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Authors: Grace Metalious

Return to Peyton Place

Hardscrabble Books—Fiction of New England

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Return to
Peyton Place
Grace Metalious

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY

ARDIS CAMERON

Northeastern University Press
BOSTON

PUBLISHED BY UNIVERSITY PRESS OF NEW ENGLAND
HANOVER AND LONDON

Northeastern University Press
Published by University Press of New England,
One Court Street, Lebanon, NH 03766
www.upne.com
© Copyright 1959 by Grace Metalious
Introduction © 2007 by Ardis Cameron

First published in 1959 by Julian Messner, Inc. Reprinted in 2007 by Northeastern University Press/University Press of New England by agreement with Marsha Metalious Duprey, Cynthia Metalious Geary, and Christopher Metalious.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Members of educational institutions and organizations wishing to photocopy any of the work for classroom use, or authors and publishers who would like to obtain permission for any of the material in the work, should contact Permissions, University Press of New England, One Court Street, Lebanon, NH 03766.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Metalious, Grace.
Return to Peyton Place / Grace Metalious ; with an introduction by Ardis Cameron.
      p. cm. — (Hardscrabble Books : fiction of New England)

ISBN
-13: 978-1-55553-759-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)

ISBN
-10: 1-55553-669-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. City and town life—Fiction. 2. New England—Fiction.

3. Domestic fiction. I. Cameron, Ardis. II. Title.

PS
3525.
E
77
R
48 2007

813'.54—dc22
2007007182
 

For Jacques Chambrun—who talked me into this book in the first place.

Never Enough
Peyton Place
and the Making of a Literary Sequel

Dear Grace Metalious
Just one thing I noticed. When Rodney Harrington and Betty Anderson had their little episode at Silver Lake, it was a very humid evening in summer. Rodney Junior was born the last of October in New York. How was this figured?
With appreciation,

A. Farnsworth Wood
January 26, 1960

I
N THE FALL OF
1956, Mrs. Thomas H. Leary sat down to read the season's hottest new book, a controversial novel about a fictional New England town called
Peyton Place.
But her reading was fraught with difficulties. Her son, a student at Dartmouth College, “was disgusted,” she wrote in a letter to Grace Metalious, “and my husband wasn't much better pleased.” Distracted and frustrated by the men in her family, she could not give the story her complete attention. A few years later, however, the Seattle housewife had occasion to try again. “After recently reading
Return to Peyton Place,
” she explained, “I simply had to go back again to ‘Peyton Place' and review the story.” Alone at last, Mrs. Leary raced through the two novels, confirming her first impressions: “To
me
the story was completely fascinating … please keep writing—your talent is too good to hide.”
1

Mrs. Leary was not the only person who read
Peyton Place
on the sly. Neither was she alone in imploring the young author to continue writing, “no matter,” as one letter writer put it, “what they say!” From around the country, readers expressed keen interest in the young author's work, often petitioning Grace Metalious to write more “Peyton Place” stories. “Congratulations on your book, Return to Peyon Place,” a “bookworm” from Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote. “I liked it better than Peyton Place. By next year this time I hope there will be a new Peyton Place book out.”
2
After reading
Return—
“true to life, imaginative, really good reading”—a fan from the Bronx explained that he had followed the characters for five years, and they now seemed like part of his life. “I hope that you are contemplating in writing more about Allison, Joey, Selena, Constance, Mike, etc.… I am sure the American public shares my same feeling.”
3
Millions it seems did. Three weeks after hitting the book shelves,
Return to Peyton Place
sold almost three million paperback copies, which, according to Dell publications, “made it the fastest selling paperback since
Peyton Place.

4
“Please,” implored a
Return
fan from Brookline, Massachusetts, “give us another book soon.”
5

Like Mrs. Leary, a number of letter writers found themselves returning to
Peyton Place
after reading
Return.
“Dear Grace,” a fan from Oregon enthused, “I have just finished reading ‘Return to Peyton Place.' After I had read it, I picked up the copy of your first ‘Peyton Place' to renew my acquaintance with these characters you have so beautifully created. Then I returned to your last novel and read it again through to the last word.” Like many others, this reader came to think of the characters as “totally real”; a community of fictive friends. “It is a rare gift indeed,” wrote another, “to have the ability to make every character alive and filled with such intensity that they will walk and breathe and live to the extent that when the reader puts aside the book, he feels he has known each of them personally.”
6
One woman confessed that she dreamt nightly about the residents of
Peyton Place, “
and always in ‘technocolor!'”

