Monday, June 9, 2008

Pandora in Blue Jeans: The Life of Grace Metalious

"Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay."

In the 1950's, Peyton Place was arguably one of the most famous books, if not the most famous. It was certainly scandalous. In its first month, it sold 100,000 copies at a time when most average novels sold 3,000. By the end of the decade, it had sold over 10 million copies, more than Gone With The Wind, remaining the best selling novel for close to 20 years after its initial publication. It was turned into a hit movie starring Lana Turner, spawned a sequel, a night-time soap opera that made stars of Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal and even a daytime soap. Mia Farrow later caused a scandal on the show by cavorting and then marrying Frank Sinatra, who was nearly 30 years her senior.

The name Peyton Place became part of the cultural zeitgeist. In the 1950's, Eisenhower was President, Howdy-Doody and I Love Lucy ruled television, the country was several years into an unprecedented baby boom, and all was right in the world after the devastation of the Second World War and the detonation of the atomic bomb. But there were tensions lurking under the surface. Peyton Place rocked the complacent, tight-buttoned world of 1950's America.

Even people who had never read the book or seen the TV series knew the name. During Bill Clinton's impeachment hearings in 1998, South Carolina Congressman Lindsey Graham famous asked of the relationship between the President and Monica Lewinsky "Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?"

But the woman behind this best seller that shocked the nation is little known today. Her name was Grace Metalious. If Harriet Beecher Stowe who Lincoln once said was the little woman who started the Civil War, Grace Metalious exposed the hypocrisy lurking in small towns in the 1950's. She wasn't the first author to write about the underbelly, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, and famously Kings Row by Henry Bellaman (a book that Grace admired). In fact Grace's book would often be compared to Kings Row, or Tobacco Road. The few women who were writing novels at that time either wrote historical fiction like Anya Seton and Kathleen Winsor (Forever Amber, another book that was banned for being salacious) or they wrote novels with a moral message, writers such as Olive Higgins Prouty (author of Now Voyager and Stella Dallas) and Fannie Hurst (Back Street, Imitation of Life). What made Peyton Place so scandalous was the fact that the author was a pony-tailed, blue jean wearing housewife with a high school education.

Grace was born Marie Grace DeRepentigny on September 8, 1924. Always prone to embellishment, in later years she claimed that she was born Grace Marie Atoinette Jeanne D'Arc DeRepentigny. Her family were French Canadians, who had emigrated to Manchester, New Hampshire to work in the mills. In Manchester, the city was divided along ethnic lines, each group content to mix with their own, with the WASPs living on the big hill. Graces, mother Laurette had ambitions to move away from the hard life of working in the mills that had made so many people old before their time. She married Albert DeRepentigny who worked as a printer and moved the family out of the French Canadian quarter. What this meant was that Grace grew up without the ethnic ties to a community.

Her father split when she was 10 years, no doubt fed up with his wife's pretensions to grandeur. Laurette had developed the habit of buying flea market items and passing them off as family heirlooms, touting her ancestors who were French (as opposed to French Canadian which wasn't quite as grand). From childhood, Grace had a fascination with the written word. Emily Toth in her biography of Grace wrote that as a child she would go over to her Aunt's house and spend hours in the bathtub writing. As an adult, she would lock her children out of the apartment, leaving them to fend for themselves to the horror and shock of the neighbors.

At the age of 18, against their parent's wishes, Grace married George Metalious whose family were Greek. In the ethnic communities of Manchester, it was considered a mixed-marriage of sorts. From the beginning the marriage was rocky. George enlisted in the army and was gone for long stretches of time. When Grace followed him, along with their first child Marsha, George was not happy. It was a classic miss-match, while Grace was emotional, George was practical. After he returned from the war, he was appalled that Grace had saved no money, having spent her salary supporting her sister, mother, and grandmother. Instead of telling him that she almost died giving birth to their first child, Grace went through two more pregnancies, only having her tubes died after the birth of her last Cindy, when the doctor once again reiterated the danger of her having more children. George disappointed her by only showing up at the hospital after the children were born. They both had affairs but somehow managed to stay married.

