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Valley Of The Dolls for a new era

A television series on Jacqueline Susann's coming-of-age story is being worked on and a new edition pitching at Gen Y will be out in July

NEW YORK • "It is very Tumblr- friendly," said Mr Whitney Robinson of Valley Of The Dolls, the novel by his step-grandmother Jacqueline Susann that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

With 31 million copies sold and 30 foreign editions that place the book in the best-selling ranks of To Kill A Mockingbird and Gone With The Wind, Valley is hardly obscure.

It is a coming-of-age story that follows Anne, Jennifer and Neely, friends who contend with pretty much all seven deadly sins on their path to fame, from 1945 to 1965.

The cult 1967 movie version starred Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate and Patty Duke, and their big-haired, Pucci-swathed looks and melodramatic lines are frequently invoked by entertainment and design professionals to this day.

Lee Daniels of Empire is working on a television series to be called Star.

It will be "a little Valley Of The Dolls, a little Dreamgirls, a little Supremes, a little bit of TLC and a little bit of me", Daniels, 56, said last year at the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia.


PHOTO: VALLEY OF THE DOLLS INSTAGRAM

Housewares designer Jonathan Adler, 49, whose US$28 (S$38) ceramic pillbox marked Dolls (a nickname for barbiturates), has done a brisk business for a decade, said: "Valley hits on all levels. Canonical gay things tend to have tragic heroines, check; outre hair, check; glamour, check. And most importantly, that ineffable thing: camp."

But if you ask people younger than 30 who Susann is, "you'd probably get a blank look", said Brooke Hauser, who has written a book to be published next month called Enter Helen, about Helen Gurley Brown, Susann's contemporary and the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Enter also Mr Robinson, 33, a contributing editor to Town & Country magazine, who is taking on, with gusto, the role of brand ambassador of Valley to the millennial generation. He helps manage the estate of Susann (who died of breast cancer in 1974) with his aunt Lisa Bishop, the stepdaughter of Susann's husband, publicity agent Irving Mansfield, who died in 1988. The couple had one son, Guy, who was born in 1946, diagnosed with autism and institutionalised. Mr Robinson confirmed the son is alive.

On July 4, Grove Press will release a new edition of Valley, with an introduction by Adler's husband, Barneys fixture Simon Doonan. The cover will be designed by Teddy Blanks, who did the retro one for actress Lena Dunham's bestseller, Not That Kind Of Girl. Dunham has herself name-checked Valley, although not favourably, posting a photo on Instagram of Duke portraying Neely with a comment that read in part: "Lately I've been noticing that nearly every pop cultural image we see of a woman on psychiatric medication is that of an out-of-control, exhausting and exhausted girl who needs help."

But Ms Judy Hottensen, associate publisher of Grove Atlantic, hopes that people raised on Girls and Sex And The City will discover Valley as a positive antecedent. "It is the same women being honest about how they're behaving," she said.

Of Anne, Jennifer and Neely, Ms Bishop said: "They're the three archetypes: a brain, a beauty and a talent. That holds true today as in any other day."

The jury is still out, though, on whether Generation Y will take to Valley, a book that includes passages like: "A man must feel he runs things, but as long as you control yourself, you control him" and "Close friendships with girls come early in life. After 30 it becomes harder to make new friends - there are fewer hopes, dreams or anticipations to share".

This is where well-placed collaborations may come in handy.

Mr Robinson said he has felt both delighted and frustrated seeing Valley become part of the aesthetic vernacular on runways such as Alessandro Michele's Gucci, Tom Ford and Mulberry's fall 2010 ready-to-wear show. There have been purses, such as Christian Louboutin's Pilule, a pill-shaped minaudiere, and an Olympia Le- Tan book clutch.

Valley has perennial commercial appeal, said Mr Mickey Boardman, editorial director of Paper magazine. "That era speaks to me aesthetically much the way Downton Abbey speaks to Ralph Lauren," he said. "There will always be a market for that look."

Susann acted in films and on Broadway before turning to writing. She and Mansfield had a penthouse on Central Park South, ordered dinners from Sardi's and had a poodle named Josephine that became the protagonist of her first book, Every Night, Josephine!.

Ms Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who worked at Susann's publisher Bernard Geis, said the author had a knack for dialogue. "She had a very good ear for how these Broadway babes talk," she said. "She had been part of a pretty hot crowd and knew these characters and all the dirt on them."

But the critics were less fervid. In a review, Gloria Steinem wrote that it was "for the reader who has put away comic books but isn't yet ready for editorials in The Daily News".

Still, Matt Tyrnauer, who is developing a documentary on Susann and Valley, believes she was the trailblazer for Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel. "In her period, she was seen as an anti-feminist in a certain way," he said. "But with hindsight, you could make an argument of Jacqueline Susann as an almost unintentional feminist leader, who redefined a genre and book publishing and was a street-smart, intuitive self-publicist."

NEW YORK TIMES

  • Valley Of The Dolls (50th anniversary edition) is available for pre-order from Books Kinokuniya at $23.55.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Valley Of The Dolls for a new era'. Print Edition | Subscribe