"My Book Is Not Dirty": Valley of the Dolls Author Jacqueline Susann Reacts to Critics in 1966
Fifty years ago, Jacqueline Susann published Valley of the Dolls, a book about power, money, celebrity, and drug addiction that would go on to be hailed as one of the most pioneering and iconic moments of the 1960s, as well as the cinematic vehicle that would propel Patty Duke and Sharon Tate to big-screen stardom. But back then, Dolls—which has sold more than 31 million copies to date—was deemed "trashy," "tawdry," and, according to a 1966 issue of Time magazine, "the dirty book of the month." In response, Susann wrote this never-before-seen essay, "My Book Is Not Dirty," which feels just as prescient as her novel does today. Read it in full below, and pick up the 50th anniversary edition of Valley of the Dolls on July 4 (available for pre-order, $19; amazon.com).
So many people seem unable to differentiate between the words shocking and dirty. Truth is often shocking. It is not dirty. Life is shocking at times ... it is not dirty.
People often confuse the words savage and dirty. Violent and dirty. To me, something in print is dirty only if it is used for prurient reasons ... if it is inserted without necessity to develop a character or plot.
There is nothing in Valley of the Dolls that is dirty. There are plenty of savage chapters. There is violence and sometimes shock. But the world of show business is one of the toughest arenas of combat. Every star is a gladiator of the moment. Do you realize that every picture you see, every Broadway show, every actor or actress who scores represents ten thousand performers who tried for the same part and lost out? And then let us examine the chosen few. No Oscar is permanent. It’s always, “What have you done lately?” There is no normal boy-girl relationship between two performers; both are fighting to come off best. There is no time for second best in show business. A man works his way up to becoming president of a bank. He has it made. A lawyer works his way to the top and has big law offices. He has it made. A star makes it big in a picture. He or she has it made ... for that picture. That season. Two bad pictures and good-by Charlie. A new gladiator is brought into the arena. The King is Dead. Long live the New King.
It’s a business where each candle on a birthday cake becomes a nail in the coffin to a female star. We live in an age of youth. We live in a world where a woman is “over the hill” at thirty, the world of movies.
Sounds pretty savage ... pretty shocking. It’s true. And I write about it in Valley of the Dolls. It’s all of those things: savage, shocking, unfair, but not dirty!
If it’s like this, you might say, then why do so many young girls make the trek to California with high hopes? They come every year, young beauties filled with pear-shaped vowels they’ve learned from their local drama teachers. Half of them wind up as topless waitresses. Half of them wind up in the Valley of the Dolls.
It’s the occupational hazard of show business. A scuba diver knows he might run into a shark and lose a leg. But every day there are more and more scuba divers. A sky diver knows that one day his parachute may not open, but we have sky divers. And a professional football player knows he may break his back, his legs, lose his teeth, and even suffer brain damage. Yet each year, beautiful young men, fight to attain this honor.
Maybe everything that has a chance to hit the summit carries its own hazard. Maybe it’s worth taking the chance to reach the top of Mount Everest. Ninety-nine percent of the world weighs the chances and decides on the middle road. Thank God. We need mothers and teachers and useful wonderful citizens. They make up our true civilization. But what of that one percent? The smiling boy who becomes President and gets demolished with an impossible long shot bullet in Texas? The President who is in office and is open to remarks about every coming and going of his family, who must show his gallstone operation to the world to keep the stock market in line. A heart attack scare would start a panic. A gallbladder...fine...on we go. The movie star is made “instant royalty” and then open to instant insult by the fans who claim her.
If one writes about war, about battles, one cannot merely write about the bright uniforms, the roll of the drums, the victories. There is mud and slime and amputation and gangrene. Ugly ... shocking ... but truth.
And I wrote Valley of the Dolls—what it’s like for a woman to reach the top of Mount Everest in show business. All women do not find the Valley of the Dolls up there. All presidents are not assassinated. But we have lost a few.
Sure, Valley of the Dolls is a novel. That makes it fiction. But good fiction has the ring of truth. And truth is not always tied up in pretty packages. My gladiators in Valley of the Dolls are human, not supermen or women. They have their failings, their weaknesses, and some of them get crushed in combat, or bruised, and I show the gore of the inside battles. That’s how it is. That’s how I see it. Rough, yes. Savage, you bet. But not dirty ...