A Little Dirty Laundry: The Forgotten Legacy of Grace Metalious and PEYTON PLACE
In the current pop culture conscience, the words Peyton Place have come to be associated with any small town or community in which sordid domestic scandals have been known to take place. Indeed, the phrase has been used as an expression for so long that it’s doubtful if any given user is even clear on the rich history of the fictional—but also very real—small New England town that makes up the novel of the same name by Grace Metalious, one of the most controversial and best-selling books ever published.
First appearing in 1956, Peyton Place blew the lid off the hypocritical conformity of small-town, postwar America. Considered the nation’s first “blockbuster” book, the novel both shocked and secretly delighted readers with its portrayal of sex, secrets, scandal, and even adultery, incest, and abortion. Selling 100,000 copies in its first month and at least 12 million more later, the book was so popular that it entered The New York Times Best Seller list a week before it was published. It inspired a film adaptation nominated for nine Oscars and network television’s first primetime soap, which once drew 60 million viewers three nights a week and helped launch the careers of Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal.
Still, six decades later, Peyton Place remains viciously underrated—the poison spread by both the novel’s initially terrible reviews as well as the vitriol of a small, real-life New Hampshire town still very much withstanding. “In a day when a novel about bondage and submission is bedside reading material in respectable homes, it’s hard to understand just how shocked the world was by a book from a young New Hampshire writer named Grace Metalious,” wrote one publication. Vanity Fair detailed it as “one of the best-selling dirty books ever” in a description that just barely articulates the novel’s tainted history as a “bad” banned book, causing Peyton Place to still often be left out of academic literary study and burying deeper the legacy of its creator, a largely forgotten literary and feminist trailblazer.
Grace Metalious: The Original Desperate Housewife
Born Marie Grace DeRepentigny in Manchester, New Hampshire, on September 8, 1924, Grace was the daughter of Alfred and Laurette, both of whom were of French Canadian descent. Scholars and biographers alike allege that she was raised Franco-American, and that the primary language in her home growing up was French. But if you had asked Laurette, she would have never admitted to being French Canadian—prone to embellishments, a trait her daughter would surely inherit, Laurette was adamant that her family came from France. Indeed, at the time of Grace’s birth, Manchester was a segregated city: the west side was dubbed Petit Canada, the east was mainly populated by Irish and Greek immigrants, while the north was reserved for the homegrown Yankees who liked to look down on the supposed foreigners invading their land. As a result, Laurette wanted nothing to do with Petit Canada—thus her insistence and delusions of being from France.
When Grace was 10 years old, father Alfred abandoned his wife and daughter to join the merchant marines and never returned. She then grew up around a family of independent, strong-minded women, her mother and grandmothers—all of whom held jobs to support their families. Grace spent much of her formative years at the home of her paternal grandmother, whom she called Mémère, where she spent hours writing on a stool in the bathtub that she used as a desk. There, she read book after book and wrote countless nursery rhymes, poems, and fairytales, and thus her dream of being a writer was born.
As a child, Laurette urged her daughter to make friends with the “English-speaking children with Yankee names.” In high school, Grace changed the spelling of her name to Grace de Repentigny to fake a relation to royalty, and told all who would listen that her real name was Grace Marie-Antoinette Jean d’Arc de Repentigny. Joining an avant-garde group of social outcasts, she later wrote a play titled Murder in the Summer Barn Theatre that rehearsed across the street from school in the Unitarian Church basement, whose minister attempted to censor the performance of a boy dressing in women’s clothing. Grace and her friends fought back and won—the very beginnings of a career bookended by begging to be heard.
Barely out of high school, Grace married George Metalious at the age of 18—shattering her mother’s dreams of upward mobility. George, whom Laurette had condemned as a “dirty Greek” who was not good enough for her family, briefly fought in World War II before returning home and eventually studying to become a teacher. Grace, by that point, had given birth to three children: Marsha, Cindy, and Mike. Moving from Manchester to Belmont, New Hampshire, George took a job teaching at the Laconia State School for a $3,000 annual salary.
