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50 years later, ‘Peyton Place’ memories remain

New Hampshire town never warmed to controversial novel
/ Source: The Associated Press

The borders of this colonial-era town suggest an A-frame house on the brink of toppling over. They form a squarish figure with a triangular extension that appears raised to the right and balanced on one corner, as if a mere push could send it tumbling down to Massachusetts.

For the most part, history has respected Gilmanton to the point of indifference. No wars have been fought here, no gold or oil discovered. There have been no major plagues or natural disasters. No president, movie star or Internet billionaire was born in Gilmanton or uses one of its lakefront residences as a summer home.

Only once, 50 years ago, did the house of Gilmanton receive a fatal shove, from a novel named “Peyton Place.”

Grace Metalious’ sensational story of sex, violence and other scandals in a small New England town, based in part on Gilmanton, made the author an international celebrity and a local pariah. It transformed an otherwise obscure township into a symbol of decadence and hypocrisy and rivaled Elvis Presley as a shocking breach to the official decorum of the 1950s.

Metalious is long dead, and many who knew her have also passed on, but “Peyton Place” remains the biggest news ever to hit Gilmanton. Thanks to the book’s anniversary and to a planned movie starring Sandra Bullock as Metalious, a discussion few desire could well begin again.

“Most people just don’t like to talk about it (‘Peyton Place’),” says 42-year-old Kimberly Warren, who works behind the counter at the Gilmanton Corner Store, a general store that serves as an informal gathering place. “It’s just such a sore subject.”

Gossip about author aboundedWith some 3,500 people spread out over nearly 60 square miles, Gilmanton is a spare, quiet community of lakes and forests and cattle farms, of historic homes that proudly display the years they were built and roads as likely to be dirt as paved. Besides the Corner Store, the main “downtown” district consists of town hall, a church, a bed and breakfast and a library that’s closed for much of the year.

On a recent afternoon in Gilmanton, Warren had just prepared a hearty roast beef sandwich for longtime resident Tom Smithers, 77 and a retired contractor. He remembers when the book came out and all the anger it caused. But did he ever read “Peyton Place”? Smithers, a laid-back, heavyset man wearing blue trousers and a checked hunting jacket, shakes his head.

“I didn’t have to read it,” he says with a smile. “I sat around and watched it.”

Smithers recalls some of the gossip about Metalious, a housewife in her early 30s at the time “Peyton Place” came out — her drinking, her love affairs, a rumor that she didn’t even write the book. Such talk angers her friends, who don’t claim she was a saint, but believe that a great spirit has been dishonored.

“She was one of the most intelligent, fascinating people I’ve ever known,” says her friend, Jeannie Gallant. “Her problem was that she was naive and she put her trust in the wrong people.”

A house called ‘It’ll Do’Metalious was born Grace de Repentingny in 1924 in Manchester, N.H. She grew up poor but ambitious, so determined to be an author that she would sit in her aunt’s bathtub, a washboard across her lap, and write story after story.

She was still a teenager when she married George Metalious, with whom she had three children and lived in and around Gilmanton, where he served as school principal. Stuck in a small house with no running water, dubbed “It’ll Do” by the author, Metalious completed a novel based on what she had seen in Manchester, Gilmanton and other New England towns.

“Peyton Place” centers on the fortunes of three women: Allison McKenzie, a teenager and aspiring writer; her friend, Selena Cross, the dark-haired “bad girl” from across the tracks; and Allison’s mother, Constance McKenzie, strapped like an old corset into her life as a single parent until unfastened by the town’s handsome new school principal, Tomas Makris.

With its famously suggestive beginning — “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle ...” — Metalious’ novel describes a petty, mean-spirited town in which rape, alcoholism and sexual passion seethe behind a facade of old-fashioned propriety.

“The function of a novel is to entertain, but you can grind an ax at the same time,” the author said when the book was published.

Detractors blamed Metalious’ novel on the ravings of a dirty mind, but the most notorious plot turn, the rape of Selena by her stepfather, Lucas Cross, was based on a true story: The 1947 confession by a Gilmanton woman that she had murdered her father, who had been sexually abusing her for years.

Metalious had few connections in the book industry and her manuscript was turned down by several publishers before she was taken on by two women: Kitty Messner, head of the Julian Messner publishing house, which released “Peyton Place” in hardcover, and Helen Meyer, director of Dell Publishing, which put out the paperback.

