JACQUELINE SUSANN'S SHADOW OF THE DOLLS
by Jacqueline Susann and Rae Lawrence (Crown, $22)
HAVE WE EVER truly emerged from the shadow of Valley of the Dolls? For all the critical flack hurled at Jacqueline Susann's gossipy best-seller about the high life and fast times of three women in showbiz, its status as the best-selling novel of all time (20 million copies and climbing) has led to the inevitable parade of spin-offs: movies, a play, a TV series, a Susann biography, two film biographies, a handful of documentaries, and finally, with this week's publication of Jacqueline Susann's Shadow of the Dolls, a sequel, based on a first draft by Susann and written by Rae Lawrence (author of the similarly themed glamour-and-glitz novel Satisfaction).
What explains Dolls' grip on our culture? Somehow, it manages to be of its time, yet timeless. Though originally published in 1966, when the '60s were beginning to swing, the majority of the novel is set in the '40s and '50s. The characters don't grow their hair, indulge in free-love orgies, or even smoke pot; it's strictly an old-school menu of serial adultery, cocktails, and, of course, the pharmaceutical "dolls" (chiefly downers, with the occasional amphetamine as needed). But despite the antics—considered racy for their time—there's also an innocence about the story, along with an undercurrent of melancholy. Dreams shatter when the lead characters fail to find happiness in their wildly successful acting/modeling careers or in their turbulent personal lives. "There's something kind of pure and uncalculating about Valley of the Dolls," Lawrence said on the phone from New York. "There's some energy there I don't think you can fake. And people still respond to it."
Part of Dolls' allure today is the equally powerful draw of its author. Prior to the book's publication, Susann had shared much with her book's three leads (including their penchant for dolls), with the notable exception of success. She moved to New York in 1936 with the intention of becoming an actress, but 30 years later had little to show for it. In the '60s, Susann turned to writing. Every Night, Josephine!, published in 1963, centered around her pet poodle and was a modest success. But what Lawrence calls "the whole legend of Jackie thing" began with the publication of Dolls.
While Susann's own publishers initially dismissed the book as "literary trash," the public's appetite for the novel (and their curiosity as to which celebs were covertly being written about) proved insatiable; Dolls topped The New York Times best- seller list for more than half a year. On the promotional rounds, Susann sold herself as much as her book. Her flamboyant outfits (which her friend Rex Reed called "banana-split nightmares"), dramatic hair falls, and oversized earrings made her a visual feast on TV talk shows, and her promotional savvy, which had her visiting loading docks laden with Danish and coffee for the workers packing her books on trucks, won her a following among the non-book-reading public as well.
SUSANN'S TRAGIC END only added to her legend. After becoming the first author to have three consecutive no. 1's on the Times best-seller list, she succumbed to cancer in September 1974, having only stopped promoting her latest novel, Once Is Not Enough, a mere two months before her death. But Dolls has remained the touchstone of Susann's legacy, and in 1990, a first draft of a sequel was discovered when her work was being archived. Following the '97 reissue of Dolls, the time seemed right to complete the follow-up, with Crown editor Ann Patty suggesting Lawrence because of her work in Satisfaction.
Lawrence, a self-professed "Jackie-head," describes her "co-authorship" with Susann as akin to "doing a really great cover version of a really great rock and roll song. I think if the writer envisioned a sequel, and she died perhaps younger than she was meant to, it's a different situation. It gives you permission to take those characters forward. Because Susann wanted Valley of the Dolls to move forward."
And in Shadow they do—in more ways than one. The original book ended in the mid-'60s with the characters in their 30s. But in an attempt to keep the book's perspective contemporary, Shadow opens in 1987—with the characters in their 30s. As a result, the story seems largely Lawrence's own, aside from one major thematic question that pervades Susann's draft: Did I make the right choices in life? Anne Welles, who got everything but a happy marriage in Dolls, struggles with the issue; the talented, overbearing Neely O'Hara doesn't. There's a new range of dolls on display—Xanax, Valium ("the Grace Kelly of sedatives")—but there's also a noticeable coolness in comparison to the bright, crackling vibrancy of the original. Shadow might be a fun "cover" of Dolls, but it's still only a cover.
Yet we continue to draw from the well of Jackie, revisiting her Valley to tell the story one more time (as 20th Century Fox will in yet another Dolls remake, now in production). Susann would be in her 80s if she had lived; it's clear her dreams of glamour have never died.