Category Archives: Used Books

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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A Small Appreciation of D.W. Griffith

Over the years, I’ve become a fan of the work of D.W. Griffith, one of the pioneers of early film making.  Griffith worked with Thomas Edison as an actor and writer, before moving to the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, or just Biograph, as an actor.  He complained so much about the directing, that they gave him a chance.  This was in 1908. Griffith would go on to make thousands of one-reelers (about 10-12 minutes long) until 1913 when he quit Biograph because he wanted to make longer films.

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Griffith’s use of cross-cutting, close-ups, flashbacks and editing allowed him to rise to the top of the directors working in silent film.  He had a remarkable cast, too, that began to receive recognition for their work in the films.  Such actors as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Wallace Reid, and many others began, or worked with Griffith at Biograph.  Pickford was so popular, she became known as “The Biograph Girl” and parlayed that exposure into a huge movie contract.

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Mary Pickford

Griffith would go on to make many of the cinema’s greatest films:  Way Down East, Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm, Broken Blossoms, and others.  The Birth of a Nation became the most successful film in its day, launching the careers of dozens of men who would later become studio moguls, producers and theater owners.  (Today, The Birth of a Nation is a pariah in the Griffith canon due to its overt tones of racism.)

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Lillian Gish starred in many Griffith films, including the last three above.

Lillian Gish starred in many Griffith films, including the last three above.

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(The image on the right is the big centerpiece of Intolerance, with its cast of thousands and huge scenery pieces.)

In 1919, Griffith, Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin founded United Artists, an independent film studio where the producers made the decisions, not the studio heads.

From L to R, Fairbanks, Pickford, Griffith, and Chaplin. At the time, all but Griffith were the biggest stars in the world. Griffith would be the first to sell his interests. Chaplin and Pickford held onto to their ownership of the company until the 1950’s.

(There are two terrific books on the history of United Artists by Tino Balio:

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http://www.amazon.com/United-Artists-Volume-1919-1950-Company/dp/029923004X/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y

and

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http://www.amazon.com/United-Artists-Volume-1951-1978-Industry/dp/0299230147/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y

You would think that after making all of these important films, D.W. Griffith would be recognized in Hollywood for the genius he was and he would have lived out his life with the love and admiration of all his peers.

Not so fast.  He lived his final years alone, not able to get work, alcoholic, and broke.  His films had made millions for others, but he was unable to keep his money.  He had often put his own money into his work and lost it when the films didn’t make it back quickly enough.

In 1940, Iris Barry, the first curator of The Museum of Modern Art Film Library, put together a large exhibition on Griffith, with the purpose of restoring the fame and reputation of the director.  Griffith was still alive then, and cooperated with Barry on a monograph, short essays, that accompanied the exhibition.  It was the first retrospective of Griffith’s career, and one that made the argument that Griffith was not just a pioneer of cinema, but a ground-breaking director, whose films incorporated practically every technique still used today.

I found the second edition of this book yesterday at a used book shop.

http://www.amazon.com/D-W-Griffith-American-Master/dp/1422351289/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1373820375&sr=8-3&keywords=iris+barry

The second edition has been expanded because in 1965, the Museum ran another Griffith exhibition and reprinted the original manuscript by Barry and expanded it with a long addendum by the director of the Griffith exhibition, Eileen Bowser.  It also has an interview with Billy Bitzer, Griffith’s longtime cameraman.

Griffith died in 1948, alone, penniless.  He is buried outside of Louisville at the  at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky.  His grave was unmarked for a couple of years, until the Director’s Guild provided a marker.  A re-dedication of his grave was attended by Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Richard Barthlemess, all who had appeared in Griffith films.

Gish also wrote a book about Griffith, now out of print, but available used.

http://www.amazon.com/Lillian-Gish-The-Movies-Griffith/dp/B000OFFK8S/ref=sr_1_21?ie=UTF8&qid=1373821838&sr=8-21&keywords=lillian+gish

One last thing, when I was a student at Northern Kentucky University, in 1979, there was a dedication on campus that unveiled a new statue by celebrated artist, Red Grooms.  It depicted Griffith directing a scene from Way Down East, with Lillian Gish on the ice floe, and cameraman Billy Bitzer cranking away.

Red Grooms at the dedication in 1979.

Red Grooms at the dedication in 1979.

The statue received prominent placement on campus, between the Fine Arts building and the new Student Activities building.  I must have passed it a million times, going from one place to the next.  I knew who Griffith was, of course, and knew that he had been born in Kentucky, but really didn’t give it much thought.

The dedication seems to be going nicely.

The dedication seems to be going nicely.

The artwork was loaned out frequently and when it was returned, it was relocated to another part of campus: the banks of Lake Inferior, behind the Fine Arts building,

The sculpture in its new location.

The sculpture in its new location.

As the Grooms artwork remained on campus, there grew an uneasiness about Griffith’s past history with race relations.  In 2004, the sculpture was dismantled, where it remains in storage to this day.

Being from the South, Griffith always believed that he impartially showed what happened after the Civil War in The Birth of a Nation.  What he didn’t realize was there was a new attitude in the United States toward race.  For many people, gone was the hatred, replaced by acceptance.  Griffith’s display of race relations in The Birth of a Nation, even though it represented events happening 50 years ago, was not keeping with the mood of the country in present day 1915.

His next film, Intolerance, in 1916, was an answer to those critics, who believed he was intolerant of race.  This is Griffith’s finest film, cross cut throughout  with four different stories, showing mans intolerance to others always led to ruin.  Running over three hours, it was the most expensive film of that time.

Lillian Gish called him “the father of film” and Charles Chaplin called him “the teacher of us all”.  Griffith still remains a vital part of cinema history and there will always be film critics and historians trying to determine just how important.

Hollywood loves a story where someone at the height of their career takes a fall.  Takes a huge, long, career-busting fall.  Maybe that’s why I admire D.W. Griffith.  Maybe that’s why I admire Orson Welles.   Orson used to say, “Oh, how they’ll miss me when I’ m gone.”  And that’s certainly the case.  Welles also said, in spite of his own treatment by the Hollywood establishment,  “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”