It’s 50 years since Jacqueline Susann invented the bonkbuster with Valley of the Dolls. Rowan Whiteside applauds her.
Valley of the Dolls: a number one bestseller, a modern classic, a feminist text (maybe), a bonkbuster, a celebrity-culture cash-cow, and a ruthless reveal of high-class drug dependency, has somehow turned 50.
First published (after lots of rejections) in 1966, Valley of the Dolls exploded onto the scene, propelled by author Jacqueline Susann’s prodigiously persistent publicity scheme. She didn’t just get her book published – she flogged it. She flew around the US promoting it, appearing on TV and radio shows, thrusting her book into readers’ hands, and charming booksellers into making sure Valley of the Dolls was placed front and centre. Susann bulldozed her way to success: she was a woman with a plan, and god forbid anyone got in her way.
And boy did it sell. Drugs, movie stars, music, nudies, hints of sordid sex: Valley of the Dolls gave a glimpse into the high life that Susann herself had lived on the edge of. It was a book that had no shame, that screamed swinging sixties, which offered a hefty dose of how to make it big in a mad, bad world.
Valley of the Dolls was panned by critics, shamed by other writers (particularly the male establishment – Gore Vidal, I’m looking at you), but Susann didn’t give a shit. It sold, and people loved it: if a book could walk down the red carpet, this one would have hysterical women reaching towards it, screaming in ecstasy.
Like Susann said: “A good writer is one who produces books that people read – who communicates. So if I’m selling millions, I’m good.”
And she sold millions. A sensational 40m so far, in 30 different languages. Not just that, Valley of the Dolls spawned a whole generation of female novelists – the bonkbuster authors: Jackie Collins, Jilly Cooper, Shirley Conran, Louise Bagshawe.
You know the ones – the faintly dirty books you read as a teenager, the ones that made you want to wear power suits and shoulder pads and bright red lipstick. The ones that made you imagine striding into your penthouse office in spiked high heels in the morning, then returning home to a buff bloke bursting out of his pinstripe designer jacket.
“Anne, Neely and Jennifer start off as friends, novices in the belly of the beast called LA, and end screwed over, drugged up and dead-eyed.”
For all that, Valley of the Dolls isn’t really a love story. It’s a novel about women striving for fame, or success: about them carving out their own space. After all, “If a woman has money, nothing can ever hurt her.” It’s on the edge of empowering, this novel, except men keep getting in the way and fucking everything up.
There’s Anne, an icy New England beauty, who starts off as a secretary but rises to the heady heights of modelling, Neely the kid, who becomes a star and a monster, and Jennifer the buxom bombshell who trades off her looks right until the very end. They start off as friends, novices in the belly of the beast called LA, and end screwed over, drugged up and dead-eyed.
See, here’s the thing about Hollywood – it chews you up and spits you out. And love? Well, “There’s no such thing as love, the way you talk about. You’ll only find that kind of love in cheap movies and novels. Love is companionship, having friends in common, the same interests. Sex is the connotation you’re placing on love, and let me tell you, young lady, that if and when it does exist, it dies very quickly after marriage…”
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that love doesn’t exist. Or if it does exist, it’s always one-sided, and it’s almost always the women doing the loving. And that makes life all rough-edged and harsh, so a few of those precious dolls (barbiturates to you or me) sure smooth things out.
So maybe it is a feminist novel. Maybe it’s a manual on what to avoid, a lesson on sticking to your guns and striving for what you want. Maybe, instead of looking to the heroines of the book, you should look to the author.
Because if there’s anybody who found success and grabbed it by both hands, it was Jacqueline Susann. And that’s a thing to applaud.
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Rowan Whiteside is a writer, reader, and consummate gin-drinker. She is never without a book and sheds to-do-lists wherever she goes. Like everyone else, she is currently working on her first novel.