Why Was Jaqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls So Wildly Successful?

Fifty years ago, Jacqueline Susann shared her story of the runaway success of her first novel, Valley of the Dolls.

Left to right: Patty Duke, Mark Robson (director), Lee Grant, David Weisbart (producer), Jacqueline Susann, and Barbara Parkins on the set of Valley of the Dolls in 1967. (20th Century Fox)

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50 Years Ago medallion In February of 1966, Jaqueline Susann published her first novel, Valley of the Dolls. Despite negative reviews, the story of three women trying to make it in show business became the best-selling novel of 1966. At one point, it was selling 100,000 copies every 24 hours. A year later, it was made into a movie, which was a box office smash. To date, her novel has sold more than 31 million copies, making it one of the top sellers of all time (more than either Gone with the Wind or The Purpose Driven Life). Sadly, her life was cut short by cancer; she died in 1974 at age 56. Her last words to her husband were, “Hey doll, let’s get out of here.”

In 1968, at the height of Jacqueline Susann’s success, Ken W. Purdy interviewed her for The Saturday Evening Post as the publication of her second novel neared. The cheery interview covered her career as an actress and her earlier writing efforts (a biography about her poodle, Josephine).

Purdy marveled at Susann’s incredible drive. While critics (including a withering Gloria Steinem) disparaged her writing, no one could criticize her work ethic. Susann recounted her work day:

When I’m writing, I’m not doing anything else. I get up. I have coffee. then I take Josephine out for a walk. I come back and go into the den—the torture chamber, I call it—and I’m there until five. Then I take Josie out again, come back, work until eight. Maybe Irving has a show that keeps him at the studio, he asks me if I want to dress for dinner, I say, do you mind if we just go around the corner to the Chinese place, and then maybe I come back and do another couple of hours. I don’t have lunch dates, I don’t have dinner dates, almost never, unless something comes along that’s important to Irving, a business thing, then I go because as his wife I owe him that. Otherwise I work. I sit there, whether my back hurts or not, whether it’s a great day for golf or not. I sit there.

Her hard work was also evident in her promotion efforts. Susann became one of the first “celebrity” authors, essentially inventing the modern book tour. Purdy wrote, “Miss Susann’s promotion techniques are probably unique in the practice of literature. She goes where the action is: bookshops.” If book store clerks hadn’t read her book, she would buy them a copy (plus autograph). She understood that promoting success begat more success, taking out full-page ads in the New York Times at the book’s peak. Valley of the Dolls was so popular, she declared even men were buying it, “if it’s only to find out why their wives sat up with it all night.”

Susann called writing her addiction, and claimed she never did it for the money. She said, “Some of the best professional opinion in New York assured me that a book about show business and Hollywood and people taking pills couldn’t make a dime.”

Shows you what the experts know.

Read “Valley of the Dollars” by Ken W. Purdy, from the February 24, 1968, issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

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  1. I saw ‘Valley of the Dolls’ for the first time last year with a few friends on their large-screen TV. I’d never sought out seeing it, but had the chance and watched it. I have no idea why it was so wildly successful—at all.

    It was so unwatchably bad I couldn’t believe it. The ONLY thing that saved it at all, was the beautiful Sharon Tate. The mid-60’s is my favorite section of the decade, but even the authentic-ness of that couldn’t over ride just what a STUPID mess of a film this thing was/is.

    I happen to like a film called ‘Hot Rods To Hell’ from about the same year. While hardly a ‘great’ film, it’s a really good ‘B’ movie for what it is, and a great ’60s movie fix, though many might consider it to be a ‘bad’ movie.

    There’s a huge difference though, between a film that’s “bad” but wonderful, that you want to see it again. ‘Valley of the Dolls’ is “bad” in the kind of way where seeing it once is too much. It has a following though, so let it. I also recently watched ‘The Graduate’ which was wonderful new, a classic now, and as opposite of ‘Dolls’ as you can possibly get!


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