After George started teaching in local schools, Grace refused to conform to the image of a faculty wife. Her daily uniform was jeans and a flannel shirt, she openly claimed not to be wearing under wear in an age when most women wore industrial strength girdles and bullet bras. She wore no make-up and her hair in a perpetual pony-tail. She was a terrible housekeeper, every apartment and house they lived in was covered in dirty dishes, clothes lying on the floor, flies buzzing around. "I did not like belonging to Friendly Clubs and bridge clubs," she later wrote. "I did not like being regarded as a freak because I spent time in front of a typewriter instead of a sink. And George did not like my not liking the things I was supposed to like."

Grace's life changed when the family moved to Gilmanton, NH where George started a new job as a principal. A new friend, Laurie Wilkens who wrote for The Lanconia Evening News told her the story of a young girl who had murdered her father and buried him in a sheep pen. At the trial, the sordid story came out, the father had been sexually molesting her and her older sister for years. She shot him in self-defense after he threatened to kill her and her younger brother one night. Grace soaked up the details of the case, and other local lore that she heard. All this percolated in her brain until she wrote it all down in a novel that she was calling The Tree and The Blossom.

Grace found her agent the old fashioned way, she looked him up in the Literary Marketplace. She chose Jacques Chambrun for two reasons, his name which sounded French and the fact that he had represented Someset Maugham who was one of Grace's favorite writers. What she didn't know was that Maugham and several of his other authors had sued Chambrun for misappropriating royalties to fund his extravagant lifestyle. However, Grace had no knowledge of this. She sent Jacques her manuscript for what eventually became Peyton Place. He sent it around to several publishers, collecting rejection after rejection. Fortunately for Grace, the novel landed on the desk of a freelance reader, Leona Nevler at Lippincott. Nevler loved the book, although her bosses passed on it. During a job interview at Julian Messner, Nevler mentioned the book to Kitty Messner. Messner, who had founded Julian Messner with her ex-husband, was the Katherine Hepburn of the publishing industry. In the 1950's, publishing was still dominated by men, so Kitty was something of an anamoly. She wore tailored pants suits and smoked her cigarettes with a holder.

Messner asked to read the manuscript. Like something out of a movie she stayed up all night reading the manuscript. The next day, she called Chambrun and made the deal for what became Peyton Place. Grace received an advance of $1,500. She went to New York, where she was wined and dined at '21.' At first things were rocky, Leona Nevler had done a line edit on the manuscript making changes in pencil. There were so many that Grace lamented as so many authors have done, "why did they buy it, if they want to change it?" Kitty Messner stepped in and saved the day. Kitty was warm and motherly, in a sense the mother that Grace had never had. Grace had long had a contentious relationship with her own mother. One of the major changes that Kitty asked for was that Selena Cross murder her stepfather, not her father which was in the original manuscript.

There are two major plotlines in Peyton Place, the first concerns Allison MacKenzie, who is the daughter of Constance MacKenzie, the owner of a local dress shop. Constance had left town for New York when she was young, where she had an affair with a married man, resulting in the birth of Allison. Constance returned to Peyton Place, claiming to be a widow. Her biggest fear is that Allison will discover that she is illegitimate. Meanwhile Selena Cross comes from the other side of the tracks. Her mother married sleazy and brutal Lucas Cross soon after she was born. Lucas begins to abuse Selena starting when she turns 14. He impregnates her, and Selena goes to the local doctor to plead for an abortion, a shocking turn of events when abortion was still illegal. Like the girl that Laurie Wilkens told Grace about, Selena eventually kills her stepfather and is brought to trial. There is also the rich Harrington family (who became more prominent in the TV series) owners of the mill in Peyton Place. The major themes in the book can be broken down to how women come to terms with their identity and sexuality in a small town. Hypocrisy, social inequality and class differences are also prevalent.

