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Austin Chronicle The Jacqueline Susann Story

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  It's hard to imagine that if Jacqueline Susann were still alive, she'd soon turn 80 years old. But that's the thing about people who die before they grow really old - you get to remember them as something other than the wizened, wrinkled creatures they'd surely become. In this case, we get to remember potboiler author Jacqueline (pronounced Jack-wah-leen by her mother) Susann as the tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, garishly painted typist that she was in the late Sixties and early Seventies. And those are the good things about her.

In Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann by Barbara Seaman (Seven Stories, $14.99 paper) we are treated to an all-out, full-frontal, no-pill-left-unturned attack on a woman previously thought to be only superficial and tacky. We find out, on short order, that she was not only superficial and tacky, but that she was vindictive, drug addicted and bisexual, among other things. From her childhood, when her father thought she was too ugly to carry a sophisticated name like Jack-Wah-Leen, to her adulthood, when she felt she had a lot in common with "the other Jackie," Susann's life is far more interesting and scandalous than any of her books, including Valley of the Dolls. But that's not to say that her books are uninteresting.

I just reread Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls since it, along with Barbara Seaman's biography of the author, was reissued several months back. And may I say that it's just as trashy, tawdry, and immensely readable as it was 30+ years ago. Of course, it's required reading - or at least viewing (the movie is a scream) - for all queens and other "camp" followers. Its roman à clef aspect is irresistible, but Jacqueline Susann's real life story is a far better read.

There's no guessing who's who in Lovely Me - Barbara Seaman tells all. It would seem that Susann's fiction isn't quite so fictional. All queens know that VD's (as Valley of the Dolls was known within the publishing industry) Neely O'Hara was Judy Garland, Jennifer North was Marilyn Monroe, and the despicable Helen Lawson was based on Ethel Merman. But what is not quite so commonly known is the fact that Jacqueline's portrait of Ethel was based on their alleged (gulp!) lesbian affair. Imagining the two of them together is, as Blanche DuBois would say, worthy of only Mr. Edgar Allen Poe.

But that is only one of Ms. Seaman's lovely surprises. Another surprise is that, while Valley of the Dolls' heroine Anne Welles is predictably based on JS's idea of what she imagined herself to be, the dullest hero/love interest in fiction, Lyon Burke, is based on JS's own father and her apparent unrequited desire for him. This is a subplot that appears in all of JS's books in some form or another - and was the subject of an essay by critic Andrew Sarris (from whom I freely borrowed the title of this piece). Naturally, it is a subplot that always ends unhappily, usually with the heroine turning to drugs and alcohol for comfort - as JS herself did.

Susann's entire repertoire is marginal if infamous. It consists of Every Night, Josephine! (a treacly tribute to her adored poodle), the aforementioned VD, The Love Machine (another roman à clef - this one about the inner workings of network television and, naturally, drugs), Once Is Not Enough (completely dull, and with rampant substance abuse), Delores (a thinly veiled portrait of "the other Jackie"), and Yargo (a pathetic attempt at science fiction). Though VD is memorable primarily as a period piece, as is Susann herself, everything else she wrote is entirely forgettable. They were bestselling blockbusters at the time (I remember being in the Austin Community College bookstore in 1975 and seeing boxed sets of the works of Dostoyevsky, Winston Churchill, and - you guessed it! - Jacqueline Susann!), but faded quickly as their shallow revelations about sex and drugs became passe.

Jacqueline Susann once said she'd be remembered as the Voice of the Sixties - "Yeah, me, the Beatles, and Andy Warhol." Yeah, right, Jackie, but among so many voices....- Stephen M. Moser


When Dominique Moceanu has a memoir, it's apparent that far too many memoirs are being written. Dozens of famous or merely pretending-to-be-famous people are writing memoirs these days. It's a rather revolting turn of events. After all, what can the prepubescent Moceanu, who won a gold medal in gymnastics at the Olympics, have to tell? But All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg (Pantheon Books, $25 hard) is different. It is a triumphant book that should be read by anyone interested in the South, journalism, tenacity, or class issues.

Bragg, a national correspondent for The New York Times, tells a compelling story about his journey from poverty to the Pulitzer Prize. Born the son of a dirt-poor woman who went on welfare and took in laundry to make ends meet, Bragg describes in heartrending detail the heartbreaks his mother and brothers endured at the hands of his father, a ne'er-do-well who abandoned the family when Bragg was a boy and later drank himself to death. He tells of life in a small Appalachian town in northeastern Alabama where the class system and racism were so ingrained that escape seemed impossible.

All Over But the Shoutin' bears more than a passing resemblance to Willie Morris' North Toward Home. Like Morris, Bragg quickly rose through the ranks to become a celebrated journalist in the hottest journalism market in the world, New York City. But unlike Morris, a native of Mississippi, who got his degree at the University of Texas and later studied at Oxford, Bragg attended college for just six months at Jacksonville State University. Unlike Morris, who ascended to a large degree on the strength of his intellect, Bragg made his way up through the ranks through dogged determination, hard work, and an amazing gift for storytelling.

