Susann, Jacqueline (pulp fiction writer)



Whether read as a campy hoot by postfeminist hipsters or as the ultimate in racy, can’t-put-it-down melodrama, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) remains the classic of its kind, the ne plus ultra of best-seller “trash,” outselling Grace met-allous’s Peyton Place (1956), outlasting Harold robblns’s The Carpetbaggers (1961), outclassing Jackie collins’s Hollywood Wives (1983). A revolutionary work, Susann’s novel would influence the tastes of readers and the course of publishing for decades to come. The topic’s style and content, an “insider’s” saga of showbiz sturm und drang, rife with sex, drugs, infidelity, suicide, and breast cancer, would be imitated countless times, often successfully, as topic buyers hungered for more “Valleys”; the novel’s success and Susann’s astounding salesmanship would become the template for future best-sellerdom and brand-name publicity centered on a charismatic author; and, perhaps most revolutionary of all, Valley’s phenomenal popularity among women signaled the beginning of the ascent of females as the dominant force in American topic buying.

Susann brought the emotional portraiture and feminine perspective of Grace Metalious to the bawdy, glamor-pulp world of Harold Robbins. Susann’s tempestuous, bitchy tale derived from a mix of Broadway/Hollywood gossip and myth and personal experience (for example, as a onetime actress, Susann had had a close, bizarre relationship with the singer Ethel Merman, the model for Valley’s veteran stage star Helen Lawson), filtered through the author’s compelling sense of drama and vulgarity. Critics and the intelligentsia scoffed at Susann’s contrived shock effects and corny dialogue, but Susann wrote scenes people could not forget and characters that had readers trembling with empathy.

Valley of the Dolls was followed in 1969 by The Love Machine, which continued the formula of hedonism and heartbreak in a glitzy media setting, this time with a male protagonist: a bastard television mogul based on real-life CBS head James Aubrey, known as “the smiling cobra.” Susann’s third novel, Once Is Not Enough, remained in the world of showbiz, media, and conspicuous wealth but returned the focus to a woman, this time January Wayne, a conflicted young beauty in the throes of an Electra complex. A fourth novel, published posthumously, Dolores, was a vapid roman a clef about the glamorous widow of an assassinated American president, and read more like a film treatment than a full-fledged novel.

None of Susann’s succeeding topics had quite the same delirious narrative force or impact on readers as Valley of the Dolls, but they were all tremendous popular hits and maintained Susann’s “Queen of Trash” title until her untimely demise from cancer at the age of 53. In the late 1990s Su-sann’s topics were brought back into print, repackaged with more than a touch of camp irony, and became big sellers once again. In 2001, the writer Rae Lawrence, working from a reputed outline written by the long-dead Jackie, produced a sequel to Susann’s biggest hit, titled Shadow of the Dolls.


  • Dolores (1976);
  • Love Machine, The (1969);
  • Once Is Not Enough (1973);
  • Shadow of the Dolls (by Rae Lawrence from an outline by Susann) (2001);
  • Valley of the Dolls (1966)

Next post:

Previous post: