Through the decades of the 1940s and 1950s in America, societal monotony with its binary vision and easy moral choices began to change into a complex and uncomfortable nation of people, thanks in part to a revolutionary foray into areas of literary taboo in movies and in books such as Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place.
In the early 1940s, America needed women in the workforce, with her men overseas fighting Nazi and Fascist regimes. Propaganda posters such as Rosie the Riveter, the iconic “We Can Do It”, encouraged women to roll up their sleeves and keep America’s motor running. When World War II ultimately ended in 1945, our boys came home, took back the workforce, married, and settled down.
Baby Boomers started arriving and they kept coming throughout the idyllic 1950s, when the only perceived blemish was the threat of Communism.
The phrase “family values” would not create buzz until decades later, yet that is what characterized the 1950s.1 The decade’s economic upturn, coupled with the housing boom, allowed Rosie the Riveter to leave her job, move into a suburban home, and turn into June Cleaver.
1950s: Influenced by Television, a Decade of Conformity and Family
The 1950s was a decade of conformity among families for multiple reasons: people clung to stability after years of depression and war, and strong family units were an effective defense against the spread of Communism.
Television instantaneously became a dominant part of family life. TV ownership skyrocketed from 3 million at the beginning of the decade to 55 million toward the end (Wiegand, 2006). Never before the 1950s had a person or a thing been so enthusiastically received.
TV shows, aside from the Westerns, reflected the ideal of the time—the traditional nuclear family. Among them were “Leave it to Beaver” (1957-1963), “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (1952-1966), and “Father Knows Best” (1954-1960). While “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957) had a twist of slapstick comedy, these shows impressed upon wide-eyed viewers their presentations of charming and perfectly functional families.
Female Writer Worked at Home, Expected to Do It All
In the midst of these wholesome times, a “stay at home mom” in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, became dissatisfied with housekeeping and child rearing, and prioritized her passion for writing. Grace Metalious was known to lock her young children outside while she retreated into her sanctuary—a corner of the living room where there was a desk, chair, and a beloved typewriter. Using town gossip deliciously fed to her by a local friend, she worked obsessively on the book that would eventually become Peyton Place (Metalious, 1956).
Apparently, her clean, neat writing nook was the only part of Metalious’s house that received attention. Very telling of the times, one of Metalious’s three children commented (Callahan, 2006),
When she was writing, basically everything else went to hell; no housework got done, no cooking got done, and my dad mostly took care of us . . .
Indeed, the children (influenced by society’s expectation), thought Dad’s place in the home was not to help with household duties.
Following the book’s release in 1956, its readers found incest, rape, sex, lust, adultery, abortion, and family secrets in what was supposed to be a time of purity. The New York Times called Peyton Place a “small town peep show” (Callahan, 2006), and applauded its stand
against the false fronts and bourgeois pretensions of allegedly respectable communities … The New York Times also recognized the book for what Grace had intended it to be: a cultural bitch slap at the duplicitous notions of proper conduct in the age of Eisenhower.
Plot Based on a True Murder Story
One of the novel’s plots is loosely based on the true story of 20-year-old Barbara Roberts, a local of Gilmanton, who shot and killed her father, then buried his body in the goat pen on their farm (the only ground that was not frozen at the time). Roberts must not have taken the opportunity to prove her true motive of self-defense, for she pled guilty to second degree homicide and was sentenced to 30 years to life.
Later, the truth was revealed that Roberts and her sister had been raped repeatedly by their father and at times chained to a bed for days. The murder happened when the abusive father flew into a rage and chased Roberts and her young brother around the kitchen table, threatening to kill them. Roberts then reached into a drawer, extracted her father’s gun, and shot him dead. 2 This ghastly real-life story is stuff of writers’ dreams, and Metalious seized the opportunity. 3
The shock waves the book created cannot be underestimated. Peyton Place sold more than 10 million copies—the bestselling novel of its time, second only to the Bible. Not even Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind sold as many copies. On the bestseller list for a year and a half, Peyton Place then became a movie that was nominated for nine Academy Awards. It also became television’s first prime-time serial.
According to Vanity Fair writer Michael Callahan (2006),
In its first month, it sold more than 100,000 copies, at a time when the average first novel sold 3,000 total. It would go on to sell 12 million more, becoming one of the most widely read novels ever published. During its heyday, it was estimated that one in 29 Americans had bought it—legions of them hiding it in drawers and closets due to its salacious content.
Citizens of Gilmanton Resented Metalious
The scandalized citizens of Gilmanton, New Hampshire resented Metalious for exposing salacious stories about their picturesque town. Their resentment was such that when she died prematurely at age 39, some did not want that “bitch buried in their sacred ground” (Kelly, 2013), sacred ground being the nearby historical cemetery dating back to the 1700s.
Metalious assured the last laugh when she used her Peyton Place money to buy a number of lots surrounding the one that was to be her final resting place. In death, as in life, Grace Metalious deliberately set herself apart.
At a time when feminism was dormant, Metalious actively sought a way to call her education and writing talent into service to support the family income. Since the feminist movement’s insurgence would not happen until the next decade, she was ahead of her time, hers being a literal rags to riches story.4
Before Peyton Place, Metalious’ family was living on her husband’s meager teaching salary of $3000 a year. They lived in a water-less shack nicknamed, “It’ll do,” drove a beat-up car, and ate lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Up to their ears in debt, the future looked bleak. After Peyton Place, Metalious was able to buy her dream house, drive a Cadillac, and pay off their creditors.
