Late to the Party: Valley of the Dolls

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week:  A Dopehead in a Cubs Cap reads Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls and watches its 1967 film adaptation starring Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate.

A few months ago, I got to talking with my mom about forbidden books. Banned books. Books that might be bad for you. Dirty books. Books that are just kind of trashy. Books you read under the covers with a flashlight, that your mother wouldn’t want you reading. The conversation expanded from there, and I used the phrase “the dirty things little boys get up to in their rooms.” We talked about transgression, about shame, about escape, about discovering sexuality, and about drugs. We talked about the way things have and haven’t changed since she was a young woman. Near the end of the conversation, she suggested a book to me.

Welcome to the Valley of the Dolls.

Jacqueline Susann’s smash-hit novel wasn’t widely banned to my knowledge, and in fact sold more than 31 million copies, but it wasn’t largely approved of either. Stories of young women discovering it with the thrill of the illicit abound. Suspense and romance author Roxanne St. Claire writes “My mother had always been wildly supportive of my reading habit by letting me read anything sent to us by the Doubleday book club. When that one arrived, I was told it was strictly off-limits. So, of course, when my parents went on an anniversary vacation and I was left in the care of older siblings, I went straight down to the Valley.” Helen Klein Ross’s account is even more evocative:

“Here’s the thing. I never did actually read Valley of the Dolls! I’m pretty sure it was listed on the Index of Forbidden Books banned by the Catholic Church. In any case, it was certainly banned from my good Catholic house where I was 12 in 1966 and the oldest of 6 children. I do however remember reading a tantalizing snippet while babysitting at a neighbor’s after the kids went to bed. I loved babysitting Protestants—their bookshelves filled with titles banned from Catholic homes. I remember the neighbor’s dark den, seeing the book on a shelf, opening it at random, seeing the splayed pages move a little in my trembling hands. I don’t recall the passage I read—but it contained SEX and PILLS and the thought of learning about these things was so terrifying, I slammed the book shut and put it back on the shelf, spending an inordinate amount of time trying to make certain it was returned to exact placement, so my removal of it couldn’t be detected in which case I was certain the neighbor would feel bound to ring up my mother (!).”

https://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/authors-first-reading-valley-dolls/

My mom echoed these sentiments, suggesting that my grandmother didn’t approve. The obvious reasons have been helpfully spelled out in capital letters by Ross, but this was not the only angle of critique. Gloria Steinem was scathing in her review for the New York Times, declaring it “for the reader who has put away comic books but isn’t yet ready for editorials in the Daily News.” In a 50th anniversary retrospective, Judy Berman writes with some degree of skepticism,

“Informed as it may have been by a nascent feminist consciousness, Valley of the Dolls’s take on gender is actually what dates the book. Susann’s female characters harbor dreams and appetites that transcend the domestic sphere, but ultimately they’re grown-up children…Valley of the Dolls isn’t exactly Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; this tragedy isn’t an indictment of rigid gender roles. In fact, it was intended as a cautionary tale about women’s ambition. ‘Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top,’ Susann once said, a strange statement from a woman who spent her life chasing wealth and fame.”

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/12/valley-of-the-dolls-camp-classic-jacqueline-susann

Nonetheless, 31 million copies. Susann clearly struck a chord. When I brought it up to a coworker, she compared it to a sort of Lady Chatterly’s Lover—her older sister had slipped it to her without their parents’ notice. Sex! Drugs! Musical comedy stylings of the 1950s!

My Book Is Not Dirty”

One thing that struck me as a reader in 2020, was that I didn’t find this book particularly transgressive. Perhaps that’s a result of changing mores, but I found Susann’s quote about the “ranch house with three kids” cohered with my experience of the novel. The main character, Anne, reflects at one point that her big mistake was not settling down with Lyon in her hometown, and the novel seems to agree with her. Her snobbishness with regards to Lawrenceville, and her attachment to New York, is her undoing.

Moreover, the presentation of sex and drugs doesn’t strike me as particularly pornographic. Here’s a quotation from the first sex scene between Anne and Lyon:

She clung to him. She didn’t care about the hurt or discomfort–just to belong to this wondeful man who was the greatest happiness she could ever know. When the pain came, she clenched her teeth and made no sound. And when she felt his body go tense, she felt only surprise that he had drawn away from her. But he had groaned in satisfaction…Then suddenly she understood, and her happiness doubled.

