PRINT September 1997


Valley of the Dolls

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, to be reprinted next month by Grove Atlantic, was one kind of quintessential trash novel of the ’60s (another kind was Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy), written with an insider’s eye on the showbiz of the ’50s. Its Ike-era prototype, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, describes the adulteries and out-of-wedlock pregnancies of a small New England town; in Metalious’ sequel, Return to Peyton Place, heroine Allison Mackenzie writes a book very like Peyton Place, finds a New York publisher, and enters a swirling cesspool of Manhattan glamour and corruption. Like Allison, Valley’s Anne Welles eschews her bucolic New England roots in favor of the big city and falls hard for a powerful man, experiences heartbreak, and learns some bitter lessons. Valley author Jacqueline Susann seized on Metalious’ Harlequin-romance-meets-Zola formula and brought it forward into the early years of megapublishing, a task for which she was infinitely better equipped than her predecessor.

Metalious was a deeply troubled hick who, only a few years after success struck, sabotaged her career with booze and pills, becoming a dreadful problem guest on talk shows and later a cirrhosis fatality. Susann, by contrast, was a seasoned survivor long before setting pen to paper. Married to publicist Irving Mansfield, Susann had acted on Broadway and been a jacqueline-of-all-trades in the early television industry. She came from a sophisticated family of Philadelphia Jews (her father was a prominent society portrait artist), and had mixed with the entertainment world’s elite throughout the ’40s and ’50s. She knew intimately the slick, sentimental, sordid world of Walter Winchell, “21,” and The Sweet Smell of Success that developed out of vaudeville and radio after World War II. Valley of the Dolls wrapped that world up and delivered it to the ’60s like a coroner’s report.

The forward to a new edition of Barbara Seaman’s Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann locates Valley of the Dolls in the mid-’60s cultural mix of The Beatles’ Revolver album, Capote’s In Cold Blood, and “the high period works of Andy Warhol,” but it was not so much the novel itself as its prodigious, innovative marketing campaign that belonged to that specific moment. The pop-ness of Valley was its inexorable momentum on the best-seller lists, and the unembarrassed campiness of its author’s gaudy, Pucci-clad personal appearances. Susann was middle-aged by the time the Rolling Stones appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show; her characters were squares who slopped martinis while their kids dropped LSD.

At the same time, author and book became vastly popular as homosexual kitsch, and as powerfully energized throwbacks to a fading era. They belonged to the strain of ’60s pop exemplified by Vegas, Nancy Sinatra, and the Hell’s Angels, an antipsychedelic death-trip strain of hedonism traceable to England’s Teddy Boys and the Mods-vs.-Rockers division of what was called, in 1960, “Generation X.” (Incredible as it may seem.) Valley’s downfall portraits of fag-hag divas Judy Garland and Ethel Merman won fans among the then-clandestine gay community; for the first time in pop fiction, characters openly referred to “queers” and “fags” in the entertainment industry. At the same time, the rampant drug-taking in Valley signalled an outlaw affinity with the chemical revolution of the Love Generation, though Susann’s sensibility was more aligned with the discreet nonconformity of Rockefeller Republicanism. (The purest representation of this vanished libertinism can be found in Jack Warden’s and Lee Grant’s performances in Shampoo.) Barbiturates (and amphetamines, before the Warhol set popularized speed) may have been square drugs, but they were still drugs; the glazed housewives and hyper executives who popped them asserted the same bleary personal autonomy differing merely in style from the average hippy on psilocybin.

In Valley of the Dolls, it is Neely O’Hara’s hysterical insistence that she needs her pink and yellow “dolls” to keep going—fuck the studio, fuck her career—that elicits our keenest sympathy. Jennifer’s breast cancer is tragic, and Anne’s romanic disillusionment makes us sad. But Neely’s robotic lunge for the pill bottle in stressful moments is what sold Valley to a mass audience of Americans, whose coping mechanisms broke down in the social chaos of the ’60s. Valley was a uniquely un-nostalgic anachronism that knew all about “Mother’s Little Helper” and the bleak interiority they kept at bay.

