52 years ago this book appeared and changed the face of the popular fiction market. It scandalised and thrilled and became “the” book to read in secret and was the biggest selling novel of the year in the United States. It went on to sell over 31 million copies. The “Best-Seller” was transformed and the author became the first to have three consecutive novels top the New York Times sales lists. Fifty years on Tiger Press issued a commemorative reprint which I picked up recently in a Kindle edition for under a pound. Would it have stood the test of time?
I first read it around 10 years after its publication when I was just hitting my teens. It was in the first batch of adult books that really made an impression and all of them I felt I probably should not yet be reading. (“The Godfather” and “Jaws” were two others that fell into this category). Nobody read Jacqueline Susann for its literary merit yet I can remember being really impressed by the casualness of her style and adopting it myself in English fiction assignments at school. I can still remember my teacher’s comment; “The O-Level Examiners will not by impressed by this casual attitude”. I thought I’d got Susann’s somewhat detached outpourings of scandal down beautifully. Obviously the teacher was not a fan!
I couldn’t help but be reminded of this whilst re-reading “Valley Of The Dolls” and getting a cold shiver go up my spine. The poor teacher! I was totally seduced by this tale of three women’s experience of fame and celebrity with its touches of Monroe, Garland, Crawford and Lana Turner and a myriad of others but with very much their own identities. Central character Anne Welles escapes from a town in New England to New York with model looks and gets work in a theatrical attorney’s office. In the brownstone where she rooms she meets Neely, a young vaudeville trouper with ambitions on Broadway and the two later meet Jennifer, who has ditched her marriage to a foreign prince to return to the US amidst scandal but with curves-a-plenty to ensure plenty of media attention. The novel puts the focus on all three girls in sections where they take the lead between the years 1945-65.
Although it runs up to the time just before its publication date the focus is on the earlier period of the more repressed yet glamourous 1950’s showbusiness world which would have largely moved on in the 1966 Beatles era with hippies, peace and love and letting it all hang out just around the corner. Although on the surface it might have seemed old fashioned to some of its first readers it struck such a chord because it lifted the lid on the world of showbusiness like nothing had before. The 1954 movie “A Star Is Born” might have opened some eyes but this goes so much further.
The wheeling-dealing, bitchiness, the demands of those who hold the purse strings, the loneliness of celebrity are all brought into sharp focus. Above all else it is the resorting to pills, “the dolls” of the title, in order to function, to sleep, to lose weight and just to cope to be what the industry required them to be. It is still compelling and obviously given our continued obsession with celebrity feels relevant today. True, dialogue is often clunky, there’s not a black American in sight and gay men are throughout dismissed as “fags” and lesbians as “bull-dykes”, all of which rankles nowadays. In his introduction Simon Doonan says that contemporary gay men were just delighted to be included in this tale of showbusiness as pre-Susann they were just whitewashed out. I might just concede that point as this is still such a guilty pleasure of a novel. It’s tacky yet has the capacity to surprise. It is probably the ultimate beach/poolside read which inspired hundreds of others. I wouldn’t rule it out being around for another 50 years.
I read the Kindle edition of the 50th anniversary edition of “Valley Of The Dolls” which was published by Tiger Press