A book came out in the mid-’50s that changed America. The hottest, most vilified, most irresistible book of its time, a best seller in 1956 that everyone was reading but no one would admit it.
Caught with a copy of Peyton Place in your possession was the mark of the devil, or at least a sign of bad taste. So we read it in the bathroom with the door locked, in the privacy of the automobile or a phone booth or under he covers late at night with a flashlight or inside the stall of a public restroom.
Grace Metalius, a 30-something discontented housewife, with three kids and a big brain wrote it. Every morning dressed her customary blue jeans, checkered shirt and tennis shoes, she would scoot up to the kitchen table, lift off the cover of her Royal typewriter and let rip.
Objective? To tell the whole truth about some small towns including her own. She tore off the sparkling peaceful exterior of these Pleasantvilles and exposed the political corruption, the racism, debauchery and religious hypocrisy. In raw back alley language, she addressed abortion, incest, justifiable homicide, rape, and maybe more importantly, the discontent that some women felt living in a world controlled by men.
When a reporter asked her if she thought her book would be selling in 30 years, she replied, “Heavens no.” In the 60-plus years since it was first published, it has sold millions. In that time, Peyton Place has undergone a dramatic transformation, from pornographic to prophetic, required reading in women’s studies classes in some Colleges and universities.
Metalius has become a feminist heroine, one of the first to talk about a women’s role in America. She never got used to her celebrity status. It confused her. When she went to New York to meet her publisher and sign a contract, she startled everyone in the boardroom by appearing in denim and sneakers, thus earning the nickname “Pandora in Blue Jeans.”
She wrote other books including a sequel called “Return to Peyton Place,” but none ever came anywhere close to the popularity of Peyton Place which has become a generic term for a small town with big problems.
The beginning is still one of my favorites. “Indian summer is like a woman — ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle. She comes and goes as she pleases so that no one is ever sure whether she will come at all or how long she will stay.” Can this woman write or what?