For a journalist, reading Bragg is both delightful and dismaying. Delightful because of the ease and beauty of his writing; dismaying because he is simply so damn good, his words so descriptive, his sentences and paragraphs so facile. "One man has already died behind the counter of the grocery where Omar Rosario works, murdered in a tiny business where customers pay in pennies and promises," he wrote in a 1994 story for the Times about a string of murders at small grocery stores. "Before he goes to work he slips on his bulletproof vest, slides a black 9-millimeter pistol into his waistband and gives himself to God. It is early on a Wednesday night and the store's lights gleam like new money among the dead street lights at the corner of 139th Street and Edgecombe Avenue."

All Over But the Shoutin' is an engaging book, easily read in a couple of sittings. And while I enjoyed it, there are a few quibbles. Bragg talks continually throughout the book about using his Southernness, his outsider status, as a badge, as a weapon against the system. But at times, Bragg carries the cornpone too far. At his grandmother's funeral, he shakes his cousins' hands, and "asked them how their mommas was." He writes about "fake, pink" tomatoes that New Yorkers eat "because they don't know no better." At another point, talking about race relations in his part of rural Alabama, he says that he and his brothers would throw rocks at the black children who lived down the road. Then, after the same children brought them some food during a period when his mother was sick in bed, Bragg writes, "I would like to say that we came together but that would be a lie. It was rural Alabama in 1965, two separate distinct states. But at least, we didn't throw no more rocks."

While Bragg's use of colloquial English is at times irritating, it is a minor irritation. It is minor because Bragg is honest. He makes clear his burning determination to beat all the other journalists who have had better luck, better parents, and better schools than he. He confesses that he has no personal life, few possessions, and only one ex-wife to show for his years of work. And he admits that work is the only thing that matters in his life. "This job is who I am," he writes, "what I have instead of a wife and children, in place of a garden and a house with a porch swing." Bragg proudly displays the chip on his shoulder that drives him and finally allows him to buy his mother a home of her own. "It is done," he writes. "She wakes up in a house of her own, a real home, and she is as good as anybody on that road. She lives warm when it is cold and cool when it is hot."

Bragg's book is, more than anything, the search for a home. As a dutiful and devoted son, he worked for two decades to save enough money to buy his mother a mortgage-free place of her own. As an itinerant journalist, he writes of waking up in new hotel rooms, trying to figure out what town he is in. With All Over But the Shoutin', Bragg has shown that he belongs, not to any one specific place, but to the league of big-time journalists. He has also proven that he belongs to the elite group of people whose lives have been interesting enough to deserve a memoir.- Robert Bryce


Please, please, please, I beg of you, go find the smart marketing weenie who came up with the idea for the computer game/novel tie-in. When you have chased him from his dank lair, smack him as hard as you can on the back of the head with Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic by Terry Jones (Harmony Books, $20 hard). Tell him I sent you. Then, whack yourself in the head for buying this book in the first place. It's not so much that the book is bad, even though it is. Starship Titanic reads like one of Jones' rejected Monty Python skits while trying to be another Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the book that first broke Douglas Adams in this country and is a classic of the science fiction genre. In fact, Titanic, both the book and the concurrently released game, is based on a throw-away line in Life, the Universe, and Everything, the fourth book in the Hitch-hiker trilogy (don't ask), about a starship that undergoes a "Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure" on its maiden voyage. The thought apparently re-crossed Adams' mind - or his wallet - and he decided to launch a game that would explain what a Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure was and give the avid gamer a chance to play on a big boat that has lots of gee-whiz gizmos.

That's all well and good. I've nothing against computer games nor gizmos nor making a buck. But then some clever little beastie made Adams think that a companion novel would be a Good Idea and this drivel was the result. You see, Adams couldn't develop both novel and game simultaneously and handed the book off to Jones. Bad idea. Jones tries to make his words fit Adams' signature style and sucks all of the intelligent life out of them. Not his fault, I suppose; writing in another's voice is much like trying to wear another's dirty underwear - it's just uncomfortable for all involved.

I suppose even that could be forgiven if this book had one really great idea or one really great joke. It doesn't. What Starship Titanic does have is a storyline that reads like the game itself, with a bevy of wacky characters (including a parrot for those who can't resist a Python reference) who are forced to find the missing part of the starship's brain while they deal with one set of obstacles after another.

Deep, deep down, this book is nothing but a hint guide set in paragraphs and chapters. On top of that, you can see Adams and Jones setting up the sequel, trying to start another string of witty British science fiction with more than a few potty jokes. But the deeper questions about existence that lurked beneath the first four books of the Hitch-hiker trilogy are starkly absent in this most-recent hunk of dreck. - Adrienne Martini


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