In 1966, Jacqueline Susann published Valley of the Dolls, and paved the way for women’s fiction writers like Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel. At its time, this was an incredibly brave novel about the mishandling of women in a patriarchal world, and how they cling to pills (the “dolls” in the book) in the hopes of finding some comfort. The story follows three women as they set out to make careers as actresses, and how they fall prey to Hollywood, men, and prescription drugs along the way.
Much of Valley of the Dolls is based on Susann’s own experiences. She had not set out to be an author. She had moved to Hollywood as a young woman with plans of becoming an actress. She failed at this pursuit, and also when she tried her hand as a model and then playwright. One thing she did achieve, however, was fame: for a string of extra-marital affairs, and for raucous public behaviour. This time in her life, during the 1940s, provided Susann plenty of experience with sex, secrets and scandal: the perfect fodder for sensational, steamy fiction.
At 44, Susann, unbeknownst to everyone except her husband, had a mastectomy as a result of breast cancer. While recovering from the surgery, she decided to write a novel. Every Night, Josephine (published 1963), inspired by her poodle, Josephine, sold nearly 40 000 copies, and hit number 10 on the Time magazine bestseller list. A year later, Susann began work on Valley of the Dolls, using her hot pink IBM Selectric typewriter to “pen” what would be her most successful novel.
Valley of the Dolls received much criticism, insult and ridicule upon its release, particularly from other writers (Gore Vidal famously said of Susann “she doesn’t write, she types”). In spite of this, Susann worked tirelessly to promote her book on talk shows, on game shows, and in bookstores around the country, where she’d charm the sales assistants so they were more likely to sell it to customers. She is even reported to have made dawn deliveries of coffee and doughnuts to the truck drivers who were transporting her book to stores.
While critics claimed Susann’s narrative was as trashy as a soap opera, she had a talent for writing steamy fiction, something that, even now, fights for its rightful place on bookshelves and nightstands. Valley of the Dolls was an instant hit with the public, and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for an incredible 28 weeks in a row. Drawn to the way the novel portrayed real celebrities hidden beneath a thin façade of fiction, and to the way it dealt with addiction, abortion, sex, homosexuality and mental illness in a refreshingly new way, copies flew off the shelves.
Susann’s Valley of the Dolls became one of the greatest bestsellers of all time, selling more than 30 million copies to date. It has enjoyed reinventions on the cinematic and television screens, as well as on the radio. With three successive books in the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list, Susann proved that literature has room for a bit of titillating seduction, and that audiences were ready for some risqué reading.