The original desperate housewife: America remembers Grace Metalious

She exposed the seedy secrets of the suburbs in her novel 'Peyton Place'. And Grace Metalious wrote from experience. As the author's life is made into a film, Andrew Gumbel tells her story.
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The Independent US

Mention the name Grace Metalious these days, and chances are that few Americans under the age of 60 - or anyone else, for that matter - will recall who she was. Her once notorious creation, the racy novel Peyton Place, is a more familiar cultural reference point, but more by association with the Oscar-laden movie (starring Lana Turner) and the long-running television series (starring a young Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal) than for the book that inspired them.

And yet Peyton Place was once a phenomenon unto itself, a book that smashed the previous fiction sales record set by Gone With the Wind and remained the best-selling American novel for close to 20 years. It shook the complacent, tightly buttoned world of America during the Eisenhower years, prefigured the sexual and societal liberations of the Sixties, entirely transformed the paperback end of the publishing industry and first introduced the notion that a mere book author could become a major media celebrity and public figure in her own right.

The memory of it, though, has become severely diminished. If people think of Peyton Place at all, they think of some kind of tawdry small-town soap opera filled with frustrated ambition, repressed sex drives, bitching and conniving - an early prototype for the sort of super- market trash fiction later pioneered by Jacqueline Susann and Jackie Collins.

During Bill Clinton's impeachment hearings in 1998, a South Carolina congressman called Lindsey Graham famously asked of the relationship between the President and Monica Lewinsky, his over-eager but politically insignificant White House intern: "Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?" In the annals of Hollywood, the set of the television show is remembered as the place where a 47-year-old Frank Sinatra swept 19-year-old Mia Farrow off her feet and scandalised the gossip-mongers by sweet-talking her into a shortlived marriage.

None of this does justice to the original book, or to the intriguing, free-spirited but ultimately self-destructive woman who wrote it. For years, Peyton Place was actually out of print, making it all but inaccessible to a new generation of readers, and Metalious seemed well on her way to the sort of oblivion reserved for the inventors of cultural fads that burn bright for a while only to fizzle out completely.

With the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book looming later this year, though, she could be in for a major reassessment and rehabilitation. A biopic, called Grace, is in the works, with Sandra Bullock in the title role and a script written by Naomi Foner, the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Vanity Fair has just published a vast profile of Metalious, hailing her as an original and genuinely inspired writer prepared to tell the truth about the hidden underbelly of small-town New England. Peyton Place, the magazine writes, is "a crafty, page-turning brew of illicit sex, secret lives, public drunkenness, abortion, incest and murder" - not prefiguring Jacqueline Susann so much as the hit TV show Desperate Housewives.

Metalious is well on her way to academic respectability, too. Ardis Cameron, an English professor at the University of Southern Maine, helped get Peyton Place back between soft covers a few years ago with an introduction describing it as "America's first blockbuster" and a key to understanding both the stifling cultural conformity of the 1950s and the first stirrings of rebellion against it.

Emily Toth, whose biography of Metalious is the basis for the forthcoming movie, teaches the book at Louisiana State University and entirely shares Cameron's premise. As she once put it: "I was living in the Midwest in the 1950s, and I can tell you... Elvis Presley and Peyton Place were the only two things in that decade that gave you hope there was something going on out there."

There have been similar attempts at pop-culture rehabilitation in the past, not all successful. A few years ago, Hollywood went gaga over Jacqueline Susann, seeking - perhaps significantly, at the height of the dot-com stockmarket bubble - to enshrine the author of Valley of the Dolls as an enduring symbol of the triumph of packaging and entrepreneurial optimism over content. The magazine articles, book reissues and film projects were duly cranked into high gear, only to grind to screeching halt again when a biopic, starring Bette Midler and Nathan Lane, asked the question Isn't She Great? and was met with a resounding "no" from the critics.

Grace Metalious may fare rather better, for the simple reason that Peyton Place turns out to be a surprisingly good, and literate, read. In its opening lines, it describes Indian summer in New England as being like a woman, "ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle". The language may seem a little purple now, but that opening managed, with remarkable efficiency, to "unbutton New England", as Ardis Cameron once put it.