To the relief of many fans, the story of Peyton Place continued for more than a decade after its original publication. Both
Peyton Place
and
Return
became popular films, and in 1964 a television serial starring Dorothy Malone—and introducing Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal—was broadcast to over sixty million nighttime viewers. Its stunning success forced ABC to add an additional evening slot, making it available to prime-time audiences an historic three nights a week. Soon after, an avalanche of
Peyton Place
books rolled onto the literary marketplace, beginning with the imaginatively titled
Again Peyton Place,
followed in quick succession by
Carnival in Peyton Place, The Evils of Peyton Place, Hero in Peyton Place, Nice Girl from Peyton Place, Pleasures of Peyton Place, Secrets of Peyton Place, Temptations of Peyton Place,
and finally—just in case anyone missed the point of the series—
Thrills of Peyton Place.
But it was not Grace Metalious who would author these works. While Twentieth Century Fox patronized the famous writer, it gave Grace Metalious no role in writing the scripts for either film. Producers at ABC even went out of their way to publicly denounce the original novel, calling its author “negativistic” and “hateful.” And the paperback series, supposedly written by Roger Fuller, was actually the product of unknown writer(s) working under a corporate pseudonym invented by Pocket Books. “Perhaps,” the respected magazine writer Otto Friedrich quipped, “Roger Fuller is a former police reporter for the
Brooklyn Eagle,
a schoolteacher with a mortgage payment overdue, a Barnard girl with a feverish imagination, and so on.”
7
Even
Return
was partially ghostwritten, the idea for a sequel dreamed up by Dell publications and Hollywood producers who didn't have to read Grace's fan mail to know audiences wanted more of Allison, Joey, Selena, Constance, and Mike.
8

It was not what Grace Metalious imagined for herself as a writer. Already hard at work on a second novel entitled
The Tight White Collar,
she sought to prove that
Peyton Place
was more than a “flash in the pan.”
Return,
she told reporters, was just “so much sludge. It was written for the gentlemen of Hollywood who will do anything to make a quick buck. I wish that I had never let it happen.”
9
And resist she did. She stormed around the house. She hung up the phone. She said, “No, no, no, no, no.”
10
But her writerly ambition—her intense desire to insert herself into the realm of the “serious” writer—competed almost daily with less transparent needs: a bottomless hunger for love and validation, and a restless, unending search for financial security. People she loved pressed hard. Hollywood called again and again. Enormous sums were held out. Her agent pleaded. Piqued, Grace Metalious slammed the door to her study, hunkered down at her typewriter, and reluctantly returned to the New England town so many of her characters had longed to escape.

But like her heroine, the promising young writer Allison MacKenzie, Grace returned to Peyton Place with attitude. If she was going to have to write this stuff, she was going to have some fun. In a matter of months, she spit out a story that cynically echoed her own traumatic experiences as a young writer who found herself cheated by crooked agents, misrepresented by reporters, vilified by critics, and bullied by editors, publishers, and greedy Hollywood producers. No longer the starry-eyed ingénue of
Peyton Place
days, Allison gains fame and fortune in
Return,
not because her writing is regarded as good, but rather because her book is declared indecent, even pornographic. Allison becomes a celebrity by becoming a “hack”; a female writer of popular, “sexy” books. Dramatizing her own experiences, Metalious takes a potshot at the backstage operations of book publishing, where publicity agents and editors take control of Allison's novel long before she decamps at Penn Station. “She did not know that in New York certain wheels had been set in motion and that the novel was no longer altogether hers, or that its fate was not to be left to chance” (71–72). When she objects to the misrepresentations and distortions, her agent smugly asks, “You want your book to sell, don't you?” (86). Like her creator, Allison is upset and disillusioned. “What a dirty business this is,” Allison realizes. “How meaningless … how goddamned silly this all is” (88, 92).

Sludge? Maybe. But as with so many “bad” novels,
Return to Peyton Place
has some good stories to tell.

In the spring of 1955, Grace Metalious was thirty-one years old, the mother of three children, and the wife of a New Hampshire schoolteacher. In their small “Hansel and Gretel” cottage called “It'll Do,” the Metaliouses made do. But by summer, nothing seemed to work. Drought turned their dirt road into a swirling dust bowl. In July, the dug well dried up, along with the Metaliouses' credit line. “Frozen French-fried potatoes are a bit beyond your budget,” Grace remarked years later. “But you buy them because they do not have to be washed before they can be cooked and eaten.” The humidity made everyone grouchy. The marriage soured. More and more, “It'll Do” worked less and less. Then, as her best friend and neighbor Laurie Wilkins put it, “all hell broke loose.” That August, Grace sold her “fourth baby,” a longish novel about a small New England town called Peyton Place, to a New York publisher. Before the summer was over, Grace Metalious found herself sipping a daiquiri at “the fanciest saloon in NY.” “I was an author,” she later wrote, “with a contract which said so. I had a French agent and a lady publisher. I was in ‘Club 21.' I had arrived.”
11

