"Isn't She Great," the new film about the writer Jacqueline Susann, has generated so much notice that one might think Susann's husband, press agent Irving Mansfield, had returned from the grave to orchestrate publicity for his favorite client.
Vanity Fair, which ran excerpts from the film's screenplay in its December issue, followed up with an extensive article about Susann's life in January. Karen Durbin, editor of Mirabella, weighed in with a long piece in the New York Times on Jan. 15. A&E; ran an hourlong biography during its recent "Pulp Fiction" week.
But those who claim they come to praise Susann risk burying her achievements beneath details about the campy externals of her life. The Pucci prints! The Korean wigs! The poodle! The pink typing paper! And don't forget, of course, to note that Truman Capote once called her "a truck driver in drag."
Why all this interest in Jacqueline Susann? Why now? I haven't a clue, and I'm a baby-boomer fan who relied on Susann's oeuvre to make it through adolescence. (Where else was a nice Baltimore girl going to learn about feckless men, masochistic women and the fate that awaited those who married too hastily in Elkton?)
I do know the Susann revival began with a funny, self-congratulatory and, well, bitchy 1995 New Yorker article by Susann's one-time editor, Michael Korda. (Don't get me wrong, it is an absolute achievement for a heterosexual man to achieve this level of bitchiness in print.)
It was this article, later included in Korda's memoir, "Another Life," that became the movie, "Isn't She Great." The title comes from the rhetorical question that her husband asked constantly.
Korda's piece was one of those baffling articles in which the writer piles on unattractive details -- Jackie was mean, Jackie was cheap, Jackie was vulgar -- then interrupts himself every so often to inform the reader that he really, really liked and admired his subject. "Still, I remained friendly with Jackie, who fell out with everyone else at S&S; [Simon and Schuster] until she had nobody but me to talk to," he writes in "Another Life." Lucky her.
Yet Korda's piece generated much more buzz than the serious and affectionate 1987 biography, "Lovely Me," written by Barbara Seaman. And it's Korda's book that became the new feature film with Bette Midler, while "Lovely Me" had to settle for being a cable television movie with Michele Lee, renamed "Scandalous Me."
I think this is telling, and perhaps even fitting. Susann is the victim of a gossip-obsessed, celebrity-oriented culture that she helped create. ("Live by gossip, die by gossip," she once quipped, after her never-explained stay in a sanitarium made the New York columns.)
Korda writes about Susann as if she were a Susann character -- profane, tacky, larger than life. It's great fun, but his more serious points about her role in publishing tend to get lost.
She was, after all, the first writer to have three consecutive No. 1 New York Times best sellers, and Guinness still lists "Valley of the Dolls" as the best-selling novel of all time.
However, Seaman's book, which cycled back into print recently along with much of Susann's work, is about as thoughtful and respectful a biography as Susann could have dreamed of. While tactful about Susann's deficiencies as a writer -- her books had to be heavily rewritten, restructured and edited -- Seaman is unapologetic about her fondness for her subject.
"I love her," she wrote in "Lovely Me's" preface.
"Loyal to her friends, malicious to her enemies, Jackie was outrageous, original and brave. ... Do I equate Jackie with Emily Dickinson or Virginia Woolf? Certainly not, but how about [Theodore] Dreiser? His style was also clumsy and his characters contemptible."
Lured by celebrity
Susann is scorned because she didn't bother to hide her desire to be a Celebrity -- by any means necessary. She came to New York in 1936, at the age of 18, after winning a beauty contest in her hometown of Philadelphia, determined to make it.
She didn't make it there, or anywhere -- not as an actress, not as a model, not as a playwright. She did enjoy exposure as "the Schiffli Troubadour," touting embroidered clothes on local television, but that was not stardom.
In the early 1960s, she wrote a slender little memoir about her life with her poodle, Josephine, and John Steinbeck's literary agent took her on as a client. But the book was languishing at Doubleday in 1962, and fame seemed farther away than it had ever been when Susann discovered a lump in her breast.
