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Return to Peyton Place

July 7, 1999

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ ``Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.″

In 1956, readers didn’t need to read much more than the opening words of Grace Metalious’ novel, ``Peyton Place,″ to be shocked.

In that opening passage, Metalious managed to turn the sedate image of a New England autumn into one of blazing emotion and color, by comparing unseasonably warm October weather in New Hampshire to a voluptuous woman. And she sliced through gender stereotypes by focusing on female sexuality at a time when it was taboo to discuss it in public.

Four decades later, Ardis Cameron thinks people should take a fresh look at the cultural relevance of the book that offended American sensibilities and rocked New England’s Puritanical reputation.

The book was so controversial at the time that teens had to sneak a read. So did adults, for that matter. Libraries, bookstores and even some cities banned it.

``People read this book in secret,″ said Cameron, a professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine.

Cameron, 50, finally read ``Peyton Place″ eight years ago. She was surprised to find a scathing commentary of small-town New England life. She enjoyed the book so much that she began using it in a course she taught.

After having trouble finding copies for her course, she successfully lobbied the Northeastern University Press to rerelease the out-of-print book this year in celebration of what would have been Metalious’ 75th birthday.

``Peyton Place″ focuses on the lives of three women in a small New Hampshire town on the Connecticut River. It discusses incest, sexual abuse and women’s sexual desire at a time when conventional wisdom held that sexual predators were strangers, bad girls ``asked for it″ and good girls didn’t.

Metalious’ ``Peyton Place″ is roiling with hypocrisy, spite and distrust. It is a place where men can do little wrong, but women must be vigilant about preserving their reputations.


``Lucas Cross had lived in Peyton Place all his life, as had his father and grandfather before him. ... He drank, beat his wife and abused his children, and he had one virtue which he believed outweighed all his faults. He paid his bills. To be in debt was the one _ and only _ cardinal sin to men like Lucas Cross. ...″


But while men like Cross, who raped his daughter, could do almost anything and still be forgiven so long as they paid their bills, a woman’s reputation could be permanently tarnished by a bit of gossip, even if it was untrue.

Constance MacKenzie illustrates this when she panics upon realizing her 14-year-old daughter Allison and her friends are playing a kissing game at a party:

``Oh, she’ll get hurt! was the first thought that filled her.

``Then: Oh, she’ll get in trouble!

``And finally, worst of all: SHE’LL GET HERSELF TALKED ABOUT!″

Just like Metalious.

Critics, politicians and neighbors pilloried Metalious. They dismissed her book as ``cheap,″ ``wicked,″ ``moral filth″ _ ``a tabloid version of life.″

But while critics were ranting, America was reading. The book sold more than 12 million copies at a time when a typical novel could expect to sell 2,000. Few, though, would admit reading such ``trash.″

``Peyton Place″ almost didn’t make it into print. Five Boston publishing houses and at least four in New York City turned it down. Finally, Kitty Messner, president of the Julian Messner publishing house, accepted it. Messner, who staffed her late ex-husband’s company almost entirely with women, read the book in one sitting and declared it ``a product of genius.″

Messner teamed with what was then a small house called Dell Publishing, the only other publishing house with a woman at the helm, to print the paperback version. It sold 8 million copies.

The decision to publish transformed both Dell and the paperback industry.

``Paperbacks became a viable industry that competed with the hardback,″ Cameron said. ``Metalious showed there was definitely a market among respectable middle-class readers, and it certainly opened the eyes of the publishing industry that women writers could be best sellers.″

Metalious opened the door for women novelists like Jacqueline Susann, who in the 1960s produced the best-selling ``Valley of the Dolls,″ another raunchy tale that went beyond small-town life to the fast lanes of Hollywood, New York and Paris.


``While it is true, no doubt, that the closets of city dwellers are in as sad disorder as those of small-town residents, the difference is that the city dweller is not as apt to be on as intimate terms with the contents of his neighbor’s closet as is the inhabitant of a smaller community. The difference between a closet skeleton and a scandal, in a small town, is that the former is examined behind barns by small groups who converse over it in whispers, while the latter is looked upon by everyone, on the main street, and discussed in shouts from rooftops.

``In Peyton Place there were three sources of scandal: suicide, murder and the impregnation of an unmarried girl.″


Metalious’ book covers all three.

``To a tourist these towns look as peaceful as a postcard picture, but if you go beneath that picture it’s like turning over a rock with your foot. All kinds of strange things crawl out,″ Metalious once said.

