Lovely Me by Barbara Seaman
[Also featured: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann published 1966
& How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, published 2014]
[From the biography of author Jacqueline Susann]
By the summer of 1966 Jackie was one of the most recognizable women in the United States. She was everywhere – in magazines and newspapers, on posters in bookstore windows and in buses, and, always, on television. Along with the talk shows there were panel and game shows and even variety shows. Omnipresent as Orwell’s Big Brother was that tough, striking showgirl’s face: the false eyelashes fluttering beneath white eyeshadow, the bright-orange lips and nails, the wardrobe of dark, lacquered, shoulder-length falls, the vivid Emilio Pucci print dresses, which she finally gave up because, although they “packed well”, they made her “boobs look too big”.
commentary: Jacqueline Susann was a force of nature, an icon, and her most famous work, Valley of the Dolls, one of the best-selling novels of all time, is also iconic: it’s a striking achievement. Valley is sometimes treated as a comfort read, a chick-litty romance: we expect the three girls whose careers we follow to have the usual division of spoils in the way of pluses and minuses. But in fact it’s a bleak and not very comforting book, with a very downbeat ending. It is also incredibly entertaining, and compulsive – at every point you want to know what is going to happen. Goodness knows what it was like to read it in 1966, when nothing like it had ever been published before. Like many people, I would say that I don’t love the book, or the film based on it, with a great passion, but I respect both of them, and am glad they are there as monuments of popular culture, and to the telling of women’s stories. (The feminist angle on them is always difficult to work out…)
Lovely Me, by Barbara Seaman, is an absolutely wonderful biography of Susann, one I have just lost a weekend to. It was recommended to me by Samantha Ellis, author of the terrific How to be A Heroine, a book that looks at the way the novels young women read inspire them and shape them. (It was one of my top books of 2014, and is one of my all-time favourite book-about-books.)
Samantha said it was a great favourite of hers, and my goodness I can see why. It is a textbook biography, carefully researched and referenced, yet intensely readable and gossip-y, full of extraordinary anecdotes. And Susann’s life is intrinsically full of interest – she was ambitious, she worked hard, she grafted: and she really, really wanted to be famous. She thought it might be her acting, but she never broke through. She tried writing a play. She never stopped working and trying to promote herself. And finally she did it: wrote an astonishing bestseller. The story of how she did that is beautifully laid out in Seaman’s book: the process, the amount of editing Valley needed, the snooty reaction of publishers and editors. She enjoyed her eventual fame enormously, wrote more best-sellers, then died of the cancer that had been threatening her for some time.
It is truly a story that belongs in one of her own books – her strange but loving marriage, her deals with God, her affairs with men and women, her dependence on pills, the sad sad story of her child. And Seaman does an unimprovable job describing it all, creating a whole world, decisive but not judgemental in her descriptions. It’s a terrific book.
And you can read more on Susann’s Valley of the Dolls – blogposts here and here.
Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine is here on the blog.
And if you are up for a whole weekend of this (as I was) I would highly recommend the 1967 film of Valley of the Dolls and (even better) the Bette Midler film about Susann’s life, Isn’t She Great.
The Midler film was greatly derided on its release in 2000, was the subject of enormous criticism, and was a huge failure - and I’ve never understood why: it is an oddity, it doesn’t resemble any other film in format or structure, but it is tremendous fun, very funny, very entertaining. I personally would say that in my life I have seen at least 100 films that are much, much worse. Isn't She Great is splendid: warm and good-hearted and with some excellent character actors in it.
And truly, no film or book about Susann could be less than enjoyable…