Years of social and financial upheaval, even before getting married, began to plague Grace’s emotional well-being and, in a state of near despondency, she found herself returning to the only thing that had ever given her life a semblance of purpose: writing. Thereafter, she devoted herself wholeheartedly to her work, sacrificing quite literally everything that stood in her way, including her children: in fact, Grace used to lock them out of their apartment while she was writing, which often caused them to bang on the doors of neighbors. By that time, word had begun to spread around town that the terrible mother and housekeeper known as Grace Metalious was working on a salacious book about the people of Belmont. Her devotion to getting published was so strong that, on one occasion, she asked to borrow a friend’s car to drive to Laconia for groceries and didn’t return until days later, after having driven to New York City in search of an agent.
Everyone Has A Little Dirty Laundry
Moving once again from Belmont to Gilmanton, New Hampshire, the Metalious family settled in a cottage notoriously nicknamed “It’ll Do”—a place described as just good enough to get out of the rain. The only place in the house that wasn’t a complete pigsty was the desk where Grace’s typewriter lived. By her own account, “I thought about the book 24 hours a day for years. I wrote 10 hours a day for two and a half months.”
The novel, tentatively titled The Tree and the Blossom, was described as an honest and hard-hitting look at the truth of New England domestic life, one in which one or many stories from real life might have made their way in. One real-life story in particular, about a young girl in the Great Lakes region who murdered her sexually abusive father and, with the help of her brother, buried him in their sheep pen would come to greatly influence and inform Grace’s work.
With the help of her agent Jacques Chambrun (whom she had chosen merely because his name was French), Grace shopped The Tree and the Blossom around to several publishers, most of whom almost immediately rejected it. Then, one day in the heat of summer in 1956, she returned home from the grocery store to find notice that the book had been bought by Messner Associates, run by Kitty Messner, one of the only publishing houses in America at that time run by a woman. Grace and Kitty quickly bonded, and soon she suggested to the author that the title be changed to something a bit more catchy and euphonic: Peyton Place it was.
At the time, Messner Associates were hopeful that the novel would sell a modest 3,000 copies, which in any event would be a large success for their relatively small publishing house. Alan Brandt, the Messner publicist who saw large potential in Peyton Place and who persuaded the company to spend more on publicity for the book, later came to Gilmanton to interview Grace. George, who had just been hired as principal at Gilmanton Corner School, was dealing with backlash from the town as his wife refused to play the doting role of what she called “Mrs. Schoolteacher.” As a result, one Gilmanton woman in particular—whom Grace nicknamed “Messy Bessie”—began organizing protests to oust their new principal on account of his wife’s insistence on misbehaving and writing gossipy novels.
The effort was unsuccessful, but thanks to Grace’s interview with Brandt—to whom she had mentioned that the publication of Peyton Place “might cost [her] husband his job”—the publicist concocted a story that would later appear in the Boston Herald under the headline “Teacher Fired For Wife’s Book!” The story was only speculative at best, suggesting that Grace’s upcoming “racy” novel might jeopardize her husband’s career. Courtesy of Alan Brandt, however, similar stories began to appear, positioning Grace as a mother of three who struggled for years to make her writing dreams come true and who now was the victim of small-minded, small-town prejudice. The thing was, that was the truth, and as a result, Peyton Place entered The New York Times Best Seller list a week ahead of its release date.
According to New Hampshire magazine, “Peyton Place was a bunker buster of a novel that blew the lid off the quaint and virtuous small town. It exposed its underbelly. Within its pages was incest, murder, suicide and adultery. Added to that was its setting in sacrosanct New England, the bedrock of small-town America. In an interview, Grace said, ‘If you turn over a rock in these small towns, you just never know what you’ll find.’ Others knew it as well—after her death, a trove of letters was found, written to her, from people all over America, all saying the same thing: Peyton Place was about their town.”
