I usually get the side-eye treatment whenever I openly declare Jacqueline Susann to be one of my favourite writers. Somehow, a best-selling author — in this case, the first with three consecutive number ones on the New York Times’ list — whose books deal mainly with female issues that are not presented in an over-romanticised manner, is often regarded as being as cheap and talentless. Funnily enough, this sort of label seems to be more frequent among female authors than their male counterparts, a veiled patronisation that comes from women only being “allowed” to write about adequate, “decent” matters — if they want to be taken seriously, that is. Jackie’s style was frequently accused of being sleazy and exploitative due to the way she discussed sex and other intimacy-related details in her books, to which she once famously replied: “have you read the Bible? It’s full of sex! Why can’t both God and I be on the best-sellers list?”
The thing is, criticism regarding the type of content Susann chose to address in her books resulted not from the content itself but from the way she approached it: she was one of the first novelists to discuss many issues (including the sexual act itself) from the female perspective — and that’s what shook American puritanism to the core.
The fact that she did so without an openly militant feminist agenda, merely stating common sense facts based on stories she heard around her instead (most of her characters are modelled after people she met in real life), made it even more scandalous. By normalising such topics and conversations, it allowed for women to discover they weren’t alone, and that certain feelings, attitudes, and situations — notably those of intimate nature which hardly anyone dared to discuss publicly — were transversal to every walk of life. Jackie’s books helped to eliminate centuries-old taboos and that proved to be an inconvenience for many, especially within the hermetic, phallocentric world of literature.
However, Jacqueline Susann’s most prominent literary characteristic was probably her inability (or just plain refusal) to deliver a happy ending. The inexistence of such closure emerges as a projection of her own self, because Jackie’s books imitated life with the uncanny, scary, and unmerciful precision of a bathroom mirror in the morning light. Having tried to get into show business herself as an actress (a career she never managed to master or was even comfortable enough with), she started to write quite late, way after her marriage to producer Irving Mansfield, a man who adored her and would prove to be one of her most devoted fans until the end of her life. Together they had a son, Guy, who was diagnosed with severe autism in his early childhood and was subsequently institutionalised — one of the reasons for her urgency in making and saving as much money as she could when she got her first cancer diagnosis. She wanted to make sure her son would be taken care of after she was gone.
Even though she might have seemed compliant to a structured, gender-biased upper-class system she grew up and moved around in, Jackie’s writing bluntly denounces that crushing type of repression that comes from women themselves as a direct result of centuries of living in a male-dominated society — even among the wealthiest classes. Showbiz and its backstage power games became her field of choice to expose such dynamics, an option that comes as no surprise given Susann’s experience both as a player and an observer.
The omnipresent Electra complex that is said to be transversal to all of her work — except maybe for her candid debut Every Night, Josephine! about her recently-adopted poodle — scandalously serves as a departing platform for an addictive kind of writing (or “typing”, as Gore Vidal once famously put it) that is very similar to the juiciest form of gossip; after all, Jackie’s books were once described as eavesdropping on an interesting conversation — you don’t put the phone down in such a situation.
But Jackie’s style also allowed for a new prism to emerge regarding the discussion of American bourgeoisie and privilege, with most of her books gravitating around two different social upper-class concepts: the New Aristocracy and the Old Money. It’s also frequent for the reader to discover, to much surprise, that in Jackie’s books poor people are usually the happiest; the disenchantment of apparently having it all and the emptiness that comes with such material achievements are bluntly denounced in each and every page of her novels, constructing a new pop celebrity paradigm that seemed to oppose the once domineering movie star syndrome which derived in its essence from the very concept of the American Dream: everyone can get there, you just start from the bottom and reach for the stars. But who would guess the stars would be such a disappointment when looked at from up-close?
Jacqueline Susann’s essential trilogy is constituted by her three number-one best-sellers: Valley of the Dolls (1966), The Love Machine (1969), and Once Is Not Enough (1973). All three taking place in the showbiz underworlds of theatre, television, and film (all known milieus of Susann’s), they seem to superficially deal with love and its vicissitudes from a rather traditionalist female perspective, but they all have an interesting characteristic that is notably absent from the majority of the so-called ordinary chick-lit: they all lack a happy ending. If one may argue that some of the Harlequin-type romance novels also end tragically or deal with some form of doomed love, it’s important to note that Jackie’s books discuss a much deeper form of sadness, almost a mute melancholy, that ends up putting everything else in perspective by allowing the mundane to serve as a metaphor for questions revolving around eternal topics such as human condition, purpose, and happiness.