Although earlier lumps had proved to be benign cysts, the doctors were concerned enough about this one to schedule the biopsy for Christmas Day. Susann couldn't sleep that night, and about 3: 30 a.m., she turned to her diary, confessing her need to leave "something -- something big." Her husband had made some of her dreams come true, but so many others -- to be a star, to have a daughter -- had not. "I think I can write," Susann confided to her diary. "Let me live to make it. One dream besides Irving must come true."
She was 44 and, as it turned out, she had 12 years left to live. In that time, she would sell tens of millions of books, and show the publishing industry that books could be sold like detergent.
Could she write? Not particularly well. Her first editor, Don Preston at Bernard Geis Associates, wrote in his first report on "VD," as "Valley of the Dolls" was known in-house: "I really don't think there is a page of this ms. that can stand in its present form. And after it is done, we will be left with a faster, slicker, more readable mediocrity."
Yearning to be loved and valued -- and what writer doesn't? -- Susann switched to Simon & Schuster for "The Love Machine." This is where she met Korda, who oversaw the book because of the publishing company's $250,000 investment, huge for the time. He describes her as a total pro, but undercuts that praise by adding the observation of his one-time boss, Robert Gottlieb: "Yes, it's true. Jackie was a pro. But you must be wary of thinking that's a good thing for a writer to be."
Inventing the book tour
Susann, still looking for love, switched publishers one more time, going to William Morrow for what would prove to be her last full-length novel, "Once is Not Enough." She also wrote a novella, "Dolores," a roman a clef about the other Jackie, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and a science fiction novel, "Yargo," that was published posthumously.
If assessments about her writing ability were tactful at best, no one underrated Susann as a marketer. She is credited with virtually inventing the modern-day book tour -- using media relentlessly, meeting with the Teamsters who took her books to the stores, befriending small booksellers.
And she did all this while she was gravely ill -- undergoing a radical mastectomy, receiving painful treatments for a cancer that continued to spread. She kept this secret, just as she had kept secret her only son's autism. Susann wanted fame, but she didn't want anyone's pity.
"Anyone who was as sick as Jackie could probably have done little more than watch television themselves," Seaman wrote of her last tour. "Her treatments were so intense and debilitating that most patients on her regimen would have thought it a big excursion to go out for dinner."
Susann's books were kitsch -- "first-rate kitsch ... a rhinestone in the trash can," as Nora Ephron once wrote of "The Love Machine," but kitsch nonetheless. It is common for such books to go out of print, and Susann's trio of novels, for all their success, were no longer in print in the mid-1990s. But in 1997, Grove Press re-issued them as trade paperbacks, which have sold briskly.
A canny formula
Re-reading them (a delightful task, but then I once read "Valley of the Dolls" in Spanish), I am reminded that Susann had a canny formula. The rich and beautiful are different from you and me, in that they are miserable. Susann's books had a dark, cynical side that the campy movie adaptations missed completely.
In "The Valley of the Dolls," a woman spends her life in pursuit of her great love and gets him, only to find out he will never be faithful. In "The Love Machine," a newsman who makes it to the top of the television business self-destructs and ends up writing a novel for "Essandess," Susann's sly allusion to her own publisher at the time.
And then there's the incest-themed "Once is Not Enough," where -- well, frankly, if anyone has ever figured out what happens at the end of "Once is Not Enough," let me know. Susann had tacked on a science-fiction ending, in which her heroine goes off in a UFO, but her publishers persuaded her to return to Earth. The compromise ending is mysterious, at best. Did poor little rich girl January Wayne survive, or did she walk into the ocean?
The thing that survives about Susann is her utter sincerity. It is the secret of every popular writer, and it's the one thing about Susann on which everyone -- Korda, Ephron, Seaman -- agrees. She believed in what she wrote. She believed in herself. She was a pro and, with all due respect to Robert Gottlieb, I happen to think that's a good thing for a writer to be. I hope her Guinness record stands forever.