Irving Mansfield wants to talk about his wife of 31 years, Jacqueline Susann, not about himself. He likes being introduced as “Mr. Jacqueline Susann.” “She’s the best-known writer in the world,” he brags.
But as most of the world also knows, Jackie Susann died of cancer two years ago. Irving Mansfield still sometimes speaks of her in the present tense. Not long ago a friend called him “a professional widower.”
“Maybe I am,” Mansfield says. “Why else would I sleep in her bed? Why else would I have my breakfast in her chair? Why else did I take her ashes and put them in a beautiful bronze book in the library?”
The book is there, all right, in the elegant seven-room penthouse on Central Park South in Manhattan. Beside it are leather-bound copies of Susann’s three enormous best-sellers—Valley of the Dolls (1966), The Love Machine (1969) and Once Is Not Enough (1973). “By the time I get back from my tour there will be a copy of Dolores there too,” Mansfield vows.
Dolores is the novel Susann wrote as she was dying, and now her 64-year-old husband is promoting it into a bestseller, just as he did the others. It has become a crusade for Mansfield: Minneapolis one day, Texas the next, a stopover in Los Angeles, the red-eye back to New York, where a bookstore was raffling the typewriter on which Valley of the Dolls was written. Mansfield matched the $301 bid, and donated $602 to the New York Public Library.
He met Jacqueline Susann in 1943 at the Stage Door Canteen, where she was appearing in a show called Jackpot. They were married within the year. In 1962, her career as an actress stalled, Susann turned to writing. It was also the year she discovered she had cancer, and a breast was removed. “She thought she was half a woman,” Mansfield says. “I pointed out that I wasn’t born with any bosoms and I wasn’t half a man. It helped take some of the pain away.”
After that, Mansfield gave up a successful career as a radio, TV and movie producer. “I said to myself, ‘From now on my life’s work is my wife.’ ” As she completed Once Is Not Enough, Susann’s doctors told her there would be no reprieve from a second malignancy.
“The day the book came out,” Mansfield reminisces, “she was booked on the Today show. She left Doctors Hospital after a blood transfusion, did the show, walked around the corner, got into an ambulance and went back to the hospital.” Mansfield has a cool appreciation of the imperatives of merchandising: “When you have a book out, you don’t think about the pain.”
Cobalt treatment did not halt the rapid spread of cancer to her lungs, larynx, spine, liver. Though she died in September 1974, the royalty checks continue to pour in. “I’m getting royalties from countries whose names I can’t pronounce,” Mansfield says. “She’s published in 39 languages in 29 countries.” The Guinness Book of Records says Dolls is the biggest-selling novel in history—22.6 million copies. (“One of the joys of being number one,” Mansfield remembers with a smile, “is that they never let your tootsies touch the ground. They meet you at airports, put you in golf carts and drive you to limousines.”)
He says he does not regret giving up his own career. “My only regret is that I didn’t die and my wife could have lived,” he mourns. The two of them shared another grief. Their only child, Guy, now 25, was autistic and had to be institutionalized. “We invented the excuse that he had asthma so in case he was ever cured, it wouldn’t be a stigma,” Mansfield reveals. “We never missed a Saturday visit. And here Jackie was, being attacked by people because she would not accept an invitation on the weekends.”
Promoting Dolores seems to have given Mansfield renewed purpose in life. “It’s very lonely,” he admits. “Something is making me antisocial. I get invited to more parties than I care to attend because I know there is going to be a widow on my left and an about-to-be divorcee on my right. I’d rather pick my own.”
Mansfield is uncharacteristically bitter about one of the real-life characters thinly veiled in Dolores. It is the story of a beautiful young widow of an assassinated American President. (“This book is very sympathetic toward Jackie Kennedy,” Mansfield says bluntly.) Dolores’ sister, though married to an English lord, prefers the company of a simpering gossip much favored on TV talk shows. His name: Horatio Capon.
“I’d give anything if Truman Capote would sue me,” growls Mansfield. Capote said many unkind things about Susann’s books and once commented that she looked like “a truck driver in drag.” Mansfield continues, “I’d pay him to sue me, only because I want to put him on the witness stand. At the end there’d be nothing left but a pink eyeshade, a Panama hat and a little bald spot composed of ectoplasm and cholesterol…” Mansfield sputters, then shouts, “…smelling of alcohol.”
Toward the late Aristotle Onassis, Mansfield is kinder. He recalls Susann’s encounter with the shipping magnate just after the announcement that movie rights to Love Machine had been sold for $1.5 million. “He stopped her as she passed his table at ’21’ and said, ‘You know something, Miss Susann, I think I’m married to the wrong Jackie.’ ”