50 Shades of Grace
The Impact of "Peyton Place" on New Hampshire 60 Years Later
In a day when a novel about bondage and submission is bedside reading material in respectable homes, it’s hard to understand just how shocked the world was by a book from a young New Hampshire writer named Grace Metalious. The title “Peyton Place” became a synonym for scandal, and nearly 60 years later the town that more or less inspired the book still holds a grudge.
Kevin Farquharson manages the Corner Store in the center of Gilmanton. He’s a young, affable sort of fellow who gives a stranger who asks about Grace Metalious a knowing look. “I had a feeling you might be asking about her,” he says.
He’s used to such inquiries. “Every summer people stop here to ask about her. You could almost get a tour bus going.”
That may be so, but they’d still need to stop and ask for directions. There are no markers that even identify that Gilmanton was home to Metalious, much less to point to locations that might cast light on the author of the most scandalous book of the mid-20th century.
About two or three miles outside of Gilmanton, on Meeting House Road, there is a peaceful and beautiful cemetery dating back to the 1700s. It sits at the height of the land. Its iron-gate entrance is a sentinel to the town’s early history. Down to the right, in the back, near a stand of pines, a simple white marble grave, alone and away from the others, says:
When she died in her late ’30s, there were some in Gilmanton who were adamant that they didn’t want that “bitch” buried in their sacred ground. In death, she shunned them. To ensure that, she bought a number of lots to deliberately place her grave away from others buried there. Someone sees to it that a granite urn is filled with red geraniums. On top of the stone, visitors have left loose change, nickels, dimes, quarters – an ancient custom that symbolizes payment for a debt of gratitude and best wishes to the deceased in the afterlife. The stone is taken care of by her good friend, Jeanne Gallant, who was Grace’s neighbor. Gallant washes down the grave every year. “The first time I did it I was afraid I’d ruin the color,” she says.
Grace was the daughter of Alfred and Laurette (Royer) DeRepentigny. Her birth certificate, recorded at Notre Dame Hospital (now Catholic Medical Center), lists her name as Marie Grace DeRepentigny. Marie Grace’s formative years were spent in Manchester. Her mother and father, both descendants of French Canadian stock, clearly made Grace a Franco-American. Robert Perreault, a Franco-American scholar, writes that she was raised in a French-speaking household. Her maternal grandmother Royer spoke only French. She spoke French before she spoke English.
When Grace was born in 1924, Manchester was dominated by the bustling Amoskeag Mills. The West Side of the city was dubbed Petit Canada. On the other side of the Merrimack River lived Greeks, Slavs and Irish, each with their own territory. On the North End of the city the wealthy Yankees distanced themselves from the “foreigners” who worked the mills they ran. Manchester was a segregated city. Grace’s mother wanted no part of Petit Canada. She had pretensions and delusions that she was not a descendant of French Canadians and preferred to trace her lineage to France instead. Laurette, according to Perreault, purchased trinkets and memorabilia, passing them off as heirlooms from a Parisian ancestry. Laurette was determined that the family would divorce itself from any connection to Petit Canada. To that end, the family rented more than seven apartments on the edge of the exclusive North End between 1924-1942.
Laurette felt that she had “married beneath herself.” She considered her husband an “uncouth barbarian,” a blue-collar worker. When Grace was 10, Alfred deserted the family and joined the Merchant Marines, never to return.
Grace grew up in a family of strong-minded women as her mother and both her maternal and paternal grandmothers worked. Early on in Grace’s life, when the family was in turmoil, which was often enough, she would escape to her Grandmother DeReptentigny’s, whom she called Mémère. There she spent hours writing in the tub on a small stool she used for a writing desk. She wrote rhymes and stories and read everything she could find.
