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I was not allowed to read women's magazines when I was a kid.

I don't mean women's magazines like Ms., oh no.  I read that one at the library and loved it, and I highly doubt that either of my parents would have disapproved.  I mean the magazines that were devoted to subjects that were supposedly of interest to the average American woman, the ones that dominated the newsstands and were sold door to door by ambitious young entrepreneurs hoping to support the local high school football team while winning fabulous posters of oh-so-cute pop stars like Sean Cassidy, his older brother David (so dreamy!), or Leif Garrett.

You know the ones I mean.  Redbook…Ladies Home Journal…Family Journal…Women's Day…those interchangeable yet marginally distinctive sources of suburban cuisine like Swedish meatballs or those astonishing concoctions of marshmallows, shredded vegetables, and insanely sweet Jell-O in colors that would make the angels weep.  Or, for the fashion-minded, maybe Vogue or  Harper's Bazaar would be a better match?  Glamour or Cosmopolitan for the career girl on the make who wanted to know how to land a man (and please him once she had him)?  Or the ubiquitous Seventeen for the high school student who wanted to be squeaky clean enough for a real! actual! date! with Sean Cassidy or Leif Garret, especially if she managed to save up enough to purchase the Mark Eden Bust Developing Cream that would magically give her a large but still nicely perky bust whether or not she'd actually hit puberty yet?

Yep.  Those magazines.  

Mum wasn't fond of any of them, although she subscribed to Redbook for several years thanks to being waylaid after class by an ambitious young entrepreneur hoping to win a fabulous prize while supporting her local Girl Scout troop.  Mum knew how to cook without relying on la cuisine de gelatin, could ask her fashion-plate sister if she wanted advice on clothes, and was already married.  Her copies of Redbook seem to have been used primarily as bathroom reading before either Dad or I were up, and promptly went in the trash after she'd finished each issue.  The kindest thing she ever said about one was that it was "silly," and by the time I was old enough to choose my own magazines to purchase, I would have rather been caught dead with a Sean Cassidy poster than subscribe to anything geared to the suburban housewife.

When I was younger, though, and Mum occasionally would pick up McCall's (she liked the sewing patterns) or Ladies' Home Journal (she liked some of the articles), I was told that no, these were Mum's, not mine, and I was not to read them.  I was never told exactly why, but I have my suspicions…

-  As much as I thought and acted like my mother, I took after my aunt Betty in one crucial way:  I was a serious, genuine, dyed in the wool hypochondriac.  My parents would have been almost as wealthy as the Mellons if they'd had a dollar for every time that I was convinced that I had a rare disease and would die at any second (do not ask about the time my seven year old self told Mum I thought that I had lump in my non-existent breast).  The final straw may have come after I'd spent several days driving Mum nuts with complaints about imaginary headaches after I read Death Be Not Proud in middle school, so it's no surprise that Mum and Dad decided that letting me read about fine young men dying young, or noble housewives sacrificing their lives to carry a baby to term against medical advice, or kids just like me losing a limb, or an eye, or a major organ group to an exotic form of cancer, was roughly equivalent to chucking a gallon of liquid oxygen onto a barbecue grill.

- Too much sex.  Cosmopolitan never darkened the doors of our modest little suburban ranch with the knotty pine paneled family room, but it wasn't as if there wasn't plenty of other sex in those seemingly innocuous publications for Mum and Dad.  It was the 70s, after all, and it was a rare women's magazine that didn’t have at least a few modest bits of advice for libidinally challenged and their mates.  The works of Helen Gurley Brown and Dr. David Reuben may never have darkened our doorstep, but the Sexual Revolution so thoroughly permeated American culture that half the reason I would sneak into Betty's medicine cabinet and smear her eyeshadow on my own lids was because I, too, wanted to look sexy sexy sexy for my non-existent boyfriends.  Add in the dating tips and the Mark Eden Bust Developing Cream ads, and it's no wonder my parents, who were almost a generation older than average for my generation, were less than thrilled.