It was a savvy publicist named Alan Brandt who sensed that the novel had the potential to become a sensation. He convinced Kitty Messner to add an extra $5,000 to the publicity budget. By the time the book was published in the fall of 1956 it was already on the bestseller list. It was touted as 'Tobacco Road with a Yankee Accent' Grace added fuel to the fire by announcing that her husband had been fired from his job because of her book. The reviews ranged from bad to somewhat complimentary. The book was denounced as wicked, sordid and cheap. Libraries refused to buy it, and some bookstores refused to carry it. In Canada, the book was banned altogether. Of course, this just made the book all the more popular. People passed copies along to their friends. Teenagers stole their parents copies and read them on the sly. Everyone read it, even people who claimed they would never be seen reading trash. Grace summed up the reaction to her book thusly, "If I'm a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have lousy taste!"

While the book took off, things were falling apart back home in New Hampshire. While Grace should have been celebrating her success, her marriage had finally come to the end of the road. George took a job in Massachussetts. The Metalious kids suffered as parents refused to allow their children to play with them, and they were taunted at school. Grace received threatening phone calls at home. Grace was also sued by Tomas Makris, a local schoolteacher, who she had named a character after. She ended having to change the name to Michael Rossi. Townspeople were outraged that Grace had sought fit to air their dirty linen for public consumption. The hurt feelings lingered long after Grace's death. Grace didn't help matters by making statements like, "To a tourist these towns look as peaceful as a postcard picture but if you go beneath the picture, it's like turning over a rock with your foot - 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."

Grace was also booked on a publicity tour. These were the days before authors were given media training. Grace was terrified of the attention, and insecure about her looks, she had started to drink. The woman who had once only had a glass once in awhile was now using alcohol like a crutch. In New York, she was interviewed by Mike Wallace on his show Night Beat. Just before the broadcast Grace's girdle ripped, and she was helped by an actress who did the commercial breaks during the show. Her name was Jacqueline Susann and she would be to the 1960's what Grace was to the 50's. He made the mistake of asking her if the book was autobiographical, something that dogged Grace for years. She fared much better in print interviews, where her looks didn't matter, and she could toss off bon mots like a New England Noel Coward.
She was also dogged by the rumors that she hadn't written the book, that her husband George was the true author or even Laurie Wilkens. The idea that a housewife with a high school education could have written a best-selling book seemed impossible to people. And everyone seemed obsessed with the sex in the book, although by today's standards, the book seems relatively tame. However, the idea that teenagers, especially young women, had strong sexual urges was still something of a novelty. Good girls still saved themselves for marriage but here was Betty Anderson in Peyton Place taunting rich playboy Rodney Harrington with these lines:

"Is it up Rod?" she panted, undulating her body under his. "Is it up good and hard?"

"Oh, yes," he whispered, almost unable to speak. "Oh, yes."

Without another word, Betty jackknifed her knees, pushed Rodney away from her, clicked the lock on the door and was outside the car.

"Now go shove it into Allison MacKenzie," she screamed at him.

And then Hollywood came calling in the form of Jerry Wald. He bought not just the film rights for $250,000 but also the television rights as well, something that would come back to bite Grace and her heirs in the ass in later years. Grace's attorney urged her to be practical, to set up trusts for her children, to protect her newfound wealth, but Grace never did. She had recently fallen in love with a local DJ named T.J. Martin who she made her manager. He was stocky and handsome, and he and Grace would soon become involved in a tempestuous relationship that would see her spending tremendous amounts of cash. Private planes, expensive hotels, treating her friends, all became part of Grace's new life. One night, she and T.J. woke up to find George standing at the foot of the bed taking pictures. As part of the divorce settlement, she agreed to pay for George's tuition to get his Master's degree.

