April 20, 1987 12:00 PM

by Barbara Seaman

It’s very difficult to make readers care about the kind of tough, mean and self-centered woman who would throw a drink in Johnny Carson’s face at a New York bar or dump a table over in a Los Angeles restaurant during a fight with her husband. So most people probably won’t like the Jacqueline Susann they meet in this quality biography. But they will understand her. Susann surmounted impossible odds to become, at 47, the reigning superstar of pulp fiction. As a beginning novelist, she had to accept on-the-job training from editor Don Preston. He is the pro who took her chaotic manuscript for Valley of the Dolls and shaped it into the book that in 1966 became a best-seller. Beyond the valley of literature, though, Susann was a genius at promotion. What other writer ever got up at dawn in Chicago to bring Danish pastries to the truck drivers who were to deliver her paperbacks? While Susann made it to the top, the climb was brutalizing. Daughter of a promiscuous portrait painter, Susann came to New York at 18 determined to become an actress. She gravitated toward the casting couch only to find it a route to mediocrity. There were bit roles on Broadway, soap demonstrations in department stores and Schiffli embroidery commercials on TV. For a short time she had her own TV talk show. Along the way the bisexual Susann managed to marry Irving Mansfield, a press agent and later a TV producer. She then embarked on affairs with Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Lewis, George Jessel, actress Carole Landis and Walter Pidgeon. It was a druggy, boozy life, which later inspired her novel about “dolls”—slang for pills as well as glamorous women. At 44, she found herself unemployed, a cancer patient and the mother of an institutionalized autistic son. With the encouragement of friends, she had written her first book about her pet poodle, Every Night, Josephine! From then on it was all drive and determination; even from her deathbed Susann rose to publicize her last book, Once Is Not Enough. Seaman tries too hard to make Susann better than she was, even going so far as to compare her with Theodore Dreiser. As a person she was almost grotesque, but as a trouper she had a kind of class. In any case, many of the readers who bought her novels will be fascinated by this biography. (William Morrow, $18.95)

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