This Day in Jewish History

1974: Jacqueline Susann, Who Knew What You Really Want to Read, Dies

Critics savaged 'Valley of the Dolls' and her other books, but Jackie and her husband, who reinvented marketing, could laugh all the way to the bank.

Valley of the Dolls, 1967, with Sharon Tate YouTube

On September 21, 1974, the writer Jacqueline Susann, whose 1966 novel “Valley of the Dolls” was at the time the biggest-selling novel ever, with some 30 million copies in print worldwide, died, at age 56.

Susann was a huge commercial success but was derided by the critics, as perhaps befit a writer who perfected her craft by studying the novels of Harold Robbins. She wrote about sex and drugs and the role they played in the movie business, subjects that vast audiences wanted to read about, and resented the potshots that the arbiters of highbrow culture permitted themselves to take at her and her writings.

Jacqueline Susann was born in Philadelphia on August 20, 1918, and she grew up there. Her father, Robert Susan, was portrait painter and bon vivant of Sephardi Jewish descent, and her mother, the former Rose Jans, was a teacher. (It was Rose who added a second “n” to the family name.)

A devoted couple, to her career

Jackie supposedly had an IQ of 140, but it was her burning desire to be an actress (though her high school yearbook said her great ambition was to own a mink coat), so when she graduated West Philadelphia High School, in 1936, she headed for New York. She was fortunate to have won a contest for “Philadelphia’s Most Beautiful Girl” that April (her father was one of the judges), and was rewarded with a Warner Brothers screen test in New York.

Susann appeared in more than 20 plays, many of them on Broadway, but the parts were usually small and not memorable. Things picked up somewhat after she met Irving Mansfield (ne Mandelbaum), a press agent who impressed her with his ability to get her name into the papers.

They were married in April 1939 at Har Zion Temple, in Philadelphia. Mansfield himself acknowledged in a 1983 memoir that he and Jackie were not “propelled into each other’s arms by an irresistible passion,” but both were devoted to advancing her career.

Susann did have some success in TV commercials, and in 1946, she had a regular role as Lola the Cigarette Girl in TV’s “Morey Amsterdam Show.” That was also the year she gave birth to her only child, Guy, who, when he was 2, began to manifest signs of autism. A doctor they consulted treated Guy with electric shocks, and when that didn’t help, his parents reluctantly had him institutionalized.

Jacqueline Susann on "What's My Line?" YouTube

A promise to God  

On many levels, Susann was an unhappy woman. She initiated affairs with married men, and she began popping pills. She found some satisfaction in the poodle she adopted, Josephine, who served as the subject of Susann’s first book, the nonfiction “Every Night, Josephine!” (1955).

In 1962, discovery of a lump in a breast led to a cancer diagnosis and a mastectomy. She was 44, and was incredulous at her bad luck, writing in a diary, “I can’t die without leaving something -- something big.” She promised God that if he would let her live another decade, she would become a success as a writer.

It took her a year and a half to write “Valley of the Dolls,” whose success may owe as much to the publicity campaign undertaken by Mansfield and Susann as to the book itself. They visited book stores around the world, and each time a customer bought a copy and had it autographed, Jackie took down the buyer’s name and address, and later sent a thank you note. She appeared on every TV and radio show that would have her.

Today, all these things may sound standard – other than the thank you notes – but 50 years ago, such aggressive marketing was new in the staid publishing world.

“Valley of the Dolls” remained in the top spot on the best-seller list for 28 weeks. The film version was a big hit too, although Susann told its director she thought it was “a piece of shit.”

In January 1973, as “Once Is Not Enough” was being published, and 10 years after her first cancer surgery, she was diagnosed with another case of cancer. Yet she went on with the grueling publicity tour, and pushed the book to the top of the fiction bestseller list, making her the first author to have three consecutive titles achieve that distinction.