|NH 100: Metalious's Peyton Place was controversial,
Originally published in The Concord Monitor, Saturday, March 27, 1999
By GWEN FILOSA Monitor staff
There were no calling hours. After a simple funeral in Laconia her body was stored in a graveyard tomb, until spring thawed the ground of the Smith Meeting House Cemetery. Death did not give way to quiet though. People called her family, saying they did not want that woman buried in Gilmanton.
In the town where she wrote a book that riveted a nation, Grace Metalious was dead but not forgiven.
In 1956 Peyton Place made Metalious a star and carried an unwilling Gilmanton along for the ride. Filled with characters immersed in corruption, love affairs and violence, the book was labeled indecent and was banned. Its cover was kept hidden by readers everywhere.
For small town New England, Peyton Place was the literary equivalent of kicking over a rock, Metalious said in 1956: "All kinds of strange things crawl out. Everybody who lives in town knows what's going on - there are no secrets - but they don't want outsiders to know."
Her analogy did not please Gilmanton residents, who considered the book an affront.
Millions read it. People who had never bought books bought Peyton Place, where they learned of a single mother's romance with the town's principal and teenagers' first fumbles with sex. They also saw 14-year-old Selena Cross end the sexual abuse from her stepfather by smashing the fireplace tongs into his skull.
"She wrote what I call the second version of the Bible: the filthy version," her father Alfred DeRepentigny said in 1980.
Ten days after its release, 60,000 copies of Peyton Place had sold. A film, a sequel and a long-running TV series followed. Today, sales are estimated at nearly 20 million.
In 1956, however, the attention was on the author who appeared in magazine photo spreads, newspaper headlines and public appearances.
Eight years later she had drunk herself to death at age 39.
"The publicity thing took over and ran her life," her daughter Marsha Duprey said. "All she wanted to do was write. If (Peyton Place) had not been such a huge success, she'd probably be fine now and still writing."
Grace Metalious's short life turned rapidly. Her first marriage fell apart during Peyton Place's popularity. Other loves followed. So did parties, trips and constant media attention.
"Everything about Grace turned into a scandal," her close friend Laurose Wilkens MacFadyen said recently. "She had a knack for making people pay attention."
More than 40 years later, MacFadyen nodded toward the corner of her Gilmanton living room where Metalious had posed for her most famous image.
"I have never gotten over missing her," she said. "To me she was a wonder."
Reader and writer
In 1924 Grace DeRepentigny was born in Manchester to working-class Franco-American parents. As a child she was absorbed by books.
"When she wasn't out playing football with the boys, she was in the library," said George Metalious, who was her first real date. They married right after high school.
The city library was Grace's haunt. When she had exhausted the children's section, she started on the grown-ups' novels. "She'd say they were for her mother," her former husband said.
She wrote "Prince Charming" stories and as a seventh grader, bored with Nancy Drew, made up her own girl detective. "She liked to write a story that put herself in a nice situation," George Metalious said.
The young married couple struggled through a succession of jobs and soon started a family. While George attended the University of New Hampshire on the GI Bill, Grace started writing short stories, which she later incorporated into her novels.
One August night, while the family was living in Belmont, Grace announced her inspiration that eventually became Peyton Place.
"At 3 a.m. she woke me up and she had the whole plot in her mind," George Metalious said. "She hadn't slept. She got up and she outlined what she thought was a good story."
In the fall of 1954 the Metaliouses moved to Gilmanton, into a simple house called "It'll Do." Grace wrote feverishly.
"I thought 24 hours a day for a year," she said later. "I wrote 10 hours a day for 21/2 months."
In Gilmanton during the spring of 1955, she finished The Tree and the Blossom, which was later given a catchier name: Peyton Place, a fictitious New Hampshire town on the Connecticut River. Metalious picked an agent with a French name from a directory and sent him her manuscript.
Then, on a dry summer day, Metalious, her arms filled with groceries and children in tow, opened her mailbox with the dread of finding more bills.
Instead she found news that her book had been sold. By the next fall a carefully crafted publicity campaign launched Peyton Place.
The press descended on Gilmanton.
"They surrounded the Corner Store in a crowd, snapping pictures like crazy and quizzing startled townspeople into giving all sorts of strange answers to startling questions," MacFayden wrote in the local newspaper.
