Valley of the Dolls
First U.S. hardcover edition
|Published||1966 (Bernard Geis Associates)|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||442 pp (hardback edition)|
|Preceded by||Every Night, Josephine!|
|Followed by||The Love Machine|
Valley of the Dolls is a novel by American writer Jacqueline Susann, published in 1966. The "dolls" within the title is a euphemism for pills, and was created by Susann. The term dolls also represents the women in the novel and their mishandling by the patriarchal world in which they are "played" by and dealt with as mere toys. The term also represents the women's reliance on stimulants, depressants, and sleeping pills, and how substance abuse is reminiscent of children clinging to toy dolls for comfort.
An overnight success when it was first published, Valley of the Dolls became the bestselling work of fiction of 1966. Since then it has sold more than 30 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books of all time. As the first roman à clef by a female author to achieve this level of sales in America, it led the way for other authors such as Jackie Collins to depict the private lives of the real-life rich and famous under a veneer of fiction. The 1997 reissue by Grove Press calls the book "The All-Time Pop-Culture Classic" on its back cover.
The novel focuses on the famous lives of its three main characters Anne Welles, Jennifer North and Neely O'Hara:
- In 1945, Anne Welles moves to New York City from Lawrenceville, Massachusetts, and finds employment with a talent agency representing the ultimately successful Broadway musical Hit the Sky.
- Welles meets Neely O'Hara (who changed her name from Ethel Agnes O'Neill), a vaudeville star living in her building, and recommends her for a role in the show’s chorus.
- Jennifer North, a showgirl highly praised and regarded for her beauty and buxom figure, but with limited acting talent, appears in the play as well.
The three women become fast friends. However, over the next twenty years, the women embark on careers that bring them to the heights of fame and fortune, but eventual unhappiness and self-destruction.
Jennifer is known more for her beauty rather than her talents. She begins a relationship with nightclub singer Tony Polar; believing his childish behavior is caused by his overprotective half-sister and manager Miriam, she persuades him to elope. She travels with him to Hollywood to pursue his career, and becomes pregnant.
Upon discovering Tony’s infidelity, Jennifer ends the relationship but chooses to keep this child. Miriam explains that Tony has a congenital brain condition that causes seizures and dementia, and will culminate in total insanity. Upon learning that the child is likely to inherit the sickness, Jennifer has an abortion, without telling anyone why. This puzzles her friends, because they know her dearest wish is to have multiple children on whom she can lavish the affection and approval she never received from her own mother.
As Jennifer is mostly desired for her goddess-like features and is desperate for income, she decides to perform in soft core French "art films". Stress and smoking make her an insomniac, and she begins to use the eponymous "dolls" (barbiturates) as sleep aids, as she had during the time she was in Hit the Sky.
Jennifer returns to the United States after spending several years in Europe, where she's gained moderate success as an actress. She meets and falls in love with a middle-aged Republican senator who has hopes of becoming President. While preparing for her wedding, Jennifer's happiness is shattered when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. She is told she must have a mastectomy, and that she will never be able to have children. When Jennifer speaks with the Senator, she tells him about not having children, but before she can say anything about the mastectomy he responds that he is uninterested in children. He enthuses that his love for her body, breasts especially, will sustain the relationship, and that he can't stand to think of anything happening to the "perfection" of her bosom. Unable to have children and faced with yet again, another man who only loves her for her physical beauty, Jennifer slumps into a deep depression and commits suicide by overdosing on barbiturates.
Anne comes from a small, repressive New England town, Lawrenceville, and is determined never to return there. In her administrative job, Anne’s wholesome beauty and refined mannerisms gain her attention. Millionaire Allen Cooper falls for her after only six weeks of dating, and demands her hand in marriage. Not ready to settle at such a young age, Anne refuses.
During an out of town trip for the debut opening of Hit the Sky, Anne realizes that she is in love with Lyon Burke, a lawyer at the agency. They spend a short but blissful year together. Lyon accompanies her to Lawrenceville to help her settle her mother's estate, and falls in love with the place, telling her he wants to live there and write novels. Anne is dead set against this, because he refuses to marry her and they part company.
Anne becomes the face of Gillian Cosmetics, and becomes romantically involved with Kevin Gillmore, the owner of the company. After 15 years, Lyon returns and approaches Anne when she is nearly married to Kevin Gillmore. She leaves Kevin for Lyon, and arranges with Henry Bellamy to create a job for Lyon to keep him in the U.S. The two eventually wed. Lyon discovers the ruse when Neely tells him, because she is trying to get something she wants. Angry about the way she "emasculated" him, Lyon continues to have affairs. Though Anne stays with Lyon, she plans to raise her daughter Jennifer to be independent-minded and avoid the mistakes she made in her life with men. To cope with Lyon’s infidelity, Anne begins to take pills to sleep and becomes highly addicted to them.
