For its contribution to ’60s literature – 3 Stars
For its contribution to 21st-century zeitgeist – 5 stars
I was nine when I first found Jacqueline Susann in my mother’s bed, but that wasn’t unusual. I’d also found Mario Puzo in there a few times, and Satan, and dirty ashtrays, and once an electric toothbrush. My mother’s bed was not a very comfortable place, to say the least. Still it was her favorite place to read, even when I was there, too, twitching and affecting all the symptoms of an adolescent possessed by the devil (which happens when you have a nine-year-old in the house and you leave the book The Exorcist lying around on top of the covers).
But it was Susann’s Valley of the Dolls I remember most, probably because I read the whole thing, as opposed to select passages I’d heard about in junior high. At first I just flipped through the pages looking for sex scenes, but since there were so many I ended up reading it from jacket to jacket. The book was, of course, impossible to put down. Who can forget the cover art? That single image of a juicy human mouth—disembodied and slathered in scarlet lipstick, its perfect teeth biting down on a barbiturate.
Inside, the storyline was pulsating with scandal, betrayal and excess. Before reading this book, I understood nothing about sex and drugs. Afterward, I still didn’t, but could fake the symptoms fairly accurately. I took to wearing hot pants and halter tops, my hair a cascade of loose curls, my eyes webbed with textured false lashes. I was in the fourth grade and the world had been defined for me; it was full of lusty, talented women and the men who stuck to them like barnacles, and everybody took acid and used each other like toilet seats.
My mother’s paperback copy was printed years after the movie version of Valley of the Dolls hit the screen, and a picture of Sharon Tate, who played one of the prominent sex-kitten characters, was on the back jacket. She had already been horrifically murdered by the Manson family in real life, thus I found her lovely, doomed visage immensely gripping. It was hard to envision her with a noose around her neck, hanging from a rafter, gutted like a fish, but I kept trying anyway. After all, this book—the scandals in it and those surrounding it—became the keystone of a very important era: that of the tragically hip. We’re still there, Desperate Housewives and all.