Jaqueline Susann, The Publicity Machine

Jaqueline Susann failed as an actress, but wrote the best-selling novel of all time and changed the way books were sold.

On the wrong side of forty, Jaqueline Susann knew that she would never be a successful actress. She had been trying for decades-- hoofing it in the chorus, playing bit parts on television-- and the most recognition that she ever had was for a series of embroidery commercials. Her publicist husband, Irving Mansfield, however, realized that she had a treasure trove of showbiz stories filed away in her mind, and urged her to write them down.

Jackie had indeed been a witness to quite a lot of drama. Her best friend, Carole Landis, was a suicidal Broadway actress whose boyfriend, agent Billy Rose, was a jealous, violent man. Another close friend had been Ethel Merman, that is, until she and Jackie had a loud, public falling out. And then there was her affair with stand-up comedian Joe E. Lewis, a notorious alcoholic and womanizer. She had the material.

Jackie had already written a humorous book about her pet poodle, called "Every Night, Josephine!" It had gotten respectful reviews but sold modestly. Now she hauled out her typewriter again. Irving told her, "Just write down whatever you and your friends talk about over lunch." The result was a novel called "Valley of the Dolls," a campy tale about three innocent girls who are turned into monsters by the Hollywood dream machine.

The literary crowd laughed at first-- Truman Capote said, "This isn't writing, it's typing"-- but when "Valley of the Dolls" was published in 1966, Jackie and Irving set about changing the way books were sold. They didn't wait for a publisher to set up interviews and book signings for them; they toured the country themselves in their car, stopping at every mom-and-pop bookstore along the way.

Jackie's chutzpah and sense of humor won over bookstore owners, who then showcased her novel and recommended it to customers. She and Irving even went to the warehouses that distributed the book and handed out doughnuts to the delivery drivers.

When "Valley of the Dolls" began selling, Jackie was ready for her close-up. Soon she was appearing on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, bantering with Carson and defending her book's raunchy sexuality. When Truman Capote went on the same show and declared that Jackie looked like "a truck driver in drag," the press clamored for an apology. He did apologize-- to truck drivers everywhere. Jackie was hurt by the remark, but knew that it would only drive up sales.

Jackie followed up "Valley of the Dolls" with "The Love Machine" and "Once is Not Enough," both of which were also phenomenal bestsellers. After she died of cancer in 1974, at the age of 56, a novella, "Delores," also climbed the charts. According to the Guinness Book of Records, "Valley of the Dolls" is still the best-selling novel of all time.

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