Jacqueline Susann (August 20, 1918, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – September 21, 1974, New York City) was an American author known for her mass-appeal novels. Her most notable work was Valley of the Dolls, a book that broke sales records and spawned a movie and a TV series.
At school, Susann was a lazy student, but she scored a 140 on a fifth-grade IQ test. Writing was always something she was praised for, but Susann was determined to become an actress. After she graduated from high school, her mother wanted her to become a teacher, but she moved to New York to pursue her original dream.
Arriving in New York City she got bit parts in movies, plays (such as The Women), and commercials. A year later, Susann landed a decent theatrical job playing a lingerie model, earning $25.00 a week.
After marrying Irving Mansfield, a press agent on April 2, 1939, she began to get better jobs. She was placed in news columns, and soon was a regular on The Morey Amsterdam Show. She then got a spot in the Broadway show A Lady Says Yes starring Carole Landis and Jack Albertson. The following year, she wrote the unsuccessful play Lovely Me. However, there was friction: Jackie wrote Irving a "Dear John" letter shortly after he was drafted by the United States Army in 1943, which she read aloud to the cast of Lovely Me. Their only child, Guy, was autistic and had to be institutionalized. She never believed in sharing problems with friends, and would tell them Guy was away at boarding school, or make other excuses for his absence. Later, when Jackie battled illness, she would only confide in her husband, to the exclusion of all others, including her mother.
In 1955, she acquired her poodle Josephine and a contract to be the fashion commentator for Schiffli Lace on Night Time, New York which ran 1-7 a.m. weeknights. She wrote, starred in, and produced two live commercials every night. She continued as the "Schiffli Girl" until 1961.
She tried writing a show business/drug exposé that she was going to call The Pink Dolls, but instead she wrote her first successful book, Every Night, Josephine! which was based on her experiences with her poodle, whom she sometimes dressed up in outfits to match her own. Although the book was widely viewed as a novelty, it sold well enough for her to publish her second book, Valley of the Dolls.
The book was an instant smash, and broke many sales records (at around 19 million copies, it has been cited as the best-selling novel ever.) The book also served as a cultural touchstone; though some people considered Susann's writing style to be loud, bombastic and brash (an assessment Susann herself would have agreed with) and the subject matter inappropriate, the mixture of soap-opera style storytelling with bold, non-traditional characters - a model, a singer and a bombshell actress - reaped huge sales. It may have also been successful because some of the story was a roman á clef - the character Neely O'Hara was said to be loosely based on Judy Garland, while the character of Broadway legend Helen Lawson appeared to be a take on Ethel Merman, and starlet Jennifer North on Carole Landis. In the subsequent movie, she played a reporter at the scene of Jennifer's suicide.
Once she was famous, Mansfield devoted himself to supporting and helping her, acting as her agent. Susann went on to publish several more novels, all in a similar vein to "Dolls". She also became a fixture on television, particularly as a guest on talk shows. Her pointed repartee added spice to the programs she was featured on. However, not everyone was a fan; Truman Capote - himself a talk show fixture and controversial figure - created a media malestrom when he appeared on The Tonight Show and told Johnny Carson that Susann looked like "a truck driver in drag" and then went on to apologize to truck drivers. (She was not amused.)
Susann experienced several health battles throughout her life, including recurring bouts with breast cancer. She was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 1962 and underwent a mastectomy. She was shocked when she learned in January 1973 that her cancer had returned. She was determined to finish her last novel, Once Is Not Enough. Like her other books, it was a roaring success, but she was too sick and drained by chemotherapy to tour in support of the book.
Susann's health failed rapidly. When she was admitted to the hospital for the last time, she stayed in a coma for seven weeks before her death at the age of 56. Her last words to Mansfield, in true "Jackie style", were "Let's get the hell outta here, doll."
In the late 1970s, her romance/science fiction novel Yargo was published posthumously. Written in the late 1950s, the novel is not similar to her other works and was a radical and somewhat bizarre departure, likely published only due to the sustained interest in Susann.
In 1996, Lovely Me a biography of Susann by Barbara Seaman (the source for the citations of this article) was published. The book was, in part, the basis for the 2000 feature film Isn't She Great starring Bette Midler as Jackie and Nathan Lane as Irving. Marlo Thomas played Susann in a play Paper Doll with F. Murray Abraham as Mansfield. Michele Lee and Peter Riegert played the couple in the TV movie Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story.
Her last novel Dolores, a thinly-veiled take on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was published in 1976. A condensed version of it was published in the Ladies' Home Journal under the banner "Jackie by Jackie." When illness prevented Susann from completing her last book, close friend and fellow writer Rex Reed quietly took over.
- Susann typed her manuscripts on a hot-pink IBM Selectric typewriter.
- She spent 7 to 8 hours a day working on the plots of her books. She used a blackboard and color co-ordinated chalks to keep track of where her book was heading.
- Her most famous book, Valley of the Dolls, was so rough in manuscript form her editor had to spend six weeks with her rewriting it.
- When her books were coming out, Susann would rise at dawn to take coffee and doughnuts to the truck drivers who were delivering her books. She and Mansfield would also drive around the country to meet sales clerks at the bookstores. She would keep track of everyone's birthdays, their kids' names, and their pets, so she could talk to them more personally. Susann's shrewdness ensured her book would be prominently displayed and enthusiastically recommended by booksellers.
- Susann also made a point of appearing regularly on TV talk shows, and even game shows, to promote her latest book. She continued to do this even into her last months; Susann never talked about her illness.
- After her death, Susann was cremated and her ashes placed in a special container styled like a hardcover book, with "Jacqueline Susann 1918-1974" stamped on the front-cover side.
- Soap writer Robert Soderbergh has cited Susann as being the basis for the character Felicia Gallant on the soap opera Another World.
- She was bisexual.
Star Trek IV film reference
Susann's fame led to the following exchange in the 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Spock asks Kirk about his frequent use of "colorful metaphors" since their arrival in late-20th century earth:
- Kirk: You mean the profanity? That's simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you if you don't swear every other word. You'll find it in all the literature of the period.
- Spock: For example?
- Kirk: The complete works of Jacqueline Susann; the novels of Harold Robbins.
- Spock: Ah... the giants!
- Every Night, Josephine! (1963) ISBN 0-14-303434-0
- Valley of the Dolls: A Novel (1966) ISBN 0-8021-3519-6
- The Love Machine (1969) ISBN 0-8021-3544-7
- Once Is Not Enough (1973) ISBN 0-8021-3545-5
- Dolores (1976) ISBN 0-553-20958-2
- List of bestselling novels in the United States
- Swingin' Chicks of the '60s
- Lovely Me: The Life Of Jacqueline Susann, by Barbara Seaman ISBN 1-888363-37-1
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