This Day In Writing History
On September 8th, 1924, the famous American novelist Grace Metalious was born. She was born Marie Grace De Repentigny in Manchester, New Hampshire, which at the time of her birth was a poor mill town.
Grace was born to an impoverished family, the daughter of French Canadian immigrants, but as a child, she had big dreams and longed to be a famous writer. She would go to her aunt's house, sit in the bathtub, and spend hours writing stories. Her parents divorced when she was ten years old.
As a teenager, Grace attended Manchester Central High School, from which she graduated. When she was 18, she married her boyfriend, George Metalious. Her parents opposed the marriage because George was Greek. She would bear him three children, but the marriage was rocky from the start.
With World War 2 raging, George enlisted in the military, which kept him away from home for a long period of time. When he came back from the war, he was appalled to discover that instead of saving money, Grace had spent most of her salary supporting her sister, mother, and grandmother.
When George became a schoolteacher, Grace, a fierce nonconformist, refused to play the part of faculty wife. At a time when most women wore dresses, girdles, and bullet bras, Grace's wardrobe consisted of flannel shirts and blue jeans. She wore no makeup and always kept her hair in a pony-tail. She was also a terrible housekeeper.
She would later write "I did not like belonging to Friendly Clubs and bridge clubs. 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 Metalious continued to write stories in her spare time, as she tried to build a writing career. When the family moved to Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where George accepted a job as school principal, Grace struck up a friendship with Laurie Wilkens, a writer for The Laconia Evening News.
Laurie told her all about a lurid murder case that was in the headlines: a young woman had murdered her father after being sexually abused by him since she was a child. Grace read all she could about the case and even researched the local gossip. It gave her an idea for a novel.
After she completed her novel, Grace tried to get it published. After receiving numerous rejections, Grace Metalious' debut novel was finally published in 1956. It was called Peyton Place, and it caused a sensation - and an uproar. The novel was set in Peyton Place, a seemingly quiet and respectable small mill town in New England that proves to be neither quiet nor respectable.
The novel rips the lid off this picture-postcard-perfect town and exposes its seedy underbelly. It tells the stories of several different characters. Constance MacKenzie owns a dress shop. When she was young, she had an affair with a married man and became pregnant as a result. She returned to Peyton Place, claiming to be a widow, and forged her daughter's birth certificate. Constance lives in fear that her daughter Allison, now a young woman herself, will discover that she's illegitimate.
Selena Cross comes from "across the tracks" - the poor and tough area of Peyton Place. Her stepfather, Lucas Cross, has been sexually abusing her since she was 14. After he impregnates her, Selena tries to arrange an illegal abortion. She ends up murdering Lucas and is put on trial. The wealthy Harrington family owns the town mill, and they have their own skeletons in the closet. Peyton Place became a huge bestseller; by 1960, it had sold over ten million copies, despite the fact that it was so controversial - or maybe because of it.
The reviews were mixed; critics either loved it or hated it. Described as "Tobacco Road with a Yankee accent," the sexually frank novel was denounced by the clergy as wicked and sordid trash. Libraries refused to stock it. Some bookstores refused to sell it. The Canadian government banned it outright. But readers passed it on to their friends, and teenagers stole their parents' copies. Grace Metalious added to the controversy when she claimed that her husband George lost his job because of her novel.
While Grace had proved herself a capable novelist, she was a poor businesswoman. Her book contract gave her editor control of the final draft. As a result, Lucas Cross was changed from Selena's biological father to her stepfather, as the publisher feared that real incest would be far too shocking a subject for 1950s readers.
When Peyton Place was adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1957, Grace was shocked and repulsed by the heavily sanitized screenplay, which bore little resemblance to her novel. Unfortunately, when she sold the movie rights, she had given up creative control of the adaptation, so there was nothing she could do. When the novel was adapted as a popular TV series - a prime time soap opera that ran from 1964-69 - it too was sanitized.
By the time that the feature film was released in 1957, Grace Metalious had become a major celebrity. She was booked on a promotional tour, but in those days, publishers didn't teach their writers how to deal with the media. Terrified of all the attention and insecure about her looks, Grace started drinking heavily. Although she and her husband both had affairs during their marriage, it was her alcoholism that broke them up.
Grace continued to write. Her next novel was a sequel, Return To Peyton Place (1959), which was slammed by critics. It sold well, but nowhere near as well as the original. While she wrote it, Grace was still drinking heavily - so heavily that she had to hire a ghostwriter to help her complete the manuscript.
After her divorce, Grace met and married her second husband, T.J. Martin, but the marriage lasted barely a year, as he tried in vain to mold Grace into what a successful writer should be. Grace later reconciled with her first husband, George, and they bought a motel which they named the Peyton Place Motel. No one wanted to stay there, and it went bust, along with Grace and George's relationship, this time for good, as she was drinking a fifth of whiskey a day. She published two more novels, The Tight White Collar (1960) and No Adam In Eden (1963), neither of which were as successful as Peyton Place.
In late 1963, Grace met a British journalist named John Rees, who had come to interview her. They became lovers, but the relationship ended in early 1964 when, while traveling in Boston, Grace fell ill and was rushed to the hospital. Three days later, on February 25th, 1964, Grace Metalious died of a hemorrhage that resulted from cirrhosis of the liver - the classic drunkard's death. She was 39 years old.
After her death, it was discovered that she had changed her will, leaving everything to John Rees. Grace's children contested the will. When they found that Rees was actually married with five children, he dropped his claim to the estate. The fact that Grace Metalious had accumulated far more debts than assets no doubt influenced his decision.
To this day, Peyton Place remains one of the great cult classic novels. In 2007, the University of Manchester honored Grace Metalious with an in-depth examination of her life and work. The celebration included readings from her novels and screenings of the Peyton Place movie. It was the first time that the town of Manchester publicly acknowledged its native daughter.
The information in this article was sourced from the biography Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious by Emily Toth. You can find this book at Amazon or at a bookstore near you.
Quote Of The Day
"If I'm a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have lousy taste!" - Grace Metalious
Today's video features a clip from an episode of the Peyton Place TV series. Appearing in this clip are a young Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal. Enjoy!