Grace was enrolled in the Ash Street School, which was public and secular. Laurette wanted Grace to make friends with English-speaking children with “Yankee names.” Later, at Central High School, Grace changed the spelling of her name to Grace “de” Repentigny (a connection to royalty) and claimed that her real name was Grace Marie-Antoinette Jean d’Arc de Repentigny. She met two boys at Central High, who would remain lifelong friends. According to Perreault’s account, they formed what could be described as an “avant-garde” group. During that time Grace wrote a play titled “Murder In The Summer Barn Theatre.” The play was rehearsed in the Unitarian Church basement, across the street from Central High. This early work is nothing remarkable, save for one male character who has to dress in woman’s clothing. The Unitarian minister objected and censored the performance, but Grace and the troupe protested and the play was eventually staged. The minster did not attend. “Murder In The Summer Barn Theatre” would not be the last of Grace’s writing that would be censored.
Laurette’s dream of upward mobility through her daughter was dashed when on February 27, 1943, Grace de Repentigny became Grace Metalious. She had met George Metalious and fallen in love. Laurette was appalled and condemned George as a “dirty Greek.” George did his stint in World War II and returned home to menial jobs, eventually using the GI Bill to attend UNH to become a teacher. By this time, Grace had given birth to three children, Marsha, Cindy and Mike.
After graduation, the Metaliouses moved to Belmont. George took a position at the Laconia State School for a $3,000 annual salary – hardly more than a paltry wage for a wife and three children. Belmont was a seminal moment for both Grace and her family. By her own account, what had been a feeling of helplessness became overwhelming. “I was trapped,” she said. In her emotional isolation, Grace returned in earnest to what had always given her, if not freedom, at least purpose. She devoted herself to writing. She plunged into her work with a single-mindedness that set everything else – husband, children, housework, cooking – aside. Rumors of her cavalier attitude about her “duties” as a housewife began to circulate. She sometimes locked the children out of the apartment when she was writing. The apartment was a mess and creditors were dunning the family regularly. To make matters worse, there was considerable talk about town that this “Metalious woman” was writing a thinly veiled book about the people of Belmont.
Not everyone in Belmont was suspicious of Metalious. According to Jeanne Gallant, a friend lent Grace his 1937 Ford so she could go to Laconia to the supermarket. When, after a few days, she hadn’t returned, he notified the chief of police in Belmont, who allowed that Grace, being Grace, probably was “somewhere” and would come home eventually. As it turned out, Metalious had indeed been somewhere – she had driven to New York City to look for an agent.
As the rumors spread and as the Metalious family was evicted from one apartment after another, something fortuitous happened. Laurie Wilkens, a reporter for the Laconia Evening Citizen, had heard the rumors about Grace and she decided to interview her. When Laurie and Grace met, each fell in love with the other.
Laurie found the Metalious family a place to live in Gilmanton, which was very near the dream house Grace eventually bought. The place was named “It’ll Do.” Jeanne Gallant describes it as “just a place to get outah the rain.” It’ll Do had a dug well that often in summer went dry, leaving the Metaliouses “pretty ripe.” Her housekeeping hadn’t changed and the house itself was full of garbage, dirty dishes and left-over food. But at one corner, there was a neat nook with a desk, a chair and a manual typewriter. Grace said, “I thought about the book 24 hours a day for years. I wrote 10 hours a day for two and a half months.” Almost daily she climbed the hill to converse with her friend and critic, Laurie, who was in a position to know some of the secrets in the area. On one such occasion, she related the true story of a murder that had caused a sensation in the Lakes Region. A young girl had shot her father who had repeatedly raped her and afterwards she and her younger brother buried the murdered man in the sheep pen. It was winter and the only land that could be dug into was where the sheep were kept. Eventually, that story, and others, found its way into the novel that Grace had named “The Tree and the Blossom.”
When the novel was finished, Grace sent it to an agent named Jacques Chambrun, whom she chose because his last name was French. Chambrun shopped the novel to a number of publishers and all of them rejected the manuscript.
During the dog days of 1956, Grace returned to It’ll Do after a trip to the grocery store. She reached into her mailbox and found the usual dunning notices and a telegram from Chambrun that asked her to call him right away. Grace screamed, “He sold it – he sold it!” The book had been bought by Kitty Messner, of Messner Associates, one of the few publishing houses run by a woman.
