It seems so familiar: Books are being banned; basic freedoms are regularly infringed upon based on gender, race, and class; abortion is illegal, unprotected by the highest courts. Across all media, conservatives regularly play upon fears that indecency will lead to the destruction of society.
To claw her way out of poverty, a young mother of three works long hours, without child care. From society’s fringes, she challenges the systemic inequality that surrounds her. After getting herself a book contract, she becomes the subject of personal attacks and public smears. Self-appointed morality police attempt to keep ideas such as hers from reaching young minds.
The year, 1956. The young mother, Grace Metalious.
Her just-published novel, Peyton Place, exposed the underbelly of a picturesque New England town in the World War II era, never shying away from the sordid or taboo. The book immediately became the most reviled, most read text in America. It catapulted Metalious, then 32, into fame and fortune and did the same for her publishers, who’d discovered a first-of-its-kind blockbuster that would have an enduring impact on the book industry and make the leap to film and television.
Following the book’s publication, literary critics and arbiters of propriety attacked Peyton Place in the name of decency. The book was banned in communities from Newport, Rhode Island, to Ireland.
But the bans not only failed to curb the power of Peyton Place — they helped cement it in American popular consciousness. Instead, the casualty of this cultural war was its promising, young novelist, who defied conventions and never escaped the stain of notoriety.
“Indian summer is like a woman,” begins Peyton Place, “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.” From its very first lines, the novel evokes the illicit, ruffles Yankee stodginess, and makes mincemeat out of class pretensions. The story follows three women living in the fictional, myopic town of Peyton Place: the awkward Allison MacKenzie, coming of age and dreaming of becoming a writer and escaping; Constance MacKenzie, her siren-esque yet prudish single mother harboring a scandalous secret; and Selena Cross, Allison’s best friend — town beauty, victim of circumstance and chronic abuse, a “shack dweller” born on the wrong side of town.
Through these women’s lives, over several years beginning in the late 1930s, Metalious captures the cruel confines of gender roles, the hypocrisies of small-town values, the posturing of class, and snippets of a distinctly New England flavor of racism. The town’s cast of characters encounter adultery, incest, murder, suicide, and abortion. One of the book’s protagonists stands trial for killing her abuser. Perhaps most shocking of all to readers of the time, women act as agents of their own sexuality.
By today’s standards, the book’s sex scenes are tame. It deals largely in innuendo and contains only a few “racy” moments — unlikely to cause a modern reader to blush. But those scenes made Peyton Place the Fifty Shades of Grey of the late 1950s, although unlike the latter, Metalious’s work received initial praise for its literary substance.
Several early reviewers of Peyton Place responded favorably and saw promise in its young author, who’d written much of the book in squalor, from her family’s modest little shack nicknamed “It’ll Do,” in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Reviewers initially marveled at Metalious’s lack of formal training or education, along with her tenacity — she had allegedly written 300 short stories and multiple novels without publishing a single word prior to Peyton Place. Her writing was fresh and exhibited “disarming frankness,” a journalist from Cosmopolitan wrote.
The Chicago Sunday Tribune noted her “great narrative skill,” The Cleveland Press called her “an artist of no small stature,” and Michigan’s Spectator named her “a talented novelist with the intestinal fortitude to tell the unvarnished truth.” The New York Times book reviewer saw Metalious as a potential “sister-in-arms” to Sinclair Lewis, a compliment undercut by a headline on the review that read “Small Town Peep Show.”
Even before the book’s release, its publishing house, Julian Messner, led by the intrepid Kitty Messner, launched a savvy marketing campaign that piqued interest for a forthcoming saucy paperback by a naughty housewife. The campaign sparked curious whispers among the suspicious residents of Gilmanton, thought to be the real Peyton Place, where Metalious lived with her schoolteacher husband.
Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies in the first 10 days of its release. It sold 104,000 copies its first month. The average novel at the time sold 2,000 copies in all.
When the town unceremoniously declined to renew George Metalious’s teaching contract, newspaper headlines proclaimed he’d been fired, citing his wife’s forthcoming book as the cause. The negative association contributed to trouble at home. The couple’s very public divorce, subsequent brief reunion, and tumultuous relationship over the years became public fodder. Believing “any press is good press,” her publishers encouraged these stories. A week before its official publication, on September 24, 1956, Peyton Place was on bestseller lists and studios were already bidding on film rights.
What came next swiftly changed the tone of the conversation and the shape of Metalious’s career. Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies in the first 10 days of its release. It sold 104,000 copies its first month. The average novel at the time sold 2,000 copies in all.
And then came the backlash. As the book’s commercial success rocketed, so did the critical and moral panning of it — and of Metalious herself. The book’s sex scenes dominated the discourse, as if they’d been the entirety of its nearly 400 pages. It was consistently characterized as tawdry, cheap, morally bankrupt, pornographic, smut, wicked, tabloid, indecent. That last word, indecent, could have serious legal implications.
