Amazon says that Valley of the Dolls was one of the “100 books to read in a lifetime”. So I decided to give it a chance. The action takes place between about 1945 and 1965. What were perceptions of age back in 1966, the time of the book’s publication?
Let’s consider college. Today parents hold their kids back one year so that they will have an edge in K-12. Then Ivy League schools tell boring public school graduates to take a gap year before showing up. The American who enters college may thus be 20 years old. What about back then? The character Anne is a 20-year-old Radcliffe graduate:
He glanced at the form the agency had sent along. “Twenty years old and a B.A. in English, eh? Radcliffe. But no office experience. Now tell me, what good is this fancy background going to do around here? Can it help me handle a bitch like Helen Lawson or get a drunken bum like Bob Wolfe to turn in a weekly radio script on time? Or convince some fag singer to leave the Johnson Harris office and let me handle his affairs?”
A woman in her 30s is getting kind of old:
Sure, Tony thought [a 25-year-old] was twenty. But once he saw a girl who was really nineteen or twenty she might look a little beat
[a beautiful actress/model] was almost twenty-seven, and soon it would begin to show
Her figure was beginning to show signs of middle age — the thickness through the waist, the slight spread in the hips. Recalling Helen’s appearance in the past, Anne felt as if she were gazing at the cruel distortion of a monument. Age settled with more grace on ordinary people, but for celebrities — women stars in particular — age became a hatchet that vandalized a work of art. Helen’s figure had always been her biggest asset.
“You’re thirty-one. That’s late for children.”
Certainly 35 is too old to have a baby:
She was thirty-five — Good Lord, thirty-five! How did it happen? You felt the same inside, but suddenly you were thirty-five and time was racing on. One year blended into another. So much had happened — and yet so little. She had blown her chance for the great love and for children.
A star in her late 30s or early 40s is “Old Ironsides.”
Men in their 50s are portrayed as grandfathers and too old for high-quality sex:
Helen yawned. “Funny, about a year ago we went out. I was depressed, so Henry came home with me. And we decided to try it for old times sake. Nothing! I couldn’t pretend, and Henry couldn’t get it up. Well, after all, Henry’s getting on — he’s in his fifties. I guess it’s not easy to put starch in his lob.”
“Go back to your handholding,” he said nonchalantly. “Don’t let me stop you. Hell, you’re both young, enjoy it. I mean it — when you’re young you think you’ll always be young. Then one day you suddenly wake up and you’re over fifty. And the names in the obituary columns are no longer anonymous old people. They’re your contemporaries and friends.”
Nobody over 60 was worth including in the novel.
What about weight? An actress about 40 lbs. above what we would consider ideal is described by contemporaries in the novel as “a large mass of blubber”,a “blimp,” or “fat as a pig.” On the subject of sex with the otherwise beautiful 32-year-old, a character responds with “Good God, who would want her?”
More: Read Valley of the Dolls