Bookstores across America could not keep the novel stocked on their shelves. It quickly surpassed Gone With the Wind as the best-selling novel of all-time. Before long, it would sell close to 10 million copies, which definitely eclipsed any and all of the expectations at Messner Associates. Roger Clark, a Gilmanton native who was friends with Grace’s daughter Marsha, still can’t figure out whether Grace was “ignorant or arrogant” about what she had written. “You can’t hide in a small town; you can’t hide in Gilmanton,” he said. “People in small towns talk at the dinner table, but we don’t take it outside.” In his view, Grace had “aired the dirty laundry.” (This is where you would hear the voice of Mary Alice Young saying, “Everyone has a little dirty laundry.”)
Predictably, with the rising popularity of her novel, Grace’s celebrity status began to grow. Although she was painfully shy and detested interviews, she enjoyed strutting her stuff through the streets of Gilmanton, ignoring the glances of those who had doubted her. But if the popularity of Peyton Place was ever-growing, so was the doubt and criticism. Most initial reviews of the novel were incredibly negative. The New York World-Telegram infamously wrote, “Never before in my memory has a young mother published a book in language approximately that of longshoremen on a bellicose binge.” The Laconia Evening Citizen called it “literary sewage,” and other local reviews were similarly unkind. Grace famously shot back, “If I’m a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have lousy taste.”
Of course, the negative reviews were not so much concerned with Grace’s writing abilities as much as they were with the subject matter. According to literary critic Ardis Cameron, for readers in the 1950s, there were only two ways in which to read: you could admirably follow the shelves marked “literature” and read the books that have respectfully earned that badge, or you could embrace what was known as the “tabloid addict class,” in which affordable paperback novels—such as Peyton Place—become the talk of the town. And, quite frankly, little has changed in the discourse of literary criticism since then. As Cameron says, these books “called into question the normative boundaries of middlebrow reading and the literary rules of cultural authorities.” By that standard, “Peyton Place remapped writing’s publics … Grace Metalious not only struck a chord with the modern reading public, she helped create it.”
They’re Burning All the Witches Even If You Aren’t One
Although Peyton Place had earned its reputation as a “bad” and “dirty” banned book that mothers hid under their mattresses the minute it was published (several states and the entirety of Canada banned the book altogether, declaring it indecent, and one library in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, posted a sign on their lawn reading, “This library does not carry Peyton Place. If you want it, go to Salem”), its cultural interpretation as a pulpy guilty pleasure also almost immediately undermined the novel’s more radical elements, such as the storyline involving incest and abortion. The character of Selena Cross, whose story borrowed elements from that of Barbara Roberts murdering and burying her own rapist father in 1947, remains as radical and powerfully relevant today as it was in 1956, even in a post-Roe v. Wade era.
Peyton Place’s naysayers, who had even begun to allege that Grace didn’t even really write the book, were quick to voice their disdain for the novel’s open and progressive stance on female sexuality as “trash” but tended to remain quiet when the subject of a girl being impregnated by her stepfather came up (Messner forced Grace to change Selena’s rapist from her father to her stepfather, claiming America was nowhere near ready for full-on incest, much to Grace’s dismay). Indeed, the passages in which Selena tearfully confesses to town doctor Matthew Swain that her stepfather violated her to the point of pregnancy do not strike me as the kind of “racy” reading material that one would hide under their mattress, even in 1956. As Cameron points out, “No one familiar with the horror of child sexual abuse would ever read Peyton Place as ‘trash.’” And yet, the novel’s “guilty pleasure” legacy seemed already sealed.
Apart from Selena Cross’s rape, the general theme of Peyton Place can almost be summarized by a philosophy that women are their own people who don’t need permission to live out their own lives. “[Grace] was doing something on a cultural level that was extremely important. She was telling women it was O.K. to be sexual beings … to have the aspirations that men had,” said screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, who in the mid-2000s had completed a script based on Emily Toth’s biography of Grace Metalious called Grace that was once slated to star Sandra Bullock in the title role, never to materialize. “It was sort of like The Emperor’s New Clothes. She got herself into a lot of trouble because she had no idea that there was anything wrong with any of the things she was saying and doing.”
