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Peyton Place – A Town, Its Scandals and the Woman Who Told the World

The dirty novel Peyton Place landed like a bombshell in 1956, a surprise hit by an unknown author. 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.

Grace Metalious

Grace Metalious

Peyton Place became shorthand for secret scandals, mostly involving sex. Its author, Grace Metalious, was a New Hampshire schoolteacher's wife whose own scandals were anything but secret. She was a mother of three and, by all accounts, a lousy housewife who drank, swore, wore baggy jeans and cheated on her husband.

She based much of Peyton Place on the town she lived in with her family, Gilmanton, N.H.

"To a tourist these towns look as peaceful as a postcard picture," Metalious once said.  "But if you go beneath that picture, it's like turning over a rock with your foot -- all kinds of strange things crawl out."

The people of Gilmanton felt victimized by Peyton Place, but it was Grace Metalious who was the book's real victim.

Grace Metalious

Metalious was born Grace de Repentigny on Sept. 8, 1924, to poor Franco-American parents in Manchester, N.H. Her father, a merchant seaman, left the family when she was 10.

She graduated from Central High School, married George Metalious at 19, and gave birth to three children. Since her childhood she dreamed of being a writer. She began writing Peyton Place at 30, while George taught school in Gilmanton.

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Scene from Peyton Place

The fictional town of Peyton Place 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, Rodney Harrington, a rich kid, is killed in a car crash while ogling a topless women driving with him, and Constance MacKenzie lives in fear that the illegitimacy of her daughter will be discovered.  Metalious based the character of Selena Cross on a woman from Alton, N.H., who killed her father after he raped her. The story was uncovered by crusading reporters including a young Ben Bradlee.

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 taught school; and Laconia, where her favorite bar was located.

Peyton Place, The Book

The book Peyton Place, published in 1956, was a smash hit, selling 100,000 copies in the first month. The average first novel sold 3,000 copies -- if the author was lucky enough to get it published.

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Promo for the film Peyton Place.

The book was trashed by critics. Manchester Union-Leader publisher William Loeb called it William Loeb called it 'filthy sewage.' Grace Metalious responded,  "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.”

Peyton Place was one of the most widely read novels in American history. One in 29 Americans read it (mostly in secret), according to one estimate.

"If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste," Metalious said.

Fame

Peyton Place was followed in 1957 by a hit movie of the same name starring Lana Turner and set in Camden, Maine. As many as 500 locals appeared as extras.

At first Peyton Place didn’t attract many moviegoers, but then Lana Turner’s daughter stabbed Turner’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, and the film took off. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards.

The book and the movie made Grace Metalious rich -- and reckless. She carried on a stormy affair with a Laconia DJ, divorced her husband and burned through millions of dollars. She took a floor at the Plaza hotel, ordered champagne by the case and flew chartered flights to the Caribbean.

Downward Spiral

Grace Metalious wrote three more books, none of which were as popular as Peyton Place. For the last five years of her life, she drank a fifth of liquor every day.

She dumped her Laconia DJ, reunited with George Metalious then parted again, and had an affair with a married British journalist. On a trip to Boston, she collapsed and was taken to Beth Israel Hospital. Grace Metalious died days later on Feb. 25, 1964, of cirrhosis of the liver.

Hours before she died, she changed her will to leave her entire estate to her British lover, 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.

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.

 

This story was updated in 2017.

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