Thursday, 6 June 2013

Whatever Happened To... Jacqueline Susann?


In an era when writers were supposed to...well...just write, and leave all the marketing and publicity of their work to the small army of publicists employed by their publishers, Jacqueline Susann broke new ground.  Along with her husband, press agent Irving Mansfield, she tirelessly and shamelessly travelled to every part of the English speaking world to promote her books.

Her activities earned her derision from some of her fellow authors.  Gore Vidal said, "She doesn't write, she types!" Others scoffed and said she "typed on a cash register." Not that she cared. After all, her books were bestsellers and she could have the lifestyle she had always wanted.

Jacqueline Susann led a colourful and, at times, controversial life. She was born in Philadephia on August 20th 1918, the daughter of Robert Susann, a portrait painter with a roving eye. Her mother, Rose, was a schoolteacher and convinced her clever daughter would one day become a successful author. But at first Jacqueline had no such aspirations. She wanted to be an actress and started out to achieve her goal.

In 1936, after dabbling in drugs and gaining a reputation for being a goodtime girl, she graduated high school and left for New York City. There she landed small parts in films and plays and after a year landed a role playing a lingerie model which paid her the princely sum of $25 per week.


She met Irving Mansfield and they married in April 1939. It has been said that he adored her but she wasn't sexually attracted to him. He won her over by publicising her in the theatre and society sections of various high circulation newspapers in New York. A lot has been made of her sexuality over the years, with strong and persistent rumours that she was bisexual. She is alleged to have had affairs with actress Carole Landis and famous fashion designer Coco Chanel. She is even supposed to have tried to start a physical relationship with Ethel Merman! Most of her friends dismiss these allegations as utter fabrication.

On the other hand, her extra-marital affairs with men, such as actor and singer Eddie Cantor, nearly broke up her marriage. Then, in 1942, she fell in love with comedian Joe E. Lewis. Irving had been drafted into the US Army and learned of the affair when Jacqueline sent him a letter telling him she wanted to end their marriage. Unfortunately, Lewis wasn't so keen on the idea - especially when he discovered Jacqueline had set her sights on marrying him. He immediately applied for a posting overseas and was sent to New Guinea!

In 1944, she and Irving reunited and had a son - Guy - two years later. Sadly, he was diagnosed as autistic at the age of three and the following year, he was committed to an institution. In those days little was known about the condition and this was considered normal practice. The decision to commit him wasn't taken lightly and Jacqueline remained wracked with guilt for the rest of her life. As far as is known, Guy is still in the home where he was placed. Unable to admit the truth, his mother told everyone that Guy was asthmatic and needed to live in Arizona for his health.


In 1955, Jacqueline acquired her black poodle, Josephine, who became the subject of her first successful book, Every Night, Josephine. In this funny - sometimes hilarious - story, she recounts life with her dog who had to suffer the indignity of appearing in public in outfits matching her mistress's. A quirky novelty, the book's decent sales funded her next project - an expose of the seedier side of show business and drug dependency. Fiction it may have been but Valley of the Dolls struck a familiar chord with many people in the industry and beyond. Published in 1966, it hit the New York Times Bestseller list and remained there at number one for many weeks.

Since 1962, Jacqueline Susann had kept a tragic health secret. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had undergone a mastectomy. She didn't let this deter her from her goal of becoming an international bestselling author and followed up the phenomenally successful Valley of the Dolls with two further novels, The Love Machine and Once Is Not Enough. Her promotional tour schedule was punishing and everywhere she went, she signed copies of books, took down names and addresses of people she met, and kept in contact with them. If only email had been around then!


Jacqueline Susann was much in demand on talk shows for her sharp wit, and had a famous spat with Truman Capote which he initiated when he said she looked "like a truck driver in drag". She reponded by threatening to sue, so Capote apologised  - "to truck drivers everywhere". Johnny Carson invited her onto The Tonight Show and asked what she thought about Truman. She replied, "Truman...Truman... I think history will prove he's one of the best Presidents we've had."


In January 1973, she was admitted to hospital suffering from a persistent bad cough and associated breathing problems. A tour to publicise her latest novel, One Is Not Enough, was imminent and she was determined to go through with it. Tests revealed a nodular lesion in her right lung, and transfer to Mount Sinai hospital, followed by further tests, revealed  that the breast cancer was back. She was given just months to live, but insisted on carrying on with her book tour.

In the summer of 1974, she was admitted to hospital for the last time and lay in a coma for seven weeks. She died on September 21st 1974 at the age of 56. Her last words to Irving Mansfield were, "Hiya doll. Let's get the helloutta here."

There is a website dedicated to her. Here's the link
 
Finally, here's Jacqueline Susann in the American version of What's My Line:


9 comments:

  1. I'm just old enough to have read "Once is not enough" (I was in high school and my mother had it). Wow, now as a writer and adult I loved learning about this author. What a character! The Truman Capote come back in Carson was hilarious. Good for her. Someone who did what went against the grain! My kinda gal! Fabulous post, Antonia!

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    1. Thank you, Sharon. She certainly was unique!

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  2. another great posy missy! She was certainly quite a ballsy dame, you gotta love the fact she was so shameless in many ways.

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    1. I agree, Shehanne. She trailblazed in a lot of ways. Now we have Joan Rivers and Jackie Collins - but she was both of them in one feisty package. And she did it first!

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  3. Yeah she did. She sure was something.

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  4. Oh wow! You never fail to write stupendous blog posts! This really took me back. I read Jacqueline Susann when I was a shy teenager, hiding the thick books from my mother who would not have approved. A great woman, a great writer. I'm so glad you've done her the honour of writing about her.

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    1. Thank you, Noelle. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  5. Cracking post. I've never read anything by her, nor seen the films, but she sounds as though she singlehandedly invented 'author branding'.

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    1. Hi Elin. Thank you. I think her husband had a lot to do with it but, being a groundbreaker and a maverick - as well as highly intelligent - she went for it in a way that just hadn't been done before. She and Irving Mansfield might not have had a 'traditional' marriage, but they were the perfect partnership.

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