Weren’t They Tragic?

SANTA MONICA, Calif., Jan. 28, 2000 – Jacqueline Susann was the queen of flashy trash — the first literary pop star of the modern p.r. age. And Hollywood is putting her in the spotlight today with the opening of “Isn’t She Great,” a Susann biopic starring Bette Midler. It’s a comic look at the woman behind “Valley of the Dolls” — the once-shocking novel filled with every tawdry Tinseltown element its author could muster.

“Dolls” was published in February 1966, replete with pill-popping, sex-crazed movie stars in a tragic vein (a central trio transparently based Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Ethel Merman). Susann’s husband, former radio producer Irving Mansfield (played by Nathan Lane in the film), put together a whirlwind promotional tour which sent the book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list by May. “Valley of the Dolls” held that No. 1 position for 28 consecutive weeks.

Susann, who died in 1974 of cancer, once said: “All the people in my books, the ones who are glamorous, or beautiful, or rich or talented — they have to suffer, see, because that way the people who read me can get off the subway and go home feeling better about their own crappy lives, luckier than the people they’ve been reading about.”

In honor of Susann’s grasp of the glamorous and the tragic, here’s a quick list of fateful film figures, both in and out of the pages of author Jacqueline Susann. The real-life “Valley of the Dolls,” per se:


Few celebrity deaths ever generated as much noise as Monroe‘s apparent suicide at the age of 36. Her body was discovered in the bed of her Brentwood home, where she had succumbed to a massive dose of sleeping pills.


Thanks to the big MGM family, Garland began playing with “dolls” in her teens: she used pills to go to sleep, pills to stay awake, and even more pills to suppress her appetite. Is it any wonder she began seeing psychoanalysts at the age of 21? Or that her death in 1969 at age 45, officially described as accidental overdose of sleeping pills, came in the wake of a number of suicide attempts?


MGM producer Paul Bern took his own life barely two months after marrying the “blonde bombshell” in 1932. His death note read, in part: “Dearest Dear: Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation. You understand that last night was only a comedy.” Harlow died five years later, of cerebral edema, after becoming seriously ill during the filming of “Saratoga.”


Was the casting of Hayward in the film version of “Dolls” hitting a little close to home? In 1955, she received hospital treatment after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. She died in 1975 at age 56 after battling a brain tumor for two years.


Famous for her peek-a-boo bangs, Lake shot to the top of Paramount’s female roster in the early 1940s, but faded quickly when she cropped the style in support of the nation’s war effort. By 1951, Lake had declared bankruptcy. At the low point of her career, in 1962, the New York Post spotted Lake, with hair pulled back, working as a barmaid at the Martha Washington Hotel in New York.


She’s probably the least known of tragic Hollywood figures, but her life played out just like the quintessential Hollywood tragedy. A stage actress who couldn’t make a go of it in the movies, Entwhistle climbed to the top of the “H” in the Hollywood sign and leapt to her death.