“Valley of the Dolls,” Grad School Guilty Pleasure

Andrea Lambert
Nov 6 · 10 min read

“I kicked pills, booze and the funny farm, I don’t need anybody or anything” — Neely O’Hara

I read Valley of the Dolls before bed at my parents house. Woke up with one arm twisted behind my neck and the other groping madly at the air in my childhood waterbed.

“I am in New York” said Anne. Said Neely. Said Jennifer.

I was in San Diego wishing to be in New York by spring 2005.

I arrived in the ancestral home in San Diego. Like Anne shedding her ancestral home in Lawrenceville. Anne moving into the rooming house with Neely O’Hara. I felt like Anne Welles. I was still alive at least. The shedding like the viral shedding of my herpes. The casting off did not happen as much now as it did later. The casting off the old simple Anne to be first a girl Friday and then a cover girl for Gilmore. The casting off of the drug addict role to the grad student role.

Abject, but not vile. Perhaps not. I felt that vileness from Neely and myself when the dolls hit. When Neely staggered about her apartment with a bottle of Scotch shouting curses at Hollywood.

I came to San Francisco after shedding my youth in Portland. I became a temp, another type of secretary. I wore suits. Traipsed around the Financial District in heels.

Dionne Warwick sang on the Valley of the Dolls soundtrack, “Got to get up. Got to get out. Time to find life on my own. Got to get up. Got to get on. Got to get off of this ride. Got to get got to find. Need to get hold of my pride.”

When I got to CalArts in 2006 I listened to the Valley of the Dolls record over and over. I had the record cover pinned to my dorm room wall. I hid the book away with the Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia in a box under my bed far away from the Genet, Debord, Kristeva and Cortazar on my display bookshelves.

Why were these writers whom I felt comfortable publicly liking mostly men? Except the token one whose soul cause was femininity? Kristen writing about the female orgasm of jouissance? Jaqueline Susann fed my occasional quest for light reading. Susann fed me more then even Debord.

My back clenched over the keyboard as I wrote for my MFA. I nibbled cafeteria peanuts. I waited in anger for the campus coffeeshop Tatum to open when it was clearly ten am. All I wanted was a goddam cup of coffee, dammit.

Really, the pink boudoirs of New York ingénues Valley of the Dolls depicted held only fleeting charm. The romance novel cover. The dubious literary value. Dubious, another term for no literary value.

I expelled myself. I spit myself out. I abjected myself with the same motion through which I claimed to establish myself. As I become an artist I gave birth to myself amid the violence of sobs and vomit at CalArts.

Picking quarters and then nickels off the floor for food, that was abjection in San Francisco. 2006 was better then 2004. My struggles now were mostly abstract, academic. Writing and getting enough to eat.

Susann’s heroine Anne in her rosy bed with arms groping at the sky knew none of my troubles. She grasped at her fabulous future. As I grasped at my fabulous hoped-for future beyond graduate school in Los Angeles.

Gold was the ring that Allen Cooper gave to Anne in Valley of the Dolls. To seduce her at El Morocco with la pouvoir de son richesse. Far from jouissance. It’s the simple crass fact of the matter. Money controls everything. I knew that then and now.

What drove me from San Francisco in the end was that all of my posings and archings won me none in terms of such husbandry but much in terms of unsavory, exorbitant habits. The vehement self-destructiveness of the jouissance I learned about in grad school. Drugs. The little death of Bataille. Thanatos. The death-drive to annihilate. To explode into “Forget Domani” as Sinatra sang.

I couldn’t do drugs anymore. I couldn’t if I ever wanted to have a future. I had to go on.

Where was the other Anne? My dorm-mate? The actress who produced theatre in Chicago and New York?

Anne and I sat in the squalid dorm kitchen on the paltry hard dorm couches. Talked about that for all that I paid $60,000 of money I didn’t have and would never pay back to go to CalArts, they couldn’t provide me with a desk chair that didn’t give me constant, chronic back pain. The nurse did nothing but hand out business cards for off-campus doctors.

The doctors said “Come back in three weeks.” The college health insurance said, “No, we’ll only cover half your medication.”

Our complaints about the limited hours and bizarre, bureaucratic obfuscations of CalArts administrators multiplied.

