To add to a long list of lines I wish I’d written, I read somewhere that Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann was ‘Harlequin romance meets Zola’, and it’s sort of true. It really does manage to compact twenty years’ worth of lurid celebrity magazine scandal between its covers, and to describe the trajectory of stardom as a steady downward descent into artifice and ruin. But if it takes its content from the trashiest end of the spectrum, then it also allows it to unfold with the stately grandeur of Greek tragedy. I can quite see why this novel has the status of a cult classic: it’s powerful and potent and upsetting and gripping. And the disquieting truths it purveys seem to be no less relevant now than they were in the 60s when the novel was first published.
Before the novel begins there’s a verse, much like the kind the Oracle generally offers that makes a dire prediction about climbing to the top of Mount Everest:
The air is so thin you can scarcely breathe.
You’ve made it – and the world says
you’re a hero.
But it was more fun at the bottom when you started,
with nothing more than hope
and the dream of fulfillment.
In a nutshell, this is the premise of the novel which follows the fortunes of three young, beautiful and talented women, Anne, Jennifer and Neely from 1945 to 1965. They meet up at first in New York, where Anne has come to escape the rigid confines of an emotionless New England upbringing. She finds work as a secretary to Henry Bellamy, a lawyer-advisor to showbiz celebrities and quickly falls in love with the job and the city. She finds a room in a shared house where she meets Neely, a young dancer who’s spent her whole life on the road with a touring troupe. And out on the town one night with Henry she gets her first glimpse of Jennifer, a stunning Barbie-doll beauty who is in the throes of divorcing a European prince and who is about to take up a role in a Broadway production in the hope of getting a film contract.
This Broadway production is a fateful event that will draw the three women together. Anne manages to secure Neely an understudy role in it by means of Henry’s good will, and due to the tantruming demands of its main star, the monstrous Helen Lawson who can’t bear to have any competition on stage, Neely gets promoted into a part that will suddenly make her name. For a while, Anne, Jennifer and Neely share an apartment, fulfilling their ambitions together, cementing their friendship. Then Neely heads off to Hollywood and into the demanding, glitzy drudgery of a film studio contract, and Jennifer, who has always been more interested in marriage than career as a route to security, marries a popular singer and follows him west too. Disaster follows; the marriage Jennifer has made is doomed, and Neely is completely unable to handle the money and success that come to her. Jennifer has long been taking ‘red dolls’ to help her sleep at night, and Neely is put on green ones to help her lose weight. It’s the start of a very slippery slope.
Anne’s story is quite different. Remember Austen’s Persuasion and the story of Anne Elliot’s loyal devotion to Captain Wentworth? Yup, it’s the same situation all over again, but transposed into a very different context. Anne meets Lyon Burke at Henry’s office. He is recently returned from the war and everyone at the office is agog to have him back. Henry warns Anne off him right from the start; there’s something about Lyon that makes all the women fall in love with him, and yet Lyon is that scourge of romantic hope – a fundamentally self-contained ladies’ man. It doesn’t prevent Anne from beginning an intense relationship with him, intense for her in any case as he breaks through her previous indifference to all men. And for a while things go well, even if Lyon is adamantly opposed to settling down. But Anne’s mother dies, and she inherits the family home in detested Lawrenceville, the town she was so desperate to leave. When Lyon sees it he falls in love with it (much more than with Anne) and asks her to marry him on the understanding they will live in Lawrenceville while he writes his novel. It’s a deal-breaker, and Anne can’t face the prospect. But in saving herself from provincial incarceration she loses Lyon. He moves to England, and many years will pass before she sees him again. When they are finally reunited, Austen’s script for Persuasion is brutally rewritten. I won’t tell you what happens, but the essential goodness of Anne, her loyalty, her good sense, her compassion, are not rewarded.
The message of the book is one that we’re familiar with: women, when they are beautiful or talented at performance, are rapidly turned into commodities, exploited and objectified. And celebrity exerts a pressure so bulldozing that no one individual can stand up to it without significant emotional and mental support. Jennifer and Neely both come from terrible family backgrounds, Neely having never known a proper family and Jennifer fighting off the demands of an emotionally-blackmailing, cash-greedy mother. They don’t stand a chance in the white-hot glare of the entertainment industry. What’s upsetting is that so little has changed. Success still comes at the same price today – the individual’s life disemboweled and sacrificed to the demands of the business, and self-worth destroyed not enhanced by the adoration of an audience. Few people seem able to negotiate with the tyranny of fame or get the better of it, even though it’s been courted and chased in it present international form for many decades now. That must make this book one of the rare popular novels to remain timely 50 years after publication. I’m glad I read it and it will remain with me – it’s a gripping morality tale that clearly still needs to be heard.