Quoting again from Callahan’s article (2006),
Darling, you’re Grace Metalious. You don’t get a room at the Plaza. You get an entire floor! …. So Grace did, along with a new Cadillac, new clothes, dinners at ‘21,’ cases of champagne, and chartered flights to the Caribbean. Grace poured thousands of dollars into renovating the country house … Opportunistic ‘friends’ began drifting in and out at all hours.
The house’s renovation included digging an artesian well so that water would always be available for her.
While the instant success of Peyton Place made Metalious an immensely wealthy woman, it did not bring her a “happily ever after.” Rather, it brought an eight-year downward spiral from the book’s publication in 1956 to her untimely death in 1964. The prolonged decline was inflamed by two divorces, affairs, a $60,000 libel lawsuit, poor business decisions, and trusting the wrong people.
The unfortunate thing about fame is that it can be fleeting, and the sad thing about money is that it has the tendency to run out. Both fame and money are especially endangered when alcohol abuse is involved. Metalious died of cirrhosis of the liver, and way too young at age 39. Owing more to the IRS than her assets were worth left her estate in tatters. 3 Interestingly, Lana Turner, who starred in the movie adaptation of Peyton Place, was able to extend her fortune—maybe because of it. 5
Peyton Place Survives the Struggle, Is Featured in University Curricula
However, even with Metalious’s untimely death and disappointment in her life, all was not lost. The Peyton Place legacy survives (Callahan, 2006).
Today, Peyton Place appears on women’s studies curricula at universities, including Louisiana State, where the book is required reading in a course taught by Professor Emily Toth, Grace’s Boswell (Toth, 2006).
‘It’s a breakthrough for freedom of expression,’ she says.’ It set new parameters for what you could say in a book—especially about women. It was an exciting, dirty book.’ Ten years ago, Ardis Cameron, a professor at the University of Southern Maine, was astonished to discover the title was out of print, and mounted a one-woman campaign to resurrect it. She eventually persuaded Northeastern University Press to reissue the novel, and wrote a Camille Paglia–worthy introduction that casts Grace as a literary Joan of Arc, sword drawn, swinging at the oppressive social conventions of the 50s. ‘The book,’ says Cameron, ‘spoke about things that were not discussed in polite society, and allowed people to talk about all sorts of issues—but particularly their own sense of being different in the 1950s.’
For a generation, the title Peyton Place was never forgotten as the “byword for lusty secrets” (Toth, 2006).
When South Carolina Congressman Lindsey Graham opened the impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton in 1998, he demanded, “Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?” (Toth, 2006).
Though the town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire has largely swept Peyton Place under the rug, people remember. Visitors leave coins on Metalious’s tombstone as a way of paying respect to her. A neighbor of Metalious named Jeanne Gallant continues to tend the grave site.
Today, older Americans tend to look back at the 1950s as the halcyon years; things were simpler and less costly in the time of swirling poodle skirts, sock hops, and exemplary entertainment.
Indeed, it was a nice respite from nationwide depression and world war. Yet, things are not always what they seem to be. Metalious’s Peyton Place contributed to the opening of minds to the fact that “Leave to Beaver” was not a documentary of the times.
For everybody and their mother reading Peyton Place, there grew an increased awareness of an imperfect world—an awareness that would be essential for the tumultuous 1960s.
1 In 1989 Vice President Dan Quayle used it to criticize TV Sitcom character Murphy Brown for glamorizing her decision to bear a child out of wedlock.
2 Only after an exposé by some crusading journalists—including a cub reporter for the New Hampshire Sunday News by the name of Ben Bradlee—was Roberts freed. Bradlee would then go on to become the Washington Post’s editor.
3 In Peyton Place, it is the fictional step-father who rapes the girl. In real-life, it was the father. Publisher Kitty Messner instinctively knew that it would be too overwhelming for Americans to read that the biological father was capable of committing such heinous acts.
4 In her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, women’s rights advocate Betty Friedan argued that the suburbs were “burying women alive.” This dissatisfaction contributed to the rebirth of the feminist movement in the 1960s.
5 The Peyton Place movie revitalized Lana Turner’s career (Callahan, 2007). In her next movie, Imitation of Life (1959), Turner agreed to a role for a lot less money than she collected in her prime. Instead she contracted for a percentage of the movie’s earnings. The movie’s unexpected success made Turner a wealthy woman.
Callahan, M. (2007, Jan 22). Grace Metalious: Peyton Place’s real victim. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2006/03/peytonplace200603
Kelly, G. (2013, Mar) 50 Shades of Grace: The impact of Peyton Place on New Hampshire 60 years later. New Hampshire Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nhmagazine.com/March-2013/50-Shades-of-Grace/
Metalious, G. (1956). Peyton Place. New York, NY: Julian Messner, Inc.
Toth, E. (2000). Inside Peyton Place: The life of Grace Metalious. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Toth, E. (2006, Sep 22). How to teach a dirty book. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2006/09/22/how-teach-dirty-book
Wiegand, S. (2014). US history for dummies (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.