When Jacqueline Susann and Irving Mansfield got married, in 1939, he was the hotshot and she, the nobody. He was a hustler well on the way toward a lucrative career on the periphery of show business: first as a press agent for stars of varying degrees of radiance, later as a producer of radio and television talent-scouting shows. She, by contrast, was an ambitious but notably untalented actress who seemed destined to spend her life sweeping up the crumbs of gay old Broadway: bit parts on the stage, commercials and panel shows on television, minor notices in the gossip columns.
But Jacqueline Susann was more than just ambitious; she was obsessively so. When after more than two decades of marriage it became abundantly obvious that she had no past, present or future as a performer, she turned her full attention to her typewriter and upon it fashioned a career that exceeded anything she could have imagined for herself in show biz. With the publication in 1965 of her first novel, "Valley of the Dolls," she became the undisputed Queen of Schlock, a title that was permanently retired upon her death in the summer of 1974. Unto this very day her novels have a huge and devout following, with sales in the millions many times over.
In the last decade of her life Susann, as a result of her celebrity and her tireless enthusiasm for the promotion of her books, was a familiar figure to millions of Americans if not an especially appetizing one. The most charitable word for her physical appearance--which was characterized by sequins and furs, great layers of makeup, titanic hairpieces and falls--would be "gaudy"; Truman Capote, rarely given to charity, once described her as looking "like a truck driver in drag." Her manner was aggressive, pushy, self-aggrandizing; she had a nose for the limelight and didn't hesitate to shove aside anyone who stood between it and her. She was as quick to give insults as to receive them, and sometimes with clever results; of Philip Roth, whose masturbatory "Portnoy's Complaint" was a competitor for number one best-seller status, she said, "He's a fine writer, but I wouldn't want to shake hands with him."
But her widower would have us believe that there was more to Susann than tacky glitter. His affectionate memoir portrays a woman whose cold ambition and brassy manner disguised a troubled life. Apart from her failure to achieve anything remotely approximating a success in show business, she suffered through much of her adulthood from two terrible afflictions. The first was the autism with which her only son, Guy, suffered from his birth in 1946; Mansfield says this gave her an "urgency to earn money, lots of money, to assure his continuing care." The second was the cancer that first struck when she was 44, requiring her to undergo a mastectomy, and then returned a decade later for what proved to be her final illness.
These tribulations she kept as secret as possible. At the time Guy was judged to be autistic, people "were not as open as they are now about mental and emotional illness," so his parents made up elaborate excuses for their son's absence until their friends seem finally to have forgotten about his existence. Similarly, her mastectomy was performed "more than a decade before Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller and Marvella Bayh and all those other brave women went public with their mastectomies," so only Susann's closest friends knew about the physical and emotional torment inflicted upon her. Much of her life, Mansfield writes in obvious sorrow, was spent "telling two sets of lies."
It is for these quite genuinely touching disclosures about Susann's private affairs that "Life With Jackie" is most interesting. Little else in it is of moment. Mansfield's love for his wife certainly is appealing, but his efforts to perform literary exegesis on her novels border on the hilarious: "Critics rarely talked about the dark underside of 'Valley,' but the pervading pessimism is what most strikes today's reader." When he observes in all solemnity of this same novel that Susann "thought her book had lost its depth and subtlety in translation to the screen," the giggles just come tumbling out. He's given to name-dropping of the most flamboyant sort, and he natters on at nauseating length about his "intimate friends" and "lovely neighbors" and "close friends" in every nook and cranny of the wonderful world of show biz.
Yet in his awkward, artless way Mansfield has done right by his wife. Susann's books had many faults, but insincerity was not among them; she really believed in the stories she told, and it was probably this palpable conviction as much as anything else that made them so attractive to so many readers. The same kind of conviction permeates "Life With Jackie," and excuses its many shortcomings.