Book Talk: Valley of the Dolls

“The trouble is, you gotta keep taking them. The second I stop, I eat like a maniac. But the feeling is great – sets you on fire, like you could dance for hours. And I bless you every night for the red ones. They saved my life. Oh, hey. Have you ever tried a yellow one? They’re called Nembutals. If you take one of each – a red and a yellow – wow! You really sleep. I learned it by experiment. The red one puts you to sleep fast, but it wears off in six hours. The yellow works slower, but lasts longer. So I figured, why not try both? I only do it on weekends. Sometimes I sleep twelve hours.”

Valley of the Dolls (1966) by Jacqueline Susann

Many of you are well aware that Valley of the Dolls, the debut novel from Jacqueline Susann, one of the many Vintage Leisure players I run across who hail from Pennsylvania, was a sensational best-seller. The book was the highest-selling novel of 1966 and – at over 31 million copies sold – it is today one of the best-selling fiction novels of all-time. Here we’ll not only be talking about the book itself but of the whole Valley of the Dolls world that sprang up in its wake.

Starting in post-war New York City, three girls navigate various aspects of the entertainment industry. Beautiful high-class New Englander Anne Welles doesn’t care for the limelight but only wants to be released from small-town life and find love. Neely O’Hara is a talented teenager who emerges from supporting player on Broadway to scale the heights of success in Hollywood. And gorgeous Jennifer North knows she is not talented but uses her stunning figure to maximum advantage on stage and in film, at home and abroad.

“Age settled with more grace on ordinary people, but for celebrities – women stars in particular – age became a hatchet that vandalized a work of art.”

Neely becomes one the biggest stars of her time but ruins her career with her obnoxious attitude and voracious appetite for toxic living. Happiness eludes tragic Jennifer who finally succumbs to disease. And lovestruck Anne follows her heart and gets battered and bruised all along the way. And, of course, all three girls – to varying extents – become abusers of “dolls”; amphetamines and barbiturates.

The book, when released, took off like a rocket. Reviews were generally unfavourable and ran along the lines of “sensational if poorly written”. By the time of Jacqueline Susann’s death in 1974, Valley of the Dolls was in the Guinness Book as the best-selling novel in publishing history.

Jacqueline Susann. © Rex Features

The year following the book’s release saw the film adaptation hit theatres. Now, I don’t have time to defend the movie here but it does sit on my Top 25 list of favourite filmsand you can read my thoughts here. The film was just as sensational as the book and has gone down in camp history as a classic. There was a trashy sequel released in 1970 that had little to do with the original novel or film and Susann sued filmmaker Russ Meyer over it. In 1981, there came the TV mini-series Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls followed later by a 1994 late-night soap opera version that ran for one season. Finally, in 2001, came the sequel novel Jacqueline Susann’s Shadow of the Dolls by Rae Lawrence. Which somehow I own having miraculously found it in the wild.

“Each night she looked at the bottle of Seconals with affection. She never could do this without the dolls. She would have spent sleepless nights, smoking, worrying – and she would have lost her nerve.”

All of this and more, though, springs from the original novel. Written at a brisk pace and filled with dialogue, Valley of the Dolls will not disappoint. As long as one keeps one’s expectations low and accepts the book for what it is. It is exactly what every reviewer has ever said; trashy, short on substance but long on salaciousness. The book takes place between 1945 and 1965. Classy Anne Welles can’t wait to get to New York and leave her small hometown behind. She idealizes love and will not settle for anything less than a fairytale. Until she meets handsome Lyon Burke. He will not be tamed but Anne cannot live without him. She lives while they are together but it is only a half-life when they separate. When he comes back into her life after years away, they reunite and eventually marry but circumstance intervenes and happiness proves elusive.

Anne’s first real friend in the big city is Neely O’Hara. Neely is a worldly teenager who hopes to become a Broadway star. With Anne’s help, she scores a plum role and parlays her success into Hollywood stardom. However, she becomes a hopeless drunk and pill-popper and loses it all and winds up in a sanitarium. And she’s rotten. Her character is irredeemable and her career is a turnstile of success and failure, obnoxious behaviour and excess.

