BOOKS: NOVELS ON PINK PAPER

Cult classic 'Valley of the Dolls' is coming back into print after 15 years. Paul Burston celebrates the imperious, outrageous Jacqueline Susann

HER NAME was synonymous with all things hip and swinging. Her fashion sense was imitated by millions. And on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, she is reported to have stormed into her publicist's office, shrieking: "This is gonna ruin my tour!"

Jacqueline - or Jackie - Susann was America's first lady of trash fiction. The first woman to pen 500 pages of showbiz lust, drugs and shattered dreams and call it a novel, the first popular author to tackle such "taboo" subjects as homosexuality, she paved the way for the bonkbusting sagas of today. A failed actress and model who favoured Pucci stretch tops, enormous black wigs and false eyelashes, Susann turned to writing in a desperate bid for fame. Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44, she wrote in her diary on Christmas Day 1962: "I can't die without leaving something. Something big ... I think I can write. Let me live to make it!"

Between 1963 and 1974, Susann published four books. The first, Every Night, Josephine (personal myth-making, thinly disguised as a biography of her beloved pet poodle), received a fair amount of attention. But it was the follow-up that would become the "something big" she so longed for. Valley Of The Dolls (1966) was an instant success. A cautionary tale of three wannabe starlets and their struggles with the pressures of fame and drug addiction, the book topped the New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks. Of course it didn't do the sales figures any harm when it was revealed that the book's three starlets were based on Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, or that the character of Broadway dame Helen Lawson was inspired by Ethel Merman (with whom Susann was rumoured to be infatuated). A film, starring Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate and Patty Duke, made a splash the following year. By the time its author died in 1974, aged 56, Valley of the Dolls had sold 29 million copies.

Susann was never an especially good writer, as her subsequent novels The Love Machine and Once Is Not Enough demonstrate only too well. The woman who had the audacity to compare herself to Shakespeare and Nabokov was also quoted as saying that she didn't think any novelist should be too concerned with literature. Denounced by one of her own editors as "a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer", she got where she did through sheer force of will.

The key to her success lay in her innate understanding of the people she was writing for and, above all, in her shrewd marketing skills and cynical understanding of her audience. "I know who they are, because that's who I used to be. All the people they envy in my books, the ones who are glamorous, or beautiful, or rich, or talented they have to suffer, see, because that way the people who read me can get off the subway and go home feeling better about their own crappy lives."

Barbara Seaman, author of the 1987 Susann biography Lovely Me, noted that Jackie was the first person to market a book as if it were a household product. When Every Night, Josephine was published, Susann sent a note to her editor informing him she would "go anywhere to sell this book". And she meant it. In a promotional blitz unprecedented in publishing history, she toured bookshops all across the country, lavishing personal attention on booksellers and often signing every copy in stock. The author and her pooch (who often arrived dressed in matching outfits) soon made their mark. And not always favourably. Susann offended powerful talk-show host Johnny Carson at a party and he vowed never to invite her on his show. But she had the last laugh: Valley of the Dolls became such a cause celebre that he was forced to back down.

"There was a month when I was doing 10 shows a day, 18 interviews a day," she recalled later. "I was killing myself." Of course few people were aware of just how close to the truth this was. Her ongoing battle with cancer was kept a closely guarded secret, along with her dependency on slimming pills and the fact that she and her press agent husband Irving Mansfield had an autistic son who had been committed to an institution since the age of four, conveniently tucked away from the world.

Like Andy Warhol, she understood the cult of celebrity. And like one of Warhol's "superstars", she enjoyed a level of fame which far outweighed her talents. Michael Korda, editor of The Love Machine, recently pointed out that before Susann, the "celebrity author" simply didn't exist. Having carved out a new role for herself, she played it to the hilt. Her books may have warned against the damaging effects of fame, but she never allowed those around her to forget that she was a star. She always insisted on flying first class, together with her husband and her "publicity girl", Abby Hirsch, part of whose job it was to carry the wig boxes. A chauffeur- driven limousine was also a standard requirement, together with the best suite in any hotel. When her beloved Josephine died, a grief-stricken Susann announced: "I tried to be brave - I tried to think of Jackie Kennedy and Mrs Martin Luther King." And she suggested that the 1960s would be remembered for three things - Andy Warhol, the Beatles and herself.

Sadly, it wasn't to be. Shortly after Susann died, her books went out of circulation. While the reputations of Andy Warhol and the Beatles lived on, gaining greater stature with each passing decade, she gradually went from being a major celebrity to a cult curiosity, imitated by drag queens and quoted by an ever diminishing circle of camp aficionados.

Until very recently, one of the few places you could read about her was in The Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly, a fanzine and website produced in New York and described as "an anti-manifesto, an eccentric schizoid mix of Post-It notes from the absolute edge of the margins", compiled by a group of self professed "lesbo technomedia junkies hooked on soundbytes". Typical items include the Jackie Susann Credit Card ("For Those Times When Nothing Else Will Do"), the Dead Jackie Susann Drinking Game (in which you recast Valley Of The Dolls with modern stars while drinking colourful cocktails) and Ten People That Seem Like Jackie Invented Them (eg Courtney Love, Heidi Fleiss, Traci Lords).

But now we are on the cusp of what can only be described as a Jackie Susann renaissance. Valley of the Dolls is finally back in print after 15 years, with The Love Machine and Once Is Not Enough due soon. Barbara Seaman's biography was recently republished in America, while last year the Los Angeles County Museum of Art staged the first "Jackie Susann Film Festival". Lipsynka (probably the most famous American drag queen after RuPaul) has incorporated Susann into her act, and there have been all- drag-queen productions of Valley of the Dolls in New York and San Francisco. Meanwhile, the film version is currently undergoing a late-night revival similar to that enjoyed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Two films about Susann's life (one of them possibly starring Bette Midler), are in the pipeline, together with a television mini-series starring Michele Lee of Knot's Landing fame (Jackie would surely appreciate that since, in a sense, she invented Knot's Landing too).

Just what is it that makes an author of Jackie Susann's dubious distinction worthy of such acclaim? Since they were standing up for her long before it became fashionable to do so, perhaps the last word should go to the authors of The Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly. "You may be asking, why Jackie Susann?", they wrote in an early issue. "She's camp, she's glam, she's frivolous, she typed her manuscript pages on pink paper, she understood the concept of modern celebrity better than anyone (except maybe Andy Warhol), she loved melodrama, and on top of it all, her heroines were always powerful, independent women who were not afraid of going after what they wanted. Jackie is a prophet of pop culture."

8 'Valley of the Dolls' is published by Warner Books at pounds 5.99

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