The late Jacqueline Susann knew from celebrity. In her boozy-woozy, late-1960s heyday, the author hobnobbed with Bette Davis and Ethel Merman. She cat-fought with Truman Capote on TV; she hinted that her protagonists were intimate renditions of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Cary Grant once complimented her on her tan. Oh, and her Valley of the Dolls — 500 panting pages of showbiz lust, treachery, and addiction — sold 19 million copies.
So why doesn’t everyone and his pool-maintenance guy remember the perennially Pucci-clad penwoman, as she so devoutly hoped? Perhaps it’s because so many thought her — as one of her own editors put it — ”a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer.” Bitter adjectival pills for a novelist who likened herself to Shakespeare and Nabokov on the promo blitzes she called book tours.
The literary establishment shunned VOD, preferring to let its massive best-sellerdom seep inevitably over them, much like the drug-addled haze suffered by the book’s principals. When The New York Times stooped to review Susann’s follow-up novel, The Love Machine, in 1969, Nora Ephron said it ”shines, like a rhinestone in a trash can.” And she meant that as praise.
By coincidence, a trash can is precisely where John Epperson’s first copy of VOD landed — after he surreptitiously devoured it at age 15. ”I threw it away so that I wouldn’t be caught with it,” he says. ”I was forbidden to read it.”
Epperson, now 42, counts Susann among his favorite subjects. As female impersonator Lypsinka, he belongs to an adoring, mostly gay subculture that has helped drag — emphasis on drag — the scribbler back into the limelight with readings and Rocky Horror Picture Show-like screenings of VOD’s 1967 film version, which starred Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward, and Patty Duke.
Two years ago, Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda wrote a bemusedly fond memoirette for The New Yorker of his experiences editing Susann (she used a pink Selectric, pink paper, and cocktail napkins to give changes). Three movie projects have since emerged, including a planned TV version of Barbara Seaman’s 1987 Susann biography, Lovely Me (just reissued by Seven Stories Press). k.d. lang sings the VOD film theme song on her new CD. E! gossip columnist Ted Casablanca, ne Bruce Bibby, took his nom de plume from a minor character.
And Lisa Bishop, who oversees the rights to Susann’s works — the novelist died in 1974 from breast cancer — has wrested VOD’s domestic rights back from Bantam, which had let the book languish out of print for 15 years. Now Grove/Atlantic is reprinting 25,000 copies with a new cover. Pink, of course.
”It is ab-so-lute-ly compulsive reading,” says Grove editor in chief Ira Silverberg — whose roommate, a poet, has ”used imagery from Susann’s oeuvre for years.”
Even Silverberg, however, can’t pinpoint VOD’s exact literary merits. Susann, he hedges, ”wrote about booze and dope in a very different way than the Beats did at the same time. She was dealing with taboo issues — homosexuality, etc. — in a middle-class commercial context.” Offers Epperson: ”Harold Robbins was already writing trash like this, but he wasn’t a woman, and his subtext was always masculine.