Hunter Thompson, Hank Williams, Hermann Goering: famous pill-poppers all, and that’s just scratching the H’s. And then there’s the presumed Mrs. Willie Henderson, who decides two things at the dawn of the Cold War: she doesn’t really want to be Mrs. Willie Henderson (“But I don’t love him, Mama”), and she sure as heck doesn’t want to spend any more time in her hometown, not when she’s seen the bright lights of Manhattan.
Lithe and lovely, Anne Welles has $5,000 in her pocket and other ambitions beyond those a big-city secretary enumerates for her: a husband who’ll buy her a mink coat and let her sleep until noon. No, Anne has a world to conquer, and when the world turns out to be resistant to her plans, she slumps into a life of accommodation, helped along by fistfuls of barbiturates—“dolls,” in the hip parlance of the ’burbs.
Half a century ago, after having been diagnosed with breast cancer, a sometime, decidedly minor actress named Jacqueline Susann set out to craft a saga starring these pink dolls and their life-altering possibilities. She was brash, loud, and crass, and, having first scored an unlikely hit with a book about a pet poodle that she fed foie gras and black coffee, she wrote the book that made her name. Valley of the Dolls wasn’t just about pills, though pills were a part of the yarn; no, there was infidelity and the kind of messy sex that mussed up a bouffant and smeared one’s makeup.
And then there were lots of failed dreams. Anne Welles settles for a man who may have loved her a little but likes his serial flings better. One is with Neely O’Hara, a Marilyn Monroe type, who gulps down uppers by day and downers by night, desperate to keep the weight off and stay in the spotlight. Another actress, Jennifer North, is just as dependent, but when it appears that she’ll lose the very assets that have propelled her into the movies and in love with a craven politician who is interested only in those prominent features, she does herself in.
You can smell the cigarette smoke, perfume, and whiskey on Valley of the Dolls, and if it seems a quaint curiosity half a century after its publication, it was an astonishing blockbuster in its day: Truman Capote sneeringly called the rough-and-tumble author a “truck driver in drag,” but readers snapped up the novel. It spent 65 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was translated into 30 languages, and sold and sold and sold—more than 31 million copies at last count, not including the 50th anniversary edition that Grove Press released on July 4, its cover bespeckled with, yes, pink pills.
Jacqueline Susann may not have been anyone’s idea of a literary writer—she said, as if to goad Capote, “I don’t think any novelist should be concerned with literature”—but she tore women’s writing from the hands of Barbara Cartland and Daphne Du Maurier and made the world safe for the likes of Jackie Collins and Erica Jong. And that’s just scratching the J’s.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.