A Portrait of Jacqueline Susann
Jacqueline Susann, one-time best-selling author and originator of the stropping-and-fucking genre with her smash ‘n’ grab, world-beating bonk-buster Valley of the Dolls, would be 90 had cancer not claimed her Pucci-clad body in 1973 when she was a mere 55.
Not that she’d have ever admitted to being a nonagenarian. Even at the age of 44,she’d composed a list of what not to do in old age fired equally by vanity and practicality (‘Don’t wear orthopaedic shoes’, ‘Don’t reminisce’, ‘Listen’). She despised the ageing process with a passion though her fears were by no means confined to the shallows; her desire to make some impact upon this world burned like an incendiary. She’d found her man – Irv Mansfield, a Broadway and Hollywood producer – and loved him with every fibre of her brash being. But she was branded with the Big A: ambitious as her mind was broad. To her, women who wanted little out of life got even less: ‘A woman who lives only for love is a dull woman indeed’.
Born in Philadelphia in 1918 to a portrait artist and his teacher wife, the young Jackie was happiest making models of penises out of clay and shoving said appendages into hastily made gashes in her dolls and teddies. She’d supposedly embarked on this activity after a few too many instances of walking in on her father having his way with some beauty whose lovely likeness he was supposedly transferring to canvas. By the time Jackie was in her early teens she’d get herself up like Jean Harlow at her most brazen. Her hilariously inappropriate father would happily allow her to tag along on his trips into the gaudy grandeur of Atlantic City where they’d attend prize fights and go to speakeasies.
But it was New York City – that ‘concrete animal’ – that occupied her head and heart. Arriving in the summer of 1936, Susann complained to her father that she wished she could, like her mother, bear the sun without breaking a bead of sweat. Her father apparently replied, ‘That’s ‘cos your mother’s a lady Jackie – but you got my genes. And no one’s ever accused me of being a gentleman’. And thank God for that. Sure Susann was no lady, and it served her well. A lady is quiet, well mannered, dainty; in other words, invisible. This was not the way of Susann, nor was it the way of her greatest fictional heroines.
Susann spent the rest of the 1930s – and all the ‘40s and ‘50s – hawking her undeniably mediocre acting talent up and down the Great White Way with little lasting success. She wrote and produced a play of her own called Lovely Me (a veritable gift to shameless kitsch-and-camp hounds), and met and married Mansfield. She soon gave birth to a son, Guy, an autistic she was never able to care for herself. She then took her dwindling talents into television, and as the blurb on Valley of the Dolls proudly stated: ‘Miss Susann has been stabbed, strangled, and shot on every major dramatic show on the airwaves’. Although nothing to be ashamed of, being the continual victim of scripted homicides was not the impact she sought to make. Her looks, lucre and showbiz luck were all but gone now, and she was looking over the vast plain of middle age.
On top of this, she had every reason to believe she’d got cancer. It was while contemplating the potentially fateful results of a test that she sat down, ran her old Olivetti ragged, and produced the first draft of … a book about her pet poodle, which should be given plaudits for the title alone: Every Night Josephine! Published in 1963, it was essentially a series of dislocated anecdotes and vignettes about Josephine. A week after the book was published and before the promo tour began, Kennedy was assassinated. Susann arrived at her publishers’ offices to find the staff stunned into a silence that she quickly shattered by yelling ‘Why the fuck does this have to happen now! This is gonna ruin my tour!’
A witty combination of autobiography and biography, the book was a palpable enough hit, and the publishers offered her a second contract, and with Irving’s help and support she turned out a (very) rough draft of what would become the bestselling novel in history (until JK Rowling came along).
Apparently, the original draft was so rough that it took an entire team of editors to unscramble the narrative. This was a worthwhile endeavour, as it turned out. While her publisher, Berney Geis, saw merit in the inchoate manuscript, he couldn’t find a single like-minded opinion among his staff. So he took it to his wife, an editor of highbrow art books, and she adored it, saying it was like picking up the phone and getting a crossed line on a dirty conversation: ‘You can’t hang up on a conversation like that, and once this is book is straightened out, you won’t be able to stop reading it.’
