Jacqueline Susann and Me

“Yeah, I think I’ll be remembered as the voice of the 60’s…Andy Warhol, the Beatles, and me!” – Jacqueline Susann.

I was first introduced to Jacqueline Susann by my father of all people. Oh, he didn’t mean to.  One summer he took my niece and me to the movies in Rosendale, the little town near our house upstate.  Back then, movies took a long time before they played the cinema in Rosendale.  The only movie playing was the movie version of the Susann novel Once is not Enough.  Apparently my father didn’t check the rating on this movie, so he had no idea that it was rated R. Not exactly the type of movie that you want to take a 10 or an 11 year old to but my niece and I were riveted at the story of January Wayne (played by Deborah Raffin) and her obsession/Electra complex with her father Mike Wayne (played Kurt Douglas).  I’m not sure how much of it we understood, although I do remember Brenda Vaccaro talking about all the plastic surgery her character had had, and the love scene between Melina Mercouri and Alexis Smith which was tame by today’s standards.  After the movie was over, my father apologized profusely to us, he was so embarrassed. 

A few years later, I caught Valley of the Dolls on late night TV, and fell in love all over again (Funnily enough Susann initially hated the movie version, she thought it was too campy).  I had already discovered Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins thanks to cable and network miniseries.  Now at the age of 14, I was ready to tackle Valley of the Dolls. I also read The Bell Jar that summer but it was Valley of the Dolls that stayed with me.  The story of Anne Welles, Neely O’Hara and Jennifer North was filled with backstage gossip, sex, and drugs. Just the type of thing that a mother doesn’t want her 14 year old reading about, particularly a 14 year old who had already decided that she would be an actress/writer/producer.  Susann took the young women in New York theme first introduced by Rona Jaffe in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, and ramped it up to 11. This novel is so enduring that two TV series have been made from it, one in the 1980’s starring Catherine Hicks as Anne and Lisa Hartman Black as Neely O’Hara, and another version that was filmed and shown on late night television in 1994.  There was also a sequel to the film written by none other than Roger Ebert, and directed Russ Meyer, that so incensed Jacqueline Susann that she spent the last years of her life suing the producers.

Although I enjoyed her books, I didn’t know that much about Jacqueline Susann. I grew up in the era before the Internet and Google, an age where information was literally at your fingertips.  Susann had died just as PEOPLE magazine arrived on the scene. It wasn’t until years later that the world rediscovered Jacqueline Susann.  Out of nowhere, two competing biopics came out about her life, no doubt fueled by Michael Korda’s recollections of being her editor on her second novel THE LOVE MACHINE.  And a biography LOVELY ME written by author Barbara Seaman was reissued in 1996.

Susann was one of the pioneers of the glitz and glamour novels that were so prevalent in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  There would be no Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins, if Susann hadn’t paved the way.  While Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon also wrote books with similar themes, Susann wrote from the woman’s POV. According to Wikipedia, “Valley of the Dolls was an instant success when it was first published and became the bestselling book of 1966. Since then it has sold more than 30 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books of all time. As the first roman à clef by a female author to achieve this level of sales in America, it led the way for other authors such as Jackie Collins to depict the private lives of the real-life rich and famous under a veneer of fiction.”

Susann was in her forties when her first book ‘Every Night, Josephine!’ which was based on her life with her poodle, Josephine, was published in 1963.  She’d spent years trying to make it as an actress, but never quite succeeding.  Oh, she appeared on Broadway and on television but the parts never led to anything bigger.  She was a has-been or a ‘never quite been’ to be more accurate.  She’d won a beauty contest in Philadelphia when she was 18 (no doubt helped by the fact that her father was one of the judges). One of the prizes was a screen test with Warner Brothers.  Unfortunately Jackie was told by both the make-up artist and the cameraman that she would never make it in film because she had ‘big pores.’