A French-Canadian from a working-class Manchester, N.H., family of mill workers, Metalious struggled with her husband, George, to scrape by on his $3,000-a-year principal’s salary.

``I don’t go along with all the claptrap about poverty being good for the soul, and trouble and struggle being great strengtheners of character,″ Metalious wrote in 1958. ``It has been my experience that being poor makes people mean and grabby, and trouble makes them tight-lipped and whiny.″

The mother of three lived in a house she dubbed ``It’ll Do,″ with no running water or sewer lines. She wrote ``Peyton Place″ to try to escape from poverty.

``She had no illusions about that kind of life because she lived it and knew how oppressing it was, how debilitating,″ Cameron said.

The author’s sensitivity to poverty shows in ``Peyton Place,″ which also touches upon class snobbery.

David Watters, a University of New Hampshire English professor, cites a scene at the end of the book, when residents pass zoning laws to ban the shacks from downtown so the area will look good to tourists.

``’Most of them can well afford to make improvements on their property. They could use some of the money they drink up to install toilets and tanks and water. . . Maybe a good epidemic would solve everything. Perhaps the town would be better off without the characters who live in those places,‴ says Seth Buswell, the town’s newspaper editor.

Communities still argue at town meetings about the struggle to pay for schools and services. As in the book, low-income families often are blamed for straining services by having kids but not paying enough in taxes.

``If that doesn’t show New England today, I don’t know what does,″ Watters said.

``Peyton Place″ gave Metalious the money she wanted, but because she was inexperienced in business, she only got $75,000 for the movie rights. She received no royalties or TV rights.

Because of its success, Metalious was able to buy her dream house in Gilmanton, where she wrote three other books. But her generosity was excessive. By in 1964, at age 39, she had drunk herself to death by cirrhosis of the liver and was in debt.

She knew about ``getting herself talked about,″ something looked upon with horror in the book. She was scorned for not keeping her house clean and not living up to the image the town wanted for the wife of a school principal.

Divorce and a relationship with a married British man did not help.

``People shut her out almost at the beginning. She wore pants and jeans and flannel shirts. They wanted pearls and stockings,″ Cameron said.

But that didn’t stop people from going to the parties she threw in her home, said Allan Hugelman, a director of the town’s historical society who now lives in Metalious’ house in New Hampshire. ``It was the ‘in’ thing in Gilmanton not to like her,″ he said.

Working-class women who never read Betty Friedan’s ``Feminine Mystique″ started talking about gender, sexuality and incest after reading ``Peyton Place,″ using the book to negotiate their own lives and sexual relationships, Cameron said.

``She wrote about what was central to the lives of women _ sexual reality, sexual activity, incest, abortion _ all the things that became the foundation of the second wave of the feminist movement,″ Cameron said.

The author’s reputation plunged further when reporters swarmed into Gilmanton in the wake of the book’s success. Townspeople resented the notion that anyone might think the book was based on them.

Metalious perhaps conveys her own sense of not belonging with the character of Allison MacKenzie, who grows from a girl of 11 to a woman trying to become a writer in New York City. Early in the book, Allison struggles with burgeoning adolescence in a small town that she believes is always watching.

Metalious based another main character, Selena Cross, on a girl from a nearby town who confessed in 1947 to killing her father after years of sexual abuse.

The book differs greatly from the movie, much of which was filmed in Camden, Maine. The movie, starring Lana Turner and Arthur Kennedy, glosses over many of the darker aspects of Metalious’ book. For example, Selena gets an abortion in the book, but has a miscarriage in the movie; the townsfolk shun her in the book, but embrace her in the movie.

The TV series of the late 1960s, which starred Mia Farrow, further sanitized the subject matter. Mill workers, child abusers, drunks and Selena Cross don’t exist in the TV world of Peyton Place.

After Metalious’ death, ABC sanitized the story, removing the poor characters and giving the stars different motivations, desires and personalities than the characters in the book. The town was moved from textile and lumber country to a quaint seashore. The publicity blitz surrounding the hugely popular prime-time soap opera drove Metalious’ work underground.

Today, some Gilmanton people give tight smiles or roll their eyes when asked about the book.

Heidi Herzberger, manager of the Temperance Tavern Bed & Breakfast, believes tensions have eased over the years. ``I think the town has started to take a live-and-let-live attitude,″ she said.

Metalious did not think ``Peyton Place″ would sell. Cameron said an interviewer asked Metalious in 1956 whether her book would be remembered in 25 years.

``In a very timid voice, she responded, ’No, no, it’s not important, it’s not important, no one will remember.‴

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