- And then there was the fiction!  I was about fourteen when I found an issue of Family Circle squirreled away in Betty's laundry room that contained a serialized novel about a divorcee and her ex-husband that included a euphemistically described but still incredibly hot scene of hate!sex.  It was told from the woman's point of view, and I still have vivid memories of being simultaneously fascinated and nauseated that the unhappily coupling couple was freezing cold except where their stomachs touched (and if anyone out there has the slightest idea what I'm talking about, please message me so I know I didn't imagine the whole thing KTHX).  I have no idea if Mum ever read it, or why Betty, who was more than somewhat prudish, had it hidden away under a pile of ragged towels that were well on their way to becoming dusting rags, but then again I have no idea why anyone thought it was worth publishing in the first place, so there you go.

More than anything else, though, I'm convinced that Mum wanted to shield me from the average women's magazine because the level of the writing was not up to her standards.  She was a once and former English teacher, after all, and loved nothing more than solid writing, good research, interesting characters, and a strong sense of place.  The shallow, the implausible, the cliched, the just plain dumb - these she could not abide.  Non-fiction had to be about something more than mere facts, and even popular fiction had to be about something more than whodunit, who built it, or a happily ever after.

This may be why very, very few mass market bestsellers made it into the house.  This was not a hard and fast rule - my parents both read and enjoyed The Andromeda Strain and The Guns of Navarone - but many of the bestsellers I've discussed in previous diaries were neither read nor discussed in the bosom of my family.  Several may have appeared in the Reader's Digest Condensed Books Betty devoured like bonbons, but if Mum and Dad ever read them it was news to me.

There was one notable exception:  a book called Valley of the Dolls.  A friend of Mum's urged her to read it, and, more to be polite than anything else, Mum did.

She hated…no, that's too weak a word.  Mum loathed that book.  I'm not sure she ever told her friend, but she sure told her sister, and her husband, and at least one other person.  Her exact words have mercifully faded from my memory, but her dislike has stayed with me through all the years and all the terrible books that I've encountered.  Valley of the Dolls was more than just bad, at least to my mother.  It was one of those books that she would have cheerfully turned into gun cotton if she'd known how, evidence that we simply should turn over the planet to the cockroaches and the bacteria because if this was the best we could do, we were doomed.

The author of that tome of what the young people might call "suckitude" was a woman named Jacqueline Susann.  Her first book had been about a poodle, her subsequent books were about drug abuse and the life decadent, and her last book was a thinly disguised roman a clef about a widowed First Lady.  

Tonight I’m going to tell you her story.

Tonight I bring you not a book, but yet another in my ongoing series of Authors So Bad They're Immortal.  Previous installments have covered such authors as Amanda McKittrick Ros, William Topaz McGonagall, Harry Stephen Keeler, and Julia A. Moore.  Most of these magnificent failures, from Marie Corelli to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, have enriched the literary world in their own inimitable way, whether through gloriously presaging performance art (McGonagall), entertaining true giants through their opaquely amusing prose (Ros), or paving the way for deconstructionism (Keeler).  

None of the others, though, spent their early years having an affair with Eddie Cantor, hosting a television talk show, or serving as the public image of a fabric company, all before launching their literary careers by writing a book about a fashionably dressed poodle.

Jacqueline Susann, who did all of the above and a whole lot more, was born in 1918 to Robert Susann, a Philadelphia portrait painter with a roguish streak, and his wife Rose, a former schoolteacher who believed in hard work and discipline.  They had high hopes for their bright, charming little girl, and who could blame them?  According to that exciting new discovery called the "IQ test," little Jackie, who scored a 140 out of 100, was a genuine, certifiable genius!  Someone with that sort of intelligence was bound to be a smashing success (especially as a writer), or so Jackie's mother thought.

Alas, Jackie had other ideas.  Smart she was, but like so many bright children, school was so easy for her that she saw no interest in grubbing for A's when she could coast to a B.  Not only that, she didn't want to be something boring like a writer.  No, Jackie had her heart set on a much more glamorous career, one that would bring her fame, fortune, and the sort of dazzling life that boring, staid Philadelphia simply could not provide.

She wanted to be an actress.