Susann was born in Philadelphia on August 20, 1918. Her father, Robert, was a highly successful portrait painter.  Her parents seemed to have been a miss-match, Robert was an unrepentant womanizer.  They argued and made-up frequently.  It was her mother who added the extra ‘n’ to the Sephardic Jewish family name while her father kept the original spelling. Young Jacqueline adored and idolized her handsome father who took her to the theatre and to the movies.  She had a rockier relationship with her perfectionist school teacher mother Rose who thought Jackie should spend more time studying and less time daydreaming and reading movie magazines.  Like me, Jackie was an indifferent student in school, although she had a high I.Q.  No doubt she was bored, and already planning her escape to New York. Jackie auditioned repeatedly for a local radio show The Children’s Hour until they finally gave in and let her occasionally do skits on the air which she wrote herself. Despite her mother’s pleas, Jackie refused to even consider college.  As soon she graduated high school, she was off to New York, living in Kenmore Hall, a women’s residence, pounding the pavement, looking for work. It was at Kenmore Hall that Jackie met a young actress named Elfie who would later be the prototype for Nelly O'Hara in Valley of the Dolls.

She managed to score the role of a French maid in Clare Booth Luce’s new play The Women, but she was fired during rehearsals.  No matter, Jackie just hung around the theatre backstage during the run of the show until she eventually got hired for a bit part as a lingerie model, making her Broadway debut on June 2, 1937.  She met her husband Irving Mansfield, a press agent, when she answered the phone at Walgreen’s and it turned out to be for him.  He was instantly smitten and used his clout to get her name mentioned in the theatrical and gossip columns in the New York papers.  Although she liked Irving, she wasn’t in love with him when they married in 1939. It was a practical decision, Irving had a good job, and she figured that he could do a lot for her career.

Despite Irving’s devotion to Jackie, she was never faithful to him during their marriage.  She had affairs with several men including the comedians Joe E. Lewis and Eddie Cantor. "Jackie was simply crazy for Jewish comics," her friend Maxine Stewart once said.   Jackie often had crushes on women as well and may have been bisexual (there were rumors that Jackie made a pass at Ethel Merman and was rejected. Supposedly she later got back at Merman when she created the character of Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls). but sex was not a driving factor in her life.  I think in some ways, she was replicating her parent’s relationship, only with the roles reversed.  In 1946, Jackie gave birth to her only child, a son named Guy.  By the time he was three years old, he was diagnosed as autistic. Autism was still a relatively new diagnosis, doctors suggested that electroshock therapy might help, but it only made the little boy worse.  Both Jackie and Irving felt that there only choice was to put him in an institution.  Ashamed and embarrassed, they told people that he was at a special school in Arizona for children with severe asthma.  Jackie’s main goal, besides becoming famous, was to make enough money to ensure that her son was taken care of during his lifetime. 

It was a diagnosis of breast cancer that spurred Jackie to take out her typewriter to try and write a novel. She’d already written two failed plays, and wrote most of the copy for her Schiffli Lace commercials as well as produced them. She had a mastectomy in 1962, but she kept the news of her illness the same way that she had kept Guy’s a secret.  After her diagnosis, she bargained with God, that if he would just give her ten more years, she would really make something of her life (her husband Irving once said that she treated God like the William Morris office.) And she took her new career as a novelist seriously.  It took her a year and a half to write Valley of the Dolls. Each of her books from Valley of the Dolls through Once Is Not Enough went through at least 5 drafts (each one on different colored paper) before she turned into to her editor. She wrote every day from 10-5 pm.  Even then, there was still more work to be done.  Jackie surprised her editors by not being a prima donna when it came to making changes.  She listened to their suggestions, some she agreed with, some she didn’t. She knew that her strength lay in her ear for dialogue and her characters, not so much the plot, although she diagrammed her plots on a blackboard. After reading a Harold Robbins novel and tearing it apart, Jackie decided that secret formula was giving a set of characters a common denominator. In the Valley of the Dolls, it was pills. In The Love Machine, it was television and the main character Robin Stone, for whom all the female characters fell hopelessly in love despite the fact that he was a total bastard to them.

One of the most amazing things about Jackie Susann was her resilience.  Life kept giving her hard knocks but she kept on going. And it was rough.  Anyone who has a passion or a talent that they don’t feel is appreciated knows what Jackie went through during her years as an actress.  It was literally one step forward and eight steps back.  But yet she kept on.  She was one of the first to do confrontational interviews on television.  Of course, Mike Wallace later became famous for his hard-nosed questions, but because Jackie was a woman, she never got enough credit for it.

