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Grace Metalious
Courtesy: D. J. Herda

She was born Marie Grace de Repentigny on September 8, 1924, into a French-Canadian ghetto, a small mill town in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Although as a child she was blessed with the great gift of imagination, greatness was the last thing anyone expected from the poverty and emptiness de Repentigny found all around her.

But the young girl was determined to improve her lot, and before long she stumbled upon the introspective process we know as writing.  Using her creative skills to help escape the pain of poverty, she wrote, and she wrote some more.  And when she was finished writing, she wrote more still. 

While in her teens, de Repentigny met and married George Metalious and became a housewife and a mother of three while continuing to live in near squalor.

One night, in 1955, she popped up out of bed with a story in her head.  She began working on it, and 10 weeks later, she had completed her first novel, Peyton Place.  It was published the following year, and the world of literature hasn't been the same since. 

Things changed dramatically for Metalious, as well as for her family.  Reporters swarmed around this nobody from nowhere with the biggest story of the year.  The sensational exposť soon took a back seat to the writer's own affairs and excesses, as her outspokenness and brashness continued to shock and fascinate a nation.  Metalious ate it all up, reveling in the thought that thousands of prim, proper, everyday Americans snuck around town with dog-eared copies of the book in their back pockets or purses.  To the author, who lived a life of squalid irony, that was the most satisfying irony of them all. 

By the mid- to late-1950s, nearly everyone who was anyone--and a few who weren't--had either read or re-read the book.  Even children, for whom the story was considered far too racy, snatched glimpses of some of the sexier scenes when their parents weren't around. 

"I remember reading parts of that oh-so-naughty book and the effects they had on me," said D. J. Herda, president of the American Society of Authors and Writers, who was nearing puberty when the book was released.  "I couldn't possibly imagine anything sexier, more titillating, or more exciting.  I would steal the book from my parents' top dresser drawer, where they thought they had hidden it well, sneak off to privacy, and spend hours pouring over the pages.  Then I'd rush to return it before they noticed it missing.  For me and hundreds of thousands of other readers, Grace Metalious made sexuality come alive."

Metalious' big hit eventually spawned a film and several sequels, although she was never regarded seriously as a writer.  Some critics, in fact, called her "Pandora in Blue Jeans" and accused her of being a purveyor of filth and immorality.  As for being a good writer?  The thought never entered their heads.

 

But with the passage of time, even the harshest of criticisms softened, as the whole game of literature went through its cycle.  Today, more than half a century after the book was

first published, Metalious is recognized as the writer whose most famous work changed the publishing industry forever.  She may not have known it at the time, and perhaps no one did, but she was about to become as revolutionary an influence on literature as Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, Nabokov, or

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. . . .

even James Joyce.  And all the while, she wasn't out to set any records.  She was simply trying to tell a story and make a few bucks.

Talking about her astronomical success, Metalious once remarked, "If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste."  In defense of her subject matter, she commented, "Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass."

Despite her glibness, the condemnation of her writing by serious critics affected her, and she turned increasingly toward alcohol, which had become a large part of her new and glamorous lifestyle, to escape it.

And she did...for a while.  The woman called by some the queen of trash fiction set a standard--whether for better or for worse--that opened the door for other tattletale best sellers, from Twin Peaks to Valley of the Dolls.   Her book spawned a movie, starring Lana Turner, Hope Lange, Russ Tamblyn, Arthur Kennedy, and Diane Varsi in the central role of Alison MacKenkie.  The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards. 

As if that weren't enough, Peyton Place spun off into three cinematic sequels and a prime-time ABC network television series starring Ryan O'Neal and Mia Farrow that ran for a staggering 514 episodes.  That single work of fiction, Peyton Place, created the soap opera genre that has been a staple of daytime television for more than half a century.  The book went on to sell more than 8 million copies and is listed, along with Bram Stoker's Dracula and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, as one of the New York Public Library's Books of the Century.

Within a few short years of her meteoric success, Metalious, vainly trying to replicate the achievements of her first book and by now immersed in alcoholism and depression, had grown from a life of poverty to one of international acclaim, from a young girl who had nothing to a woman who had it all.  This often-reluctant wife and mother partied with Hollywood film legends and bantered with Washington politicos.  She lifted the lid off of sex and violence in America with her writings about power and powerlessness, truth and hypocrisy.  Her personal life was as exciting as anything she wrote about in Peyton Place.  Hers was the poignant tale of a strong yet vulnerable woman who dreamed of having everything--and then, unfortunately, getting it.

Marie Grace de Repentigny Metalious died of cirrhosis of the liver and was buried in a simple grave in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in 1964, a short eight years after her most famous book was published.  She was 39.

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