Grace Metalious (1924 – 1964)
The story of Grace’s life isn’t an overly happy one. She was born into a broken, impoverished home in the backwoods of New Hampshire in the middle of the Great Depression.
At eighteen she married George Metalious and had her first child. Grace drank, swore and wore baggy men’s clothing. Their family – which would grow to include two more children – lived in squalor. Grace’s one hobby was writing. She’d made up stories since she was a child. In her 1954, her 30th year, she began to work seriously on a manuscript that was very much based on the people she’d known in all the small towns she’d lived in.
In 1956, Peyton Place was published, selling 100,000 copies in the first month. Dismissed by critics, but loved by readers, it remained on The New York Times’ best selling list for over a year. Stephen King has often remarked that it was a great inspiration to him, and it’s not difficult to see the familiar theme of a sleepy New England town with many dirty, disturbing secrets lurking just under the surface that King uses in many of his books.
“If I’m a lousy writer, a lot of people have lousy taste.”
The Metalious family finally had money, but Grace’s good fortune wasn’t to last. She died a few years later at the age of 39 from cirrhosis of the liver. She had never stopped drinking heavily – some reports state she was drinking a fifth of liquor every day.
The plot follows three women in a small, conservative New England town who have to deal with hypocrisy, classism, and social inequities. Constance MacKenzie is mother with an illegitimate daughter from an affair – lonely and depressed she returns to Peyton Place, desperate to keep her adulterous secret. Her daughter, Allison works at Constance’s dress shop, where Selena Cross, an impoverished young girl also works.
Peyton Place is somewhat based on a true story – the character Selena Cross was based
on a woman from a neighbouring New Hampshire town who killed her sexually abusive father (worth noting that this story was reported on by a young Ben Bradlee – a New England reporter who would go on to report on the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers). In the book, Metalious was convinced to change the rapist to a stepfather, convinced by her publisher that America wouldn’t react well to depictions of actual incest. Even with only near-incest, this book was billed as “the book that shocked the nation”.
That theme which so many found distasteful (but which many more found entertaining) was only one part of the book’s success. The appeal was in discovering that everyone has skeletons in their closet even – maybe especially – the people who seem like their closets are perfectly clean.
Some of my favourite quotes from Peyton Place:
“The public loves to create a hero….Sometimes I think they do it for the sheer joy of knocking him down from the highest peak. Like a child who builds a house of blocks and then destroys it with one vicious kick.”
“It was as if each of them sensed vaguely that the Saturday afternoons of youth are few, and precious, and this feeling which neither of them could have defined or described made every moment of this time together too short, too quickly gone, yet clearer and more sharply edged than any other.”
“If God was going to do what He thought was best anyway, why bother to ask for anything one wanted? If you prayed, and God thought that what you asked should be granted, He would grant it. If you did not pray, and it was true that God always acted in one’s best interest, you would receive whatever He wanted you to receive anyway.Prayer, thought Allison, was a dreadfully unfair, rather unsportsmanlike affair, with all the advantages on one side.”