Valley of the Dolls: 40 years since the death of Jacqueline Susann

Valley of the Dolls is a novel about wanting. Characters want something badly. Marta Manso

This year marks 40 years since the temple of airport fiction lost its Chief Vestal. Author Jacqueline Susann maxed out her mortal coil back in 1974, on September 21, felled by cancer. She was only 56. Hers was a stellar gift for shifting tomes and her millions of readers were shattered. She’s still in print today.

It was in noting this sad anniversary that I realised I had a lamentable gap in my bibliography. While I had read and enjoyed a couple of Susann’s gaudy gems in years past – namely The Love Machine and Once is Not Enough – I had failed to pay my dues to her Hope Diamond: Valley of the Dolls. This oversight I amended.

According to folklore, rock-rubbish wash-up Courtney Love hearted Valley of the Dolls so much she decided to live its pill-popping lifestyle – a Wikipedia info-nugget that suggests she can’t read for poo.

Jacqueline Susann in 1951. Wikimedia Commons

Here’s some advice about Dolls for pop culture vultures everywhere: you’ve gotta get off, gonna get, have to get off of the notion that it’s is all about pill popping. It’s actually not.

This is the revelation I had when I read it: no-one so much as necks a Bex until page 230. The campy 1967 film adaptation has a lot to answer for re: Dolls’ off kilter rep. Yes folks, the book has surprising depth.

While the flick is undeniably a Travilla-kissed thrill to behold, in truth it is mere home-brand Aspirin to the novel’s Panadol Forte. And it really ain’t about pills. If you haven’t read this lowbrow masterpiece before, and you consider yourself a pop-lit connoisseur, then it’s time to get on the merry-go-round.

Valley of the Dolls is a novel about wanting. Characters want something badly, they get it, and then they want something new because of the yucky thing that happened when they got the thing they wanted in the first place. Cue vicious circle.

The three characters who want things most of all in Valley of the Dolls are variations on a single, classic archetype: the Girl Next Door (GND).

I defy readers everywhere to show me an archetype more adaptable, transformational and employable as the GND. This humble chick’s never out of story work and here’s why: she is Airport Fiction’s Everywoman. So why aren’t there screeds of academic literature devoted to her commercial usefulness? The reason, I suspect, is that sometimes we can’t see the gold for the glitter.

No other archetype has greater story potential. It’s all about being a blank slate. Any story with a GND in the opening chapters will have her yearning after the same thing: life experience.

It’s the process of gaining that experience, in all it’s multitudinous possibility, from which great stories are formed. Valley of the Dolls is one of them.

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The transformations wrought by gaining experience compel us to reach the last page. This is what Susann wised up to in order to mint millions. Inside every GND lurks tomorrow’s Scheming Bitch, Vulnerable Vixen or Damaged Goods. Or Mother Courage. Or Long Suffering Saint. And all that’s needed are the necessary story ingredients to take her there.

Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls represents a triumph of the GND story employment. Reliable sources (along with unreliable ones) peg sales of this roman à clef at somewhere around 30 million copies since its 1966 release. Clearly, this is a potboiler with a lesson to teach wannabe scribes. Get your pads and pencils out.

At the heart of the tale are three GNDs, each one the same basic model with a different lick of paint.

Neely O'Hara gains life experience by living wholly through her talent – a Garlandesque gift for belting out a tune.

Deborah Leigh

Jennifer North gains life experience by living wholly through her looks – she’s got a traffic-stopping loveliness and a pair of epic cans.

Ann Welles gains life experience by living wholly through her heart – an inordinately blinkered organ that can but beat for one bloke.

Each GND sticks to her life path to the exclusion of the life paths picked by the others. Hey presto, three sudsy storylines that never steal turf from their mates. This is a genius formula for commercial fiction dynamite.

Crucial to this success, of course, is that all three roads lead to ruin. For this is what Valley of the Dolls is, above all else: a morality tale. The three GNDs live all possible perils that come with obsession and imbalance; they warn us of what lies in store when choosing wilful blindness.

At first are we tantalised, beguiled by the glamour of the girls’ upward swing through the entertainment industry of the 40s and 50s. Neely becomes a musical star; Jennifer becomes an “art house” actress; Anne becomes a supermodel. Each trajectory seems sublime to begin with. And then the wallpaper’s ripped off to expose the dry rot it’s been hiding and we get it: they’re on a three-lane highway to hell.

You sense when reading that Susann didn’t over-plan things. Maybe she sort of knew where she was going when she started writing but I’ll bet she’d little thought out how she’d get there. The book transforms before your very eyes, just as it once transformed before Jacquie’s.

Trailer for the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls.

She starts off gently. She takes her time introducing characters and situations. She leaves herself room to breathe.

The first half of the book is entirely from Ann’s POV – Neely and Jennifer are mere support acts. Then the plotlines reach a point where you can see Susann discovering the throttle. The vicious circle starts spinning and everything grows baroque.

Neely and Jennifer gain their own POVs and chapters free-fall between all three girls, ever faster, ever meaner. Soon there are nut houses and suicide attempts. And only then those jagged little pills.

You can feel the energy with which Susann pounded away at her typewriter. You sense an outpouring of fury and hear her bellows of rage. A lot of the book is autobiographical if you squint a bit; disappointment, exploitation and debasement were once Susann’s daily grind. That was before she realised she could write.

It’s my guess that she never edited it – at least not on a structural level. The narrative model she employs at the start is utterly abandoned half way through. I suspect this is because it was only then that she guessed what her novel was truly capable of. She didn’t go back for a second pass. She just went straight to the finishing line in sixth gear.

It’s the latter half of the book that people hold most dear – and it’s this that ended up as the movie. But revelling in those excesses is like praising the After snaps while ignoring the Befores. Susann’s original Road to Perdition is so superior to the film because the reader is made to work for the nightmare.

Unlike those pretty red dolls, gratification’s not instant. But when it does come, the addiction’s been earned.