The hottest book on the bestseller list in 1956 was written by a 32-year old woman who became known as “Pandora in Blue Jeans.” Pandora, you may remember, was the woman in Greek mythology who opened a jar (or box) and released all the evils in the world. So why was this author known as “Pandora in Blue Jeans”? It’s because she wrote a book that was very frank in its language and in its sexual content. That particular book, for some reason, grabbed the attention of post-World War II America like few other books had before it.
The book was read in secret by many people in the United States, and it was totally banned in Canada. People were embarrassed to be seen with it, but it had an allure that couldn’t be denied. Despite the protests that it was both poorly written and salacious, it was quickly made into a major motion picture which was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and into the first prime-time TV soap-opera-like serial some years later. Of course, the movie and the TV series were laundered versions of the novel. And even the name of the novel would become a part of our vocabulary – representing a town where the people (at least some of them) secretly lead lives that many would consider debauched.
If you’ve guessed that the novel was Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, you’re right. The author, like the publisher, was stunned at the popularity of the novel. Not only were sales great, but she received numerous letters from her readers. Some wrote things like “You’re talking about my town,” while others boasted that their towns were even worse than Peyton Place. The publishers of novels that followed Peyton Place also proudly proclaimed (perhaps “bragged” would be a better word) that the towns represented therein were also “more wicked than Peyton Place!”
Peyton Place was more than simply a catalog of bad behavior by a few people in a small town. It was also an indictment of the townspeople who chose not to see and not to get involved in matters that were suspicious – things like the probable abuse of women and children by men who were violent and often drunk. Even suspected incest was something that the townspeople didn’t want to recognize. If they had, they would have been forced to do something about it, and that would have made them very uncomfortable. “You stay out of my business, and I’ll stay out of yours,” was the prevalent attitude in Peyton Place just as it is almost everywhere.
The story of Grace Metalious’ life is almost as interesting, and as convoluted, as the lives of the characters she created in Peyton Place – it was difficult, and it ended tragically before she reached forty.
Marie Grace DeRepentigny was born on September 8, 1924 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Her father deserted the family when Grace was young, and her mother became an alcoholic. Consequently Grace was largely raised by her grandmother. Soon after graduating from high school Grace became pregnant and married the baby’s father, George Metalious. He soon enlisted in World War II, and left Grace with their child. He sent home the allotment checks that he received with the understanding that Grace would set the money aside for a home that they would purchase when he returned. He was stunned to learn later that she had saved none of the money – instead spending it and sharing it with her family.
After his return to civilian life, they moved to Durham, New Hampshire so George could attend the University of New Hampshire on the GI Bill. She worked while he got his degree. When he graduated they moved to Gilmanton, New Hampshire where George took a job as an elementary school teacher. By then they had a second child and Metalious felt like she was “trapped in a cage of poverty and mediocrity,” and that she would die if she didn’t get out. Her one escape had always been her writing, but she lacked both a college education and literary contacts, so she had no real hopes of ever being a published writer. Her plight seemed even worse after third child was born. She wasn’t a particular good mother (she often locked her children out so she could write in peace), and their apartment was littered with dirty dishes and empty beer cans. Yet she kept writing. She was obsessed.
She eventually found a literary agent named Jacques Chambrun while paging through a library directory. She chose him because of his French-sounding name. He submitted her first novel entitled The Quiet Place to a few publishers, but no one was interested in it. It was largely an autobiographical novel about a young couple’s struggles after World War II.
Her second novel, initially entitled The Tree and the Blossom contained a fictionalized version of a local story about a girl who shot her father after he molested her and her sister. She mailed the manuscript to publishers in May 1955, and Leona Nevler, who worked part-time at Lippincott, thought it had promise. Unfortunately Lippincott was one of those stodgy houses that never took a chance on new, daring authors. A few days later, Nevler mentioned the novel to Kitty Messner who ran the Julian Messner publishing company. (She was one of the first women to head a publishing company.) Messner read the novel and decided to publish it. In fact, she was Metalious’ editor.
Peyton Place was finally published in September 1956. Kitty Messner, usually a good judge of what would sell, predicted that the novel would sell about 3,000 copies. In fact, it sold 60,000 copies in the first 10 days and was on a number of bestseller lists. The movie rights were quickly sold for $250,000, and Dell snapped up the paperback rights for a mere $11,000. Peyton Place went on to sell millions of copies and “Peyton Place” became a permanent part of our vocabulary.
As you can imagine, the residents of Gilmanton, where Metalious lived with her husband and three children, were not pleased. They assumed that many of the people and incidents described in the book were based on themselves and their town. Grace had predicted that her husband would lose his job as an elementary school principal because of the book, and he did. Their marriage, which had started to fall apart before the book was published, soon ended in divorce in part because of an affair that Grace had with a local farmer, and another that she had with a married disc jockey (who would divorce his wife and marry her). Now she had both her freedom and more money than she had ever had in her life. Unfortunately she squandered the money on lavish living and on toadies who got what they could from her while she had it. And she went from one affair to another and from one bottle to another.
After a while she started writing again, but her follow-up novels never caught on like Peyton Place. Even with the new novels she had continual financial problems – including debts to the IRS – and her marriage to the disc jockey fell apart. The unhappy life of the woman who gave us Peyton Place ended on February 24, 1965 as the result of cirrhosis of the liver due to her long years of heavy drinking. She was only 39-years old.
Her greatest legacy is that she exposed the sordidness and hypocrisy that occurs in every town and city, and she wrote about ordinary women who face daunting problems and who long for freedom, and control of their lives – including their sex lives. As strange as it may seem, Grace Metalious was a cultural trailblazer and a feminist pioneer.
What I have written above doesn’t nearly tell the full, sad story of the author of Peyton Place. If you would like to know more about Grace Metalious, I recommend a wonderful 2006 Vanity Fair article by Michael Callahan entitled “Peyton Place’s Real Victim,” and Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious by Emily Toth, professor emeritus of English at Louisiana State University. Toth, like a number of other university professors, required the reading of Peyton Place in her women’s studies classes.