Grace, who much preferred print interviews over anything else, had her own theories on why she was so strongly rejected and exiled by her community. “I have a feeling that Gilmanton got as angry with me as it did because secretly my neighbors agreed with me,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That was where the shoe pinched. You get angrier about the truth than you do about lies.” Cameron would have to agree. “By reinterpreting incest, wife beating, and poverty as signs of social as well as individual failure, Metalious turned ‘trash’ into a powerful political commentary on gender relations and class privilege,” she writes. “Published in an era many historians regard as lacking in either feminist or class ferment, Peyton Place provides a valuable corrective to the myth of quiescent domesticity and class consensus.” But while Peyton Place was redefining the boundaries of what one could and couldn’t write in a popular novel, the magazine and newspaper articles that painted Grace as a now happy wife and mother of three were ludicrously false: her personal life was about to fall off a cliff.
The Fateful Prophecy You Shall Keep
The narratives of adultery to which Grace had once been so dedicated had now become a self-fulfilling prophecy: she’d fallen in love and began a relationship with Thomas James Martin, “T.J. the D.J.,” who spun discs at WLNH. Her marriage to George had long since fallen apart, but he later blackmailed Grace into paying his tuition for his master’s degree in their divorce settlement, as adultery was illegal. Grace and T.J.’s relationship was erratic and volatile—he often encouraged her to embrace the luxuries suddenly associated with her newfound celebrity author status. (According to Grace’s lawyer, “He would say to her, ‘Darling, you’re Grace Metalious. You don’t get a room at the Plaza. You get an entire floor!’”)
They married after her divorce was finalized, letting the good times roll and the money pour in. Hollywood was practically banging on her door. Grace had sold the Peyton Place film and television rights to Twentieth Century Fox in October 1956 in a deal worth $250,000. The film adaptation, released the following year and drawing nine Academy Award nominations, was a giant success—but it was the beginning of Peyton Place’s abusive relationship with censorship, as the film prioritized the men as storytellers over the women, forcing them to stay in their assigned 1950s gender roles. “I regarded the men who made Peyton Place as workers in a gigantic flesh factory,” wrote Grace, “and they looked upon me as a nut who should go back to the farm.”
Continuously wrestling with the notion of celebrity, the author’s insecurities grew as the highs and lows in her relationship with T.J. grew increasingly severe. Grace’s alcoholism was at an all-time high. As Michael Callahan wrote in Vanity Fair, “Drowning in booze and running out of cash, Grace agreed to write a sequel, Return to Peyton Place, when Dell offered $165,000. She handed in 98 largely unintelligible pages that were re-written and fleshed out by a ghostwriter. The ensuing reviews, each more savage than the last, sent her spiraling further downward; a publicity tour was shelved.”
By 1960, she and T.J. had finally split for good and Grace reconciled with George, with whom she bought an inn they named the Peyton Place Motel. The business was a colossal failure and the couple parted ways yet again. At the end of 1963, the author began dating a British journalist named John Rees. In February 1964, on a trip to Boston, Grace collapsed and later died from cirrhosis of the liver, at the age of 39. On her deathbed, she signed her estate over to Rees, who would give up any claims to it under pressure from her children (there wasn’t much to give up; $44,000 and a bill for back taxes estimated at $114,000). According to Lynne Snierson, daughter of Grace’s lawyer and trusted confidante Bernard, “Grace drank herself to death. She once told my dad, ‘I looked into that empty bottle and I saw myself.’”
Peyton Place Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
If the Peyton Place film adaptation was the beginning of the media reappropriating the story’s themes of female empowerment to fit the Eisenhower era’s gender roles, Fox’s television series—network television’s first soap opera to air in the evening, predating and largely influencing Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, and most certainly Desperate Housewives—would be the final nail in the coffin to Peyton Place’s ultimate fate. “It was television that radically repositioned Peyton Place in popular memory, aggressively relocating it within a narrative more in tune with the conservative politics of domesticity, social consensus, sexual conformity, and male privilege,” observed Cameron. “Shanties were abolished, the drunks sobered up. There were no winter binges in locked cellars filled with barrels of hard cider. Gossipy old men, quirky old women, and cranky Yankees of various types and ages were replaced with the monotonous personalities and tepid lives of Ryan O’Neal, Dorothy Malone, and Mia Farrow. Nothing but youthful charm and optimistic smiles crawled out from under the rocks of TV’s Peyton Place.”
