When the novel Peyton Place was published in 1956, the critics panned it, the public loved it, the town it was based on resented it – and for the next 13 years it was a staple of American entertainment.
Peyton Place became shorthand for secret scandals, mostly involving sex. Its author, Grace Metalious, was a tragic figure who self-destructed after enjoying meteoric success.
The book was an instant best-seller in 1956 and followed by a successful movie starring Lana Turner in 1957.
The film was set in Camden, Maine, where it premiered. At first it didn’t attract many moviegoers, but then Lana Turner’s daughter stabbed Turner’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, and the film took off. In 1964, seven months after Grace Metalious died, ABC aired a prime-time soap opera based on the novel. (The producer refused to call it a soap opera, instead calling it a ‘high-class anthology drama.’) It launched the careers of Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, among others. Peyton Place ran until 1969.
Metalious was born Grace de Repentigny on Sept. 8, 1924, to poor French-Canadian parents in Manchester, N.H. She graduated from Central High School, married George Metalious at 19, gave birth to three children, divorced at 34 and drank herself to death at 39.
Since her childhood she dreamed of being a writer. She began writing Peyton Place at 30.
The fictional town has shady streets, white church steeples, traditional New England houses and brick mills along the Connecticut River. But beneath the bucolic surface lurk ugly secrets.
In the book, Selena Cross kills her drunken stepfather when he tries to rape her; Rodney Harrington, a rich kid, is killed in a car crash while ogling a topless women driving with him; Constance MacKenzie lives in fear that the illegitimacy of her daughter will be discovered.
She named the town Peyton Place after looking through an atlas and finding Payton, Texas.
Residents of the Town of Gilmanton took umbrage with the book. They believed the book was based on them. She insisted Peyton Place was based on several places in New Hampshire – including Durham, where her husband attended the University of New Hampshire; Gilmanton, where he worked as a school principal; Laconia, where her favorite bar was located; and Alton, where a sexually abusive man was killed by his daughter.
The book was trashed by critics, to which Grace Metalious responded, "If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste."
Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies in the first 10 days. Over the years it sold more than 12 million copies. It was criticized for its steamy content. Metalious had a reply for that, too: "Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.”
She wrote three more books, none of which were as popular as Peyton Place. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, she died on Feb. 25, 1964. Hours before she died, she changed her will to leave her entire estate to her lover, John Rees, who promised to take care of her children. Her family successfully contested the will, but it turned out she had $41,174 in the bank and debts of more than $200,000. Years of high living, gifts to friends and an embezzling agent left her insolvent.