Monthly Archives: September, 2013

A Short Essay on Grace Metalious: Beyond Peyton Place

Some years ago, I was asked to put together a book proposal on the deaths of famous writers.  While the book didn’t go through, I was happy with some of the essays I wrote for it.  My essay on Dorothy Parker, for example, found here, is one of those.

In addition to Hemingway, Poe and Fitzgerald, and many others, I also included Grace Metalious in the table of contents.  I have always been fascinated by her, her upbringing, her life in New England, her sudden burst of stardom and, just as suddenly, her decline and death.

Grace's most famous photo.

Grace’s most famous photo.

Grace Metalious made her mark on American culture.  With the publication of her book, Peyton Place, in 1956, she took her place with some of the countries best-selling writers, who were thriving in the post Korean War Eisenhower era.  Writers like Mickey Spillane, whose I, The Jury, was just as salacious as Peyton Place, tempered his sex scenes with a healthy dose of violence, and Nabakov’s Lolita, with its underlying irony and comedy, made the erotic passages art.

It's Hammer time.

It’s Hammer time.

 

1959 Paperback Cover

1959 Paperback Cover

With my purchase today of Grace Metalious’ novel, No Adam in Eden, I am now the proud owner of all four of her published novels.  She isn’t a big name anymore, mostly forgotten except when brought up on the occasional moment.  Sandra Bullock was developing a film biography, but that seems to have stalled, as so many film projects do.

Grace Metalious always knew she would become a writer.  Her husband, a teacher, supported her and she basically gave up doing anything else and spent all her time writing.  She had loved everything about the writing life, read other writers, and aspired to be with them.  With the help of her best friend, Grace finished her first novel and sent it off to publishers in New York.

She heard nothing.

As luck would have it, she was introduced to an agent who supposedly represented Somerset Maugham (although Maugham had fired him for stealing royalties).  He was instrumental in getting the book to Leona Nevler, an editor at Fawcett, who knew they wouldn’t publish it, but thought it had potential.  She passed it on to the publisher at Julian Messner,a small New York house, who accepted it.

The book was Peyton Place.  Published in 1956, it was, for a very long time, one of the biggest best-sellers of all-time.  It stayed on the New York Times‘ Bestseller List for over a year and has sold over 40 million copies.

One of the biggest best-selling books of all-time.

One of the biggest best-selling books of all-time.

To say it took the country by storm would be an understatement.  With its setting in a small, quaint New England town (an amalgamation of the towns surrounding where Grace lived); its characters devious, backstabbing and sexual;  hidden secrets at every twist and turn, including rape, incest, murder and betrayal;  Peyton Place was the book everyone pretended not to be reading.  Adults hid it from each other and kids hid it from their parents.  I know, I was one of those kids who read it late at night (probably in 1964 when it was reissued for the TV series debut), under the covers, with a flashlight.

The book was turned into a hit movie and a sequel was planned, Return to Peyton Place, published in 1959.  By that time, Grace had become an alcoholic with the money coming in steadily.  Her writing suffered and Return to Peyton Place, rushed to cash in on Peyton Place‘s popularity, was rewritten and polished by a ghost writer hired by the publisher.  Grace wasn’t happy about this, but had little recourse.  She had lost her enthusiasm over Peyton Place, since that was the only thing anyone ever wanted to talk to her about.  She felt she wasn’t taken seriously as a writer, and she was right.

Poster for the hit movie.

Poster for the hit movie.

Paperback cover.

Paperback cover.

She got back to work and released her third novel, The Tight White Collar, in 1961.  Another New England setting and more hidden secrets by its citizens made this one sell initially, but it quickly fell off the charts and sent Grace into another spiral.  This was Grace’s favorite novel, but, along with Return to Peyton Place, the reviews weren’t good.

Paperback cover

Paperback cover.

Grace’s desire to be considered a real writer continued as she worked on her fourth, and last, novel, No Adam in Eden.  Published in the fall of 1963, the book is a look at three generations of sexually liberated women, who do anything to get what they want.  It was written more intensely than any of her other books.  With the freedom of being so explicit, the characters seem more fully realized.

Paperback cover.

Paperback cover.

Grace had turned out a very good book, but the reviews were disastrous (one reviewer said, “It purports to be a study of evil but is no more than degenerate filth.”) and this time she didn’t recover.

Grace died in February 1964, at age 36, from cirrhosis of the liver.  Her estate was initially left to her lover of three months, but he decided to not fight a lawsuit brought by Grace’s children contesting the will.  It didn’t matter much.  Grace owed more than she had, including $40,000 to the IRS.  (Later, the IRS sold all of Grace’s possessions, including the original manuscripts for Peyton Place and The Tight White Collar, for just over $5000.)

Grace's Headstone in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.

Grace’s Headstone in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.

