A 'pro' who wore Pucci

Jackie Susann's larger than life, campy persona often hides her achievements.

February 06, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

"Isn't She Great," the new film about the writer Jacqueline Susann, has generated so much notice that one might think Susann's husband, press agent Irving Mansfield, had returned from the grave to orchestrate publicity for his favorite client.

Vanity Fair, which ran excerpts from the film's screenplay in its December issue, followed up with an extensive article about Susann's life in January. Karen Durbin, editor of Mirabella, weighed in with a long piece in the New York Times on Jan. 15. A&E ran an hourlong biography during its recent "Pulp Fiction" week.

But those who claim they come to praise Susann risk burying her achievements beneath details about the campy externals of her life. The Pucci prints! The Korean wigs! The poodle! The pink typing paper! And don't forget, of course, to note that Truman Capote once called her "a truck driver in drag."

Why all this interest in Jacqueline Susann? Why now? I haven't a clue, and I'm a baby-boomer fan who relied on Susann's oeuvre to make it through adolescence. (Where else was a nice Baltimore girl going to learn about feckless men, masochistic women and the fate that awaited those who married too hastily in Elkton?)

I do know the Susann revival began with a funny, self-congratulatory and, well, bitchy 1995 New Yorker article by Susann's one-time editor, Michael Korda. (Don't get me wrong, it is an absolute achievement for a heterosexual man to achieve this level of bitchiness in print.)

It was this article, later included in Korda's memoir, "Another Life," that became the movie, "Isn't She Great." The title comes from the rhetorical question that her husband asked constantly.

Korda's piece was one of those baffling articles in which the writer piles on unattractive details -- Jackie was mean, Jackie was cheap, Jackie was vulgar -- then interrupts himself every so often to inform the reader that he really, really liked and admired his subject. "Still, I remained friendly with Jackie, who fell out with everyone else at S&S [Simon and Schuster] until she had nobody but me to talk to," he writes in "Another Life." Lucky her.

Yet Korda's piece generated much more buzz than the serious and affectionate 1987 biography, "Lovely Me," written by Barbara Seaman. And it's Korda's book that became the new feature film with Bette Midler, while "Lovely Me" had to settle for being a cable television movie with Michele Lee, renamed "Scandalous Me."

I think this is telling, and perhaps even fitting. Susann is the victim of a gossip-obsessed, celebrity-oriented culture that she helped create. ("Live by gossip, die by gossip," she once quipped, after her never-explained stay in a sanitarium made the New York columns.)

Korda writes about Susann as if she were a Susann character -- profane, tacky, larger than life. It's great fun, but his more serious points about her role in publishing tend to get lost.

She was, after all, the first writer to have three consecutive No. 1 New York Times best sellers, and Guinness still lists "Valley of the Dolls" as the best-selling novel of all time.

However, Seaman's book, which cycled back into print recently along with much of Susann's work, is about as thoughtful and respectful a biography as Susann could have dreamed of. While tactful about Susann's deficiencies as a writer -- her books had to be heavily rewritten, restructured and edited -- Seaman is unapologetic about her fondness for her subject.

"I love her," she wrote in "Lovely Me's" preface.

"Loyal to her friends, malicious to her enemies, Jackie was outrageous, original and brave. ... Do I equate Jackie with Emily Dickinson or Virginia Woolf? Certainly not, but how about [Theodore] Dreiser? His style was also clumsy and his characters contemptible."

Lured by celebrity

Susann is scorned because she didn't bother to hide her desire to be a Celebrity -- by any means necessary. She came to New York in 1936, at the age of 18, after winning a beauty contest in her hometown of Philadelphia, determined to make it.

She didn't make it there, or anywhere -- not as an actress, not as a model, not as a playwright. She did enjoy exposure as "the Schiffli Troubadour," touting embroidered clothes on local television, but that was not stardom.

In the early 1960s, she wrote a slender little memoir about her life with her poodle, Josephine, and John Steinbeck's literary agent took her on as a client. But the book was languishing at Doubleday in 1962, and fame seemed farther away than it had ever been when Susann discovered a lump in her breast.

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