Before Sex and the City and Lena Dunham’s Girls came Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls, about eight women in New York City dealing with heartbreak, addiction, and tragedy. This year marks the book’s 50th anniversary, but today is the late author’s birthday. We’re celebrating with 15 fascinating facts about the fabulously tawdry novel that you might have missed.
Valley of the Dolls was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records in the 1970s as the best-selling novel of all time (30 million copies sold).
Of her book’s success, Susann once said: “The 1960s will be remembered for Andy Warhol, The Beatles, and Me!”
Susann told film critic Roger Ebert about how she wrote the book in 1967:
You know how I write? When I did Valley of the Dolls, I did five drafts. Then I showed the fifth draft to Irving, and he told me where I’d let the interest lag. So then we argued and compromised. He didn’t like the downbeat ending, but I won out. He said I’d kill the movie sale.
The book was initially rejected by several publishers.
Susann traveled the world promoting the book and reportedly wrote down the name and address of every person she met and later sent everyone thank you cards. “I took amphetamine pills when I was on tour,” she told Pageant magazine in February 1967. “I felt that I owed it to people to be bright. Rather than droop on television . . . I was suddenly awake, could give my best.”
Susann’s book received harsh criticism from fellow authors (mostly men, of course). “She doesn’t write, she types!” novelist Gore Vidal said of Susann. Truman Capote called Susann “a truck driver in drag.”
Susann’s son Guy Mansfield had Autism and, sadly, had to be institutionalized. She started taking pills, or “dolls” as she called them (her favorite term of endearment), to deal with the emotional pain.
The character Helen Lawson, an aging stage actress, is based closely on actress Ethel Merman. More on that intense relationship from Susann’s friend and actress Joan Sitwell:
Ethel was as intrigued by Jackie as Jackie was by Ethel. But all that baloney about them having an affair—they were just girlfriends. Then the two of them got into a fight over something. Ethel had a weird temper. Irving, I think, got mad and threw a drink at her in a restaurant, and Ethel was embarrassed and hurt. Jackie was mortified. That’s how the fight started. Being rebuffed by Ethel stung Jackie deeply—she had really fallen for her. When Jackie wrote about her, as the character Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls, Ethel was very burnt up.
The character Jennifer North is based on Susann herself, One Million B.C. actress Carole Landis, and showgirl Joyce Mathews (who was married to comedic legend Milton Berle). She is not based on Marilyn Monroe as many suspected.
The character Neely O’Hara is based closely on Judy Garland, who suffered from alcoholism and had a dependency on prescription drugs in real life.
The character Anne Welles was not based on Grace Kelly, but Susann’s friend and struggling actress Bea Cole. Most of the other characters were based on real-life stars or people Susann encountered during her own time as an actress in New York City during the early 1940s.
One of the publicity campaigns for the book told readers: “Take 3 yellow ‘dolls’ before bedtime for a broken love affair; take 2 red dolls and a shot of scotch for a shattered career; take Valley of the Dolls in heavy doses for the truth about the glamour set on the pill kick.”
Gloria Steinem was offered the chance to write the screenplay version of the book, but declined. The feminist icon once said Valley of the Dolls was “for the reader who has put away comic books, but isn’t yet ready for editorials in The Daily News.” Susann later made Steinem the model for the character Linda Riggs, an “aggressively successful editor of a women’s magazine,” in her book Once is Not Enough.
Susann’s cast wish list for the film remake of her book was Ursula Andress as Jennifer; Grace Kelly, “if she’d lose 10 to 15 pounds,” as Anne; Shirley MacLaine as Neely; Bette Davis as Helen Lawson; and Elvis Presley as Tony Polar.
Susann hated the film adaptation starring Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, and Patty Duke. She called the movie “a piece of shit.”