Stranger Than Fiction – Spotlight on an Author

“When we were at the Essex House and I had room service and I could buy all my Florence Lustig dresses, I found that I loved you very much.  But now that you’re in the army and getting $56 a month, I feel that my love has waned.”  So wrote Jacqueline Susann to her husband, the influential press agent Irving Mansfield, while he served in World War II.  Unfortunately, the above quote gives you a realistic if unflattering insight into the personality of the very popular novelist.

Susann, who was born in Philadelphia in 1918, was a smart, but lazy student who was into drugs and partying by the time she completed high school.  Upon graduation she went to New York in hopes of becoming an actress, but had little success.  There she met Mansfield who wooed and won her, though she was not sexually attracted to him, after he placed tidbits and photos of her in the society and theater sections of various New York newspapers.  Though she didn’t love him, she felt that he would dedicate his life to satisfying her insatiable need for public attention.  And she was right.

Throughout her marriage Susann had numerous affairs, notably with comedians including Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, and Joe E. Brown.  The Brown affair led to the above sited “Dear John” letter (which, incidentally, she read aloud to the cast of a play she was appearing in at the time).  She may also have been bisexual, having affairs with Ethel Merman and Coco Chanel among others.

In her affairs, she was following a model that her father set for her.  When she was a child, he would take her to a movie where he would leave her while he met his latest mistress.  On the way home, he would quiz her about the movie in case her mother asked him about it.

Despite everything she and Mansfield remained married until her death.  They had only one child, a son named Guy, who was diagnosed as autistic at age three or four, so Susann and Mansfield had him institutionalized for life.  When asked about Guy, they told friends that he was away at boarding school in Arizona because of severe problems with asthma.

Susann eventually got into TV, and, at the encouragement of her husband, began to write.  Her second novel, her biggest success, was Valley of the Dolls which has to do with sex and drugs (the “dolls” in the title).  Though it was never proven, many believe that some of the characters in Valley of the Dolls were based on real people – including Judy Garland, Carole Landis (who committed suicide after her lover, Rex Harrison, refused to leave his wife for her), and Ethel Merman.  She followed up Valley of the Dolls with The Love Machine and Once Is Not Enough.

Though successful, she was scorned by many other writers.  Gore Vidal, for instance, stated, “She doesn’t write, she types!”  And Truman Capote appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson said that Susann, “looks like a truck driver in drag.”  When Susann threatened to sue Capote, he apologized “to truck drivers everywhere.”  When Susann later appeared on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson asked her, “What do you think of Truman?”  She replied that she thought he would go down as one of our best presidents.

In 1962 she had a mastectomy due to breast cancer, and in 1973 she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  She died on September 21, 1974 at the age of 56 with her long-suffering husband, Irving, at her bedside.

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