In 1969, three years after her first novel, the gloriously pulpy Valley of the Dolls, became a towering number-one blockbuster on a bestseller list dominated by names such as Michener, Wouk, and le Carré, Jacqueline Susann, with thickly rimmed eyes, signature lacquered black hair and in a print mini-dress, went on the David Frost talk show. There, the notoriously scabrous critic John Simon eviscerated her before a live audience. What was Valley of the Dolls, he asked her, but “a piece of trash on which you can get famous, rich, known quick, and make money?” Smiling gamely and (literally) leaning in, Susann, then 50, asked him if his name was Goebbels, Göring, or Simon, “because you sound like a stormtrooper.” She then told him Valley of the Dolls was “too sophisticated a story for you to understand, because it’s dirty!”
But that just propelled Simon to new heights of rage. When the critic Rex Reed, also on the show alongside a young Nora Ephron, disclosed that Simon had told him he’d read merely 30 pages of the novel, Simon said, “How many swallows of rotten stew do I have to swallow before I puke and know that this is inedible?”
“I am thrilled that you went to Harvard,” Susann shot back, still grinning. Then the clincher: “Tell me, what have you written?” She thought she’d had the day’s last word. But later that night, watching The Tonight Show, she would hear Truman Capote call her “a truck driver in drag.”
It’s hard not to watch both moments without feeling intensely protective of Susann, of wanting to be on #TeamJacqueline. Here was a woman who not only was enraging the male literary establishment by making a fortune giving readers, with laser precision, exactly what they wanted, but who also—unbeknownst to nearly everyone—had, decades ago, birthed a son who was severely autistic. Devastated by his inability to share affection with her, she put him in an institution for life. Moreover, only seven years before Valley’s success, she had survived breast cancer and a mastectomy. Upon recovery, she’d made a deal with God: If He would just give her another decade of life, she would become a literary celebrity. Susann, it seemed, had been dealt blows only to come out of them stronger, her appetite for living—and for recognition—sharpened.
She got her wish from Valley of the Dolls, not least because she hand-sold it to booksellers with a thoroughness that would pave the way for the modern book tour. (She would have two more salacious No. 1 bestsellers, The Love Machine and Once is Not Enough, before cancer recurred, taking her life in 1974.) Valley, shockingly matter-of-fact for its time about everything from premarital sex, cunnilingus, and homosexuality to abortion, addiction, cancer, and narcissistic personality disorder, situated Susann in a lineage of (mostly) female authors of wildly popular and stylistically unfussy bestselling potboilers, including Edna Ferber (Show Boat), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind), and, later, Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins, and E.L. James (50 Shades of Grey). The book also became a 1967 film that has since become a camp classic, full of lines that many gay men of a certain age can recite by heart. (“You know how bitchy fags can be.”)