Peyton Place soon landed in bookstores. Readers were glued to the fast-paced book and across the country, its pages were dog-eared to mark the good parts.
"The reason it struck people was that it was so real," said John Michael Hayes, who wrote Rear Window and the screenplay for Peyton Place. "They felt it. It didn't read like fiction."
Peyton Place is the story of Allison MacKenzie, a fatherless girl who wants to become a writer and does, after discovering she can write about her neighbors in thinly veiled characterizations. Yet the novel's most compelling character is Selena Cross, an impoverished and abused girl determined to escape the "shacks." And orbiting around the two is a warped collection of doomed lives.
Grace Metalious, writer Merle Miller concluded in 1965, was "the master of the hopeless situation."
Eventually, Metalious's name was almost as well-known as her book. Life magazine chronicled life at home. She wrote essays about her personal life for The American Weekly. One installment detailed her romance and second marriage to Laconia disc jockey T.J. Martin, accompanied by a wedding cake snapshot.
Yet when her daughter sees pictures from that era - her mother posing with her producers or arriving at book signings - she sees a woman terrified.
"My mother had the biggest heart of anyone in the world," said Duprey, who now lives with her sister, Cindy, in Key Largo, Fla. "But she was not emotionally stable. She was basically a shy person. She came across as a tough broad because she was scared."
Attacks on the book came home as well. People appeared at the edge of the family's driveway to holler obscenities and throw rocks.
In January 1957 a front-page editorial in the Union Leader castigated the Peyton Place craze. Without mentioning the book's title or author, publisher William Loeb dismissed it as "literary sewage" that reveals "a complete debasement of taste and a fascination with the filthy, rotten side of life that are the earmarks of the collapse of civilization."
Poverty, then riches
Metalious knew what it was like to go without. At "It'll Do" water had to be bottled from a spring two miles away. Money was rationed for groceries and gasoline.
"I don't go along with all the claptrap about poverty being good for the soul, and trouble and struggle being great strengtheners of character," Metalious wrote.
Poverty courses through Peyton Place, stripping people of dignity and imploring others to do whatever it takes to get money. In one scene, for instance, a young man convinces his fiancee to marry a rich old doctor, so they can have his house and savings when he dies.
When a $75,000 advance came from the movie sale of Peyton Place (she received no royalties or TV rights), Metalious made the rounds to creditors to see the looks on their faces when she held up the check.
The tales of Peyton Place got people talking, but Metalious's success angered people as well, according to Lynne Snierson, whose father was Metalious's lawyer.
"She was instant celebrity and instant fortune," Snierson said. "And an awful lot of people resented the hell out of her for that."
Money came in, but it went out just as quickly. Relatives, friends and strangers would ask for help and Metalious would write a check. After a car accident in which Metalious was driving, her own mother sued her and won $11,000.
Hometown, hard feelings
Convinced their lives had been distorted into a lurid novel, locals blamed Metalious for writing a "dirty book" and dragging Gilmanton's name into it.
George Metalious, who now lives in Rye, still believes the book played a role in his dismissal as principal of Gilmanton's grammar school. "Everybody thought it was about Gilmanton, and none of the characters are about Gilmanton," he said.
Grace Metalious, like any novelist, took cues from what she saw in daily life, her ex-husband said, but her characters were inventions.
Those in Gilmanton who reviled Peyton Place were outraged by the story line of Selena Cross, which was lifted from a real-life scandal: Eight years before Metalious finished Peyton Place, a 20-year-old Gilmanton woman confessed to shooting her father to death, after years of repeated rapes and beatings. Her younger brother helped her kill him and bury the body beneath the family's sheep pen.
Selena and Joey Cross did the same with the remains of their stepfather. In an international bestseller, Metalious had aired a horrible memory Gilmanton wanted to let lie.
"An old sore had been opened," said attorney John Chandler, who helped represent Metalious from 1954 until her death. "That was very upsetting to that family."
The "sheep pen murder," settled it for many in New Hampshire: Peyton Place must be based on Gilmanton where much of it was written. Metalious denied it, but the belief became imbedded in New England folklore.
Peyton Place and Gilmanton could only agree on one thing: They were stuck with each other.
"My take on it is people are just tired of it," said Selectman Dave Russell.
