24 May 2011

15 Minutes of Fame: Grace Metalious, Author of Peyton Place

Anna C. Bowling
Petyon Place. Even for those who haven’t read the book, seen the movie or watched the television adaptation, the name brings to mind a seething sea of murder, incest, illegitimacy and abuse underneath the picturesque exterior of a small town. Its author, Grace Metalious, would have fit into her own creation as though she were born to it.

In a way, she was. Grace, a housewife and mother of three, burst onto the literary scene in 1955 when a literary agent sold her first novel, originally titled The Tree and the Blossom. Retitled Peyton Place, the salacious tale became an overnight sensation, gaining nationwide interest. Since childhood, Grace had sought respite from her turbulent personal life in her writing, but it was her writing that turned her life into a media frenzy.

Not only did the literary world sit up and take notice of Grace’s raw yet naive writing style, but her own community found several aspects of Grace’s book hit very close to home. Tom Makris, a colleague of Grace’s school principal husband, George, sued Grace for using his name and physical description for the book’s male lead. The plotline of an abused teen who kills her abusive stepfather directly mirrored the case of a local girl, and locations in the novel had strong similarities to places in Grace’s hometown of Gilmanton, NH.

Grace and her family moved to a larger house, paid for by Peyton Place’s royalties, but her marriage to George ended in divorce after he moved to another town, leaving Grace and the children on their own to face the storm of controversy. Grace began an affair with a neighbor, then married and divorced disk jockey TJ Martin, before reuniting with George, only to separate again. In her star writer persona, she spent money as fast as she made it, staying at the Plaza and Algonquin, flirting with the rich and famous. The film adaptation of her novel, heavily sanitized, reignited Lana Turner’s career and gained the legendary actress her lone Oscar nomination.

As quickly as Grace’s star rose, her life began a downward spiral. Her marriage to TJ crumbled under alcohol abuse and violent outbursts from both parties, and Grace’s lavish spending took a large bite out of her bank account. The sequel, Return to Peyton Place, did not match the success of its predecessor, even with its own adaptation for film. Reviews turned savage and a planned publicity tour was shelved.

Grace wrote two more novels; The Tight White Collar was published in 1961 and No Adam In Eden in 1963, but neither made any appreciable impression. She tried her hand at business, purchasing a motel she dubbed The Peyton Place Motel, but the venture soon folded due to lack of guests.
By 1963, when Grace began an affair with British journalist John Rees, friends described her not only as frequently drunk, but delusional and at times incoherent. That year would be her last. Grace died in 1964, of cirrhosis of the liver, her debts exceeding two hundred thousand dollars. Despite protests, Gilmanton’s most infamous citizen was interred in the Smith Meeting House Cemetary.

While the fame of Grace Metalious’ iconic work lives on, Grace herself had only a short while in the limelight, a pattern seen all too often in today’s young luminaries who rise quickly to fame they may not be equipped to handle. If Grace were to begin her career in the twenty first century, would things have gone any differently for her? Would we see her go through rehab and make a comeback, or would social media have brought about her downfall all the quicker?

Writing historical romances allows Anna C. Bowling to travel through time on a daily basis and make the voices in her head pay rent. Her current release, ORPHANS IN THE STORM, is available from Awe-Struck E-books.