This characterizes much of the eroticism in Valley of the Dolls. Actions are presented in essence rather than specifics, and emotional experience bears more weight than sensation. Sex is an extension of romance, love, bodily autonomy, and compromise, part of the web of desires and fears that ensnare each of the novel’s protagonists. And drugs aren’t presented as something anyone would aspire to take, no matter the descriptions of characters “feeling wonderful” the first few times they take them; these are scenes of degradation and self-harm, even at the near-comic extremities of Neely pounding booze and pills alongside spoonfuls of caviar. Jennifer’s belief that her body is all she has to offer is presented as a living nightmare. If we are to take “dirty” as meaning “subversive or corrupting,” I’m inclined to sympathize with Jacqueline Susann’s protest that “my book is not dirty,” as the most obvious intention here is to moralize, not to subvert.

So What Actually Happens?

Just so much. So much happens. Anne is a young WASP from the New England town of Lawrenceville who has gone to the big city because she’s got bigger dreams, baby, and quickly settles into a pretty nice life working as a secretary at Henry Bellamy’s talent agency and befriends her downstairs neighbor, a teeth-grindingly 1940s-scrappy Vaudeville urchin named Neely who’s kind of Judy Garland but mostly irritating. She unenthusiastically dates a guy named Allen who seems to worship the ground she walks on. All this happens pretty immediately upon moving to the big city. Why?

Because Anne is Privileged As Fuck. She’s beautiful (but in an aspirational way, we’re reminded), she’s been taught all the right manners, and she’s got the right resume. But we’ll get back to that.

And then it turns out Allen is fabulously wealthy and was keeping it secret, and asks her to marry him. And then Broadway star Helen Lawson decides to be Anne’s friend, in part because she intends use Anne as a way to date Allen’s father. When Helen objects to the ingenue in her new play getting positive attention and Henry is enlisted to browbeat the poor young actress into quitting, Anne successfully maneuvers to win Neely the part. Everything’s coming up Anne.

Except for Goddamn Lyon Burke. I’ve left Lyon Burke out until now. That’s because I hate him. I hate him worse than Neely.

Lyon Burke is Henry’s young partner at the firm, recently returned from the war. He’s gorgeous. He’s got an English accent. He’s sensitive. He wants to write a book, and has a sense of humor about being a man returned from war who wants to write a book. He’s romantic, at first. He always sounds reasonable. He’s a hit with all the ladies, and Anne is instantly smitten. He’s a louse. He’s the kind of asshole who starts breakup letters with the sentence “Thank you for the moment of reckoning.” Anne sleeps with him at the out-of-town opening of Helen and Neely’s show and everything immediately goes to shit. She breaks it off with Allen, who immediately drops his nice guy act (though she gets to keep the ring). Helen immediately tells her off and ends their friendship, having lost her access to Allen’s father Gino. Lyon decides he needs to pursue his passion and tries to convince Anne to move back to her family’s house while he writes, and she tries to convince him to stay in New York and do the same thing. He leaves her instead.

Lyon suuuuuuuucks.

At this point, the narrative shifts over to another starlet who has entered Anne’s orbit, Jennifer North. Jennifer’s super nice and supportive! After spending time with all these vicious people, she’s a relief. She also gives the absolute worst advice in the world, has a deeply disturbing relationship to her body (she’s gorgeous and it gets her places, but it’s all anyone wants her for. It’s suggested she’s a mediocre actress), and has Tragedy written on her forehead in bright red ink. All she wants is a nice nuclear family, security, and a white picket fence, so obviously she’s not going to get it.

When the narrative shifts over to her, Jennifer catches the reader up on her European misadventures up to this point, and everything becomes even more mercenary, and pretty homophobic, real quick (the 50th anniversary forward warned me about use of the f-word, which I didn’t particularly mind–this was written three years before Stonewall, after all, and Neely’s relations with gay men are complicated–but I did mind the portrayal of Maria). Now in the states, Jennifer dates and hopes to settle down with singer Tony Polar, in defiance of his controlling manager/half-sister Miriam and Tony’s often unpredictable behavior. After Jennifer convinces Tony to elope with her and becomes pregnant, Miriam reveals that Tony suffers from Huntington’s chorea, that she’s raised him alone since she was fourteen, that Tony’s facilities will continue to decline, and that she’s trying to protect him and ensure he’s taken care of after she dies. She begs Jennifer to abort the baby and divorce Tony, and Jennifer does so, fleeing to Europe to star in films that allow for more nudity than Hollywood, where she becomes a big star.

Along the way, Jennifer has started taking barbiturates, identified as “dolls.” If someone’s fleeing from the harshness of reality into their fantasies and desires, dolls mark the event horizon line. So Jennifer’s crossed it basically from the moment we met her.