Neely O'Hara becomes famous on the Broadway scene, moves to Hollywood to work in movies, and becomes a superstar in big-budget Hollywood musicals. Her handlers demand that she lose weight. Jennifer introduces her to "dolls", and she quickly becomes addicted to "uppers" (Dexedrine) to lose weight and stay awake during the day and barbiturates (Seconal, Nembutal) to sleep. The grueling, unglamorous work of being a Hollywood actress is described in detail and Neely's dependence on the pills is shown as understandable. She combines the pills and often uses alcohol to enhance their effect. Partly due to the effects of the pills, she earns a reputation as a demanding, spoiled, alcoholic, and difficult "diva" to handle and work with. Her movies earn high returns at the box office, but it isn't enough; the studio consistently loses money on her pictures due to her erratic, unpredictable behavior.
After numerous, unsuccessful suicide attempts, a year-long black list from the entertainment world, and two failed marriages, Neely suffers a nervous breakdown and is committed to a psychiatric hospital. Upon release she works with Lyon Burke to help revitalize her career, but begins having an affair with him. She quickly returns to her vicious, arrogant behavior which leads to her permanent demise.
Much of the narrative is rumored to be drawn from the author's experiences and observations as a struggling actress in New York in the early 1940s. Helen Lawson, the aging stage actress who befriends and uses Anne, is based closely on Ethel Merman, whom Susann had known personally.
The tragic character of Jennifer North is said to be based upon actress/pin-up girl Carole Landis. Like Jennifer, Landis was seen as an ambitious blonde with little real talent, and after a series of failed relationships and a career that had quickly stagnated, she committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates. Certain aspects of her personality resemble those of Marilyn Monroe, particularly her actual yet often overlooked intelligence. Her involvement with Senator Adams is comparable to Monroe's rumored affair with John F. Kennedy and or Robert F. Kennedy. Jennifer's "art films" mirrored the later part of Jayne Mansfield's career, making softcore comedies such as Promises! Promises! and L'Amore Primitivo. The character of Tony Polar, the mentally impaired singer, was rumored to be based on Frank Sinatra, but Susann herself was quoted in her unauthorized biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; at the time, he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her (Jerry Lewis has also noted Martin's predilection for comics).
The character of Neely O'Hara with her excess of talent coupled with her self-destructive alcoholism and dependency on prescription drugs, is said to be based upon Judy Garland. Her powerfully energetic stage and screen image are closer to those of Betty Hutton. Like Neely, Hutton had an ingenue role in a musical (Panama Hattie) opposite Merman — and had her one song cut from production by Merman, exactly as Lawson does to ingenue Terry King in the novel, because it drew attention away from the star. Garland was originally cast in the movie as Lawson, until her constant tardiness on the set and disapproval of the script led to her dismissal and Susan Hayward replaced her.
O'Hara's treatment in the sanitariums is a milder version of the fate that befell actress Frances Farmer. Susann was well acquainted with institutions and mental hospitals because of her struggle to find an acceptable milieu for her autistic son.
Controversial language and issues for the period
The book's narrative is direct and often blunt in confronting social issues such as non-marital and extramarital sex, abortion, mental illness, shunning and shaming, patriarchal male sexism, the "Casting couch", elitism, male homosexuality, lesbian sex, and classism. It contains profanity, obscenity and sexual slurs, including gay men being referred to as fags.
In 1967 the book was adapted into a film of the same name directed by Mark Robson, starring Susan Hayward, Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, Patty Duke, Paul Burke, and Lee Grant. The movie was produced by Milas C. Hinshaw  and Bill Larson.
1981 TV miniseries
The novel was adapted again for television in 1981 as Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, a TV miniseries adapted from the novel and directed by Walter Grauman. This version stars Catherine Hicks, Lisa Hartman, Veronica Hamel, David Birney, Jean Simmons, James Coburn, Gary Collins, Bert Convy, and Britt Ekland.
1994 TV series
2005 Radio series
BBC Radio 4 broadcast a 15-episode dramatisation scripted by Yvonne Antrobus over three weeks in August and September 2005. It was part of the Woman's Hour programme's ongoing fifteen-minute daily drama slot, and has been rebroadcast several times on BBC Radio 4 Extra in three 70-minute omnibus episodes.
- MacMillan Moser, Stephen. "Sparkle and Shine: 'Valley of the Dolls', still cautionary after all these years". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 30 August 2013.
- Burchill, Julie (2003). 'Valley of the Dolls' reissue Introduction. London: Virago. ISBN 978-1844085255.
- Possibly its nearest predecessor was The Group by Mary McCarthy in 1963 (5 million copies by 1991). (See: Frances Kiernan, Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002 , p. 536). It was as scandalous in its own way.
- Stallings, Penny; Howard, Mandelbaum (1978). Flesh and Fantasy. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 247. ISBN 0-06-055175-5.
- Stallings, Penny; Howard, Mandelbaum (1978). Flesh and Fantasy. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 242, 247. ISBN 0-06-055175-5.
- Milas C. Hinshaw, Producer
- Gardner, Eriq (March 16, 2012). "Lawsuit Threatens Lee Daniels' 'Valley of the Dolls' TV Series". The Hollywood Reporter.
- Radio Listings
- BBC Radio omnibus edition catalogue entry