Metalious, Grace (1924-1964)

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Metalious, Grace (1924-1964)

Grace Metalious is best known as the author of the infamous Peyton Place, a book that caused a social upheaval even before it was published in 1956. She was born Marie Grace DeRepentigny in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1924. Metalious's father deserted his wife and three daughters when Grace was 11 years old. At that time divorce was unusual in a French Canadian family, and Grace and her sisters felt stigmatized. Metalious, however, discovered the pleasure of writing early. Many of her stories featured a romantic heroine who gets her hero in the end. Grace also enjoyed acting in school plays. These activities seemed to offer her an escape from a generally unhappy family.

In high school Grace met George Metalious, who was neither Catholic nor of French-Canadian background and, thus, highly unacceptable to her family. Nevertheless, they married in 1943. A few years later, with one child already, the Metalious's moved to Durham, New Hampshire, where George attended the University of New Hampshire. It was here that Metalious began writing seriously, neglecting both her house and, eventually, three children, despite the condemnation of her neighbors.

After graduation George was offered a position as a principal at a school in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. By now the family had three children, all dependent upon his meager salary. It was while she was living in Gilmanton that Julian Messner, a New York publisher, agreed to publish Peyton Place. The book was a best seller by the fall of 1956, and Metalious became a wealthy woman overnight. Eventually, 20 million copies were sold in hardcover, along with another 12 million Dell paperbacks. Metalious became famous as the housewife who wrote a bestseller; she was referred to as "Pandora in Blue Jeans," the simple small-town woman who opened the box of sins.

Peyton Place is the story of a small New England town that, beneath its calm exterior, is filled with scandal and dark secrets. The novel contains sex, suicide, abortion, murder and a subsequent trial, and rape. The citizens of Gilmanton were outraged, certain that Grace Metalious was describing real people in the book and sure that she had brought shame and unwarranted notoriety to their town. After Peyton Place was published, the whole image of the small town in America was forever changed. From then on the very phrase "Peyton Place" was used to describe a town that is rife with deep secrets and rampant sex beneath the veneer of picturesque calm.

Peyton Place was banned in many communities; in fact, the local public library refused to purchase a copy of the book and did not have one until 1976, when newswoman Barbara Walters donated one to them. In Gilmanton there were threats of libel suits against Grace Metalious. Ministers and political leaders all over the country condemned the novel, claiming that it would corrupt the morals of young people who read it. The novel was banned altogether in Canada and several other countries.

Despite its notoriety and the large amounts of money it earned her, the book led to the ruination of Grace Metalious. She purchased a house that she had long admired in Gilmanton, then had it extensively remodeled. Meanwhile, her husband's contract with the Gilmanton school was not renewed. Officially, he was not fired, but the rumor was that the dismissal was because of his wife's book. At any rate, it made good publicity for the book. George eventually got a new job in Massachusetts, but Grace refused to leave her house. Eventually the two divorced and Grace, who had begun drinking heavily, married a local disc jockey.

Grace went on to write three other novels: Return to Peyton Place (1959), The Tight White Collar (1960), and No Adam in Eden (1963). None of them achieved the same kind success as Peyton Place, though there are critics who feel that No Adam in Eden, a gritty book about the lives of mill workers in Manchester, is her best. By 1960 Grace and George had reconciled and remarried, only to separate again in 1963. She died in 1964 of cirrhosis of the liver and is buried in Gilmanton.

After she died, George wrote his own book called The Girl from "Peyton Place." The book offers a husband's view of how Metalious was exploited after the publication of the book, but also of how she was responsible for bringing unhappiness to herself and to others. A whole series of other "Peyton Place" books were produced after Grace Metalious's death, with titles like The Evils of Peyton Place and Temptations of Peyton Place. None of these were a commercial success.

Peyton Place was made into a movie starring Lana Turner and Hope Lange in 1957. The town of Gilmanton opposed having the movie filmed there, and eventually it was filmed in Camden, Maine, a location totally unlike any rural mill town. A television series, starring Mia Farrow and Dorothy Malone, was produced that lasted from 1964-1969. Both the film and the television show were cleaned up and did not contain the language or sexual specificity of the novel.

Although Peyton Place is still well known for its depiction of a certain kind of small town society with many hidden secrets, few people read the book any longer. Scandalous in its time, it no longer has the same force of shock that it did when it was published.

—Robin Lent

Further Reading:

Dodson, James. "Pandora in Blue Jeans." Yankee. Vol. 54, No. 9, n.d., 92-97, 132-137.

Friedrich, Otto. "Farewell to Peyton Place." Esquire. Vol. 76, No.12, 1971, 160-168, 306.

Metalious, George, and June O'Shea. The Girl from "Peyton Place": A Biography of Grace Metalious. New York, Dell, 1965.

Toth, Emily. Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1981.