A little over two decades ago, a book company with a staff of four turned a badly-written mess of a manuscript ("hardly written in English," according to its publisher) into the best-selling novel of all time. "Valley of the Dolls" sold ten million copies altogether, and Jacqueline Susann's next two novels were also fabulously successful -- so successful that one of her old publishers, William Morrow, is trying to recapture the magic with this $18.95 biography.
Jackie Susann's books made money as never before by exploring the sensational excesses of show business as never before, with the help of a formula as old as gossip itself: While you're spelling out the unspeakable things people are doing in juicy detail, cackle over what a pity it is they're destroying themselves. Something kindred is at work in Barbara Seaman's "Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann," an exhumation of this literary monster and publishing star which is about as uplifting as the dust-jacket blurb for "The Love Machine."
"Lovely Me" was conceived in 1980 when Ms. Seaman was having lunch with Sherry Arden, a Morrow vice-president. Ms. Seaman wanted to discuss her ideas for a book about friendship -- but Ms. Arden suggested she do Jackie's story. (Strangely, Ms. Seaman describes Ms. Arden as a friend of Jackie's.) By the time dessert came, Ms. Seaman was "hooked." Six years into the project, she writes in the preface, she was "able to answer a frequently asked question: 'Do you like Jacqueline Susann'? The answer is yes, I love her."
The reader's doubts (Is Jackie worthy of Ms. Seaman's love? Is Ms. Seaman worthy to love Jackie?) are little eased by the tale Barbara Seamsn tells of Jackie Susann's life. Ms. Seaman lays out much of the cold evidence, but despite her ceaseless rationalizing and strange devotion, it becomes clear that Jackie led the life of a very grotesque person. Nevrtheless Ms. Seaman indulges her throughout, sometimes ludicriously, as when she envisages Jackie after her play flopped in 1947: "As she pasted the notices in her scrapbook, she must have winced a little at a Philadelphia interview that quoted her as saying, 'Bea and I only wrote the play because we are fans of the great American dollar.'"
Jackie Susann was born in Philadelphia in 1918, the daughter of an unhappily-married Jewish couple. She had a lifelong, warped crush on her father, Bob Susann, who was a successful portrait-painter, Philadelphia's answer to John Singer Sargent. He seems to have inspired not only Jackie's pretentiousness but her voracious and tactless sexual appetite as well. Her mother comes across as rather long-suffering: when Jackie is 43, she describes her mother as "the rock against which I've been banging and bloodying my head all my goddamned life."
After winnin a beauty contest her father had rigged for her, Jackie decided to forsake college for an acting career. She came to New York in 1936 and made the rounds at casting offices -- by year's end she had landed a walk-on in Claire Booth's "The Women;" she botched the part in the first rehearsal but hung around the show long enough to get herself cast in another bit a year later. That yea she also started her lifelong addiction to pills. (She also fell for comedian Joe. E. Lewis, with whom she maintained a longstanding affird until he died in 1971.)
In 1939 she married a press agent, Irving Mansfield, a nightclub denizen with a talent for getting his clients' names into the gossip columns of his newspaper friends (a talent which would come in handy much later). The security of her marriage seemed to spur her to new sexual conquests: She got herself entangled with the comics Eddie Cantor and George Jessel and with a producer, J.J. Schubert, among others ("whoever the local comedian was, that's who she was having the affairs with," a friend recalls) but despite the parts they tossed her way, her acting career continued to founder.
She apparently was crass, spoiled, and foulmouthed according to accounts, and thrived on making scenes -- especially in public -- slapping people, or throwing things at them (drinks at drama critics, ashtrays at her husband). When she decided to break up with Irving during his Army stint in 1943, she composed a "Dear John" letter and read it aloud to the cast of a show she was in: "Irving, when we were at the Essex House and I had room service and I could buy all my Florence Lustig dresses, I found that I loved you very much, but now that you're in the Army and getting $56 a month, I feel that my love has waned."
