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

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.”

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