Valley Of The Dolls: The Record Breaking Book Of The ‘60s

Culture | October 21, 2021

Source: (IMDb).

Before there was 50 Shades of Grey, Jacqueline Susann published a book in 1966 which took the bestseller charts by storm. This novel, Valley of the Dolls, entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 1974 as the most popular novel on the planet. By 2016, Valley of the Dolls sold more than 31 million copies, despite the fact that it got less than favorable reviews. While the novel lacked style, subtlety, and complexity, it definitely had plot, and Time Magazine called it “the dirty book of the month.” Some even criticized the author, with Truman Capote calling Susann “a truck driver in drag.”

Jacqueline Susann in 1951. Source: (Wikipedia).

The Book Was Based On Real Life

Susann, who had moved to New York City when she was young to pursue a career in acting, based the book on the lives of some of the top actresses of the time, although different sources name different actresses. The characters in the novel lived lives that seemed taken out of a soap opera and took uppers and downers to cope with the drama; the uppers and downers that the women ingested were the “dolls” referred to in the title. Prior to their drug-addled descents, the women all have pretty specific goals: fame, fortune, and men, and they are all in a rush to reach their goals since they have a short time before they age. 

The women, from the film based on the book. Source: (Pinterest).

The Dolls Refers To The Pills The Women Take

The novel, which is set primarily in New York City, follows the lives of three women and spans twenty years, from 1945 to 1965. One of the women, Anne Welles, left her hometown to head to New York to find excitement. She meets Ethel “Neely” O’Neill, who is a struggling dancer, at the boarding house where they are both staying. Finally, Anne becomes friends with Jennifer North, a model who tries to sing, dance, and act, despite the fact that she cannot do any of them. The three women find the fame they are seeking, marry, and get involved with lovers, eventually turning to drugs. After all of the drama and the spectacular falls the characters experience, Neely’s career is destroyed by alcohol and drugs, while Jennifer starts to make soft-core pornography to pay the bills, and Anne starts popping pills. Jennifer is eventually diagnosed with breast cancer and commits suicide because she is convinced that people only love her for her body. Anne’s husband, Lyon, has been having an affair with Neely, and, although he breaks that off, he continues to have affairs and Anne accepts that she will eventually become numb. Its over-the-top drama should, according to Susann, show “that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top.”

Patty Duke, as Neely. Source: (IMDb).

The Book Became A Film

Because of the book’s success, it was turned into a movie, starring Barbara Parkins as Anne Welles, Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara, and Sharon Tate as Jennifer North. Judy Garland started out playing one of the other characters, Helen Lawson, an aging actress. However, Garland, who was dealing with drug and alcohol problems (and who would die of a barbiturate overdose in 1969) was fired and Susan Hayward took over the role. The movie was a financial success, although it was panned by the critics. The ending of the movie differed substantially from the book, and the screenwriter, Harlan Ellison, was so bothered by this, he removed his name from the film. Additionally, while the book stretched from 1945-1965, the film was set entirely in the 1960s and took place over a few years. Ellison was not the only one to hate the film; Jacqueline Susann also despised it.

Barbara Parkins as Anne. Source: (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDb).

People Love Its Campiness

However, the film did have some good points. Richard Dreyfuss made his film debut as the stage manager who knocks on Neely’s door and discovers her intoxicated. The film also received an Academy Award nomination for its score, which was composed by John Williams; it was the first of his many nominations. Sharon Tate was nominated for a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. And its reviews have not stopped it from becoming a campy cult classic. 

Tags: Jacqueline Susann | Valley of the Dolls

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Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.