The Susanns were less than pleased.  They were even less pleased when Jackie, a born flapper despite coming of age during the Depression, started living a theatrical lifestyle long before ever landed a role.  Parties, boys, girls, drugs - by the time Jackie graduated from high school in 1936, she had a reputation as a "party girl," meaning that she liked to have a good time and didn't much care what anyone else thought.  

This precocious Bohemianism proved excellent training for the next phase of the future author's life, when she set out to make her dreams of footlights and stardom come true.  Despite a somewhat horsey face, Jackie was able to turn her native charm into theatrical success almost as soon as she arrived in New York in 1936.  Oh, none of her roles was more than a bit part, but one of them was in the 1937 smash The Women, where she appeared alongside such luminaries as Arlene Francis, Ilka Chase, and future movie star Doris Day.  Soon she had landed a part in the burlesque musical The Girl from Wyoming, was appearing in commercials, and had landed a job playing a lingerie model for the impressive salary of $25 per week.  She had nowhere to go up but up!

Even better, the tall, elegant starlet soon found herself being courted by a successful press agent, Irving Mansfield.  He loved her more than she loved him, but Irving, no fool, quickly overcame her doubts by giving her something far more valuable to a young actress than flowers, candy, or dinners out:  free publicity.  Soon Jacqueline Susann's name and photograph were appearing all over the society/gossip/theater columns in New York, and before long she decided that any man who could give her love, devotion, and column space with the likes of Walter Winchell and Cholly Knickerbocker was a keeper.  They married in April of 1939 in Philadelphia, and almost immediately headed back to the glitter and excess of New York.

Alas, their early years together were, to put it mildly, rocky.  Jackie had never been sexually attracted to Irving, and soon she was having flings with everyone from Eddie Cantor to Ethel Merman.  The situation was not helped when Irving was drafted in 1943.  Jackie, who had been dumped by Eddie Cantor after his wife found out, had taken up with comedian Joe E. Lewis the previous year, and used her skill as a writer to send poor Irving a "Dear John" letter after he'd left for Basic.  

Lewis, who liked Jackie just fine but had no intention of marrying her, reacted the only way he could:  he joined the USO and headed out for New Guinea to entertain the Marines.  

After this rejection, Jackie decided to give Irving another chance, and they were back together by 1944.  By the next year she was back on Broadway, this time starring opposite gorgeous Hollywood star Carole Landis and song and dance man Jack Albertson.  And though she managed to resist the character-driven charms of Albertson, soon she and Landis were reportedly exchanging gifts, performing non-medical breast exams on each other, and generally enjoying each other's company in a less than sisterly way.

This phase of Jackie's life ended when Landis married a producer with the amazing and entirely true name of W. Horace Schmidlapp.  Jackie returned once again to Irving, and matters seemed to have stabilized when she gave birth to their only child, a son named Guy.  She also finally got a real shot at stardom when a play she'd written, Lovely Me, was accepted for production on Broadway late in 1946.

Unfortunately, neither authorship nor motherhood worked out as planned.  Lovely Me, which featured Hollywood character actor Mischa Auer in what turned out to be his last theatrical role, closed after barely a month.  Worse, Guy began behaving less and less like a normal child, and by 1949 Jackie and Irving were given the sad news that he was autistic.  There were no effective treatments for autism in the late 1940s, and Jackie, who was almost certainly aware of the then-current belief that autism was caused by a cold, angry mother rejecting her child, reluctantly consented to Guy being institutionalized.  She and Irving, crushed, told their friends that Guy was severely asthmatic and was being educated in the warm, dry climate of the Southwest, but Jackie never got over the sense that Guy's condition was all her fault.

The next few years were quiet.  Now too old for the sort of starlet roles that had defined her career, Jackie tried hosting a talk show on the old DuMont Network.  She was as charming and witty as ever, but the show was cancelled less than two months after its premiere.   She continued to perform, but her only sustained success came when she was hired to be the "Schiffli Lace Girl" on the Night Time, New York television show.  Starting in 1955 and continuing until 1961, the woman her mother was convinced would be a great writer was reduced to writing, starring in, and producing two live commercials per night for machine-made lace.

1955 was also the year she acquired her dog, Josephine.