Anne rose from the couch. Got back to rehearsal.

I turned back to Valley of the Dolls. Anne Welles put on her Gilmore Girl face. Went to lunch with Lyon Burke. Her paramour who just arrived back from WWII. Lyon wanted to write a novel. So did I.

I read Valley of the Dolls over and over when I should have been reading Naked Lunch.

“I read an article once…” Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Ninety-Two Degrees” begins with this phrase. “I read an article once that said more murders are committed at 92 degrees then many other temperature…It’s just 92, people get irritable.”

No. No. The article I read said that 81% of all Americans believe they have a novel in them and only a minute percentage actually do the work of writing the novel. No one wants to actually sit down and write that book. The article cited this. Mainly that people just wanted to publish one and get a following. Get famous, as happens to so few writers. I wanted literary fame so badly that I could taste it. Ever elusive.

When I was in San Francisco, drifting around in nightclubs with feathers in my hair, I heard a lot of young men say that they could write a novel. They just had to sit down and do it. I would take them home with me. Show them Jet Set Desolate. See what they thought.

Some said, “Slapstick sex farce. Does this get deeper?” Some decided I was Anais Nin. Score. Fundamentally it was the lonely writer’s pathetic plea for validation. I’m still that way. If you read me, I’m thrilled.

Look at me! I do something! It is valuable even though nobody understands it. I wrote in complete isolation in San Francisco and San Diego. I believed no-one would ever publish me beyond Internet porn. I didn’t have hot hipster small press connections then. I had few friends at CalArts then and now because I am so narcissistic.

Writing was indeed a pathetic plea for validation in and of itself. I did that a lot. That’s what Twitter and Facebook were all about to me beyond even networking or self-expression.

“Did you read my story? What did you think?” I asked my classmates.

I was constantly consumed by the idea that no-one would take me seriously as I got my start writing for the Internet with porn. I never taught like so many of my peers. I was the shittiest ESL tutor ever. This MFA was my first and only graduate degree. I had two unpublishable transgressive novels put away. I felt like a crank. A fraud in the house of art school.

But this was not about me anymore. It was about Anne who I read about. Whether Anne played secretary to Bellamy and Bellamy or went to Mulligans in Valencia for karaoke. Valley of the Dolls was about Anne and Neely. I lived through them.

I loved Neely. I felt like Neely or Patty Duke. They were Bipolar too. I was never a movie or Broadway star like Neely. I was only a wanna-be writer. But Neely’s struggle with drugs and fame spoke to me.

I was never a model like Anne Welles. Oh, wait. I was occasionally an amateur. There were a few moments of runway as a hair model in purely downscale DIY Vidal Sassoon for Architects and Heroes Salon. That bar fashion show I got roped into by being in Wasteland at the right time with Mira. Purely random. My drug friends were often hairdressers that got me in as a hair model for giving them coke.

Some chick model searched me on Haight Street one exciting afternoon. I wrote my dress size down as a 12 in her binder because I didn’t know my dress size then. I only wore vintage. I had to change my phone number as I moved apartments often. The model scout never called. I had these model fragment moments but they didn’t mean shit. Amateur hour.

Anne was on television in Gilmore face and pancake back in the sixties when women wore pancake makeup. All I was doing in 1997 was strutting the card tables in the Reed College Student Union in a bikini made of Australian beer bottle caps. A few embarrassing moments too drunk for words in a sailor suit approximating deconstructed halter top and board shorts in that club in the Mission. My stiletto caught the crease on the table and I almost fell off the runway. That was what I remembered.

These experiences were why I feared academia. The sort of ditz moments that caught me apologetic and self-conscious. Unserious amid my more serious peers. I couldn’t keep my scandals secret. I had a big mouth. Wild hands on the keyboard spilling secrets.

But Neely was never self-conscious. Neely was bold. In the tiny rooming house cell at the hotel for women she proclaimed why felt this cold distaste at a man’s kiss. No, that was frigid Anne. Neely proclaimed her joy at Oreos, Gone with the Wind and ice cream in terms I won’t repeat.

Neely fell in love with her gay husband in Valley of the Dolls. I fell in love with my gay boyfriend Micah in San Diego. We made eyes over a bottle of Riesling and a Shitzhou named Blanche for three months. Micah told me he had AIDS. I was blown out of the water forever.