Grace soon bought a house that more accurately reflected her new status, or what her new husband felt was her new status. Soon her second marriage floundered as T.J. tried to change Grace into what he thought a successful author should look like. They flew out to Hollywood during the making of Peyton Place, where Grace got to meet some of her favorite actors who incredibly (to her) knew her name and her book. However, Grace thought Jerry Wald was a douche bag. She didn't like the way he treated the actresses during the audition process, nor did she like what he had done to her book, essentially defanging it. She was especially displeased that brunette Selena Cross was being played by blonde Hope Lange. The screenwriter on the film, John Michael Hayes made the same mistake Mike Wallace did, asking her if the book was autobiographical. Grace rewarded him by throwing a drink in his face at the celebrity restaurant Romanoff's.

The film when it was released was a huge success, earning Lana Turner her only Oscar nomination, and scoring nominations for Diana Varsi who played her daughter Allison and Hope Lange who played Selena Cross. The success of the film led to interest in Grace writing a sequel. Dell, her paperback publisher, offered her $165,000. She needed the cash to help fund the wild lifestyle that she and T.J. were living. It was a constant round of drinking, fighting and more drinking. Grace hadn't written a word in months. She would call friends in the middle of the night to console her when things were bad. George packed up the kids and moved them to Stowe, but the two youngest soon moved back in with Grace.

Grace finally turned in 98 pages which were largely incoherent. The book had to be finished by a ghostwriter. When Return to Peyton Place was finally published, it was slammed even harder by critics than the original. Still it sold books although less than Peyton Place. Grace was nervous and frightened that she would never equal the success of her first books. Indeed the two other novels that were published, The Tight White Collar (published in 1960), and no Adam in Eden (in 1963) sold fewer copies than both Peyton Place and Return to Peyton Place.

By 1960, her marriage to T.J. Martin was over, and Grace reconciled with George. They purchased a motel which they optimistically named the Peyton Place Motel, hoping to cash in on the success of the book. No surprise, no one wanted to stay there, and the motel went bust and along with it, her reconciliation with George. Grace was now drinking a fifth of booze day.

By late 1963, Grace met John Rees, a British journalist, who arrived in town to interview its most famous inhabitant. They were soon embroiled in an affair. While traveling in Boston in early 1964, Grace fell ill and was rushed to the hospital. Three days later she died of cirrhosis of the liver, but not before changing her will leaving everything to her new lover. The Metalious children challenged the will. During the media frenzy, it was revealed that Rees was married and had five children. He dropped his claim to the estate, not that there was much left. Her assets totalled $41, 174 but her debts were more than $200,000. Just before she died, she told John Rees, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it."

There is no trace in Gilmanton that Grace Metalious once lived there. No plaque on her house, no statue in the public square. While the library now carries a brand new paperback copy of the book, her children once had to fight to have her buried in the Smith Meeting House Cemetary. Peyton Place has now found a home on the curriculum of several women-studies programs at universities including Louisiana State, where it is taught by Professor Emily Toth, who has written the only in-depth biography of Grace apart from a quickie book written by Grace's husband after her death. Another professor at the University of Southern Maine mounted a campaign to get the book republished when she found out it was out of print. One can now purchase it either alone, or with the inferior sequel in a single volume. There is even talk of a movie of her life starring Sandra Bullock with a screenplay by Naomie Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of Jake and Maggie).

While Grace would never have called herself a feminist, she was one of those women in the 50's who chafed against the narrow role that society had created for her. The women that Betty Friedan later wrote about in The Feminine Mystique. She wanted to be a wife and mother, but she also lived to create in a time and a place, where you either did one or the other. She longed to be taken care of by a man but then ended up more successful than either of the two main men in her life. There was no having it all in the 50's but Grace tried. She was constantly at war between the traditional values that she was supposed to espouse and the free-spirited woman who liked to dance, drink and have a good time. She wanted success as a writer, but when it came she had no idea how to handle it. But how many writers out there are equipped to see their first book take off the way that Grace's did? She was just writing what she knew, telling a story like the ones that she liked to read.

Her ex-husband George Metalious told a reporter from Vanity Fair, when contacted for a recent article on the author, that 'Grace cared deeply and loved deeply. She was naive, unfortunately. She put her trust in the wrong people, and she believed in the basic good of people. She had faith, and it worked against her."