Josephine was a black miniature poodle with just as much personality and attitude as her owner.  Even better, the dog had no objections when Jackie started dressing them alike, up to and including matching leopard print suits with identical pillbox hats.  Smart, funny, patient, yet still subject to the foibles and follies of life as a dog, Josephine was practically perfect, and wasn't it a shame that no one outside the Susann/Mansfield family and its immediate circle knew it?  Something had to be done to remedy this sad state of affairs, and the sooner, the better.

And thus it was that Jacqueline Susann, bit actress, failed playwright, and former girlfriend of a man best known for his outsized ears, wrote a book about her dog.

Every Night, Josephine! may have been titled after Napoleon's legendary remark to his wife when she asked how often he wished to engage in marital relations, but the book, a loving and frequently hilarious look at life with an opinionated dog, was anything but titillating.  The book, a fine example of the loving pet memoir (see: Marley and Me, The Cat Who Came For Christmas, and all those heartwarming  Reader's Digest stories about amazing animals), was regarded as something of a trifle, but it sold well enough that when Jackie decided to write a novel based on what she'd seen backstage during her years in show business, publishers listened.

This was not Jackie’s first attempt at a novel; that honor goes to Yargo, a science fiction novel starring a thinly disguised Yul Brynner, the object of what was for once an unrequited passion on Jackie’s part.  She’d written it ten years earlier and never tried to get it published, possibly because it wasn’t all that good, possibly because science fiction was considered one step above comic books on the scale of literary respectability.  However, the idea of writing something about a milieu that she was actually familiar with…say, the theater...well, that was another matter entirely.

That Jackie had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone a mastectomy only added to her determination to accomplish something more than writing a memoir about a hat-wearing poodle.  

There’s a story that soon after her diagnosis, Jackie went for a walk in Central Park and struck a deal with God:  if she had ten more years, she would do everything in her power to make her mark on society.  Divine intervention may or may not be to blame for what happened next, but given the events of the next ten years, it’s hard not to wonder.  

For Jackie’s health improved, the novel she initially called The Pink Dolls rapidly took shape, and after numerous rejections and what was reportedly a major rewrite at the hands of an assistant editor, a pop culture legend finally hit the bookstores in 1966.  

The critics were not kind to Valley of the Dolls.  The main characters were obviously based on famous actresses like Frances Farmer (institutionalized, just like Neely O’Hara!), Judy Garland (ditto!), Carole Landis (revenge is sweet!), and even Ethel Merman (????), the plot included charming incidents like brain damage, abortion, suicide, and the consumption of enough pills to send Elvis Presley into convulsions, and the writing was replete with passages like this gorgeously clichéd statement:

“Love shouldn't make a beggar of one. I wouldn't want love if I had to beg for it, to barter or qualify it. And I should despise it if anyone ever begged for my love. Love is something that must be given -- it can't be bought with words or pity, or even reason.”
Or this beauty, which seems like it came straight from a teenage fangirl on Tumblr:
“I've got a library copy of Gone with the Wind, a quart of milk and all these cookies. Wow! What an orgy!”
Or this amazing passage, which seems blithely unaware of the normal rules of paragraphing:
“Helen Lawson: They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I've got a man waiting for me.”
Is it any wonder that Gore Vidal dismissed Valley of the Dolls and its author with a sniff and the words, “She doesn’t write.  She types”?  

None of this mattered to the delighted public.  Copies of Valley of the Dolls were consumed faster than lines at a Hollywood party, and for every reader like Mum who wanted to consign the book to a landfill, there were a dozen who devoured every word and longed for more.  Soon it was atop the bestseller lists, where it remained for months, and soon after it was made into a profitable but terrible film starting Patty Duke, Lee Grant, Barbara Parkins, and poor Sharon Tate.  

As for Jackie, she reveled in the attention.  Finally, finally, after all the disappointments, the affairs, the failures, she was a success!    And despite what one might think, the former talk show hostess who had spent most of her life married to a publicist was smart enough to wear her success lightly; Jackie and Irving devoted countless hours to public appearances and book signings (Jackie personally signed each and every autograph herself instead of letting publishers’ assistants do it for her), and spent weeks traveling the country to meet all her new fans.  Jackie even made a point of writing down the address of everyone she met, then sending them personal notes thanking them for reading her books.

