The Women Of 'Peyton Place'

The book that shook the '50s returns, recast today as a seminal feminist work. A look back sheds light on the women who shaped it, and were shaped by it.

June 14, 1999|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

The photograph is known as Pandora in Blue Jeans, although no one knows who coined the phrase. Grace Metalious sits at her Remington typewriter, dressed in blue jeans, of course, but also a plaid flannel shirt and sneakers, no socks. It is the summer of 1956. She is 31, a New Hampshire housewife, a mother of three, the wife of a high school principal. She drinks too much. In eight years, she will be dead.

Metalious clasps her hands to her face, as if contemplating the next sentence in the novel she has called her fourth child, "The Tree and the Blossom." The photograph is something of a shuck, because Metalious has actually already finished her book. The photo is for the publicity machine, which is already cranking up, trying to create excitement about a first novel, in an era where a lucky first novel might sell 3,000 copies. Her publisher, Kitty Messner, has been persuaded to put $5,000 into promoting the book for which she has paid $1,500. A love scene has been added to spice it up. The publisher has even changed the title -- to "Peyton Place."

The rest is, if not history, then publishing history. "Peyton Place" has been called the first blockbuster, a book so successful that, at its height, an estimated 1-in-29 Americans had purchased it.

Far more read it. "Peyton Place" was the original under-the-bed book, the one parents hid and children found, reading fragments on the sly.

In Baltimore, a 10-year-old John Waters thrilled to see the book on his grandfather's shelf. "The V of Betty Anderson's crotch," the director exclaims today, slightly misquoting the salacious line. "I was electrified."

In the Midwest, 12-year-old Emily Toth, who would grow up to be Metalious' biographer, decided that "Peyton Place" and Elvis Presley were the only promises of a more exciting life beyond the staid conformity she knew.

Throughout the country, some booksellers faced criminal charges for selling the book to minors. And, while reviews from out-of-town newspapers were largely respectful and admiring of Metalious' gifts as a writer, she quickly became a pariah in her hometown of Gilmanton, N.H.

Over the next eight years, Metalious' life followed an arc that reads like someone else's pulp novel -- Harold Robbins, to be precise, for he claimed "Lonely Lady" was inspired by her. She went from rags to riches, from her first husband to her second and back to her first. When she died from cirrhosis in 1964, she was broke.

"Peyton Place" endured, however, becoming a part of the American vernacular as surely as "Catch-22." People who have never read the book understand the shorthand that is "Peyton Place." As recently as the fall of 1998, U.S. Rep. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., invoked the phrase when he attacked the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Yet the book was out of print when Graham made his remarks, and had been for several years. Those who remembered "Peyton Place" were more likely to know the television show, starring Mia Farrow, or the film before it, with Lana Turner. Few recalled that it was a book primarily about a young woman's determination to become a writer, and another young woman's desperate fight to escape an impoverished past of unspeakable horrors.

Fewer still realize the book's celebrated sex scenes centered on romantic, fulfilling love between consenting, even married adults. It is not the lovers whose behavior Metalious finds scandalous, but those who watch them -- an old spinster, a strange little boy.

Ardis Cameron, director of American and New England Studies at the University of Southern Maine, didn't read "Peyton Place" growing up. But a few years ago, she decided she wanted to teach the book in a course on regional literature. Stunned to find it no longer in print, she decided to find a new publisher for the book.

Northeastern University Press agreed, and this year brought out a trade paperback edition with a serious, scholarly foreword by Cameron, who considers "Peyton Place" a seminal feminist work.

"By reinterpreting incest, wife beating, and poverty as signs of social as well as individual failure, Metalious turned `trash' into a powerful political commentary on gender relations and class privilege," Cameron writes. "Reading `Peyton Place' today, one is especially struck by the carefully drawn, vivid descriptions of northern New England in the 1950s."

Some are unpersuaded by Cameron's enthusiasm. "A perfectly decent popular novel and an honest one. But it never was an important one, and no amount of retroactive puffery can make it so," Kirkus Reviews warns. Yet the book has gone back for a second printing. At Amazon.com, those who purchase it from the online bookseller are buying books by Jacqueline Susann, but also by Betty Friedan.

The primary difference between Peyton Place 1999 and Peyton Place 1956 may be one of numbers. Packaged as pulp, it sold 12 million copies. In its latest, more serious, incarnation, it has sold slightly more than 8,000.

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