When he and his wife ran the Gilmanton Village Store, travelers would regularly stop by to ask about Metalious. "Then we had a time when Barbara Walters came to town and went into the library and there wasn't a copy of Peyton Place," Russell said. "So she donated one."
The initial anger in 1956 over Peyton Place has faded in Gilmanton, he said, but the Cross murder can still rile natives. "It was based on some real people's lives, some people whose lives were touched a little more directly," Russell said.
Literary critics too
Peyton Place did not break artistic ground but was remarkable for its time, said John Unsworth, an English professor at the University of Virginia who includes the book in his course on 20th-century American bestsellers.
"It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say America wasn't the same after Peyton Place," he said. "It's sort of a watershed moment in American mores."
But its place in history rests on its sensationalism, Unsworth said. "Literary merit is not its strong suit."
Metalious, who had no college degree, whose parents had worked in mills, scored one of the world's most popular books and let her sales record answer her critics.
"If I'm a lousy writer," Metalious mused, "then a hell of a lot of people have got lousy taste."
Forty years later the argument over Peyton Place's significance continues. In May, Northeastern University Press will re-release a paperback version. And in the fall, Random House will present a hard-cover copy of Peyton Place and its sequel, Return to Peyton Place.
"Peyton Place is, on its own terms, both a perfectly decent popular novel and an honest one," Kirkus Reviews declared last month in response to the forthcoming paperback. "But it never was an important one, and no amount of retroactive puffery can make it so."
But beneath the scandal, Peyton Place was a milestone, said Emily Toth, who wrote the 1981 biography of Metalious.
"(She) had a kind of intuition," Toth said, "a gut-level, emotional grasp of all the issues feminists from the early '70s seized."
For telling the story of a girl raped by her stepfather, Metalious exposed the reality of sexual assault, according to Ardis Cameron, a professor at the University of Southern Maine, who wrote the introduction to Northeastern's new edition of the book.
"No one familiar with the horror of child sexual abuse would ever read Peyton Place as 'trash,' " Cameron wrote.
An early death
Metalious's drinking escalated with her fame. At one point she told Bernard Snierson: "I looked into that empty bottle and I saw myself."
In her last years Metalious regretted spilling intimate details to the press, but it was too late.
Newsweek ran an interview in which she lamented her second break-up with George, which was preceded by her divorce to T.J. Martin. The Post and the Daily News carried stories with Grace saying George didn't love her anymore.
Journalists compared her life to Peyton Place. One wrote that Metalious was living out a sad scene from her own novels.
"If I had to do it over again," she was quoted, "It would be easier to be poor. . ."
On the morning of Feb. 25, 1964, Grace Metalious died from cirrhosis in a Boston hospital, the result of alcohol abuse.
A deathbed rewrite of her will left everything to Metalious's companion, journalist John Rees and demanded no funeral so that her body could be donated to science.
The fact that her estate was hollowed out by debt and back taxes - more than $200,000 in liabilities - made the papers.
The Metalious children contested the will.
A state Supreme Court decision allowed the family to hold a simple funeral. Dartmouth and Harvard's medical schools declined the body because of the legal fight, denying the will's central wish.
A year later, her home and possessions were auctioned off to pay back taxes. The old typewriter, kitchen table and chair Metalious used in writing Peyton Place went for $75.
'Smart but stupid'
Christopher Metalious turned 17 four days before his mother died.
Now 52, the veteran Hopkinton police officer has never read any of his mother's books. If he sees the movie version on TV, he turns it off. Someday he will read Peyton Place and research her life, he said, maybe when he retires.
"She was smart but she was stupid," Christopher Metalious said. "Stupid in the sense she drank herself to death. What a waste of a brilliant mind."
People often recognize Christopher Metalious's last name, and he's taken jabs directed at his mother's memory. As a correctional officer at the state prison, inmates called him "incest baby," a reference to Peyton Place's most notorious story. He purposely avoids Laconia and Gilmanton, he said.
Good memories surface when he talks about his mother. There was the cross-country drive to Hollywood where Peyton Place was being filmed. He met Marilyn Monroe and still has a snapshot of his mother with Cary Grant.
The harsh times resonate as well: the brutal arguments and the alcohol that obliterated everything.
To her son, it is clear what killed Grace Metalious.
"Had she not been famous, had she not started drinking, she'd
be alive today," he said. "You get all that power and money and prestige.
And things aren't what you thought they would be."