The film version of Valley was no less an anachronism than the novel. The presence of Dory Previn (soon to lose her cocomposer, André Previn, to Mia Farrow, who played Allison Mackenzie in the Peyton Place TV series) on the soundtrack, and Sharon Tate in the role of Jennifer, eventually lent the movie a kind of retroactive contemporaneity, after Previn became an early hip-feminist solo performer and Tate was murdered by the Manson Family. (The Tate-LaBianca killings ended the ’60s, and in some respects vindicated the plastic straight world’s emphasis on rules and decorum. Youth culture had taken everything too far. And this was, of course, the lesson Valley of the Dolls winkingly taught about an earlier style of being modern.)

As an icon, Jacqueline Susann belongs to a small pantheon of indomitable superwomen in whom the regressive elements of a given age find near-complete expression. Susann’s will to power was a free-floating trait that attached itself to myriad activities before finding its ideal vehicle in the drugstore novel. Once her proper métier had been established (with the publication of Every Night, Josephine, a book about her poodle), Susann pursued world domination with a single-mindedness worthy of Napoleon. When JFK was assassinated the week Josephine appeared, she famously blurted, “Why the fuck does this have to happen to me? This is gonna ruin my tour!”

Before Susann, Leni Riefenstahl exemplified the butch, micromanaging Amazon artist succeeding in a man’s world. However specious Riefenstahl’s memories of “struggle” in the Third Reich, it remains a provocative anomaly that a woman was chosen to direct Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Some psychopathic quality of will must have struck a sympathetic chord in Hitler, who admired Leni’s acting in Weimar-era alpine epics like The Holy Mountain and enabled her “purely artistic” directing endeavors even in the Gotterdammerung ambiance of 1944. A half-century later, Leni continues to describe her activities in the ’30s as apolitical: she merely seized the opportunities provided by fascism to realize her artistic goals. Like Susann, Riefenstahl viewed self-aggrandizement as a supreme value in itself, an obvious good without ideological implication or negative impact on artistic culture.

This state of mind demolishes distinctions and connections that have characterized a “rational” strain of intellectual life since the Enlightenment. A cruder, blockier form of thought monumentalizes the achievements of a Riefenstahl, a Jacqueline Susann. However destructive or puerile the product, its emanation from a woman (or a gay, a black, a pre-op transsexual, or whatever) represents an advance in the general good. The superwoman exception invites us all to live in the moment, take a bath in the mainstream of our time, and celebrate our newfound visibility in the form of one or two celebrity stereotypes.

Jackie’s books outsold contemporary literary novels, and also outsold Flaubert, Proust, even Dickens: to her own mind, that put her up there with Proust and Dickens, and a surprising consensus of postmodern literary theorists would readily agree. The reception of a work is what gives it significance in the era of mass affect. In this connection, in the rise of Martha Stewart’s magazine, TV, and household—marketing empire (chronicled in the ghastly, unauthorized biography, Just Desserts) we see a refinement of the superwoman archetype: the feminist overachiever as anal-compulsive housewife. While the off-screen Martha, with her shrewd business manipulations, carries on the Riefenstahl-Susann tradition of Woman as Corporate Ball-Buster, onscreen Martha is an unflappable, soft-edged, obsessive reproach to the working mom, the career woman, and the less-than-driven housewife alike. You can decorate that birthday cake and restore a barn full of broken furniture and cultivate your own orchids all at the same time, any woman can.

Just as Valley of the Dolls met the challenge of the ’60s with the feminine stereotypes of the ’50s, as Leni Riefenstahl applied the testosterone-worshipping, fascist aesthetics of the ’30s to her African native portraits of the ’60s and ’70s, Martha Stewart has reinvented the high school home ec major for nouveau riche women of the ’90s. But schizo-Martha, whose dualism presents the alternating images of country kitchen and boardroom, is the Janus-faced superwoman ne plus ultra: purveyor of impossibly confining, prescriptive images of women and steel-willed proprietor of the image factory.

Gary Indiana’s column appears bimonthly in Artforum. His novel Resentment is just out from Doubleday.

In October, Grove will reissue Jacqueline Susann’s camp classic Valley of the Dolls.