Sex, Drugs, and Show Business: The 50th Anniversary of ‘Valley of the Dolls’


Title: Valley of the Dolls

Author: Jacqueline Susann

Publisher: Virago Press

Pages: 417

Summary (from first page): Dolls -red or black; capsules or tablets; washed down with vodka or swallowed straight. For Anne, Neely and Jennifer it doesn’t matter, as long as the pill bottle is within easy reach. These three beautiful women become best friends when they are young and in New York, struggling to make their names in the entertainment industry. Only when they reach the peak of their careers do they find there’s nowhere left to go but down – to the Valley of the Dolls.

Valley of the Dolls is one of those books that I’ve known about for a while but I’ve never felt motivated to pick up and read. Truth be told, until a few months ago I didn’t actually know what Valley of the Dolls was about. I knew it was supposed to be quite scandalous, that it had a pink cover, and that I was 95% sure it was made into movie. It wasn’t until I discovered that this year, 2016, is the 50th anniversary of Valley of the Dolls (it was originally published in 1966), however, that I finally took the plunge and decided to buy a copy for myself and check it out (it does help that it came in the gorgeous Virago Modern Classics edition you see above.)

“You’ve got to climb to the top of Mount Everest

to reach the Valley of the Dolls.

It’s a brutal climb to reach that peak,

which so few have seen…

You’re too far away to hear the applause

and take your bows…

The elements have left you battered,

deafened, sightless – and too weary

to enjoy your victory.”


The Basics

Photo of Sharon Tate
A shot from the 1967 film of Valley of the Dolls. (Image Source)

If Valley of the Dolls was released today, publishers would probably market it as chick lit. Readers follow the lives of three women – Anne, Neely, and Jennifer – as they traverse the difficult world of show business from the 1940s to the 1960s, from their meltdowns to their romances to their drug addictions.

Anne Welles, the beautiful but innocent girl from a small New England town who moves to New York City to escape her boring life, is the only main character in the novel who doesn’t set out to work in show business. She actually starts out as a secretary to a theatrical attorney named Henry Bellamy, and it isn’t until much later down the road that she starts modeling. The next major character is the self-titled Neely O’Hara, a teenage vaudeville performer who lives in the same apartment building as Anne. At the beginning of the novel, Neely is part of a dance team known as “The Gaucheros,” however through her connections Anne manages to get Neely a fairly major role in a show called Hit The Sky. Neely’s performance in Hit The Sky is a huge success, and she goes on to become one of the biggest stars the world has ever seen. The last “doll” is the stunning Jennifer North, the sometimes model, sometimes actress who claims she has no talent other than her body and sends the money she earns back home to support her family. These three women all start off young, beautiful, and full of life, but as the years go by their success and society’s pressure to remain eternally good looking overwhelms them all.

“I want to be aware of the minutes and the seconds, and to make each one count.”

Analysis of the Title

Now, the “dolls” referred to in this novel are, of course, the various different pills Anne, Neely and Jennifer become addicted to throughout the course of the story. You have pills to help you sleep (ones that are quick-working and ones that take longer to kick in), you have pills to wake you up in the morning so you don’t feel groggy, and you even have pills to curb your appetite, because heaven forbid you gain any weight. At first just one or two does the job, but before you know it you’re building up a tolerance and you have to take 5 or 6 Seconals just to get a decent night’s sleep. The term “dolls,” however, almost becomes unanimous with Anne, Neely and Jennifer themselves as the plot of this book progresses. Part of this is because the women become so dependent on the pills that they become an integral part of who they are and how they live their lives. Another interpretation, however, is that the three women become known as “dolls” because that’s virtually what they are: dolls bought for their appearances, played with for a couple of hours and then tossed in a corner with all the other toys.

In fact, most women in the entertainment industry are treated as dolls – their bodies are obsessively scrutinized by the media for every flaw and defect, and once women reach a certain age and begin to lose their looks they are shunned as has-beens. This is how the media worked back when Susann wrote Valley of the Dolls, and that’s how the media continues to function to this day (if you don’t believe me, go look in any gossip magazine or on any social media website). So, as well as referring to the women’s drug addictions, I think the title Valley of the Dolls is referring to the valley as an actual destination, a sort of abstract burial ground where women in show business go when they lose public favor. If you look at the novel this way, I suppose it could almost be considered a feminist novel (*gasps* feminist chick lit? Say it isn’t so!).

The Real Life “Dolls”

If Valley of the Dolls reads like the best gossip magazine ever, it’s because that’s basically what it is. Jacqueline Susann wasn’t a remarkable actress, nor was she a remarkable writer, but what she did best was take the various bits and bobs of gossip she had garnered over the year and combine them into one massive gabfest that is utterly delicious.

Actress and singer Judy Garland was Susann’s inspiration for the character of Neely. (Image Source)

-Anne Welles, who many think is inspired by Grace Kelly, is actually a combination of Bea Cole and Lee Reynolds.

-Early Neely, the “vaudeville waif” from the beginning of the novel, is based on Susann’s friend Elfie who she met at a ladies’ hotel in New York in the 1930s when she was trying to make it as an actress. The later Neely, the person Neely becomes once she reaches stardom, however, is very closely based on the life of actress Judy Garland.

-The third doll, Jennifer, is not, as many people believe, inspired by Marilyn Monroe. Rather, Jennifer is an amalgamation of characteristics from Susann herself and the actresses Carole Landis and Joyce Mathews.

-The character of Tony Polar, the attractive but mentally-challenged singer Jennifer falls for, is Susann’s dig at Dean Martin, who Susann says could barely look up from his comic book when she tried to interview him.

-The character of the obnoxiously aging starlet Helen Lawson comes from Susann’s once close friend Ethel Merman, and Susann’s own husband Irving Mansfield gave life to Neely’s first husband Mel, the boring but dependable Jew.

If you want to learn more about Susann’s life and the real scandals that inspired the Valley of the Dolls, I highly recommend this article from Vanity Fair titled “Once Was Never Enough” by Amy Fine Collins. It’s a really fascinating read.

Overall, I did really enjoy Valley of the Dolls. Is it the best piece of literature I’ve ever read? Absolutely not, but was it enjoyable? Extremely! If you’re looking for an easy, fun read that also makes some important points about women’s role in the media, give Valley of the Dolls a try.

Have you read Valley of the Dolls or seen the film adaptation? Let me know down in the comments. 🙂


4 thoughts on “Sex, Drugs, and Show Business: The 50th Anniversary of ‘Valley of the Dolls’

    1. I am not usually a huge fan of chick lit books, I really don’t read that genre at all, but like you said there are definitely more layers to this book! It is an interesting portrayal of the entertainment industry and the way society commercializes women. And I agree, the cover is gorgeous 🙂 thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Super review! I read this a few years ago and overall felt that, if it has been a bit more tightly written, it could indeed be a bit of a feminist classic in the sense it’s brutally honest about how these women are treated by men. So I get when you’re coming from with that! Bronte PS Your copy is so much classier than mine!

    Liked by 1 person

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