© Life Images

Jennifer North is a practical beauty from a middle class family. Her mother constantly berates her and harasses her to send money home. Jen has no delusions regarding her talent and forges a career where she can; modelling, marrying a successful singer and making soft core French films. Jennifer’s demise is genuinely devastating in both the novel – where it is more so – and the film. This is down to two things. The character was based on Carole Landis, a friend of Jackie Susann’s and a victim of suicide herself. And secondly is the character’s portrayal on film by another tragic beauty, Sharon Tate.

Some nuggets: actress Carole Landis is mentioned early on page 4. Jacqueline Susann had an intimate relationship with Carole and this informed Susann’s descriptions of Jennifer’s life and career. It can also be seen in Jen’s relationship with Maria. Few articles here at Vintage Leisure have been read more than the one on Landis. Read it here. The hardest change for me personally between novel and screenplay was Novel Anne’s hatred of her hometown. The quality I found in the screen version sprang from the restorative powers of Anne’s small town in winter. Lastly and again personally, you may have noticed my boring, jacket-less copy of Valley of the Dolls in my featured picture above. That, dear readers, is only my first edition copy of this legendary book.

“I’ve never done anything wrong.”

– Just one of the many obnoxious things to come out of Neely O’Hara’s mouth

Like most novels when compared to filmed versions, Valley of the Dolls offers much more story and a few plot changes; some minor and some not so. But the thing about the book is that it was certainly audacious for its time though it seems less shocking in today’s world. The film is outrageously entertaining, bright and splashy and infinitely watchable – due to its craziness, sure, but also for the deeper notes it manages to sound. With the novel, though, you can curl up in a chair and get through it over the weekend and feel like you’re communing with the millions that did the same in the 1960s. It’s not great but who cares?



  1. I really enjoyed this piece. My mom got the book through her book club membership. She allowed this 13-year-old to read it – mainly, I believe, to replace the “birds and the bees” talk. I was shocked, for sure. But, enjoyed the story. I believe the theme by Andre and Dory Orevin, recorded by Dionne Warwick, perfectly matched the story.

    • I loved my mom’s book of the month club membership. It’s where I got my hands on Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Styron’s “Confessions of Nat Turner,” and Mel Torme’s writeup on Judy Garland. “Over the Rainbow.” Back when you waited excitedly to get stuff in the mail–and yes, when I was way too young to read it.

      • Yes, those were the days – eagerly awaiting packages in the mail.
        Mom let me read all the greats, like James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” at age 14 – another lesson in the facts of life. Of course, I had seen the movie several times. But, the book (as they always are) was much more graphic and detailed.
        I also enjoyed Jacqueline Susann’s “Once is Not Enough,” though I felt disappointed in David Janssen’s role as an alcoholic not-so-nice guy.
        Nevertheless, it was a great time to come of age, for sure.

      • We must be sisters. From Here to Eternity is my favorite book. I read it in middle school. The nuns were glad I was reading, so they didn’t question the book. It was a real eyeopener.

      • Oh my – yes. Or we both had very goofy moms who encouraged literacy – including cultural literacy. I watched all the old movies with her, listened to the music of her generation (and she listened to mine). So, with books like “From Here to Eternity,” the WWII era films, Glenn Miller, and Sinatra, I got a feel for the world my parents grew up in. I think that’s important – to know about the universe outside your own. I had my kids listening to ‘60s music, and watching old movies, too. I am so grateful they are culturally literate.
        Oh, and nuns? Wow – I’m also Catholic. But, public school was my education. 😏 So, good thing I had my mom to round out that whole education thing. 😂

      • I wonder how many of us little geeks were awaiting our mom’s book of the month–often forfeit-purchased when our moms forgot to cancel an order.

        I watched all the 30s-era movies with my grandpa–got my full dose of Cagney and Bogart and the Bowery Boys. From my parents, I was steeped in Tennesee Williams’ screenplays like “The Night of the Iguana” in my early teens. Richard Burton treading on broken glass while Sue Lyons drove him mad kept me up all night after the closing credits faded to black.

        Those were the days when you waited for the TV Guide so you could circle the movies you wanted to see for the next weekend. I miss those days.

  2. Fab review! I love your photo. Looks like you’d been enjoying a few dolls yourself. Weren’t the Sixties wonderful and horrible at the same time! I remember this being all the rage years later when I was old enough to get an ear for pop culture.

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