The fan service, coupled with the juicy plots, recognizable characters, and plenty of sex, drugs, and character torture, paid off.  Three years later Jackie’s second book, The Love Machine, did nearly as well as Valley of the Dolls, proving that novels about promiscuous television executives who spend more time bedding starlets and other men’s wives than actually working can and will sell just as well as novels about starlets who gobble downers like they’re candy.  

Is it any wonder that no less a futurist than Mr. Spock himself referred to Jacqueline Susann as one of "the giants" of 20th century literature? right along with the legendary Harold Robbins?

Of course the critics hated it – reviewer John Simon asked Jackie to her face if she was out to produce art or trash – but it was not for nothing that Jackie had spent all those years on stage.  Is it any wonder that she responded to John Simon with a curt, "Little man, I am telling a story. Now does that make you happy?"  Or that a loyal fan ran up to the stage, proclaimed himself a fan of Jackie’s beginning with Every Night, Josephine!, and yelled that he’d rather hear dogs fornicate than listen to John Simon talk?

Even better, when Truman Capote, well into his “pet author of Babe Paley” stage, publicly compared Jackie’s looks to a truck driver in drag, Jackie immediately threatened a lawsuit.  Capote fired back with an apology “to truck drivers everywhere," whereupon Jackie, given a chance to respond on the Johnny Carson show, said, "Truman...Truman.  I think history will prove he's one of the best Presidents we've had."

Is it any wonder that her fans loved her?  Or that her third book, 1973’s Once Is Never Enough, followed its predecessors straight to the top of the charts despite a ridiculous premise (aging movie producer marries a lesbian hoping to please his daughter (?), while the spoiled, bratty daughter, far from being pleased, promptly seduces several other men in revenge (??))?  Or that she had plans for a sequel to Valley of the Dolls as soon as she finished her next book?

Success had followed success, and Jackie and the loyal Irving were riding high.  Then, almost as if God had taken Jackie at her world about having ten years to make her mark, disaster struck early in 1973.  

Jackie had been suffering from a deep, persistent cough that threatened to wreck the upcoming tour supporting Once Is Not Enough.  She checked into the hospital for tests just in case it was bronchitis or pneumonia, and was shocked to learn that it was neither.  It seemed that the cancer was back, and far from being confined to her breast, it was now in her lungs, bones, and most of her body.   She had a few months left, the doctors gently informed her, and needed to conserve what strength she had.

A lesser woman might have given up, but not Jacqueline Susann.  After undergoing enough treatment to straight arm Death for a few precious weeks of health, she packed her bags and set out on her last book tour.  Her fans were waiting, and she didn’t want to disappoint them.

The same applied to her last book.  Despite increasing pain and weakness, Jackie returned to the pink-walled study where she’d written her previous three books and struggled to finish her fourth masterpiece.  Dolores, a “novel” about a Presidential widow that was so blatantly based on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that it serialized with the subtitle “Jackie on Jackie,” wasn’t up (or down) to her usual standard, but given that she was basically living on pain pills during the last year of her life, it’s a tribute to her determination and spirit that she managed to write anything at all. When it became clear that Jackie wouldn’t live long enough to finish the book, her friend Rex Reed, a film critic and sometime actor who had managed to wreck his own reputation pretending to be Raquel Welch’s transsexual treatment in the execrable film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge, agreed to finish the manuscript.  Critics agreed that he did a fine job of matching Jackie’s style, although what this says about Reed’s own abilities as a novelist is not clear.

The end finally came in September of 1974 after seven weeks in the hospital, the faithful Irving at her side.  Her last words were to him were simple, and to the point:  "Hiya, doll. Let's get the hell outta here."

It had been quite the ride.


Have any of you, my faithful readers, ever encountered this amazing woman's books?  Seen one of the films based on them?  Or the films based on her astonishing life?  Is there a copy of Valley of the Dolls in your knotty pine rec room?  Would you admit it if there were?  It's Saturday night, so don't be shy....


Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
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Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
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Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 07:30 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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