In fact, Adrian Samish, director of programming for ABC when the Peyton Place series debuted in 1964, disregarded the book as vulgar and immoral. “We always do the right thing,” he told a reporter at the time. “Our villains get punished. When people do what they shouldn’t do, we draw the moral conclusions and either they suffer the consequences or are changed. We would never favor violence. Violence is taboo.” One might ask, then, why would a mainstream television network so concerned with pleasing advertisers choose to adapt a book whose main purpose is exposing taboo topics? Paul Monash, a director for the television series, equally disliked the book, which he described as a “negativistic attack on the town, written by someone who knew the town well and hated it.” He explained, “We are careful to be a moral show. We appeal to the audience that relates to My Fair Lady. We have a group of people the audience basically likes.”
It’s probably a good thing Grace never lived to see an episode (and her estate never profited from the adaptations, either, as she foolishly signed away that right to Fox in 1956), because she would have undoubtedly despised it. “Turning Peyton Place on its head, the sexual stirrings and personal ambitions of Allison (and Grace) are rescripted by television to fulfill the middle-class fictions and patriarchal assumptions of female dependency, domesticity, and nubile love,” notes Cameron. “Like the 1950s hit tune ‘Love and Marriage,’ TV’s Peyton Place insisted that sex and love go together ‘like a horse and carriage.’” Still, the series was a ratings behemoth for ABC in the 1960s, airing three episodes a week and drawing 60 million viewers—or one in three Americans—at its height. In fact, in 1965, one critic suggested that if viewers had switched channels to watch Lyndon Johnson’s press conferences instead of Peyton Place, they would have likely been less surprised by the escalation of events in Vietnam.
Considering the staggering popularity of Peyton Place in the 1950s and 1960s, one might assume that the novel’s legacy would have been undying and still gladly remembered six and a half decades later. Unfortunately, that is far from the case. “Despite the enormous popularity of Peyton Place—its record sales, its layers of social criticism and controversy, its place in the national imagery, and its storytelling power—few scholars have given the book serious attention,” says Cameron. “Even among cultural critics who have begun to remap the territory of writing’s publics and explore popular reading practices, Peyton Place remains on the academic sidelines. In part, this reflects a traditional bias against the popular: the conflation of well-liked with badly written, of pop with trash. But it is also the result of historical memory and the cultural politics that shape it … Severed from the relations of class and gender, from sexual politics and social power, and from the processes of cultural production, Peyton Place takes on meaning as both lightweight literature and frivolous hanky-panky.”
As a result, the novel went out of print by the 1990s until Northeastern University Press came out with a new edition in 1999—one that is still fairly hard to find. Peyton Place had been on my TBR list for years and I could never find a copy. No bookstore or online bookseller ever had it. No library in my large metropolitan city had a copy. If it hadn’t been for the never-ending 2020 quarantine, I would have probably never have taken the time to finally locate a decently priced copy on Book Depository and finally dive into a world that deserves as much retrospective praise and remembrance as the second-wave feminist classics of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton—both of whom are still often proudly displayed on podiums in bookstores and libraries, with Grace Metalious sadly nowhere to be found.
Reviewing Peyton Place for the 50th anniversary of Grace’s death in 2014, Thomas Mallon of The New York Times wrote, “Metalious’s own experience of New England had included all kinds of want and unhappiness. She knew what she wished to say about gossip and shame and small-town telephone party lines, and she could say it deftly.” Thus, the endearingly true nature of Grace and Peyton Place: to quote Clairee from Steel Magnolias, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”