She also didn’t get enough credit during her lifetime for her writing.  Jackie knew that no one would compare her writing to Flaubert or Philip Roth, but she knew what the average reader wanted after a hard day at some blue collar job. Although some people called her novels 'literary trash,' Jackie was a storyteller.  She knew how to enthrall a reader.  They wanted to be entertained; they wanted to feel as if their lives were ultimately better than the rich and famous. And Jackie provided that.  She knew what people wanted because she had been that girl with her nose pressed against the glass for years, trying to get into the swanky parties, hob-nobbing with the rich and famous. Valley of the Dolls (dolls are slang for pills) in some ways was probably her most autobiographical novel. Both Jackie and Irving had taken pills for years, sleeping pills to get to sleep, amphetamines to wake-up, diet pills to stay slim. For Jackie, the pills were away to numb the pain.  When things were going great, she would ease off the pills, a setback would send her straight back to them.

And she worked damn hard at her writing and ultimately at promoting her books.  Jackie researched her books thoroughly, she made lists of the things that she didn’t know that she needed to either look up or find out from friends who might know. During the writing of The Love Machine, she claimed to have interviewed men to make sure that her portrait of the main character Robin Stone was authentic.  She kept detailed notes on everyone that she met while promoting her books, and send them handwritten notes.  Now managing his wife's career full-time, Irving managed to find out the names of the 125 bookstores that The New York Times polled when compiling its best seller list. He recruited friends and acquaintances for a little strategic book-buying campaign, making sure that books were bought at every single one of the 125 bookstores.  Nowadays, authors’ giveaway books, tchotchkes, bookmarks, key chains etc. but no one was doing that in the 1960’s before Jackie. When The Love Machine came out, she had gold ankhs made up, and gave them away to every one. During her publicity tour for 'Every Night Josephine,' she dressed herself and her dog in matching leopard-patterned pillbox hats and coats for TV appearances. Nothing and no one was too small for her to pay attention to when it came to selling her books. Susann had an unmistakable look, long dark hair augmented by falls, heavy eye make-up, and Pucci dresses. I still covet Pucci dresses because of her. Jackie knew that she was her own best pitch-woman for her books. But Jackie's books succeeded not just because of the publicity because she had empathy for the female emotional experience.

Although she was only paid $3,000 for the rights to Valley of the Dolls, the paperback rights were sold to Bantam for $200,000, the movie rights went for about the same amount. Not bad for a newbie writer! For The Love Machine, Jackie's advance from Simon & Schuster climbed to $200,000, with a $250,000 promotional budget.  The Mansfields managed to forge separate agreement with Bantam for the paperback rights which gave them 100% royalties, unheard of at the time. When the book debuted, it toppled Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint from the top spot on the best seller list.

Jacqueline Susann was the first author ever to have 3 books catapult to the number one spot on the New York Times best-selling list. Not bad for a woman who only had a high-school education! I admire many things about Jacqueline Susann but I think it’s her chutzpah and her ability to keep going, even through adversity.  No matter how many doors slammed in her face, Jackie kept on knocking until one opened. She was determined to make her mark, whether through acting or writing, and she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. One of the things that Jackie worried about when she was dying was that she would be forgotten, but she was so wrong. All you have to do is look at the list of people she influenced or references to Valley of the Dolls in pop culture on Wikipedia to see that.  If Jacqueline Susann was alive today, not only would she have a Facebook page, but she would have taken to Twitter like a duck to water.

Unfortunately Susann didn’t live to see her books reissued by Grove in 1997 or the two biopics that were made from her life story (suck on that Harold Robbins!) starring Bette Midler and Michelle Lee.  In early 1973, Susann went into the hospital for a persistent cough.  The news was not good, her cancer had returned, and this time it had spread to her lungs. Susann was only given months to live, but she persisted on promoting her final book Once Is Not Enough. She passed away on September 21st, 1973 at the age of 56.


Barbara Seaman Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann, Seven Stories Press. 1996 (2nd Edition)


Anoka Tony said…
A sad early end, but Jaqueline Susann had a successful life.
Unknown said…
I LOVED 'Valley of the Dolls' and 'Love Machine' Jacqueline Susann was a genius as far as I'm concerned :) Love her!

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