Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Jacqueline Susann: Her Life and Books

Lovely Me by Barbara Seaman


published 1987


[Also featured: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann published 1966

& How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, published 2014]



Lovely me 1Lovely Me 2


[From the biography of author Jacqueline Susann]


By the summer of 1966 Jackie was one of the most recognizable women in the United States. She was everywhere – in magazines and newspapers, on posters in bookstore windows and in buses, and, always, on television. Along with the talk shows there were panel and game shows and even variety shows. Omnipresent as Orwell’s Big Brother was that tough, striking showgirl’s face: the false eyelashes fluttering beneath white eyeshadow, the bright-orange lips and nails, the wardrobe of dark, lacquered, shoulder-length falls, the vivid Emilio Pucci print dresses, which she finally gave up because, although they “packed well”, they made her “boobs look too big”.


commentary: Jacqueline Susann was a force of nature, an icon, and her most famous work, Valley of the Dolls, one of the best-selling novels of all time, is also iconic: it’s a striking achievement. Valley is sometimes treated as a comfort read, a chick-litty romance: we expect the three girls whose careers we follow to have the usual division of spoils in the way of pluses and minuses. But in fact it’s a bleak and not very comforting book, with a very downbeat ending. It is also incredibly entertaining, and compulsive – at every point you want to know what is going to happen. Goodness knows what it was like to read it in 1966, when nothing like it had ever been published before. Like many people, I would say that I don’t love the book, or the film based on it, with a great passion, but I respect both of them, and am glad they are there as monuments of popular culture, and to the telling of women’s stories. (The feminist angle on them is always difficult to work out…)

Lovely Me, by Barbara Seaman, is an absolutely wonderful biography of Susann, one I have just lost a weekend to. It was recommended to me by Samantha Ellis, author of the terrific How to be A Heroine, a book that looks at the way the novels young women read inspire them and shape them. (It was one of my top books of 2014, and is one of my all-time favourite book-about-books.)

Samantha said it was a great favourite of hers, and my goodness I can see why. It is a textbook biography, carefully researched and referenced, yet intensely readable and gossip-y, full of extraordinary anecdotes. And Susann’s life is intrinsically full of interest – she was ambitious, she worked hard, she grafted: and she really, really wanted to be famous. She thought it might be her acting, but she never broke through. She tried writing a play. She never stopped working and trying to promote herself. And finally she did it: wrote an astonishing bestseller. The story of how she did that is beautifully laid out in Seaman’s book: the process, the amount of editing Valley needed, the snooty reaction of publishers and editors. She enjoyed her eventual fame enormously, wrote more best-sellers, then died of the cancer that had been threatening her for some time.

It is truly a story that belongs in one of her own books – her strange but loving marriage, her deals with God, her affairs with men and women, her dependence on pills, the sad sad story of her child. And Seaman does an unimprovable job describing it all, creating a whole world, decisive but not judgemental in her descriptions. It’s a terrific book.

And you can read more on Susann’s Valley of the Dolls – blogposts here and here.

Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine is here on the blog.

And if you are up for a whole weekend of this (as I was) I would highly recommend the 1967 film of Valley of the Dolls and (even better) the Bette Midler film about Susann’s life, Isn’t She Great.

The Midler film was greatly derided on its release in 2000, was the subject of enormous criticism, and was a huge failure - and I’ve never understood why: it is an oddity, it doesn’t resemble any other film in format or structure, but it is tremendous fun, very funny, very entertaining. I personally would say that in my life I have seen at least 100 films that are much, much worse. Isn't She Great is splendid: warm and good-hearted and with some excellent character actors in it.

And truly, no film or book about Susann could be less than enjoyable…


















24 comments:

  1. Like you, I really liked the Bette Midler biopic. Never actually read Susann, just saw the movie adaptations (same with Grisham, Clancy, Harold Robbins ...) You think her work stands up?

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    1. Oh, glad to find another fan! I don't know why it has such a bad rep: it is sweet and funny. I'm not sure 'stands up' is the right description of Susann's books. They are bizarre, and were never 'good writing': but still compulsive, and entertaining... even in a much-changed world.

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  2. She was such an interesting person, Moira. And she certainly had an impact on an important era. I'm glad you found this biography to be worthy of her influence.