But they reconciled upon Irving's return. Disappointed with acting, Jackie got together with an actress friend whose career was equally dismal and decided to try her luck at playwriting: she also decided to try childbearing at the same time, and became pregnant just as her play was getting produced. The play, "Lovely Me," derived its title from Jackie's crestfallen remark to a songwriter as she regarded her plump, pregnant figure in a mirror: "How could this have happened to lovely me?" Despite the efforts of Jackie and her husband to revive it, the show failed in cities across the coutnry. While in Philadelphia for the opening there, her water broke, and she hopped a train to New York for his delivery. She named her son Guy -- because he was not the daughter she wanted, Ms. Seaman explains, but "just some guy."
But by the age of four, the child was diagnosed as autistic (his first three words were "Mommy," "Daddy," and "Dammit") and he spent his life in a succession of institutions. She tried acting again, this time for television: Irving, who'd gotten himself into producing, got her a part in a sitcom, but this failed too. In the '50s she caught on -- first pitching applicances, and then in her most successful role, as a talking model hawking embroidery on nighttime television: "Schiffli adds beauty to everything it touches. See how beautiful I am?" For this job, gotten through the efforts of a well-placed boyfriend, she sometimes appeared with her poodle, both wearing matching embroidered outfits. This success loosed her from the few inhibitions that still clung, and Jackie began dabbling indiscreetly in lesbian crushes on Coco Chanel and Ethel Merman.
There's much more to know about Jackie: Her refrigerator was eternally bare, she loved her poodle and took her everywhere, made a nominal conversion to Catholicism, dreamed of getting the Nobel Prize. The cutest of Jackie's delusions were the countless fanciful "bargains" she tried to strike with God: Trying to book a return ticket from Europe, she promises Him that she'll give up smoking in exchange for a place on the boat. (Maybe he made counteroffers? "Leave Me alone and I'll buy you a pack"?)
When her Schiffli Svengali fell out of favor in the business, she decided to try writing again. In 1962, not long after she finished a book about her poodle, a lump in her breast was diagnosed as malignant, and Ms. Susann immediately received a mastectomy. For Ms. Seaman, the discovery of Jackie's cancer is the central even of her life -- the whole book seems to hang upon this, "her turning point, her transformation." Unfortunately, however, Jackie seems to have been no more talented, sympathetic, or wiser after her operation -- though perhaps money mellowed her a little bit. At any rate, next came "Valley of the Dolls."
The "Dolls" of the title are Jackie's pet name for pills -- pills that are in the book, and on it too. (Three capsules -- two yellows and a red -- are embossed on the cover of the hardbound edition; dozens more float inside, on the title page and over the chapter headins, looking like the footprints of a staggering druggie.) Jackie IS pills.
No one in her publisher's office wanted to do "Valley of the Dolls" when it was submitted. "She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, and thoroughly amateurish writer," reported Ronald Preston, who eventually was assigned the task of editing "Dolls," and is one of the few people who emerge pristine from the pages of "Lovely Me." "I really don't think there is a page of this ms. that can stand in its present form. And after it is done, we will be left with a faster, slicker, more readable mediocrity."
Mr. Preston worked for weeks and weeks on the manuscript -- as did the editors for all her other books -- "cutting and restructuring, rewriting in spots, moving things around... A couple of scenes weren't there at all, and I had to block them out and convince her to write them." An editor from another publishing house, who saw the manuscript, said, "I really think that Ron did a thorough line rewrite, almost, of the book."
Ms. Seaman seems to be trying to convince herself that Jackie is more than a vengeful memory expert, and so she compares Jackie to Theodore Dreiser, and refers to her as a kind of "anthropologist," quoting a handwriting analyst, who, on the basis of a "blind" -- ahem -- reading, guessed that the writer was "highly gifted... and inquired if the subject was Margaret Mead." Ms. Seaman writes that "Jackie explored the emerging themes of the 1960s -- the drug culture, the acceptance of homosexuality, the changing aspirations of women." Pretty arty stuff.
Unfortunately, the fact is there are only a couple of scenes that merit even a gossipmonger's passing interest in "Valley of the Dolls." A few pages featuring the jealous and lonely Broadway singer based on Ethel Merman ring true, and there is a convincing scene in which the actress-singer Neely O'Hara (based on Judy Garland) bottoms out in California with the help of a bottle of Scotch and two dozen Seconals.