When Grace entered Messner’s office wearing her blue jeans and a flannel shirt with her hair in a ponytail, one of Messner’s associates felt that, in her own way, she had “given us the finger.” Messner and Metalious bonded instantly. What followed was a contentious amount of editing, gently prodded by Messner. One big change was insisted on: the book’s title would be changed to “Peyton Place.”
Kitty Messner’s firm was small potatoes in the publishing world. Like all publishers, she was hoping that “Peyton Place” would sell about 3,000 copies and make a modest profit. However, Messner’s publicist Alan Brandt saw potential in the novel and persuaded Messner to up his publicity budget to promote the book. She agreed, and he came to Gilmanton to interview Grace. Her husband George had just been hired as the teaching principal at the Gilmanton Corner School and Grace was as controversial as ever, refusing to play “Mrs. Schoolteacher.” A woman in Gilmanton, whom Grace dubbed “Messy Bessie,” organized a group to oust their newly elected principal. Her effort failed but in conversation with Brandt, Grace mentioned that she thought her novel would “cost my husband his job.” That tidbit of information was all Brandt needed. He parlayed Grace’s comment into a fact. He farmed this narrative out to anyone willing to print the story, the Boston Herald‘s two-inch-high headline read, “TEACHER FIRED FOR WIFE’S BOOK!” Other stories appeared with gossipy speculation that a New Hampshire housewife’s racy novel about a small town was jeopardizing her husband’s employment. Other publicity followed, casting Grace as a simple mother of three who had written a book in her spare time and was now the victim of a small town’s prejudice. Before “Peyton Place” hit the bookstores, it was already on the New York Times‘ best-seller list.
Finally, “Peyton Place” had its coming out. Grace, at her typewriter, appeared on the back of the book jacket. A Laconia photographer was paid a paltry sum for the photo that became known as “Pandora in Blue Jeans.” It remains the most famous photograph taken of her. The novel began:
“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.”
It was a novel, by a woman, about three women: Selena Cross, from the wrong side of town and based on the true story Wilkens had told her, Allison MacKenzie, a sweet girl whose ambition is to become a writer, and Allison’s mother Constance whose dark past and sexual repression blossom when she meets the new school principal, a dark, handsome gentleman of Greek descent. It was about the hypocrisy that lies just beneath the surface of small-town America. It was about the “haves,” who lived on the hill in mini mansions, and the “have-nots,” the “shack people” who lived in the forgotten part of town. It was also about powerful men victimizing women. But what was most shocking was the frankness, the profanity and the sex – penned by a woman.
“Peyton Place” was a bunker buster of a novel that blew the lid off the quaint and virtuous small town. It exposed its underbelly. Within its pages was incest, murder, suicide and adultery. Added to that was its setting in sacrosanct New England, the bedrock of small-town America. In an interview, Grace said, “If you turn over a rock in these small towns, you just never know what you’ll find.” Others knew it as well – after her death, a trove of letters was found, written to her, from people all over America, all saying the same thing: “Peyton Place” was about their town.
“Peyton Place” sold out, and as more copies hit the shelves they disappeared as well. Pages containing sexually explicit scenes were dog-eared for quick reference. Soon “Peyton Place” eclipsed “Gone With The Wind” as the best-seller of all time and remained at the top of best-seller lists for two years. Eventually it would sell 10 million copies, well beyond anyone’s expectations at Messner Associates. As for Grace, the fame and fortune that came with it would place her in celebrity status, and in demand.
She was painfully shy and hated book tours and interviews, which usually left her in tears. But she was not totally defenseless. A young Mike Wallace interviewed her and asked the question she had been promised he would not ask – “Was ‘Peyton Place’ an autobiography?” She slammed back, calling Mike by his hated real name, Myron, and topped that by asking about his three marriages.
Back in Gilmanton though, Grace was enjoying her newfound celebrity. She visited the Corner Store and offered to pay off her credit, asking the owner if he could cash a check – for $75,000. She visited her other creditors as well. A rumor persisted that she paraded about town wearing nothing but a mink coat, but that is probably not true. Also false was the portrayal in magazines and newspapers (complete with staged photos) that Grace was a simple housewife and mother of three, pleased at her good fortune and happily married. In fact, her marriage was quite troubled.