Through her main characters - the free-spirited but fragile Allison MacKenzie, her earthy, gypsy-featured friend Selena Cross from the wrong side of the tracks, the bad boy Rodney Harrington, Selena Cross's boozing, abusive stepfather Lucas, and the conscientious, deeply anti-clerical doctor Matt Swain - Metalious aimed not for sensation and raciness for its own sake so much as a witheringly accurate portrayal of the hypocrisies, power games, emotional impulses and cruel repressions of a small town in New Hampshire.

Her book is not a forerunner of mindless airport fiction so much as the kind of attack on bourgeois complacency and puritan cant later formulated by offbeat, not to say camp, film-makers like John Waters - the trash pope of Baltimore and a huge Metalious fan - and David Lynch. New England towns, Metalious once wrote, "look as peaceful as a postcard picture, but if you got beneath that picture it's like turning over a rock with your foot. All kinds of strange things crawl out." She could have been talking about Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet as much as her own work.

Among the things that crawl out of Peyton Place are topics considered entirely taboo at the time Metalious wrote about them, with child sexual abuse right at the top of the list. Selena Cross's abuse at the hands of her alcoholic stepfather, and the murder she commits to end it once and for all, were inspired by the real-life case of a young New England woman who shot and killed her rapist father and buried his body in a goat pen. Metalious originally intended Lucas Cross to be Selena's father, too, but her publisher said America was not ready to confront full-on incest so he became Selena's stepfather instead.

The critics were no less appalled. Peyton Place was denounced as wicked, sordid and cheap. William Loeb, writing in the local paper, the Manchester Union Leader, said its popularity demonstrated "a complete debasement of taste" heralding the collapse of civilisation itself. Libraries refused to purchase it, and bookstores refused to carry it. In Canada, the book was banned altogether.

And yet it was a huge seller from the very start. Metalious's publishers not only promoted the book as the astonishingly scurrilous outpouring of a seemingly ordinary New Hampshire housewife - Metalious was married to a school teacher and had three children - but also intimated that her husband would lose his job because of it.

The hypocrisies Metalious had skewered in her book were evident in the public reaction to it. People may have claimed to be shocked and outraged, but they were also lapping up her every word. It sold 100,000 copies in its first month and went on to sell 12 million more. Metalious summed up the paradox in admirably blunt fashion. "If I'm a lousy writer," she said, "then a hell of a lot of people have lousy taste."

But then Metalious stood out from the crowd long before she became famous. She did not refuse to conform to New England conventions so much as completely fail to understand them. The shack she shared with her husband and three children - nicknamed It'll Do - was perenially filthy. She locked her children out of the house for hours while she was writing. And she drank herself silly - the vice that would eventually kill her on the eve of her 40th birthday.

"I didn't know any other woman like her," Lynne Snierson, the daughter of her lawyer, told Vanity Fair. "Grace swore a lot, and she drank a lot, and she had lots of guys around her. She got married and divorced and had affairs. And she talked about sex and she talked about real life and she didn't filter it. I didn't know any other woman who was like that in the 50s."

Her book had an immediate attraction for Hollywood because of its commercial success, but its content proved too much for the world of mainstream entertainment. Both the film and the TV series shifted Peyton Place from inland New Hampshire to the more picturesque coast. Her graphic descriptions of abortions and erections were gone; incest was no longer something hushed up and tolerated, but a rare, irrational act of violence.

Peyton Place, in short, was transformed into a cultural artefact flirting with the forbidden but never quite daring to explore it. The director of the TV series admitted that he hated the book; the producer reassured the press before its launch in 1964 that in the new Peyton Place, "villains will always be punished, justice will always be done, character will be improved by adversity".

Metalious would no doubt have been horrified, but she died shortly before the show went on the air. Because of an overhasty deal to sell the rights to her book years earlier, her estate did not receive a penny in royalties from either the film or the TV series. She died, in fact, saddled in debt, having torn through her money with luxury trips to New York and the Caribbean, fast cars, fancy dinners and case upon case of booze.

It was, in the end, a tragic life - but one that may now at last be recognised for its solid achievements, not just for its propensity for generating shock and scandal.