The Boston Daily Globe called it “Nasty in word, in thought.” Metalious’s hometown paper in Manchester published an editorial under the headline “The Filth They Live By,” which extolled that Peyton Place represented “a complete debasement of taste and a fascination with the filthy, rotten side of life that are the earmarks of the collapse of a civilization.” Three months after its benign initial description of the book, Publishers Weekly issued a rare condemnation, stating the book demonstrated “the decline and fall of the American novel.” It was as if Peyton Place had united the post-World War II fears of both conservative pundits and modernists in the male-dominated literary establishment. The nation — and literature — were on the precipice of total decay. (That this collapse might be initiated by a young, working-class mother seemed to exacerbate the furor.)
“She doesn’t seem to worry about being overweight nor does she have any of the usual feminine worries about clothes and appearance,” noted Metalious’s male Cosmopolitan interviewer when he visited her suite at the Plaza Hotel in the spring of 1957. She often wore beat-up dungarees, men’s flannel shirts, and a simple ponytail tied with a rubber band, prompting the nickname “Pandora in Blue Jeans.” Her “bellicose” language and cigarette-touting, uncouth public presence only proved her lack of restraint and absence of good taste. Metalious’s writing was equated to her class, relegated to the undiscerning masses. She made no apologies — just the opposite: she antagonistically offered refunds on the spot.
“If I’m a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste,” she jabbed back in one interview. But by flouting tradition when she achieved a certain level of success, she walked a thin line. Even her encouraging Times reviewer had warned that her future writing hinged on conforming: “If Mrs. Metalious can turn her emancipated talents to less lurid purposes, her future as a novelist is a good bet.” But before she got the chance to write her sophomore novel, she would have to endure scandal and opposition intent on criminalizing the book’s sale and distribution.
In a nation fresh off McCarthyism, the bans that followed Peyton Place’s publication, like book bans before and after, embodied the specific fears of the time: the indoctrination of youth, the spread of immoral behavior, the emboldening of the housewife and the destruction of Home.
Even in liberal bastion Cambridge, a city councilor proposed a ban of the novel after fielding a complaint from a mother who discovered her 15-year-old daughter was able to buy a copy there.
The Rhode Island Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth banned the book on grounds of obscenity, leading to the arrest of a Newport newsstand owner accused of selling the blacklisted novel to a 17-year-old. A nearby minister condemned the banning, warning that censorship was a dangerous game and that the bans would only serve “to increase its circulation among youth.” The commission went on to sue multiple publishers, including Bantam Books, which published the paperback edition of Peyton Place, for distributing banned books. The Rhode Island Superior Court upheld the ban when challenged by the publishers; ultimately, it took the US Supreme Court to reverse the decision.
Elsewhere in New England, the Beverly, Massachusetts, town library reportedly posted a sign on its lawn with yet another reference to class hierarchy: “This library does not carry Peyton Place. If you want it, go to Salem.” Even in liberal bastion Cambridge, a city councilor proposed a ban of the novel after fielding a complaint from a mother who discovered her 15-year-old daughter was able to buy a copy there.
The book was banned in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Omaha. Abroad, Canadian Customs officials confiscated a shipment at the border on the grounds of “a treasonable or seditious or immoral or indecent character.” Italy and Australia placed restrictions on the book’s sale, and the Irish board of censors effectively blacklisted it across all of Ireland.
Just as the Newport minister had warned, the bans only increased the appetite for Peyton Place. The public became consumed with the image of a housewife reading a copy secretly in her bathroom, but the reality was that everyone — from preteens earmarking “the good bits” to older residents of Gilmanton looking for themselves in its lines — seemed to be devouring the book.
It sold 3 million copies in 1957 alone. It topped The New York Times Best Sellers list for 59 weeks, shattering the record Gone with the Wind had held for 20 years. It would remain a top-selling fiction work for more than a decade and by 1975 had sold over 10 million copies — double that by 1990.
Nothing derailed Peyton Place’s appeal. A well-received, thoroughly sanitized, 1957 film adaptation confirmed its cultural place and garnered multiple Academy Award nominations. The book also spawned a long-running, first-of-its-kind prime-time soap opera starring a then-unknown Mia Farrow. The term “Peyton Place” became part of a generation’s lexicon, shorthand for a place harboring secret scandals.
Along the way, Metalious grew rich. Stories of her spending lavishly, keeping company with men, and drinking to excess dominated conversation. One interview noted her ability to drink 18 screwdrivers without getting “stoned.”
