A post or two back I referred to Renee Rosen’s novels as ‘guilty pleasures’, though was quick to point out that her books are far from fluff. Rather, for me, at least, they’ve been pleasant diversions from a steady diet of gangsters, gumshoes and gun molls.
For a real guilty pleasure – that is, a book you devour but feel legitimately guilty about — Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 Valley Of The Dolls is like a mid-sixties Fifty Shades Of Grey…similarly notorious, and notoriously popular in its time. Sprawling (to the point of rambling), sexy, melodramatic yet often awkwardly written, the book’s a compelling page-turner nonetheless. A legitimate publishing phenomena, Valley Of The Dolls was the biggest selling book in publishing history at the time of the author’s death in 1974 and has gone on to sell over 31 million copies to date. For any contemporary writer tracking single digit weekly orders for their Amazon Kindle and Create Space books, or praying that their small press’ 5,000 unit trade paperback press run will sell out someday, 31 million books is almost too much to grasp.
Segueing from Renee Rosen’s 2019 Park Avenue Summer to Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls was a natural, and I did just that. In Rosen’s novel, an Ohio ingenue and aspiring commercial photographer arrives in mid-sixties New York and promptly becomes iconic editor Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary right at the moment the magazine is about to be relaunched as the controversial girl-power monthly it quickly became. The novel’s heroine gets that plum gig via a referral from a family friend who’s an editor at the Dolls’ real-life publisher, Bernard Geis Associates.
Valley Of The Dolls the 1967 20thCentury Fox film starring Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward and Barbara Parkins frequently pops up on both broadcast and cable TV channels, but if you’ve only seen the movie and never read the book, I encourage you to give the novel a try. The movie’s pure mid-sixties kitsch, but understandably had to sidestep or soften the novel’s more tawdry and saucy content. In fact, it’s said that original screenwriter Harlan Ellison insisted his name be removed from the credits due to the less downbeat ‘Hollywood’ ending reshot at the studio insistence.
Even if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, it’s enough of a pop culture touchstone that most people have some vague idea of what it’s about. Three New York friends in the entertainment business experience various highs and lows in their careers and love lives, succumbing to ‘Dolls’ (barbituates, and specifically, Seconals) along the way…enough to institutionalize one for addiction (Patty Duke in the movie) and be the weapon of choice for another’s suicide (Sharon Tate in the movie). But the novel’s very different from the film, most notably in its more sprawling 20 year time span from 1945 to 1965. (The film seems to be set almost entirely in the 1960’s.) There are more complex backstories, complications and relationship woes, it being a rambling sort of soap opera. And the sex is notably more explicit. Keep in mind that in 1966, sleaze publishers like Midwood and others were still pumping out ‘sexy’ paperback originals to be sold exclusively ‘under the counter’ at most stores. Frank dialog about menstruation, abortion or contraception was pretty rare. Explicit sex scenes (well, relatively so) in a mainstream novel? Even more scandalous, and here the sex includes vanilla sex, gay sex, lesbian sex, oral sex and more, and in frequent doses. And most importantly, it’s the women, not the men, talking about it, wanting it, trying to avoid it or merrily engaging in it.
Nearly half the book is set in the 1940’s, and the titular ‘dolls’ don’t even appear till well over a third of the way through. The novel’s male characters are mostly philanderers, lushes, failures or con men, and even the seemingly ‘good’ men go bad to some degree by the end. The three main women are complex, but far from angels, and none find release or redemption in their careers, their romances or anywhere except in the embrace of their lovely little dolls. Do not look for a happy ending when you finish the last page.
I read Jacqueline Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls last week in a handsome 50thAnniversary trade paperback edition, complete with some introductory front matter and an essay from the author herself. A tireless self-promoter, book publishing urban legends claim that Susann would get up in the wee hours to primp, fill her car with coffee and cartons of donuts in order to show up at local rack jobbers and distributors’ loading docks before the truck drivers departed, encouraging all to keep her book face-out and in-stock at each stop on their routes. If true, this was before the days of consolidated book distribution (still continuing as we speak, with Baker & Taylor leaving the trade book business altogether and Ingram just about the only game in town).
Well, I never managed to wade through Fifty Shades Of Grey, even after a couple tries that couldn’t get past fifty pages of grey. But I’m really glad I read Valley Of The Dolls. Call it kitsch, call it trash…call it what you like, but it was a cultural milestone in its time and still a fun read even today.