In a nutshell, Valley is a lurid insider’s account of the showbiz world, featuring three heroines of vastly different stripe: Neely, a freckly Vaudeville hoofer with talent to burn whose swift ascendancy into the ranks of stratospheric stardom see her taking the liquor-slicked highway; Jennifer, the ill-fated, talentless-yet-sensitive bountiful blonde sex star; and Anne, WASPish and exquisite New England survivor, whom Susann touchingly yet unconvincingly based on herself (the other two being famously based on a hybrid of Judy Garland and Ethel Merman, and on forties star Carole Landis respectively). The novel begins in post-war Manhattan – cocktails at El Morocco, dinner at ‘21’, Martinis all round – and moves on through the McCarthy era before really reaching its stride in the seedy neon glow of early psychedelic-era Hollywood. The ‘dolls’ are the uppers and downers the girls and their contemporaries depend on for pep, sleep, sex ‘n’ good times, and inevitably bring about their fall into the titular valley. The fantastic filth therein – anal sex, orgies – and the less salacious but equally daring themes – lesbian relationships, mental illness, and drug addiction – couldn’t have been more timely in rapidly changing decade.
Valley of the Dolls spent so long on the bestseller lists that it was eventually credited by the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling novel of all time. Hollywood quickly picked up the option, and produced a ludicrously high-camp adaptation in 1967 that gained extra notoriety after one of its stars, Sharon Tate, was slaughtered by Charles Manson. Naturally, the book’s success brought a barrage of bullshit with it, and Susann endured the Sting of Anti-Semitism, bitchiness about her camp and overblown appearance (Truman Capote famously likened her to ‘a truck driver in drag’), and the inevitable dismissals of lit-crit types. If anyone pointed out that her only previous written work had been about a dog, she replied that this one was about dogs too – bitches, anyhow.
Susann followed up her atomic success with The Love Machine in 1969 – the title being, weirdly, a reference to television, and detailing the antics of those involved in and connected to a vast TV corporation clearly based on CBS. The hero is one Robin Stone, who knows his way around the ladies, but it’s the distaff side of the novel’s cast who stick in the mind, including actress Maggie, a straight-talking emerald-eyed approximation of Ava Gardner, and Ethel, an ‘ugly but stacked broad’ who uses what she has in other departments to make up the shortfall and ends up with a life more than worth living. This was followed in 1972 Once is Not Enough. With a heroine called January Wayne, we’re lead through a Warholian NY and LA, and follow, variously, the fortunes of a lesbian society broad and her secret lifelong Garbo-esque movie star lover, and a promiscuous-and-proud-of-it editor of a super-successful glossy who saves her lovers’ ejaculations in sample pots to use as protein-rich face packs and comes out with well-worn but always welcome lines such as ‘This is the seventies January – not the fifties!’ Little January, however, doesn’t even get to see Nixon’s indiscretions; she’s kidnapped by aliens in the final denouement.
Susann’s final book, the posthumously published Dolores, was a thinly-veiled and tender account of an unhappy former first lady now married to a slippery Mediterranean shipping magnate who shocks her on their wedding night by announcing that surely she didn’t think he loved her? Why, he thought they wanted the same thing – a trophy spouse.
Cancer finally claimed Susann’s life in 1973. It had been with her for over a decade, and since the night she’d wrote of her desire to leave something explosive behind for posterity, she’d set out on gruelling non-stop promo tours, undertook international travel, pulled all-nighters with editors, and done the Hollywood nightlife justice, displaying an almost superhuman indefatigability and all the while keeping her ailment secret from the public. If nothing else, it proves that with enough white-hot ambition, it’s perfectly possible to make it without compromise.
After Susann’s death an early work was ‘discovered’ languishing in a Hollywood filing cabinet. It had been written in 1954 during the height of the ‘50s sci-fi craze and was titled Yargo, after a fictional planet where the young heroine, the unhappily engaged Janet, finds herself after her alien kidnappers are forced to make a crash landing. Susann had pitched it as a potential movie. The novel follows a thread that could easily lend itself to comic-strip style sci-fi to be sure, but it is unputdownable and shot through with a feminist consciousness. When one of the female aliens asks Janet why her planet’s women ‘give up’ so early in life, she realises she’s being asked about women rescinding their jobs and independence upon marrying. Janet ponders this and has to admit she’s never known a friend who hadn’t been happier before she’d married. When Janet returns to earth, she’s seen more and wants more and calls the marriage off.
Even if she never broadcasted the fact, Susann had feminist credentials in spades. Her female characters, by and large, make it alone. They seek independence and no-strings fucking. Many of them live alone and support themselves, not as a prelude to marriage, but as a way of life; if they bring a man home – or even another broad – it ‘aint nobody’s business but theirs. Susann’s men are not, as some might assume, painted as a bunch of cretins and castrates – no more than the less savoury female characters are anyhow. Robin Stone in The Love Machine is such a man’s man he’d make a Hemingway hero look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm – but one of his best mates is his gay employee Alfie, who himself happens to possess none of the flaming, bitching, keening and squawking characteristics so often ascribed to gay men in novels even as late as the 1970s. Alfie is even in a long-term monogamous relationship. Such details lend an air of social prophecy to Susann’s work.
Her personal life always spoke of a brand of undefined feminism for better or worse: she loved her husband, but was repeatedly unfaithful to him during her early marriage, just as her father had been to her mother. She always happily and proudly claimed she’d never ‘kept house’ or cooked in her life, preferring instead to dine on steaks washed down with vodka in NYC’s finest gaudy, gilt-edged eateries.
She had no predecessor and her legacy is vast, although it has since taken a wrong turn. Jackie Collins was for a while cited as her most obvious successor among many, but this was back in the late seventies when what little Collins had published still featured a surplus of kitsch charm; those early books of hers remain perfect artefacts of a certain time and place – a late-seventies West London populated by playgals who live in shag-carpeted apartments behind Harrods and marry fabulously wealthy oil sheiks. They spend their nights in South Kensington dancing to shrill, pulsing disco music on dance-floors which light up. But Collins’s work was wilfully empty airport glitz – she was really the true successor to Harold Robbins, who some have wrongly perceived as Susann with a dick.
Others might claim the milk-and-water sub-genre that is chick-lit belongs in part to Susann’s legacy, and they’d be wrong too, and horribly so. Chick lit seeks to reflect the lives of its perceived readership, whereas a talented author knows that a good book shows that there is somewhere else – be it planet Yargo or wartime Manhattan – which in turn creates curiosity, which can give you an education and a desire to see more, do more, be more.
Susann’s biographer claimed that ultimately, Jackie’s life was one of appearances: she appeared to be a WASP when she was Jewish; she appeared to be a woman who’d happily forgone maternity when she had an institutionalised son; she appeared to be from a background of breeding, daughter of an ‘renowned’ artist and his refined wife who ‘chose’ to work, when the story was rather less respectable. She even appeared to be on track for a long life – as healthy as she was wealthy, when the bloom of cancer was spreading through her body. In a way – the best possible way – her novels were not what they appeared either: they were not literary but nor were they throwaway. Yes, they dealt in a kind of tawdry glamour, revelled in high camp, and intimated at depravations that were, at the time of publication, unheard of in some quarters. But they also tackled issues, hinted at taboos, and sought to normalise the marginalised; they were more than the sum of their parts, just as Susann, with diamond-hard drive, sought to prove she was. And ultimately she did just that, becoming nothing less than her own brand. In fact, she was both a brand and a broad, to employ the slang of her youth.