Metalious’s publishers continued capitalizing on the book’s reputation as indecent, sometimes at the expense of the author’s reputation. Its promoters reprinted headlines such as “TOWN FOLK WILL READ IT — BAN OR NO BAN” and openly questioned the book’s literary virtues to enhance sales: “Peyton Place . . . is it ‘wicked, shocking, dirty,’ or is it one the most extraordinary literary discoveries of recent years? Judge for yourself,” read an advertisement in the Boston papers.
At her agent’s urging, Metalious handed over a rough, 95-page, dictated outline of the sequel to her publishers. In the hands of a ghostwriter who gave it the Hollywood treatment and turned it around fast for publication and a film sequel, Return to Peyton Place offered little nuance and more sex; its sensationalist plot lacked any of the grit of Metalious’s writing. Though the sequel was a commercial hit, critics universally panned it. Metalious called the book “sludge” and a “foul, rotten trick.” Because her name was on it, she bore the brunt of the critique and soon the question of her budding talent became moot.
Subsequent contracted novels failed to achieve the commercial or critical success of her first, even as she attempted to tackle new taboos and conventions.
The bans and backlash failed to crush Peyton Place’s success and reach, yet there was collateral damage. In the seven tumultuous years after the book’s publication, the mark of scandal and a culture war against indecency so early in her public career overshadowed and negated Metalious’s skills as a writer. As a woman writing books with sexual content during this era, these obstacles were all the more challenging to overcome. In the following decades, male contemporaries facing similar censorship campaigns — including Kurt Vonnegut and JD Salinger — would later be celebrated. Metalious pushed boundaries but was banished to the confines of the sordid in the fictional town she had created.
At home in Gilmanton — which she often denied was the inspiration for her novel’s setting — she became a social pariah. “You live in a town, and there are patterns,” Metalious said. “The minute you deviate from the pattern, you’re a freak.”
By telling readers the “unvarnished truth,” as she saw it, Metalious put her personal and professional reputation on the line. She unapologetically exposed inequity and the skeletons in every closet, hiding behind every polite conversation (she was never any good at small talk). For her trouble, it made her rich enough that she mismanaged her funds but never wealthy enough to buy her way out of problems. “If I had to do it over again, it would be easier to be poor,” she told a New York Post journalist in 1963.
Reports claimed Metalious squandered the bulk of her estimated $1 million fortune, spending on lavish suites at the Plaza Hotel and chartered flights, as well as racking up unpaid taxes. The truth was more complicated. Her agent pilfered large amounts from her checks, and ill-advised deals meant she never received residuals for the film and television broadcasts.
She often neglected her three young children in favor of her art, alcohol, and untrustworthy paramours. Gilmanton schoolteacher Thomas Makris and his wife filed $250,000 in libel suits against Metalious and her publisher when they discovered he shared the same name as a main character in the book. They settled and changed the name in subsequent editions. Metalious’s mother — thought to be the inspiration for Constance MacKenzie — sued her own daughter following a car crash with Grace at the wheel.
Metalious died at 39 from complications of cirrhosis of the liver at Beth Israel Hospital during a trip to Boston with romantic partner John Rees. She left Rees her entire estate — which included debts totaling more than $100,000—disinheriting her children after a last-minute change of her will in the hospital. The will would be contested, and Rees ultimately conceded.
Metalious was, in many ways, the primary agent in her own destruction. But it would be a mistake to discount how systems of class, gender, artistic pretension, and moral elitism that she’d laid bare in her book and in interviews had accelerated her destruction. As a working woman without the support of the literary establishment or the bolster of education, Grace Metalious faced isolation. The fact that so many regular people read her novel — an estimated 1 in 29 adults — had secured its fate as lowbrow.
By the 1990s, the once most-read book in America was out of print.
Reading Peyton Place today feels particularly timely. Its tug of war of repression and indulgence, and its ability to capture New England lore and class struggles, remain alluring. The book’s cultural and political stances fearlessly pursued by its author make it worth revisiting in a time when book bans rage and fringe authors remain at risk. Plot elements that both shocked and resonated with 1950s audiences still do so today. The town turns a blind eye to incest and sexual abuse, and murder is a means of freedom from an abuser. Even the much-discussed sex scenes are not thrown in merely for shock value but to reveal more about these characters and the confines in which they operated. Metalious herself argued: “Peyton Place isn’t sexy at all.”
The abortion that one of the characters has is not decided upon lightly, nor does Metalious sensationalize. “I am protecting life, this life, the one already being lived...,” says the performing physician, the novel’s moral compass. In the end, the illegal act also serves as the direct means for the metaphorical and legal exoneration of one of the main characters.
“The guiding principle of Mrs. Metalious’s life and writing is honesty,” wrote her Cosmopolitan interviewer in 1957. “She despises cant and hypocrisy.” Brandishing a pen, Metalious refused to live any other way, flamed out quickly, but left behind something powerful enough it was worth banning.