Grace always maintained that three quarters of the novel was finished before she moved to town, but no one was listening. Roger Clark, a Gilmanton native, who knew Grace and was friends with her daughter, Marsha, still wonders whether Grace was “ignorant or arrogant” about what she had written. “You can’t hide in a small town; you can’t hide in Gilmanton.” He adds, “People in small towns talk at the dinner table, but we don’t take it outside.” Grace’s thinly veiled and sometimes-obvious characterizations of his neighbors was a betrayal of what is supposed to remain private. Grace had “aired the dirty laundry.”
Gilmanton was inundated with reporters, film crews and people curious about the actual Peyton Place. Strangers parked their cars on people’s lawns, sneaked around houses in the night to peer into windows and generally bustled here and there looking for “dirt” to corroborate what they had read. Reviewers had mostly panned “Peyton Place” and Grace as a “smut” writer. Religious groups were condemning her work and civic authorities were banning the book from public libraries. It was completely banned in Canada. William Loeb, of the Union Leader, saw “Peyton Place” as no less than the beginning of the end of civilization. The New York Times‘ reviewer Carlos Baker, however, called “Peyton Place” a well-written first novel and praised Grace.
She bought her dream house in Gilmanton (now the Gilmanton Vineyard & Winery), added to it, landscaped it and at her insistence had an artesian well dug – she was never going to run out of water like she had at It’ll Do. She began to spend her time between Gilmanton and The Plaza in New York City and she and George finally split up. He took a job in Massachusetts and she took up with T. J. Martin. T.J. The Dee Jay, worked at a radio station in Laconia. Grace was not yet divorced and T.J. was spending nights at Grace’s house. George snuck into the house and photographed T.J. and Grace in bed, which appalled Gilmanton residents.
When T.J. and Grace finally married, they let the good times roll. The money, it seemed, was endless. Hollywood was calling. Producer Jerry Wild offered Grace $250,000 for both the movie and television rights to “Peyton Place.” John Michael Hayes, who was chosen as director of the film, made the same mistake Mike Wallace had. At Romanoff’s in Hollywood, he asked Grace if “Peyton Place” was an autobiography and she threw a drink in his face. The movie, though sanitized, garnered a number of Academy Award nominations. Grace liked the production.
At the house in Gilmanton, people came and went at any hour of the day and night. Grace was generous with her money and looked at “hangers-on” and sycophants as friends – they weren’t. T.J. and Grace had a tempestuous relationship and it was during these years that Grace began drinking heavily – her favorite was 7 & 7 (Seven Up and Seagram’s). Her children alternated between their father’s home in Massachusetts and Grace’s party place. The oldest child, Marsha, said, “We didn’t have a normal childhood. We didn’t know what normal was.”
Grace’s fear that she couldn’t write anymore, coupled with her other demons, produced more drinking as an escape. Eventually the money started to run out, and Grace wrote “Return To Peyton Place.” The book sold well, but never came close to the success of her first novel and the critics were merciless.
When the party years ended, Grace and T.J. split, and George and Grace were reconciled. They bought a motel near Laconia and named it The “Peyton Place” Motel, a doomed venture from the start. No one went near the place. George left again, leaving Grace alone, depressed, in need of money and drinking more.
Her final relationship with a Brit named John Rees was short-lived. All the “good times” had caught up with her. On a trip to Boston, Rees checked her in to the hospital. On her deathbed Grace signed over her estate to him. She died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver.
Rees, under pressure from Grace’s children, gave up any claims to her estate. Ironically, there was nothing to leave. Her estate was valued at $44,000 but there was a bill for unpaid taxes from the IRS, amounting to more than $114,000. Everything Grace owned was auctioned off, including the typewriter she’d used to write “Peyton Place.” It sold for $75.
