Skip to main content

Jacqueline Susann was the first author to have three consecutive novels hogging the No. 1 spot on The New York Times bestseller list.The New York Times

In 1969, long before Barbara Frum had become an icon of news for the CBC (let alone had an atrium named after her), she came head to head with Jacqueline Susann. The Canadian broadcaster would later call it the worst interview of her life.

Susann – the author of greatly careening bonkbusters, and whose Valley of the Dolls was, at that point, the best-selling novel of all time (30 million copies) – faced off against Frum over seven agonizing minutes that continue to live gloriously online in black and white. Offering a what's-old-is-new-again sword fight inside the "sisterhood" (Madeleine Albright might have had something to say about that), the interview was a sterling case study in what the kids call "shade" these days.

First, Frum – after calling Susann "low," complete with hand gesture – pointedly asked the author if the "literary people in New York snub you?" It only got worse when Susann told Frum, "You seem very uptight." The conversation, veering uncomfortably to sex and the "queen of trash" playing shrink to Frum, proved all the more fascinating because both women had perma-snake-smiles throughout the whole exchange, and peaked further when Susann later told this very newspaper: "What was the interviewer trying to do? Such a baby. I could have ground her to hamburger."

Certainly, Susann had been called worse – and would be. Wrapped in mink, this unlikely feminist warrior was the woman about whom Gore Vidal once snipped, "She doesn't write, she types," and Truman Capote snarled, "She looks like a truck driver in drag."

And now, this month, 50 years after the publication of Valley of the Dolls – a roman à clef that steamrolled into the culture with its lurid tales of cads and clawers and has-beens – it's worth noting what a quake it was. The book, which became a monster-movie a year later, made Susann not only filthy rich, but Kardashian-famous, leading the self-promoter to once boast: "The 1960s will be remembered for Andy Warhol, the Beatles, and me!"

Time caught in a compact mirror can be tricky business, however. While Susann has enjoyed bursts of a renaissance here and there, it's safe to say that Warhol and the Beatles have weathered a teensy bit better. A generation that knows Sex and the City, and which connects to Lena Dunham's Girls, may not instantly connect the dots to Susann, who did it all first, and in Pucci. A culture that cavalierly tosses off the term "chick lit" doesn't fully realize how fast Susann was out of the gate so many decades ago in the way she gave frank talk to women, and churned matters of sex, abortion, adultery and even LGBT issues in her work.

"She was like Coca-Cola in a hardcover," is how critic Paul Rudnick once put it, making the case that Susann's Jewish-ness is a subject underexamined. In the sixties, the literary world consisted of Ivy League WASPs and Jews often hoping to pass as WASPs. Thus, there was some anti-Semitism in the response to the Philadelphia-born, failed-actress Susann at the time; a feeling that she was "too brash, too colourful, too Jewish," Rudnick says. Her way of blowing up those barriers? By turning herself into a commodity, long before the term "personal brand" was a thing.

Fame is as fame does: or at least that's how the main theme of Valley has been summed up. Looking at it a half-century later, as Simon Doonan observed recently in Slate, it's remarkable how well the tropes still travel. "Busty chicks raking in the cash, despite a glaring lack of talent." Ding! "Body-conscious A-listers doing anything and everything to 'lose the baby weight.'" Ding! Rereading the novel recently, it occurred to me that a blowhard such as Donald Trump is right out of Susann's scribblings.

All the Day-Glo surfaces, though, obscure a salient point about the novel. At heart a hustler, Susann also promoted her novel with a vigour that still lives on in the books-pushing modus operandi of everyone from John Grisham to Margaret Atwood. Credited with creating the first modern book tour, she and her husband Irving Mansfield criss-crossed the United States, doggedly pushing books onto customers in 250 cities, and – as legend has it – even sweetening up the truckers who delivered them with coffee and doughnuts. The whole crusade holds up as not only a book hawk sui generis, but also as one of the great American product launches of all time.

Oh, and how she would have tweeted had only Susann lived to see the 140-character universe.

She didn't linger long enough to become passé. Although she wrote a book that eventually got registered in The Guinness Book of Records, and followed that up with two books that made her the first author yet to have three consecutive novels hogging the No. 1 spot on The New York Times bestseller list, Susann's time in the spotlight only lasted, roughly, during that stormy interlude between the JFK assassination and Watergate.

In September, 1974, the great, flaming diva – the one who wrote eight hours a day, working on five drafts of a book, first on yellow paper, than on pink and blue and green, and then finally on white – died of a closely guarded cancer. She was 56.