Where in the World is Peyton Place?

When I was a kid the phrase “Peyton Place” was still used by grown-ups to indicate any kind of mishigas or unneeded drama in one’s life: “What is this, Peyton Place?” The phrase was meant generically, but as I come from a New England mill town not dissimilar from the fictional one at the heart at this wildly popular franchise, in retrospect, it often fit better than the people who used it admitted or knew.

Peyton Place began as a 1956 novel by Grace Metalious (Marie Grace DeRepentigny, 1924-1964), a hard-drinking, tom-boyish working class housewife from small town New Hampshire. I’m not referencing her gender-transgressive nature gratuitously or from a place of judgment. In 1955, when men wore suits and women wore dresses, it was beyond remarkable for a woman to attire herself like this:

This photo was captioned by p.r. people “Pandora in Blue Jeans”. Thus Metalious, much like Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, and others, was influential on the culture in ways beyond her chosen art. As her maiden name (DeRepentigny) indicates, like Jack Kerouac, she was a writer of New England Quebecois stock. (My best friend in grammar school was of the same group, which immigrated South for mill jobs in the late 19th/early 20th century). Metalious was a very different sort of writer from Kerouac (although she, too, liked to hit the bars). The wife of a high school principal, she cooked up a potboiler about the hypocrisy in her theoretically idyllic small town. Her story (inspired by real people and places) was full of incest, abortion, adultery, sex, murder, and class divisions, where rich people got to bury their secrets, and poor ones were social outcasts and pariahs. It’s as though the Marquis de Sade had overseen a rewrite of Our Town.

Metalious’s book struck a chord in the repressed America of the 1950s, hence we return to the caption of that photo. She was a Pandora because she had opened a box — and many unwelcome things had flown out. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. This being the age of Tennessee Williams, Hollywood saw the potential for a successful movie, although when it was produced the following year, the film version had naturally filed the edges off the most outrageous elements. Its cast of stars included Lana Turner, Hope Lange, Arthur Kennedy, Lloyd Nolan, Russ Tamblyn, Betty Field, Mildred Dunnock, Leon Ames, and Lorne Greene. It was naturally a smash. Veteran producer Jerry Wald followed its success up with similar Faulkner adaptations and the like (including Elvis’s Wild in the Country, which also featured Lange). Director Mark Robson went on to produce and direct Valley of the Dolls (1967) which is sort of “Peyton Place goes to Hollywood” and Earthquake (1974), which is sort of “Peyton Place in Los Angeles beset by an earthquake”.

The rapid wealth and success clearly screwed with Metalious’s head. She divorced her husband in 1958 and remarried another guy. She then wrote Return to Peyton Place (1959), then divorced her second husband and remarried the first (1960). The film of Return to Peyton Place came out in 1961, and she wrote two more novels, The Tight White Collar (1961) and No Adam in Eden (1963). In 1964 she died at age of 40 of liver problems from all that drinking. 

A few months after she died, Peyton Place became a TV show (1964-69), often called the first prime time soap opera. In addition to veterans like Dorothy Malone and George Macready, Peyton Place the tv show was also where the world first discovered such up and comers as Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, Mariette Hartley, and Barbara Parkins. Lee Grant was also on the show. Both Parkins and Grant would be at the center of Robson’s Peytonesque Valley of the Dolls. This show, it may be asserted, gave birth to the entire genre that later included such shows as Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Santa Barbara, etc etc etc.

Peyton Place was also kept alive with a series of eight novels by other authors released in the late 1960s and early ’70s. From 1972 to 1974 there was a NBC daytime soap called Return to Peyton Place. In 1977 there was a made-for-tv movie called Murder in Peyton Place, featuring many of the stars from the 1960s tv series. This was followed by Peyton Place: The Next Generation, featuring many of the same folks.

If she’d lived to see all of this, Metalious would have been an even wealthier woman, but by all accounts (and it should be obvious from the early Peyton Place products), she didn’t have much use for rich people and their phony, conniving ways, which is probably why her scathing depictions of them were so entertaining. The irony, of course, is that soaps are all about the glamor. The audience actually likes the horrible rich people. There we have the fatal flaw of America in a nutshell.