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Jacqueline Susann

Born in Philadelphia on August 20, 1921, Jacqueline Susann was forty-four years old and a failed Broadway actress when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She wrote in her diary on Christmas Day, 1962, "I can't die without leaving something.  Something big."  Susann went to her favorite "wishing hill" in Central Park and made a deal with God.  If He would give her ten more years to live, she would give him a successful woman.

Four years later, Susann published her novel, Valley of the Dolls (1966), about a woman struggling to make it as an actress in Hollywood.  It details her life along the way, a roller-coaster life filled with sex, glamour, depression, and infighting.  During her struggle, the woman gets wrapped up in an ever escalating addiction to "dolls" (uppers and downers).

Jacqueline Susann was born to a loving mother and a philandering portrait-painter father.  Often, he would pretend to take his daughter to the movies and drop her off while he rendezvoused with a mistress.  Later, after picking his daughter up, he would grill her about the film so that he could discuss it with his wife that evening.

In school, Susann was an intelligent if somewhat lackluster student.  She scored the highest on her class's IQ test, 140, prompting her mother to predict that she would someday become a good writer.  But Susann had other ideas.  "Acting is glamour, but writing is hard work, so I'm going to be an actress," she said. 

By the time she was in high school, she had become a dope-smoking, pill-popping party girl.  Her mother wanted her to go to college and become a teacher, but after graduation from West Philadelphia High in 1936, she moved to New York to work as an actress.  Although she exuded confidence, few people were impressed with her talents.  She ended up taking bit parts and commercials until she landed her first decent theatrical job in The Women.  She received $25 a week playing the role of a lingerie model. 

With the support of her new husband, press-agent Irving Mansfield, who was helping to promote his wife professionally, Susann wrote her first play, Lovely Me, which was picked up for production on Broadway.  The play was produced by one of the author's ex-lovers.  It closed after only 37 performances. 

In the early Fifties, Susann wrote her first romance/science fiction novel, Yargo.  In 1955, she acquired her pet poodle, Josephine, and a contract to be the fashion commentator for Schiffli Lace on an all-night television show called Night Time, New York.  She wrote, starred in and produced two live commercials a night.  She tried writing a show-biz/drug expose which she was going to call The Pink Dolls, but instead she wrote her first successful book, Every Night, Josephine!, about life with her poodle.

When Susann's breakaway hit, Valley of the Dolls, came out, she was quickly catapulted into the role of the world's first modern celebrity author.  It was a role the failed actress relished.  She traveled the globe, promoting her books on talk shows and in bookstores.  Wherever she went on her cross-country tours, she signed each copy of her book that was available.  She wrote down the name and address of every person she met and later sent everyone thank you cards. 

Almost overnight, Jacqueline Susann had become the most popular writer of her generation, the undisputed Queen of Pulp Fiction, whose own life was as exciting and glamorous as anything she wrote about in her best-selling novels.

When her next novel, The Love Machine (1969), was published, she had the book's title painted on the side of her chartered plane, and she personally delivered pastries to the truckers and bookstore workers who shipped and shelved her books.

Although attacked by serious scholars as a bubble-gum author (author Gore Vidal said of her, "She doesn't write, she types"), Susann nonetheless remains the only writer ever to have three novels in a row hit number one on the New York Times' best-seller list.  More than twenty-million copies of Dolls are in print, and the Guinness Book of World Records lists Valley of the Dolls as tied with Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird as the best-selling novels by a female author in history.

Not surprisingly, all this celebrity fashion did not go unnoticed on the West Coast.  In 1967, a film version of Dolls, starring Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate, was released.  Later, Susann, herself, would become the inspiration for several movies of her life, including the made-for-television flick, Scandalous Me, in 1998 (based on the only serious Susann biography, Barbara Seaman's Lovely Me), starring Michele Lee as Susann, and Isn't She Great in 2000, starring Bette Midler. 

Susann believed that the wild and free-wheeling generation known as the Sixties would go down in history for three things--Andy Warhol, the Beatles, and Jacqueline Susann, and she may have been right.  Jacqueline Susann took a bold leap forward and opened the door for future tell-all celebrity writers, such as Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins.

But as the years passed, Susann sensed that her life was nearing its finale.  When she went to the hospital for the last time, she slipped into a coma for seven weeks.  Her last words to her husband were, "Let's get the hell outa here, doll."

Jacqueline Susann died on September 21, 1974, twelve years after she had asked God for one more decade of life.

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