Valley of the Dolls

I read the book over lunch, which had been an afterthought selection really, and thinking it was actually quite a curious name for a book (dolls a slang term for barbiturates, and drugs generally). But as it turns out, the book was actually quite an addictive read, driven by the females characterized in the novel, and it was interesting learning about Jacqueline Susann, and how the novel is a roman a clef of sorts, driven by the motifs in her life during her acting career. 30 million copies of the book sold at its first release,  and it became the book which defined her acting career. There was a later film based on the book, but apparently it was panned by critics, and Susann herself had hated the film, and walked out midway during its premiere.

Much of the narrative is drawn from the author’s experiences and observations as a struggling actress in the Hollywood of the early forties. Helen Lawson, the aging stage actress who befriends and uses Anne, is based closely on Ethel Merman, whom Susann had known personally and reportedly had been sexually involved with.

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. The tragic character of Jennifer North is said to be based upon actress/pin-up girl Carole Landis, who had been romantically involved with Susann in their Hollywood days. 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. The character of Tony Polar, the mentally impaired singer, was rumored to be based on Frank Sinatra, but Susann herself was quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.

Of course, I’ll take the above claims with a pinch of salt. Much is often made about authors’ intended visions and themes and what not, but I take the Valley of the Dolls as what it is, an enjoyable and sexy novel. Its like how the art critics always create a big deal of Brunelleschi, about how he inputs linear perspective and vision into his paintings, but perhaps he had just intended to placed focus on the thread of the story, after all. Breaking things down into what was simple to the authors, and the artists. How they had heard things from their youth and parents and lovers, and remembered it that way, and wrote it as the wind came to their ears. They heard and wrote things down differently, the words they remember linger like an afterthought, but in so many ways, it is so difficult to reduce what they intended into a concised Cliffnotes version. Just perhaps, just perhaps, sometimes art criticism is a selfish activity, after all. Joseph Conrad might have turned in his grave to read the Cliffsnote version of his book. We are obsessed about the macabre, even when these same authors are alive and thriving. We want to know how they want to be remembered, how they lived their lives, the objects they regard highly in their possession. But perhaps it was the little sudden subtle memories working on their minds which led them to write, just as Waverly in an Amy Tan novel conducted her next move in chess, listening to the influence of the East and West winds. I have all these in my mind, even as I read Valley of the Dolls.

 

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