Valley of the Dolls was called “a piece of trash” by the critic John Simon, who said he’d rather “see dogs fornicate” than read the novel. Time Magazine named it April 1966’s “dirty book of the month.” Nora Ephron once wrote that the experience of reading the book “was like reading a very, very long, absolutely delicious gossip column.” Then there was the novel’s author, Jacqueline Susann, who was accused by David Frost of “typing on a cash register.” Truman Capote referred to her as a “truck driver in drag.” Susann also famously threw a cocktail at Johnny Carson, and her writing was routinely dismissed as tacky, lewd, dime-store fare. Still, Valley of the Dolls quickly became the best-selling novel of all time—and 50 years later, you can certainly see why.
Fueled by sex, drugs (“dolls,” as they’re called), and driving ambition, the novel tells a salacious story of Hollywood gossip as it evolves over two decades, in the orbit of various (thinly veiled) celebrities. But half a century after the book’s publication, Valley of the Dolls is far more than a drugstore paperback. It is a surprisingly contemporary and earnest look at success, womanhood, and the struggle for women to both have it all and be it all, in a world where “all” is still defined by men.
Valley of the Dolls focuses on the stories of three heroines who become friends while trying to make it in showbiz in a post-World War II New York City. There’s the well mannered and well-bred, understated beauty Anne Wells (who readers at the time thought to be in the likeness of Grace Kelly), the young, fame-hungry vaudeville performer Neely O’Hara (modeled after Judy Garland), and the Marilyn Monroe-esque bombshell Jennifer North. All three women use New York as an escape from a previous small town reality—pursuing new lives and chasing independence, wealth, careers, and men. The novel makes clear that these goals of theirs have a timeline. In the world of Valley of the Dolls, turning 30 is as good as death, and having your life sorted before that birthday is key. One of the novel’s male characters, Allen, puts this ethos best: “This is a man’s world—women only own it when they’re very young.”
In many ways, bouffant hairstyles and sepia-toned mood included, the novel feels like one long Lana Del Rey song. But the plot of the novel would function easily in the world of 2016—the characters spend late nights scouring newspaper columns looking for mentions of themselves, in much the same way that we now tally our Instagram likes. And of course, having it all is arguably as difficult now as it was back then. Late in the novel, one of main female characters says to another, “Oh, girlfriend, isn’t it wonderful! We’ve both wound up at the top, with success, security, and a man we love and respect.” This declaration defines the characters’ understanding of “having it all” and it’s one that looks pretty close to what many would consider “having it all” by today’s standards, too.
In the novel, the reason women are given even a drop of power when young is because youth, at least in these pages, is synonymous with beauty. Lana Del Rey famously crooned, “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” In Valley of the Dolls, the answer to that question is a firm “no.”
For Jennifer, Neely, and Anne beauty—defined by pale skin, bright eyes, thick hair, and skinny waists—is paramount and its dissolution is treated as a death sentence. “Age settled with more grace on ordinary people,” Susann writes. “But for celebrities—women stars in particular—age became a hatchet that vandalized a work of art.” It’s a sentiment that, while grim, is entirely recognizable on a contemporary and public scale. We don’t need to look beyond the magazine racks at a supermarket checkout for proof of that.
In their quest to have it all, the women of the novel groom their looks while also pursuing careers and relationships. Again, their successes and failures are largely out of their hands. Men are in charge—personally and professionally—leading businesses and making proposals, very often ignoring the voices and protestations of women along the way. “A wife held the same social status as a screenwriter,” Susann writes. “Necessary but anonymous.” Ultimately, marriage becomes the downfall of each of the novel’s most important women.
While the novel thwarts these women on their quest to have it all, it does give them certain agency in other areas, which again add to the work’s very 2016 flavor. All three heroines become independently wealthy, and scattered among the book’s bedroom-hopping trysts are highly practical passages about the need for a woman to invest her money. Susann also gives women agency when it comes to sex and sexuality, not passing judgment when they enjoy orgasms, get abortions, or pursue same-sex relationships.
Then of course there are the dolls (red ones, yellow ones, striped ones), which provide the women with a special kind of modern power. While they might not have total control over their careers or relationships, doling out the number of dolls they consume becomes in itself an act of feminist rebellion: “The soft numbness began to slither through her body. Oh, God! How had she ever lived without these gorgeous red dolls.” As Lana might sing, “You know, I know what they say about me / I know that they think I’m danger / So what if it makes me happy, happy, happy?”
Where the book is purest, and perhaps most timeless and true, is in its depictions of female friendship. Jennifer, Anne, and Neely are not unconditionally good to one another (what is a soap opera without betrayal?), but they largely support and celebrate one another. In many ways, they applaud aspects of their friends—their humor, their conversation— that are largely overlooked by the men who define both their lives and all lives.
It is the pieces of dialogue spoken outside of the male gaze that best demonstrate these moments of friendship and truth, moments that will be recognizable to any woman who has stayed up late with her best gals lamenting moments in life gone wrong.
“It’s a pretty rare thing to be loved. It’s never happened to me.”
“Oh, come on now, Jen. All of Europe loves you…and now you’ve got America as well.”
“They love my face and body. Not me! There’s such a difference, Anne. Then she shrugged. “Maybe I’m just not very lovable.”
“I love you, Jen—really.”
Susann once said, “Too many male writers are writing for the critics. I write for the public.” Valley of the Dolls proves her point. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Valley of the Dolls is a rich or revolutionary feminist text— it certainly is not, particularly in the book’s second half which teeters into common mid 20th century thematic ground with dissolving marriages and playboy men and spoiled children. But the novel is undeniably a crowd-pleaser, and one that illustrates a very particular moment in the feminine pursuit of having it all.
Naturally, there are elements of the novel are dated, but swap trade column mentions for retweets, and mink coats for leather jackets, and much of the meat is what we still know today.
Valley of the Dolls was published in 1966, but even in 2016 a woman’s pursuit to have it all is very often crushed by the expectations and demands and power of men. Fashions may have changed, and slang evolved, but Valley of the Dolls is as relevant as ever. Of course, in 2016, Anne, Jennifer, and Neely would be the age of our grandmothers. But that’s also the power of words and characters: Once they’re written, no matter how much time passes, the characters will always be young and just as beautiful.
Elena Sheppard is a writer and editor with a serious love for books and television. She also has a serious love for writing about books and television.