It was fifty years ago today that the unhappy Grace Metalious (born Marie Grace DeRepentigny, 1924 – 1964), author of that scandalous best seller, Peyton Place, succeeded in drinking herself to death. In her lifetime, Peyton Place was banned from libraries and bookstores (and the whole of Canada!), while spawning movies and the first nighttime soap opera on American TV. These days, it’s taught in academic courses as an early feminist work, which is usually a reliable indicator that something is dead in popular culture.
It’s a pity. The reputation of Peyton Place was built on its frank treatment of sexuality, particularly female sexuality. In the view of some scholars, the book helped precipitate the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But that same sexual revolution destroyed Peyton Place, through the proliferation of blockbuster novels that contained much more sexuality than Peyton Place. Sit down to read the novel today, and you will be surprised at how tame it now appears in its depiction of sexuality, and wonder what all the fuss was about. Were people really that reticent about sex? Or was there another agenda here?
The answer to both of those questions is “yes.” What Metalious did was much worse than writing about sex in 1956. She wrote about sex in many forms, legal and illegal, as a normal part of the lives of people in a New England mill town, a town divided by class and ethnic divisions, in which people preached what were supposed to be American values while living by other values. And she portrayed the people with an almost sociological detachment. Whether good or bad or morally indifferent, Metalious showed us how social forces shaped people’s behavior, and how people justified their behavior to themselves. Few characters are wholly good or bad in Peyton Place; Metalious forced us to understand the quite human reasons why people often behave badly. She told us we weren’t living up to the rosy picture of the American dream, not through a political diatribe, but by showing us normal people failing to live up to our values. Sex was only part of the problem. It was the easiest part to criticize, and, hey, who doesn’t like thinking about sex? But the controversy over the sexual content let people off the hook, so they didn’t have to confront the rest of the book.
Naturally, when Hollywood got hold of the book, they toned down both its social criticism and its sexuality. They turned Peyton Place into soap opera romance, pretty people searching for romance, love, and sex, pretty much in that order, with the occasional murder or car accident thrown in to keep things lively. The 1957 movie revived Lana Turner’s career, while the 1964-69 series launched Mia Farrow’s career. That’s what the video adaptations did for pretty people. The cost was the suppression of the uglier side of Peyton Place. Selena’s abortion was turned into a miscarriage for the 1957 movie, while the entire shanty town and its people were simply dropped from the 1964-69 television series. Metalious had torn apart the image of a New England village as a nice, quaint community; Hollywood restored the image.
Grace Metalious had an image problem, too. She was unconventional, a bad housekeeper who dressed casually, if not carelessly, and whose behavior was a bit too unconstrained, yet she was also shy and self-doubting. The publisher packaged an image of her as “Pandora in Blue Jeans” as part of the publicity campaign for Peyton Place, and Grace was stuck living up to, or down to, that image ever afterwards. It was one of the problems that set her on her path to alcoholism.
Metalious didn’t live to see the TV series gut her story, and her estate never earned a dime from its unprecedented success as the United States’ first nighttime soap opera. By 1964, her marriage had broken up, she had taken up and broken up with a series of lovers, her agent had cheated her, and she had signed away the TV rights almost as an afterthought. She had lived high and spent every cent she’d made on her books. And she’d taken to drinking in a major way to cope with the stress, the betrayals, and the hostility from those who hated Peyton Place. The doctor who attended her death bed in a hospital figured Grace must have been drinking a fifth of whiskey every day at the end.
In its era, everyone knew about Peyton Place, and it endured for years in popular culture as the hypocritical scandal-plagued small town par excellence, even figuring in the 1969 hit song “Harper Valley PTA.” But the TV series was cancelled, sexier blockbusters came along, and the novel gradually drifted out of print. It might be completely forgotten today, had not feminist scholars rediscovered it in the 1990s. A new edition of the novel came out in 1999, a biography of Metalious followed in 2000. Both are still in print.
Is it worth going back to read Peyton Place? I think so. In fact, I’m rereading it now. I’ve long been a fan of Stephen King’s depiction of a small New England town in Salem’s Lot. But Metalious’s depiction is deeper, richer, and much more morally complicated. She set the standard. Before it became a catch-all term to describe book-length fiction, the term “novel” applied only to such stories that tried to be realistic depictions of human life. Peyton Place is a novel in that older sense, strongly so, and hence worth reading.