My yearning for connection was so impossible. So apart. That yearning that blanched me out from intangible passion to the crushing entirety of defeat. Of denial. Of solitude. It wasn’t until I became active on Twitter in 2014 that I found the validation and witnessing that I craved.

I was thirty living in a dorm in 2007. Single. Getting older. Unlike Anne. Neely. Jennifer.

I watched my DVD of Valley of the Dolls over and over on my computer. Memorized the dialogue.

Jennifer was a shapely blonde played by dead Sharon Tate in the film. A showgirl. Not a primpriss and a fuckup. I could identify less with Jennifer. Except for her feeling that all she had going for her was her body.

My favorite fictional ladies had a constant stream of lovers. Husbands. Poolboys. So did I.

I lived through Anne. Lived through Neely. Neely made films.

My CalArts class came together that first year to make a now-lost student B-film in which I played several prostitutes and a gypsy. The roles I was given felt appropriate. I hid my embarrassment. Camped it up in a red silk kimono and unlit opium pipe.

Neely failed at Hollywood each time. So did I. The few times I even dared to try. Most of my lines were cut from the final cut of the student film because I didn’t enunciate loud enough. I hid my humiliation at the screening. Didn’t push for my colleagues to put me on the film screening flyer. I knew my bits mostly ended up on the cutting room floor.

Neely took sleeping pills. I took Ativan daily. Neely coated her hair in beeswax. Refused to sleep with her Vidal Sassoon Gore Vidal husband. Ignored her two children because what use do children have in this world, anyway? Other than to ruin dinners at nice restaurants. To incapacitate most of the population so they couldn’t get in my way.

I was never a breeder. It’s not a responsible choice for anyone including the child given my situation.

Ego is a function of the artist. Whether the primordially feminine ego of the actress. Model. Writer who labors in neurotic obscurity. There was that fundamental drive to be noticed for something. My ego was out of control for how poorly I used commas.

I remembered being five. Being in art class. Actually having the yarn and popsicle stick God’s Eye that everyone liked the best. Even though my eyes were not watching God nor he I. I could understand that joy. Sought it still in my classes. It pained me when I did not succeed.

My Critical Studies program was very competitive. There were twenty of us in each class. The degree took two years. We all knew that when we got out we would be desperately competing for the agents, publications, teaching jobs and book deals that only a few of us would get. The calculated gamble of all of the student loans most of us had taken out in hopes of a later advance from a publisher that would wash the debt away.

Two unpaid small press books later in 2009 I realized that promised future would never happen.

Back to Neely, who outright proclaimed her beauty and talent. I would never dare, of mullet and blotchy skin. Neely knew she was a commodity to be paid dearly for. As the Ativan or whatever doll she took lulled her to sleep deeper and deeper still. Let her remember she was valuable. Let her remember she was worth noticing far beyond her voice and eyes like burning coals. From the Darvocet. From the Percoset. From the Morphine.

When Jennifer was in boarding school in Switzerland, she became enamored of Maria. Maria’s hauteur as Spainish nobility overwhelmed and seduced Jennifer.

I read Maria’s words, ”We are like one another I want to make you know about sex. To feel thrilling climaxes — not let you learn about it by being mauled by some brutal man. We are not Lesbians like those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes. We are two women who adore one another and who know about being gentle and affectionate.”

A queer encounter was always so lovely yet hard to find for me what with the biphobia in the lesbian community.

It all could be so easy. Why was it never at all so easy. I apologized for my own crass ineptitude all the time. I was overcome by Valley of the Dolls as usual. I returned to the book and film again and again. Found myself in Jacqueline Susann’s vision.

Valley of the Dolls is the body text beneath most of my work. My mentor Matias Viegener encouraged this. He loved Valley of the Dolls too.

“I kicked pills, booze and the funny farm, I don’t need anybody or anything,” said Neely O’Hara. Words to live by.

Written by

Author of Jet Set Desolate, Lorazepam & the Valley of Skin and the chapbooks G(u)ilt and Lexapro Diary. Column, “Dining with a Cursed Bloodline in Entropy Mag.

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