Also there is Neely! Now also a big star in Hollywood, she’s stoned out of her gourd on booze, barbiturates, and diet pills. She loses two husbands, and has two kids who are only ever referred to in passing. Her inner monologue is absurd and grotesque to the point of comedy—I was able to find tragedy elsewhere, this is just freaking hilarious, her stuffing caviar in her face and taking two, no three more pills and guzzling Scotch. Yes, yes, the pressures of stardom. All this talent and adoration and she doesn’t get to enjoy it, boo hoo. She overdoses and is blacklisted for year, so she moves to New York to lean heavily on Anne.

Anne, meanwhile, has been dating an advertising executive named Kevin after becoming the face of his makeup campaign. It’s boring, but stable, and she’s now independently wealthy. When Neely starts to improve, singing in nightclubs and interacting with her fans, Kevin manipulates her into a confrontation with Helen to convince her to perform in a television special. She spirals out of control again and flees to Europe.

Jennifer, after undergoing plastic surgery to mask her advancing age, returns to the States as an in-demand starlet. After a few years, she begins dating a Senator who promises he wants the same nuclear family, white picket fence thing she does, and is even willing to throw his political future away to marry her. A health scare leaves Jennifer unable to bear children, also revealing that she has breast cancer and one will need to be removed, and her toxic relationship with her body consumes her. She attempts to tell the Senator, and while he responds positively to her lack of fertility, he does so by shoving his head between her breasts and declaring these are “his babies” (Anne, tellingly, had suggested maybe they could adopt, and that surely this man doesn’t just care about Jennifer for her body). Jennifer dies by suicide rather than allow what he truly loves to be destroyed, and leaves a note to that effect.

Neely returns for Jennifer’s funeral, having graduated to three shots of Demerol in her back per day. Ultimately Anne, Kevin and Henry wind up committing her to an asylum where some absolutely wild shit happens. They trap her in a soothing bath to make her go to sleep without pills, but she wants pills so she can sleep, so she refuses to sleep and she screams “oaths” and “obscenities” at a nurse who has to write down everything she says for like a day straight. It’s unholy and amazing, like celebrity as a vile, atavistic ritual.

Lyon returns and Anne does the whole Allen thing over again with Kevin. Henry retires, and Anne and he secretly work to buy Lyon a partnership in the firm (with Anne’s money) to force him to stick around, and he and Anne take up again. They marry and have a child. Lyon’s firm takes on Neely as a client, and she demands Lyon chaperone her 24/7. She reveals Anne’s subterfuge to Lyon, and they begin an affair. Anne, under advice from Henry, masks her knowledge of this and begins taking dolls as a sleep aid. Neely ultimately does push Lyon too far when the baby has a health scare, but he almost immediately takes up with another young actress afterward. Anne ends the novel thusly:

Anne lay quietly until they were gone. Then she got up and straightened her dress. She went to the bathroom and took a red doll. Strangely enough, she felt no panic. Now it was Margie Parks…She found it didn’t hurt as much this time. She still loved Lyon, but she loved him less. After Neely had gone he had been more devoted than ever. But there had been no sense of triumph. Something or some part of her had gone with Neely. She knew now there would always be a Neely, or a margie…but each time it would hurt less, and afterward she would love Lyon less, until one day there would be nothing left–no hurt, and no love.

She brushed her hair and freshened her makeup. She looked fine. She had Lyon, the beautiful apartment, the beautiful child, the nice career of her own, New York–everything she had ever wanted. And from now on, she could never be hurt badly. She could always keep busy during the day, and at night–the lonely ones–there were always the beautiful dolls for company. She’d take two of them tonight. Why not? After all, it was New Years Eve!

Anne

I liked this book more than I expected! A lot of it had to do with how I experienced Anne. She comes off as a mostly reasonable narrator (though that may be some of my own bias showing), especially in contrast to characters like Jennifer and Neely, whose self-destructive tendencies are more obvious. I kind of related her to Mary Anne Singleton, the protagonist/Trojan Horse of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City stories—the outlines of a bright young woman moving to the city, getting a job as a secretary, and being taken under her wing by her boss as she explores the sundry, gossipy corners of her new urban world and balances career and romance were very familiar. One key difference is that Mary Anne’s sensible reserve is rewarded with a warm, found family. Anne’s attempts to see the best in people deliver her money and loneliness.

Moreover, Anne isn’t an uncomplicated heroine. Mentions of money grow increasingly frequent, and it becomes clear that Anne is a comfortable woman who doesn’t particularly need to work or marry by the end—she doesn’t have an economic threat hanging over her like Jennifer does. Anne even reflects on the fact that she doesn’t have to send money home every month like Jennifer, though it doesn’t prompt any action on her part. There’s a moment near the end of the novel where Neely describes Anne’s arc ungenerously, and she’s not entirely wrong: “Even when I was a kid I was more on the ball. Sure, she had some fancy manners, but that was all. And who is she now? A skinny nobody who sold nail polish on the air and who slept with some old bastard for years. So she used his money to buy Lyon, and now she wants to play Miss Pure Mouth. The Virgin Mary with the baby…She’s gone through life on a pass long enough because of her goddamn classy looks.”

