When Jacqueline Susann published Valley of the Dolls in 1966, the story of three starlets and their penchant for pills sent shockwaves throughout the publishing industry and the rest of the world. Not only was the book an instant success, spending 65 consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list—22 of those weeks in the top spot—but Susann’s was the first roman à clef written by a woman to achieve such high sales, which helped pave the way for authors like Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel. After Valley of the Dolls, Susann published two more novels, The Love Machine and Once is Not Enough, making her the first author in history to have three #1 consecutive titles on The New York Times Best Seller List. Today, over 31 million copies of Valley of the Dolls have been sold in 30 languages, the book has been adapted for the big and small screens and has become a pop culture phenomenon, appearing in everything from Sex and the City to Slaughterhouse Five. Since you never forget your first time, we asked ten authors about their initial reading of the novel that Nora Ephron once called “magnetic” and impossible to put down.
“I was in high school when I spotted a tattered copy of Valley of the Dolls in a used bookstore for fifty cents. The woman at the cash register frowned at me but didn’t snatch it away, and I read it over one weekend up in my bedroom. I’m still scratching my head about that “sleep diet,” but Susann was way ahead of her time in terms of addressing women’s desires and the myth of Prince Charming, not to mention a trailblazer when it came to marketing her books. An educational experience, in more ways than one!”
—Fiona Davis, author of The Dollhouse, out August 23, 2016
“I am a member of a Classic Trashy Book Club. Every month, we pick a book that is at least 20 years old, was made into a miniseries, banned, or spent a summer on the bestseller list. At least four times a year, we nominate Valley of the Dolls. But the book is never picked because we (three prosecutors, a therapist, an interior designer, a famous Instagram cat lady, a P.I.-turned-housewife and a housewife-turned-writer: me) have already read it on our own. Multiple times. I read it 23 years ago during my first summer in Manhattan, and here’s what I learned that still applies today: you need friends and dreams to make you try harder. If you try and fail, well, that may be the end of you. But at least you tried, and if you did it in white gloves and a girdle, no one can take that away from you. And P.S.: A steady diet of pills and misogyny may cause suicidal tendencies.”
—Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife
“I read this book way too young. Like a book-title equivalent of flavored cigarettes, on first glance Valley of the Dolls seemed totally intended for children—but thank God I did read it. I was around eight or nine, and although some parts of it went over my head, overall I found it wildly comforting. Sugar was a scarce substance in our household, and I used to pilfer boxes of cake mix from the back of the pantry, hide them beneath our basement sofa, then come home from school and spend about two hours eating the raw powder with a spoon until my parents got home from work. This made me feel awful, both physically and emotionally, but I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t understand why. I picked up enough about the narrative of self-destruction in Valley of the Dolls to intuit that I wasn’t alone when it came to ill-making indulgence, and I began to connect painful feelings to behavior that didn’t make logical sense. I read and reread the book as I grew older, and it continued to seem more reassuring than frightening in an almost religious way. Reading it is probably why I was able to start watching the news without having panic attacks. Well sure, I suddenly realized. Chaos, death, and predation are human norms. This was empowering knowledge, and it gifted me a newfound sense of lasting calm.”
—Alissa Nutting, author of Tampa
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“My mother was a member of the Book of the Month club and—being a bookophile from birth—I used to love when the brown cardboard package came every month. I had an adult’s vocabulary, if not an adult’s understanding of the world, and sometimes she let me read them. But not this time. Despite the fact the title promised a book about toys, Valley of the Dolls was snatched out of my sight the minute it was unboxed. It would be three years before I fished it down from a high bookshelf and read it. The world and I had both changed by then; 1969 wasn’t as innocent as 1966 and 14 isn’t as innocent as 11. My friends and I had gotten adept at scouring adult novels for “the good parts” and if you’d thrown my mother’s copy of The Group into the air it would have landed open to certain key passages that had inflamed (and bewildered) my adolescent mind. But Valley of the Dolls was something different. The dolls were pills? The sex wasn’t always fun? The women weren’t necessarily going to end up saved and happy? While since that time people have been quick to deem this book fluff, the ultimate example of chick lit and trashy beach books, what I remember about the first time I read Valley of the Dolls is that underneath the surface glamour, there was a bleak realism to the story. Jacqueline Susann didn’t fix it all in the end, and that’s why I’ll always remember Valley of the Dolls as one of the first truly adult books I ever read.”
—Kim Wright, author of Last Ride to Graceland
“I discovered the book through the movie first, which was a favorite when I was a kid. Something about both spoke to me. It’s a heightened world so it may not be a book about how things are (for most of us, at least), but it’s definitely about how things feel. The tenor of emotion—ambition, desire, rage, frustration, drive—is so intense that I can look at any single page of it today and feel swept back in. There’s a line in it—’Everyone has an identity. One of their own, and one for show.’ Sometimes I think in some ways everything I write comes from that line.”
—Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me
“Here’s the thing. I never did actually read Valley of the Dolls! I’m pretty sure it was listed on the Index of Forbidden Books banned by the Catholic Church. In any case, it was certainly banned from my good Catholic house where I was 12 in 1966 and the oldest of 6 children. I do however remember reading a tantalizing snippet while babysitting at a neighbor’s after the kids went to bed. I loved babysitting Protestants—their bookshelves filled with titles banned from Catholic homes. I remember the neighbor’s dark den, seeing the book on a shelf, opening it at random, seeing the splayed pages move a little in my trembling hands. I don’t recall the passage I read—but it contained SEX and PILLS and the thought of learning about these things was so terrifying, I slammed the book shut and put it back on the shelf, spending an inordinate amount of time trying to make certain it was returned to exact placement, so my removal of it couldn’t be detected in which case I was certain the neighbor would feel bound to ring up my mother (!).”
—Helen Klein Ross, author of What Was Mine
“I’ve read every single Susann book—even the simpering one about her poodle, Josephine, the literary equivalent of a very drunk person showing you pictures of their dog in an airless limbo—from start to finish, and it’s all because of Valley of the Dolls, which I read for the first time in the seventh grade and have read a dozen times since. Anytime I need a pick-me-up, to feel distracted, or simply want to spoil myself with the polyester glitter brocade of language that is Susann’s stock in trade, this big pink doorstopper is there for me, cracked spine and multiple wine stains and all. For is there any other writer who can make you feel as though you, too, are spitefully snatching Helen Lawson’s wig in a powder room when you’re Judy-Garland-high on a handful of pills dug out from the bottom of your handbag? Valley of the Dolls is a vicarious trip through a campy, glamorous, utterly retrograde universe, and I never get sick of it.”
—Barbara Bourland, author of I’ll Eat When I’m Dead
My favorite memory of the novel is actually from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. When the crew of the Enterprise travels back in time to 20th century San Francisco…
Spock: Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with, shall I say, more colorful metaphors. “Double dumbass on you,” and so forth.
Kirk: You mean the profanity.
Kirk: It’s simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you unless you swear every other word. You’ll find it in all the literature of the period.
Spock: For example?
Kirk: The collected works of Jacqueline Susann. The novels of Harold Robbins.
Spock: Ah. The giants.
—Meg Gardiner, author of Phantom Instinct
“I don’t remember exactly how old I was when spending the day at a friend’s house. She opened the glass door on a Barrister bookcase in her living room, pulled out a book and asked if I wanted to read some with her. It had lots of good parts, she said. I didn’t know anything about Valley of the Dolls at that time, but the thought of reading a book with “lots of good parts” frightened me. I said I had a headache and didn’t feel like reading. She put it back on the shelf, careful to slide it into the right spot and closed the glass door.”
—Lori Roy, author of Let Me Die in His Footsteps
And one reflection on the movie…
“I never read the book but saw the movie in college; I rented it from a video store on West 57th Street where, as an NYU drama student, I’d taken an off-campus apartment. I’d never heard of the movie before I saw it, nor the book, but found it one Saturday while I was wondering the aisles alone.
I spent a lot of time alone back then, even with my full schedule of parties: Sundays at Moomba; Mondays at Bowery; Tuesdays at Niagara; Wednesday karaoke night at Spy Bar, then Lansky Lounge, and then the Elbow Room; Thursdays, 80s night at Don Hill’s. And then all the after parties, and then the card rooms after the after parties, and then the 24-hour diners after the after parties and card rooms, and then sometimes—why not?—an impromptu drive down to Atlantic City…
When Friday and Saturday rolled around, my group—DJs, indie-filmmakers, teen idols and B-list actors, new SNL cast members, dissolute sons of the rich, spoiled daughters of the famous, and all the many stylish hopefuls who weren’t famous yet, but would be any minute, any day, any year, would retreat home, abandoning Manhattan to the amateurs. Weekends were for bridge-and-tunnel. 9-5ers. Not for the stars or would be stars. Not for us—I was going to be an actress.
Saturdays then, I removed the dark sunglasses I’d been wearing all week, and turned back into a college student, hitting up the local video store for whatever I could find, clues to the unknown world that lay beyond college, beyond the nightclubs of downtown New York—old Hollywood classics with Audrey Hepburn on a Vespa, French films about adultery, anything with Elaine May. Wandering the aisles alone, hung-over, having just returned from Atlantic City with the DJ who told me he didn’t love me but sure liked me, I found all sorts of treasures, and oddities, too.
Like this, I discovered Valley of the Dolls—“She took the blue pill, she took the pink pill…” a voice said over the credits. I was puzzled by the movie and hated it—“Dolls! Dolls!”—in that same way one remembers hating that pretentious boy from Russian Lit, whom one ended up loving a few weeks later, whom one ended up loving maybe forever, or at least, for the rest of college, which is similar.
“I’m Neely O’ Hara!” I yelled into the microphone a few Wednesdays after that, falling to my knees on stage at the Elbow Room, before an audience of DJs, B-list actors and actresses, new SNL cast members, dissolute sons of the rich, spoiled daughters of the famous, the perplexed-but-excited boy from Russian Lit, and the others, like me, who weren’t famous yet, but would be any minute, any day, any year…”
—Iris Smyles, author of Dating Tips for the Unemployed
Author photo; featured image: valleyofthedolls.com