A reporter once asked Grace if she thought “Peyton Place” would last. She said, “Oh no, I don’t think so.” She was wrong. Time and significant changes in American social structure are placing “Peyton Place” in a new perspective. After more than 50 years the book is getting another look, and Grace is being seen as a woman who might have been ahead of her time. She and her novels, including “The Tight White Collar” and “No Adam In Eden,” are part of women’s study programs in some pretty lofty universities. Serious studies of “Peyton Place” are being published. The novel is taking its place as one in a pantheon of other novels about small-town life, such as Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” and Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” Sandra Bullock owns a screenplay and may yet produce and star in a movie about Grace’s tempestuous life.
Jeanne Gallant is ashamed of the way Gilmanton treated Grace in life and in death. She is especially saddened that Grace’s children were cruelly shunned. “Children used to come up to Marsha or Cindy and say, ‘I cant play with you because my mother says your mother wrote a dirty book.'” Gallant says she wants to “undo the damage” to Grace’s reputation. “She was a caring, positive and intelligent woman,” says Gallant. “In the end, Grace felt cheated and abused. Some people had called her a slut right to her face. She searched everywhere for her share of happiness.” Her husband, George, said, “Grace trusted all the wrong people.” Grace herself was once asked if Gilmanton was in her mind when she wrote “Peyton Place.” She said, “No, but I always say, if the shoe fits, put it on.” The town never forgave her.
Near the end of her short life, Grace confessed to Gallant that she was dwelling on something her grandmother had told her when Grace said that she wanted to be a famous writer. Grandmother Royer had admonished her – “Be careful, Grace, what you wish for. You just might get it.”
- The Selena Cross character (played by Hope Lange) in “Peyton Place” is based on the true story of 20-year-old Barbara Roberts who, in 1947, shot and killed her father and buried his body in the sheep pen. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Crusading investigative reporters revealed that Roberts and her sister had been repeatedly raped by their father, and that she’d killed him in self-defense. A cub reporter for The New Hampshire Sunday News led the crusade. His name was Ben Bradlee, later the editor-In-chief of the Washington Post.
- The film “Peyton Place” had its premiere in Camden, Maine, where many scenes had been shot. Grace did not attend the premiere. Movie publicists offered up to 25 Gilmanton residents an all-expenses-paid trip to the premiere. Only 13 accepted.
- The film, “Return To Peyton Place,” at Grace’s insistence, had its premiere at The Colonial Theatre in Laconia.
- Roger Clark, a lifetime Gilmanton resident, was one of George Metalious’ students at The Gilmanton Corner School (The Academy). Clark says, “He inspired me. He was a wonderful teacher.” Clark was also friends with Marsha, Grace’s oldest daughter, and her siblings. “I was her friend, and she was mine.” His insight to Grace Metalious doesn’t mince any words. He described her as “foul-mouthed, and rude.” But he quickly adds that she “covered the whole spectrum; she could be pleasant and kind.” Clark says, ” There was no misunderstanding about what she meant.”
- Grace melted down just before her appearance on Mike Wallace’s show. She accidently ripped her girdle and a young assistant calmed her down. Her name was Jacqueline Susann. Ten years later, she would write “Valley of the Dolls.”
- Dr. Herbert Savor, who was the attending physician when Grace was hospitalized in Boston, speculated that her death was the result of her consumption of a fifth of liquor every day for five years.
- In 2005 Sandra Bullock’s production company asked the NH Film Office to help scout locations for a Metalious bio-pic in which she would star. No word since then.
- The film “Peyton Place” revived the waning career of Lana Turner.
- “Peyton Place” was published in 1956. Anne Waterman, now a Gilmanton resident, was one of 600 seniors in a high school in Saginaw, Mich. “Everybody read the book,” she says, “It had everything we wanted. You didn’t get that reading Dickens.”
- Did you know that you can purchase a bobblehead doll of “Pandora in Blue Jeans” (the Metalious at her typewriter that appeared on the book jacket) from the New Hampshire Historical Society? Visit the New Hampshire Historical Society’s online store to buy one.