For the record, Anne genuinely worked as a spokesmodel for that money—she never married Kevin. And some of the money came from her inheritance. Some of it came from selling Allen Cooper’s ring and investing the money wisely—on Henry’s advice. Henry’s attachment to her is maybe the clearest sign of Anne’s privilege—she gets genuinely good advice and a surrogate father figure to warn her off from mistakes, and forgive her when she makes them. No one else gets that. That’s what makes him giving her sleeping pills, which have been identified as The Marker of Downfall, such a dramatic turn. The competence and class of people like Henry and Anne may be just as much of a facade as the images Jennifer and Neely are putting up. Everyone’s saving face, and rotting underneath.

The Film

Released in 1967, directed by Mark Robson, and starring Barbara Parkins as Anne Welles, Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara, Sharon Tate as Jennifer North, Paul Burke as Lyon Burke, Tony Scotti as Tony Polar, Lee Grant as Miriam Polar, and Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson (Judy Garland, the obvious model for Neely O’Hara, was famously cast as Helen and fired after a week of filming, in a bit of self-reflexive WTF-ery).

I apologize, I’m running low on time, so my thoughts on the film are going to be more scattered notes. Here goes:

“The produces wish to state that any similarity between any persons, living or dead, and the characters portrayed in the film you are about to see is purely coincidental and not intended.”

Swoon, Dionne Warwick.

Anne’s more conflicted about Lawrenceville from the start in this—I remember her being more “fuck this boring provincial town,” in the book.

They folded in the actress who Helen gets fired with Neely. Cuts out the cliché vaudeville urchin bits.

Nevermind, she’s stealing milk now.

*opens door* “Gee honey, I’m sorry, that old witch oughta be boiled in oil” *closes door*

I cannot believe people actually did bust exercises.

Now I want to open my window and sensually toss my hair in the evening breeze for no reason.

I love this montage of Neely being put through exercises and rehearsals. Not only is it fun to look at, it gives more of a sense that she’s working all the time than the book did.

Paul Burke doesn’t have an English accent but Barbara Parkins brings a Midatlantic one as Anne for both of them

Ugh, the Gillian cosmetics ads are pretty. I love that styling (it’s Mod, right? Reminds me of Sweet Charity)

This seems like overkill, but I’d buy it. The makeup. This is for makeup.

My mom pointed something out to me when I said I was going to watch the movie–Sharon Tate does this thing where she stands up from sitting crosslegged, without using her arms at all. It’s so oddly graceful.I had mentioned Jennifer’s relationship to her body. Tate is so in tune with her body as an actress that it adds another dimension to the character.

*throws cigarette scornfully into the pool*

“Jen!” “Tony!” “Jen!” “Tony!” “Jen!” “Tony!” “Rocky!” “Dr. Scott!”

Neely’s big fight scenes with both Mel and Ted are fucking hilarious. Ted’s voice cracks me up.

“Boobies boobies boobies. Who needs ’em? I do great without ’em.”

I’m disappointed by the Neely-in-the-bath bit. It’s very faithful to the book, and Neely narrating it in flashback lets them get a lot of Susann’s actual language in there, but I wanted it stupider. I am not satisfied by making the edges of the screen fuzzy.

Helen. Lawson’s. Pantsuit.

PANTSUIT

Patty Duke seems to get what an irritating brat Neely is, which frees her up to just be hilariously over-the-top. I like her much more in the movie than the book.

This soundtrack is both great and terrible at the same time.

Anne, high on pills, walking into the ocean is certainly a choice. As Judy Berman put it, The Awakening this is not.

“Not even that. Helen Lawson is a professional” Damn right she is, Lyon.

Neely, on her knees, screaming her own name to the heavens in a dingy alley, is a mood.

The film changes the ending completely. Anne almost walks into the ocean in her despair over Lyon and Neely, but doesn’t marry him and returns back to the loving arms of her aunt in Lawrenceville. This makes her more of a conventional heroine who dallies in the viper’s nest but escapes back to wholesomeness, rather than the story’s ultimate satirical target. Apparently Harlan Ellison wrote an initial draft of the screenplay, but requested his name be taken off the film over the change.

Anyway, here’s Neely working out.

When did you first encounter Valley of the Dolls? What did you think of it? Has your opinion changed? Do you think Anne would be all over Instagram if she were around today? Would Jennifer be dating the most horrible billionaires we’ve got to offer?