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 northern New England, Indian summer puts up a scarlet-tipped hand to hold winter back for a little while....
One year, early in October, Indian summer came to a town called Peyton Place. Like a laughing, lovely woman Indian summer came and spread herself over the countryside and made everything hurtfully beautiful to the eye.
--Peyton Place 1.
"If I’m a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste."
Born Mary Grace DeRepentigny in 1924, Manchester, New Hampshire, she lived in relative poverty and married in her teens. She continued to live in obscurity, raise her family, and write. In 1956, as "Grace Metalious," she published her first novel. Its title became a household word, the topic of sermons and water cooler gab sessions.
Peyton Place focuses on three characters: Constance Mackenzie, her teenaged daughter, Allison, and Allison's friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Selena Cross. Connie, an unwed mother, has remained in respectable society by lying about her marital status; people believe her a widow. The lie, however, returns to haunt mother and daughter as both become involved in romances. Selena Cross, meanwhile, guards a more disturbing secret. Her stepfather has sexually abused her for years, and she will ultimately defend herself against murder charges after he meets an entirely-deserved end. A townful of subplots surround these storylines. Each resident, of course, has a closet full of skeletons. Peyton Place piles incident upon incident torn from local gossip, the stuff of soap operas.
Stereotypes abound. Leslie Harrington, the richest man in town, is a greedy, self-centered hypocrite. We get a town drunk, Kenny Stearns, and a stern but loving spinster school marm, Miss Thornton. Balancing vile men like Harrington and Cross, we find two overly-heroic doctors and Connie's manly love interest, school superintendent Tom Makris (he gets called "Michael Rossi" in some editions, because of a lawsuit launched by a real-life namesake).
Throughout, Peyton Place remains self-conscious about its "steaminess." None of it will seem especially shocking now, but Metalious did provide a pop antidote to the clean-cut, peachy-keen depictions of small towns and nuclear families in postwar America. She also manages to juggle numerous plots and maintain the reader's interest through the many twists.
The book, however, hardly ranks among the great works of literature. Metalious‘s writing might best be described as uneven. Readers will note some fine passages, but just as often her prose becomes purple and ponderous, and her dialogue, unbelievable. At regular intervals, her "racy" novel gives in to rank sentimentality-- though I imagine this fact helps explain the book's success. As a bonus we get the world’s stupidest racist joke, told by the otherwise admirable old Doc. Despite the media attention which labelled her some sort of dangerous, modern woman-- "Pandora in blue jeans"1-- Metalious wasn’t that much ahead of her time; she just wrote the gossip down.
Peyton Place holds up as a quick potboiler sort of read, but will likely appeal more to those who want to experience a piece of pop history. Not certain if you'd enjoy the book? Imagine spending an afternoon listening to someone's occasionally witty, gossipy aunt recount local history. If that sounds like fun, buy an old copy at a second-hand book store.
Metalious went on to write four other novels, now largely forgotten. In 1959 she published her second-most successful work, Return to Peyton Place. She also received credit on numerous spin-offs and adaptations of her original. She died in 1964 from cirrhosis.
Movies and Television
Hollywood loves a steamy success story, and a film adapation appeared in 1957. Directed by Mark Robson, it starred Lana Turner as Constance MacKenzie. Diane Varsi made her debut as daughter Allison. It keeps the central plot, but eliminates subplots and cleans up many of the seedy details that permeate the novel.
Return to Peyton Place also made it to film, in 1961. Carol Lynley took the role of Constance, while Tuesday Weld played Selena Cross.
The tamer tv adaptation ran from 1964-1969. Generally regarded as the first primetime soap opera, it played twice weekly in its first season, three times in its second, and finally lapsed into a weekly appearance. The announcement that the risqué town would appear regularly in people's living rooms sparked moral outrage, but critics soon settled. The show implied scandal, but generally remained within the bounds of contemporary television. Its biggest lapse was the mere fact of an unmarried mother as a heroine. Mia Farrow took center stage as Allison MacKenzie until the third season, and then left the show. During its final season, with ratings in decline, Peyton Place strove to reach a younger, hipper audience. An Afro-American family moved to town, and a rock band also joined the cast. These attempts failed, and ABC cancelled the show.
The logical move was to retool Peyton Place as a regular, afternoon soap opera. Return to Peyton Place took such a slot from 1972 to 1974. By then the phenomenon was at an end; the once-shocking look at a small town's shadowy corners now seemed mundane. This Peyton had difficulty competing with the established daytime dramas, and lasted only two seasons.
Some of the cast were reunited for two tv movies: Murder in Peyton Place (1977) and Peyton Place: the Next Generation (1985). Both failed to kickstart the phenomenon, though the latter finally solved the mystery of Allison’s 1966 disappearance.
For a few years, Peyton Place held its position as the best-selling American novel in history. After numerous reprints, movies, and television adaptations, it disappeared. In 1999, the novel returned, complete with an academic introduction by Ardis Cameron, PhD, who discusses Peyton Place's politics and its influence on western culture.
And to this day, many people know "Peyton Place" as an allusion to a small town's dark side, the obscene message scrawled on the back of a quaint postcard.
1. One Larry Smith took the much-reproduced "Pandora in Blue Jeans" photograph of Metalious, but the originator of the epithet remains in dispute.
Grace Metalious. Peyton Place. New York: Dell, 1956.
"Peyton Place." Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050839/
"Peyton Place." The Museum of Broadcast Communication. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/P/htmlP/peytonplace/peytonplace.htm
"Peyton Place. TV Tome. http://www.tvtome.com/tvtome/servlet/ShowMainServlet/showid-6169/Peyton_Place/
Jack Stalnaker. "Grace Metalious." The Meeker Museum. http://www.meekermuseum.com/peytonp.html
.... "The Peyton Place Pages." The Meeker Museum. http://www.meekermuseum.com/literacy.html