Just One More Doll: Why Jacqueline Susann Keeps Us Coming Back For More

She’s the undisputed queen of the “trash” novel (sorry Jackie Collins/Danielle Steele/Erica Jong). Whether the name Jacqueline Susann means something to you or not, her influence on the cultural paradigm shift of women in the 1960s and women in general is irrefutable. Her most illustrious work, Valley of the Dolls, released in 1966 is, in many respects, just as addictive as the omnipresent barbiturates throughout the tale.

A spread in Vanity Fair
A spread in Vanity Fair
Following the sordid lives of Anne Wells, Neely O’Hara and Jennifer North as they navigate successful careers mixed with unsuccessful relationships, Susann gives us a caricaturized portrait of the “modern woman.” The soap operatic style of the novel builds and builds until finally reaching a beautifully sadistic crescendo in the denouement. Like all great stories, Valley of the Dolls is grounded in reality. Susann spent the early part of her career in entertainment trying to become an actress in Hollywood during the 1940s. It is there that she encountered Ethel Merman, upon whom Helen Lawson is based. Indeed, the bawdy, fame-hungry character very closely resembles one of prehistoric show business’ quintessential camp personas. O’Hara, likewise is an offshoot of Judy Garland, overly fond of Seconals and drink as self-medication.
Just one more doll
Just one more doll
Another character Susann culled from real life was Jennifer North, who she modeled after troubled actress Carole Landis. The unquenchable rumors of Susann’s bisexuality, in fact, stemmed from her playing alongside Landis in the play, A Lady Says Yes, during which time it was rumored the two had an affair.
Another success from Susann
Another success from Susann
As Susann’s second novel, she experienced some initial difficulty in finding a publisher for Valley of the Dolls, especially since, at that time, most “suits” were unwilling to promote a book that featured heavy drug use by women. And yet, Susann triumphed in the end, getting vindication in the form of 30 million copies sold. The luridness of the narrative reeled readers in (mostly women, of course. And later, gay men), developing a mainstream fan base, and subsequently in more contemporary times, a cult one.
The play that spurred rumors of Susann's bisexuality
The play that spurred rumors of Susann’s bisexuality
Although Susann only had two other bestsellers after Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine and Once Is Not Enough, she continues to attract a new generation of readers who can’t put her delightfully scandalous books down. Though it is a shame that more people can’t get on board with the posthumously published Yargo, a sci-fi romance novel.