The plot of Valley of the Dolls, spanning over twenty years, is heavily rooted on the lives of Broadway royalty and everything that relates to it. The post-war McCarthyan fifties become a stage for the golden decadence of old stars and old habits, notably the silent and insidious patriarchy that is still virtually indisputable both for men and women. Written in the Feminine Mystique aftermath, Dolls democratises its approach class-wise by denouncing a phallic dictatorship that is transversal to all walks of life. But it signals hope too; although the arguably disastrous movie adaption (which Jackie always repudiated, since her books never got the screen treatment they deserved) seemed to desperately seek for a happy, normative ending, the book goes deeper within the feminine condition by mutely asking the eternal question: what do women want? Is it love or career fulfilment? Is it both? Or is it something completely different, more connected to a discovery of their own self as both an individual and part of a functioning society? Because if we look closer, Jackie’s books often ask the important questions between the lines.
I find The Love Machine to be probably the weakest link of her trilogy. And there’s a reason why it is so: it’s the only book whose main story revolves around a male character, denouncing not only Jackie’s difficulty in making such shift in perspective seem interesting but also an innate perpetuation of the playboy syndrome as something exciting and glamorous — even from a female point of view. Robin Stone is a proto-Don Draper of sorts whose love/sexual life is inherently a promiscuous mess due to, we later find out, repressed mother issues. Still, the book demonstrated Jackie’s ability to follow-up Dolls’ success — which many thought to be a one-hit wonder — while allowing her to distance slightly from the chick-lit label due to the male-centred plot.
Once is Not Enough deals with Jackie’s own unhappy ending. The last book published before her death, it is both a literary mess and a valuable, timeless essay on modern human relationships. That’s probably why it’s not only my favourite Jackie, but also one of the books that marked me the most growing up. She utilises colloquial psychoanalysis as a departure point for the main plot (Mike and January’s suggested incestuous relationship) and extrapolates almost every other detail from the dysfunctional father-daughter dynamics we shockingly see ourselves accepting. Throughout its 500 pages, Jackie strangely refrains from discussing the question of death nearly altogether, preferring to recurrently refer to a much scarier yet equally unavoidable ghost: ageing. As Jane O’Reilly pointed out in her New York Times’ review of the book back in 1973, the panic we feel towards our imminent irrelevance can be observed through Jackie’s projection of her own demons: “Time never stops. […] The author slips up, her frame of reference fuzzing at the edges. People don’t wear “slacks,” or go to Broadway Shows, or play “albums” any more. Twenty-year-old girls do not lose their virginity to Nat King Cole music. Why not? They did once. It was fine then, wasn’t it? What happened?” Once Is Not Enough is Jackie Susann’s tempus fugit reflection, as she suddenly saw herself in an ever-changing world she didn’t recognise anymore, probably wondering if and how she would be remembered after her death.
Jacqueline Susann disappeared prematurely at the age of 56, victim of a cancer that almost costed her the public recognition she had yearned for all of her life; having been diagnosed in the early 1960s as her writing career finally seemed to take off, she had famously cut a “deal with God”, asking him to grant her “ten more years” which she vowed not to waste. In her own perception, she might have lived the following decade in borrowed time, which could’ve also been what prompted her to promote her books so ferociously, with a seemingly endless energy that were she a man would’ve been described as “assertive”, but in her case was mainly seen as “pushy”. Her legacy lies exactly in her ability to live as she wanted, to portray things the way she saw them, to explore yet another way of communicating the female condition in a time where the struggle for women’s rights gained a new breath and made an important leap forward. The way she describes January’s first time, for example, is heavily symptomatic of a crude realism we hardly find in literature of the kind — mostly because the closest we get to the style is probably Harold Robbins, whose male perspective has nothing to offer in what comes to such an experience.
Jackie wrote the way she lived and loved: unashamedly and in absolutes. It’s her sincerity and bubbling omnipresent energy — even when everything around her seemed to be crumbling down — that make the books as fascinating as the writer herself. Onassis once famously declared he had married the wrong Jackie; although a humourous remark, it denounces the bright aura of a superstar in her own right, something no-one could ever take away from her. And fifty years later, Susann’s legacy remains worth revisiting again and again, crowned with an excitement that only finds its parallel in Anne Welles’s arrival in New York.
Originally published at https://www.thefourohfive.com.