Peyton Place became a television series that fall of 1964, running for five years.  Neither Grace nor her estate ever saw any money from it.  The series introduced Ryan O’Neal, Mia Farrow and Barbara Parkins and starred Dorothy Malone.

Title card for the TV series.

Title card for the TV series.

Today, Grace Metalious’ work is studied in universities and she is heralded as a pioneering woman novelist of the 20th Century, paving the way (for better or for worse) Jacqueline Susann and Jackie Collins, and influencing many other writers.  Some believe that Grace planted the seed of feminism into the minds of girls who were teenagers when Peyton Place was published.

I recommend the book, Inside Peyton Place by Emily Toth.

Inside PP

Available here:  http://www.amazon.com/Inside-Peyton-Place-Metalious-Banner/dp/1578062683/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1380476744&sr=8-1&keywords=inside+peyton+place

There is also a Facebook page devoted to Grace:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Grace-Metalious-PEYTON-PLACE/59394335817

And here was a surprise:  A Grace Metalious bobblehead, sold by the New Hampshire Historical Society.

The Grace Metalious Bobblehead.

The Grace Metalious Bobblehead.

Available here:  http://www.nhhistory.org/store/det.aspx?UPC=16515.

Grace signing books.

Grace signing books.

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Fatty Goes to Frisco: A Review of Room 1219 and Comments

The silent film era is riddled with contradiction, confusion and the loss of thousands of the films made before 1927.  As studios began making films, having discovered there was an audience for it, and more importantly, profits to be made, they began cranking them out at an enormous rate.  Making it up as they went along, the early filmmakers had no blueprint or guide to show them how to make films.  They were learning on the job.  Contradiction came in the form of filming technique, story structure and acting styles.  The confusion was determining what the audiences wanted to see, although in the very early days it was such a novelty that practically anything filmed was worthy of the price of admission.

But audiences soon let the early studios know what they liked, as they sought out the studios and filmmakers, like D.W. Griffith at Biograph, because they knew they were getting good entertainment.  These audiences soon became enamored of certain actors and actresses, seeking out films with their favorites.  As actors weren’t given screen credit, they became known by their roles associated with the studios for which they worked.  In 1908, actress Florence Lawrence became known as “The Biograph Girl” and is regarded as the first movie star.  Audience flocked to the films she was in and she soon became in demand for other studios at a higher salary.  (At Biograph, Lawrence was replaced by Mary Pickford.)

Florence Lawrence, The Biograph Girl

With the star system now entrenched, personalities were driving the medium.  Audiences couldn’t get enough of “Little Mary” Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand and Douglas Fairbanks. Comedies were the overall favorite and Charles Chaplin was the most popular star in the world with his Little Tramp character.

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

Mary Miles Minter

Mary Miles Minter

Wallace Reid

Wallace Reid

Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Chaplin began in British vaudeville before being discovered by Mack Sennett, who offered him a job at his Keystone Studios.  Chaplin accepted and began working with Mabel Normand, who was the reigning queen of comedy at the time.  Also working at Keystone was a young, rotund comedian named Roscoe Arbuckle.

Roscoe Arbuckle

Roscoe Arbuckle

After Chaplin left Keystone Studios, Sennett, who had great success with the Keystone Kops, began pairing Normand with Arbuckle.  Billed as “Fatty” (a name he hated), Arbuckle played mischievous and naïve hayseed, or appeared in drag.  As he started headlining his own films, he quickly became the second most popular film comedian.  Paramount Studios offered him a three-year, $3,000,000 contract in 1918 (about $46,000,000 today).

Roscoe and Mabe

Roscoe and Mabel

418px-Fatty_Arbuckle_The_Hayseed_Film_Daily_1919

Arbuckle lived lavishly openly.  He bought a mansion, he bought cars, he threw parties.  Of course he wasn’t alone. This first generation of movie stars, who had grown up in abject poverty, didn’t really know what to do with the buckets of money that came their way.  Prohibition was in effect, but that didn’t stop them from becoming alcoholics.  Drugs, including cocaine, morphine and heroin, were in plentiful supply, often supplied by people who worked for the studios.  It was the era of the casting couch, as hundreds of young women were lured to Hollywood only to find that once they were used, they were discarded quickly.

Roscoe's Pierce-Arrow

Roscoe’s Pierce-Arrow

The studios had people that tried to control all elements of the press and presented only the best face to the public.  But, you can’t keep good gossip away, and there was plenty to talk about.  While it seemed Hollywood was playing, many in America became concerned and there was some grass-roots movements beginning to form with the sole purpose of cleaning up the movies.

Greg Merritt’s new book, Room 1219:  The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood (September, 2013, Chicago Review Press) is the account of sensational accusations and subsequent trials of Roscoe Arbuckle, following a party held Labor Day weekend in San Francisco.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1613747926/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1613747926&linkCode=as2&tag=greghatfrumi-20

It would seem there is a small renaissance today in the lives of silent film stars.  New biographies are being published of the bigger stars (John Gilbert and Mae Murray) and more obscure film actors (Peg Entwistle and Mary Wickes).  There remains huge interest in silent stars such as Harlow and Garbo (who made the transition into sound), Chaplin, Pickford, director William Desmond Taylor, Mabel Normand, Laurel and Hardy and several others.

