseller List, the most successful fiction work of the 1960’s worldwide.
Before becoming a writer, Susann had a not so successful career as an actor and television performer. She appeared in minor roles in 21 plays on Broadway including the original production of Clare Boothe Luce‘s The Women in 1937, yet she became the first novelist to have three consecutive books: Valley Of The Dolls, The Love Machine (1969), and Once Is Not Enough (1973) making it to Number One on The New York Times list. They all received scathing, dismissive reviews from critics.
All three novels were made into very popular films, but only Valley Of The Dolls continues to play in theatres at festivals and film retrospects, and to be the subject of theme parties and campy celebrations.
Unlike her characters, Susann enjoyed a long happy marriage. Her husband was press agent Irving Mansfield. They lived on the 24th floor of a building on Central Park South, where Susann did her three-finger typing in a study with pink Pucci print curtains. Once she had a theme, main characters and an ending, she would plaster her pink patent-leather walls with charts that plotted the characters and incidents. She wrote for eight hours a day on pink paper.
Susann worked tirelessly to promote her books and she was a frequent guest on television talk shows. In one memorable exchange on The David Frost Show, John Simon, the especially acerbic critic for New York Magazine, asked her:
“Do you think you are writing art or are you writing trash to make a lot of money?”
“Little man, I am telling a story. Now, does that make you happy?”
Writer Gore Vidal quipped:
“She doesn’t write, she types!”
Truman Capote, also a talk show regular, appeared on The Tonight Show and stated:
“Susann looks likes truck driver in drag.”
When Susann threatened to sue him, Capote said:
“I apologize to truck drivers everywhere.”
The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson gave Susann the chance to fire back at Capote. Susann’s retort:
“Truman, Truman. I think history will prove he’s one of the best Presidents we’ve had.”
The film of Valley Of The Dolls starring Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate and Susan Hayward (in a role intended for Garland) contains a Susann cameo appearance as a reporter in the scene with Tate’s character’s suicide. Valley Of The Dolls was a huge commercial hit and it remains a LGBTQ favorite. Susann hated the film, telling the director Mark Robson:
“This picture is a piece of shit.”
She swore never to give away creative control of the film versions of her books again, and she didn’t.
Valley Of The Dolls was re-released in summer 1969 following the murder of Sharon Tate, and again proved to be a hit. Parkins, attending a 1997 screening of the film at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, told the sold-out crowd of cinema queens:
“I know why you like it… because it’s so bad!”
It was made into a television film in 1981 and a series in 1994. Our culture just can’t get enough. How about a more modern remake starring Melania Trump, Lindsay Lohan, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones?
In January 1973, Susann was diagnosed with lung cancer. She lived for 21 more months, finishing one more book before the cancer got her for good.
Susann’s own favorite of her books was her first, Every Night, Josephine (1963), the true story of her relationship with her poodle. It sold well enough to provide her the time and money to write Valley Of The Dolls. Susann hungered for success and she got there, becoming nothing less than her own brand. She was both a brand and a broad.