“This was a time when women were gaining more influence in the business,” says Ardis Cameron, a professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine who contributed the introduction to a 1999 reissue of the book. “Both Kitty Messner and Helen Meyer understood the appeal this book would have to women, and to men.”

Published in fall 1956, “Peyton Place” sold millions of copies, becoming more desired as censors sought to stop it. Metalious’ novel was banned in several cities, declared “indecent” by Canada and labeled by New Hampshire’s Manchester Union-Leader as symbolic of a “complete debasement of taste.” A sign in front of a library in Beverly Farms, Mass., read: “This library does not carry ‘Peyton Place.’ If you want it, go to Salem.”

“I was 14 when ‘Peyton Place’ was published, and I was a ninth grader starting at (Phillips) Exeter (Academy),” recalls novelist and Exeter, N.H., native John Irving. “Everyone was passing that book around. We all thought it was trash, but that didn’t exclude our interest in the subject matter.”

Town’s scarlet letter“Peyton Place” may have seemed like a new and alien world, but in some ways it was as old as the New England tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who also disdained the Puritan facade, and as universal as the fiction of Sinclair Lewis, who ridiculed small town life in his native Minnesota.

“The late Sinclair Lewis would no doubt have hailed Grace Metalious as a sister-in-arms against the false fronts and bourgeois pretensions of allegedly respectable communities,” critic Carlos Baker wrote in a New York Times review that ran when the book was released.

But in Gilmanton, “Peyton Place” was treated as if it had burned a letter “A” into the town’s very soul. The author received threatening letters and calls and her children were taunted and ostracized. Olive Hartford, head of the PTA at the time, recalled being asked by 20th Century Fox to help get residents to attend the New York premiere of the film version, which came out in 1957.

“The movie studio was offering an all-expense paid trip for 25 to New York, but I could only get around 15 to go,” says Hartford, now 88 and still living in Gilmanton. “I would ask people if they were interested and they would back away, ‘Oh, no!”’

In “Peyton Place,” Metalious observed that there were two kinds of people, those who lived behind “tedious, expensive shells” and those who did not. For the former, the price was living in fear of exposure. For the latter, the risk was being “crushed.”

Friends agree that Metalious was ruined by fame. She wrote three more novels, but never approached her initial success. Her marriage broke up, her finances were a disaster and her drinking took on fatal dimensions. Near the end of her in life, she became lovers with a British journalist named John Rees, unaware that he had a wife and children back home.

On her deathbed in a Boston hospital, she reportedly murmured, “Be careful of what you want, you may get it.” She died in 1964 of cirrhosis, at age 39.

Gilmanton did not mourn. Only in the 1970s did the local library stock her book and no plaques or statues are to be found in her honor. At the Smith Meeting House Cemetery, her burial spot is set well apart from the others, marked by a plainly inscribed white headstone arched sharply at the top, like a pair of eyebrows raised in anger.

Meanwhile, her novel, or at least the title, lived on. “Peyton Place” was turned into a juicy, but slightly tamed movie starring Hope Lange and Lana Turner, and later a wholly domesticated TV series, starring Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal.

Few would call “Peyton Place” a literary classic, but the novel has admirers ranging from Stephen King to John Waters, and has been taught in numerous history and cultural studies classes, including courses at Harvard University, the University of Oregon, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Southern California.

“I think increasingly that historians and cultural studies teachers see it as an important part of the postwar era,” says Ardis Cameron of the University of Southern Maine.

Gilmanton has caught up to “Peyton Place” in some ways — the town hall even includes pamphlets on legal advice for “unwed custody” — but people here disagree on whether the novel is ancient history or lasting embarrassment.

“People just brush it off now,” says Olive Hartford, and younger residents, especially those who grew up elsewhere, say few care anymore about what happened. But not all have forgiven. When The Associated Press called the home of longtime resident George Roberts, Jr., a young man answered. Upon hearing that the subject was “Peyton Place,” he responded, “We don’t care to discuss that in this town at all,” and hung up.

Nathaniel Abbott, 47 and chairman of Gilmanton’s three-member board of selectmen, says anger at Metalious fades as the elderly population dies off. But when asked if he could imagine anyone getting up at a town meeting and suggesting a resolution in Metalious’ honor, he laughed and laughed.

“I’ll let you do that,” he said, then added. “There’s one thing in Gilmanton people are not afraid to do, and that is if they feel strongly enough about something, they will really let you have it.”