Valley of the Dolls is the first novel by American writer Jacqueline Susann. Published in 1966, the book was the biggest selling novel of its year. To date, it has sold more than 31 million copies, making it one of the best-selling works in publishing history.
The novel tells the story of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood: Anne Welles, the reserved New England beauty who sees New York as the romantic city of her dreams; Neely O'Hara, the ebullient vaudevillian with a talent she doesn't fully understand; and Jennifer North, the sweet-natured showgirl who wants only to be loved. As life becomes difficult, each woman grows increasingly dependent on "dolls," the amphetamines and barbiturates which, for a time, seem to help.
Crossing their paths are such people as Helen Lawson, the brilliant but ruthless Broadway legend; Lyon Burke, the magnetic but self-centered theatrical attorney; Tony Polar, the child-like but sexually aggressive pop singer; Kevin Gillmore, the powerful but lovesick cosmetics tycoon; and Ted Casablaca, the potent but opportunistic fashion designer.
Over the course of twenty eventful years (1945–1965), each of the women strives to ascend the Mount Everest of her dreams, only to find herself back in the valley of the dolls.
Susann had apparently been thinking about the novel for some time. Some years earlier, she had begun a show business novel, Underneath the Pancake, with her friend, actress Beatrice Cole (c. 1910–1999). Later, she considered writing a novel about drug usage in show business to be called The Pink Dolls.
Valley of the Dolls is widely considered to be a roman a clef, with its characters based on such famous figures as Judy Garland, Carole Landis, Dean Martin, and Ethel Merman. In 1973, after publication of her third novel, Susann said, "They can keep calling it that [roman a clef]. It'll only make my books sell, I don't care." Susann insisted that she began each book with a theme: "Then I start asking, what kind of a personality? And because I have a good ear, I unconsciously pick up certain people."
Susann dedicated the book to her poodle, Josephine, and to her husband, Irving Mansfield.
The book was published by Bernard Geis Associates on February 10, 1966, and "took off like a Cape Canaveral space shot."
Although Publishers Weekly, in an advance review, called the novel "big, brilliant and sensational" (if "poorly written"), the book received largely negative reviews. Gloria Steinem panned the book in The New York Herald Tribune as did the reviewer in The New York Times. Time magazine called it the "Dirty Book of the Month," and said, "it might more accurately be described as a highly effective sedative, a living doll."
Despite the poor reviews, the book was a commercial juggernaut. On May 8, 1966, in its ninth week on the list, the book reached #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, where it remained for 28 consecutive weeks. With a total of 65 weeks on the list, the book became the best selling novel of 1966. By the time of Susann's death in 1974, it had entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the best selling novel in publishing history, with more than 17 million copies sold. By 2016, the book had sold more than 31 million copies.
In 1967 the book was adapted into a film of the same name, directed by Mark Robson (Peyton Place), and starring Barbara Parkins (as Anne), Patty Duke (Neely), Paul Burke (Lyon), Sharon Tate (Jennifer), and Susan Hayward (Helen). The movie was written by Helen Deutsch (National Velvet) and Dorothy Kingsley (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), and produced by Robson and David Weisbart. Reviews were scathing, but the film was an enormous box-office hit, becoming the sixth most popular of the year with $44 million at the domestic box office. Susann, who had a cameo as a news reporter, hated the film, reportedly telling director Robson that it was "a piece of shit."
The novel was adapted for television in 1981 as Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, a mini-series executive-produced by Susann's widower Irving Mansfield and directed by Walter Grauman. This version stars Catherine Hicks, Lisa Hartman, and Veronica Hamel. In 1994 a late-night, syndicated television soap opera, Valley of the Dolls, ran for one season and 65 episodes. The premise was a loose adaptation of the novel. BBC Radio 4 broadcast a 15-episode dramatisation scripted by Yvonne Antrobus over three weeks in August and September 2005. It was part of the Woman's Hour programme's ongoing fifteen-minute daily drama slot, and has been rebroadcast several times on BBC Radio 4 Extra in three 70-minute omnibus episodes.