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    1. It was a very fair-minded book, and I loved the way it placed her in the world - the author looked at women's roles and the liberation movement through the lens of Susann's life.

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  3. Hmm thanks for the spotlight. I've heard of the book and film, but there my interest wanes. Glad you enjoyed though.

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    1. Everyone should probably at least see the film some time! Maybe it will be on TV one bored Saturday afternoon...

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  4. I remember my friend Sophie stealing her mother's copy of Valley... and it being passed round in 3rd year between us "bookish" girls (Sophie's mum had a splendid library!) I've always wanted to see the film, and the Bette Midler biopic sounds fascinating.
    Personally, I love those Pucci dresses - they'd go down a storm in a vintage shop nowadays! They don't really date, do they? V glamorous!
    I'll definitely check out the films.

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    1. Yes yes, me too - all the girls at school were anxious to read the book, but had to keep it hidden.
      Both films are enjoyable in their own way.
      And yes, I would love one of those Pucci dresses - they look lovely and stylish, but as if they would be easy to wear.

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    2. The first thing I noticed was those Pucci dresses in the photos. They really were 'of an era.' Right on the cusp of the sixties turning into "The Sixties." Never read the book or watched the movie -- although all my gay friends have pressured me to for ages.

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    3. Oh Paula you must! It's a rite of passage...

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    4. Yes, I will. Maybe when I finish all the "Dandy"s.

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    5. Let us know how you get on....

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  5. Definitely forbidden fruit in my teenage years and somehow classed in my mind with Peyton Place as a racy read. The biog sounds fascinating. And isn't Valley of the Dolls a great title?

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    1. Yes, and Grace Metalious had almost as tragic a life as Susann.

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    2. How about reading Peyton Place for us, Moira? I imagine there will be plenty of clothes in there.

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    3. Yes, they were both books passed around among teenagers. I read Peyton Place a few years back (pre-blog) and can remember nothing but a few key plot points - that's a good idea Chrissie...

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  6. Some years back I found an old copy and decided that I ought to give it a go (on that basis of Thomas Beecham's old adage that 'you should try everything once except incest and folk dancing'). It certainly wasn't what I was expecting, either. The fact that it was such a huge hit suggests that people in the '60s viewed 'showbusiness' in the same way that people in the Middle-Ages viewed Hell--with a mixture of horror and fascination. It's a rather depressing picture of that particular world, though interestingly Susann seems to have loved moving through it as a celebrity. In fact she was always worried that she would be forgotten after her death, although like other people who have not had the opportunity to outlive their fame, she is stil remembered. I remember a lovely sly joke in one of the '80s STAR TREK movies where we discover that by the 23rd Century she and Harold Robbins are considered amongst the greatest Literary authors of the 20th Century!

    I'm not sure that it would be as big a book nowadays for the simple reason that there are so many magazines that mine that particular vein "I had my wrinkles removed, sneezed, and my face fell off! Film Star's Plastic Surgery nightmare".

    ggary

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    1. Yes, you absolutely sum up what was strange and remarkable about it. I think the book is absolutely not anyone would be expecting given its place in popular culture. The rewards for success are fairly ghastly... Is that what people wanted to believe? 'We're better off with our humdrum lives, all that success and money doesn't make them happy.'

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  7. I remember seeing Valley of the Dolls on TV way way back, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I recall the ending (at least for one character) was upbeat, because she DIDN'T marry the guy, but went back to her hometown and felt good about her life. But I never read the book. Maybe it wasn't the same?

    (had to select about 25 images to prove I'm not a bot)

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    1. Oh, sorry about the difficulties, I have tried to make it as open as possible, I will go back and check the settings, but am at the mercy of blogger...
      I just watched the film again, and it is interesting, in that the non-marriage IS upbeat, which would be quite unusual then? The book is not as cheery at the end...

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    2. Fret not about the Not-a-Robot proof. I guess I just wasn't selecting the right images. (I'll sign on with Google this time...)

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    3. Oh that's a relief! The last thing I want is to discourage lovely commeters...

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  8. I know very little about Jacqueline Susann but I do appreciate your enthusiasm for the subject. Cannot say for sure if I have read the book (Valley of the Dolls) or seen the movie, but I can kind of picture scenes from the movie, so maybe.

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    1. It will be on TV sometime and you should at least watch some of it, just because it is so iconic!

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