Peyton Place
was an instant success, a publishing phenomenon even by today's standards. Three months after publication, it topped the
New York Times
bestsellers list, where it stayed for more than fifty-nine weeks. “I was living in the Midwest during the fifties,” recalled Grace Metalious's biographer Emily Toth, “and I can tell you it was boring. Elvis Presley and
Peyton Place
were the only two things in that decade that gave you hope there was something going on out there.” By year's end, one in twenty-nine Americans had purchased the novel, and by 1958,
Peyton Place
cracked twelve million copies sold, making it the best-selling novel up to that time (only
The Godfather
would sell more copies in the twentieth century). “This book business,” Grace wrote a friend, “is some evil form of insanity.”
12

Hitting the ground with unexpected fury,
Peyton Place
was soon to become the silent generation's perfect storm. Decried by conservative critics as “wicked,” “sordid,” “cheap,” “moral filth,” and a “tabloid version of life,” the novel was declared indecent in Canada, France, and Italy. It was banned in Providence, Rhode Island, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and Omaha, Nebraska, where politicians blamed the book for corrupting American teenagers. “I don't know why you want to read it,” one perplexed bookseller announced, “but we are willing to sell it at $3.95.” Wealthy communities that measured their refinement by the kinds of books they kept in the town library took pride in banishing
Peyton Place
. In upscale Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, a sign was posted on the front lawn of the town library: “This Library does not carry
Peyton Place
. If you want it, go to Salem,” a working-class town to the south. Among conservatives, the enormous popularity of the novel signaled the moral dangers of postwar liberalism. “This sad situation,” thundered the influential conservative William Loeb, editor of the
Manchester Union Leader,
“reveals a complete debasement of taste and a fascination with the filthy, rotten side of life that are the earmarks of the collapse of civilization.” Across the country, hundreds of men, women, and teenagers competed with disapproving officials, parents, and, at times, husbands and sons, to secure a copy. In some states, town officials simply cut of library funding when librarians failed to comply. “I am so sorry that I can not say that I read your book,” a reader from Mesquite, Texas, explained to Grace. “I cannot afford to buy it and I have no access to a library. My state is still in the hands of thieves and for that reason it is very backward.”
13

More judicious reviewers, however, found much to like in
Peyton Place
, at times comparing it to the small-town rebellions of Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and John O'Hara. Carlos Baker, a professor of literature at Princeton University, praised the novel, singling out Grace Metalious as representative of the new “emancipated modern authoress” unafraid to ferret out the nation's “bourgeois pretensions.” The writer Merle Miller made tribute to the “great narrative skill” of the author: “she may outrage you, but she never bores you,” he wrote in
Ladies Home Journal.
14
In December of 1957, the women editors of Associated Press newspapers voted Grace Metalious the most outstanding woman writer of the year. In tandem with her “sexsational” novel, the author became a household name, “one of the most talked about women in America,”
Life Magazine
announced. More famous than
Anthony Adverse, Peyton Place
outsold
God's Little Acre, Gone with the Wind,
and every other work of fiction published up to that time.
15
Publishers scratched their heads; dozens of them had rejected the novel.

The main story of
Peyton Place
follows the lives of three women who, in different ways and for different reasons, come to terms with their identity as women and as sexual persons in the represssive atmosphere of small-town America. Allison MacKenzie, very much like Grace, is a young girl growing up in a fatherless household. She dreams of becoming a writer to escape a cloistered life of repressed emotions, conventionality, and dependence. Her working mother, Constance, whom Allison believes to be widowed, lives a lonely and sexually-frustrated life, haunted by the fear that her long-ago adulterous relationship with a married man will be revealed and ruin both her life and and that of her daughter, the offspring of her passionate relationship with him. But the dramatic center was most clearly located in the story of Selena Cross, the dark-complexioned girl who lived across the tracks but whose beauty, intelligence, and sensuality captivate the town and frighten Constance. More than any other character, Selena represented the darkest side of American sexuality in the 1950s. A holder of youth's secrets, Selena is haunted and trapped by the sexual appetites of her stepfather, Lucas, who has been sexually abusing her for years. Seizing a moment offered to her on a snowy night just before Christmas, she and her younger brother smash in his head and bury his body in the sheep pen behind their shack.

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