The life of Roscoe Arbuckle falls into an odd category.  On one hand, his films have now become relegated to the pile of silent films that seem to end up in bargain bins of DVDs for $1.00, even while becoming easier to view (YouTube).

His story isn’t of his success as a comedian and silent film star; it’s the story of his being accused, initially of murder, and subsequently, manslaughter, and the salaciousness that followed.  The story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is legend.  It’s the nagging details that are muddled.

Thankfully, Merritt’s book takes a close look at all the evidence, all the while putting Arbuckle’s place in history in perspective.  Merritt reviews autopsy reports, trial transcripts, police and coroner testimony, newspaper articles and never before published interviews to give a very balanced analysis of what could have happened that Labor Day of 1921.

Here’s the story in brief:  By 1921, Arbuckle was big box office.  His films were popular all over America and the world.  He was loved by everyone; on screen he was one of us.  Arbuckle had just completed the film, Freight Prepaid, for Paramount and was working on his next feature film.  He needed a break and took a small entourage to San Francisco, where they would have a party in the suites of the Hotel St. Francis.

Hotel St. Francis.  Roscoe's bank of suites were at the top left in the first building.

Hotel St. Francis. Roscoe’s bank of suites were at the top left in the first building.

Room 1219 today

Room 1219 today

Throughout the weekend, people would come and go.  There was alcohol and plenty of it.  On Monday, an actress whom Arbuckle knew slightly, Virginia Rappe, came up to the party and after a few drinks, began talking to Arbuckle.

Virginia Rappe

Virginia Rappe

One of the strengths of Room 1219 is its most thorough biography of Virginia Rappe.  Previous books on the Arbuckle case portray her as a desperate actress or prostitute.  Merritt shows she actually had some success in Hollywood and had other opportunities.  When she was talking to Arbuckle, it would make sense that she would ask him for work.

She was also pretty, Arbuckle was flirty, drinks were being served, it was a party.  The two of them slipped away into Room 1219.

What followed changed the lives of both of them.  Rappe was injured, her bladder ruptured.  No one at the time knew how serious it was.  Arbuckle left her in the care of others and the party broke up.

Rappe died four days later.  Based on the testimony of others at the party, including Rappe companion Maude Delmont who never testified in open court, Arbuckle was arrested for the murder in an attempt to perpetrate rape of Virginia Rappe.

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Roscoe's Mug Shot

Roscoe’s Mug Shot

The charge was eventually reduced to manslaughter and the trial of the century was on and on and on.  There would be three trials in all.  Merritt breaks down each one, showing the lame attempts by the show-boating prosecution to introduce hearsay evidence, twisted testimony and wild speculation.  Of course, the defense did Arbuckle no favors, at least during the first two trials. They seemed unprepared at times, believing that no jury could find it in them to convict one of America’s greatest clowns.  Merritt provides the pertinent transcripts of the trials, showing where the evidence is favorable to Arbuckle, but also shows the holes in his alibi.

The first trial

The first trial

The Prosecution, Roscoe and the Defense Team

The Prosecution, Roscoe and the Defense Team

This was the era of newspapers and Arbuckle was front page news for months, at least until the third trial. By then, other Hollywood stories had grabbed the headlines:  the suicide of Olive Thomas (married to Jack Pickford, brother of Mary) in Paris, the murder of William Desmond Taylor (still unsolved to this day) and the death of matinee idol and drug addict Wallace Reid.

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At the third trial, Arbuckle was acquitted in less than 10 minutes.  But the damage had already been done.  His career was over.  His films were still banned practically all over the country.  Will Hays had been appointed head of the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which, basically, was a self-serving reform group.  Hays was the puppet of the studio heads and one of his first edicts was to ban Arbuckle permanently from working in any studio in Hollywood.

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Room 1219 also details Arbuckle’s exile from Hollywood;   Hays’ reversal; and Arbuckle’s subsequent comeback as a director, stage performer and, ultimately, his return to acting in film.  Using all the evidence put into place in the book, Merritt provides a good, logical theory on what really happened that day in San Francisco.  It was an event that should have ended differently.  The lives of two people were ruined that day.  Rappe lost her life and Arbuckle lost everything.

Room 1219 will be welcomed by all film buffs as the most complete account of the Arbuckle trials.  It’s hard to believe 92 years later, there is still new evidence being discovered and new theories advanced.  Fascinating and full of new information about the case, its participants and victims, Room 1219 engages the reader from start to finish with no happy endings in sight.

Virginia Rappe Grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetary

Virginia Rappe Grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

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