It wasn't until 2007, that the city of Manchester, along with the Manchester Historic Association, and the University of New Hampshire at Manchester finally honored Metalious with an in-depth examination of her life and most famous book. The celebration, which included lectures, readings of her work, and showings of the movie, marked the area's first public acknowledgment of its native daughter.

Sources include:

Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious - Emily Toth
The Fifties - David Halberstam
The Bad and the Beautiful - Sam Kashner & Jennifer McNair


Hope Tarr said...

What a great column. Another demonstration that well-behaved women don't make history.


Hope Tarr


You show an amazing talent for writing insightful stories about people we know. I remember reading PEYTON PLACE and Grace Metalious and I remember the Movie starring LANA TURNER, then the TV show. I believe it is where the women of the world fell in love with Ryan O’Neal. It was considered quite risqué in 1964, if they could only have seen what is going on today.

This is a terrific article.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks guys. I read an old copy of Peyton Place in college, and I remember then wondering why more people weren't reading the book. I personally think it is fabulous.

I also think besides being a cautionary tale of what not to do after you are published, Grace stands as a testament to all those people who say they don't have time to write. She made the time, even if it meant she was an indifferent housekeeper!

Caroline said...

".....Her ex-husband Grace Metalious told a reporter from Vanity Fair, when contacted......".

Did Grace Metalious marry herself?!!!

In your posting about her, you evoke wonderfully once again the atmosphere of the Eisenhower 1950's, arising out of America's Puritan legacy.

Your piece reminds us once again how recently it was when books like "Peyton Place" profoundly shocked Mr and Mrs America, who would find it mild today.

But the puritan legacy is still with us, despite the changes. Thus Bill Clinton's adventures with a young woman led to his impeachment, whereas George Bush's misleading the nation into an ongoing sanguinary and disastrous war, didn't.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Whoops! Thanks, Caroline for pointing out that typo. That's what happens when you write really fast. You make a valid point about the hypocrisy in America about sex. Why is war and violence okay, but sex is still such a taboo subject? Why were millions of dollars spend on trying to impeach Clinton over having an affair, when young men and women are dying in a war that doesn't seem to have an end? There was an article in The NY Times today about the new Showtime series from England about a call girl, people were worried that the show would glorify prostitution.

Leanna said...

Wow. I knew of the book, knew nothing of the author. What a story. I would love to see Grace alive today to give us some perspective on where we've come as a society and where we're still in the dark ages.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It some ways I think Grace would find that things hadn't changed so much. Authors of popular fiction are still considered less than authors of literary fiction. While women are allowed to more sexual, there is still the old conundrum of can you have it all. I do wonder what she would have made of Sex and the City. If she would have enjoyed it, or been turned off by it. Grace could swing from Victorian attitudes to being more liberal.

Margaret Evans Porter said...

I was passing through Gilmanton on Friday...we have a lake house in a neighbouring town. It's a lovely crossroads village, indescribably photogenic. Plenty of Grace stories on the "Grace-vine" too.
The tiny Gilmanton Library (seasonal, but a new, big year-round one under construction) carries at least one of my novels. That's exactly where I first encountered Emily Toth's bio of Grace--so I checked it out. Very interesting.
There was also an informative short article about her, years back, in Yankee Magazine. And the more recent one in Vanity Fair, which you referenced.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

How cool Margaret! I found the Emily Toth book to very interesting and enlightening about Grace. One of my better purchases from Alibris (the NYPL doesn't have a copy!)

afeatheradrift said...

Another of your marvelous posts. I remember reading the book, watching both the movie and the TV series. We thought we were soooo very naughty doing so. Thanks as always for these posts. I link to them every time you do one. I know my readers enjoy them as well.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for the compliment! I've never seen the original TV series, although I saw both the film and the sequel and I read the book. I also saw both TV movies that were done in the 80's.

It is so interesting to read books that were considered to be so scandalous like Peyton Place and Forever Amber.