Saturday, July 16, 2016

SEEKING GRACE



Twenty-two years ago today I got into bed one July night in New Hampshire, thinking how seldom it is that I got to the other sides of the mountains which surround Keene, the town I then was living in.  Tomorrow I'd be driving east over those mountains.  I wanted tomorrow to be perfect.  I wanted the sun to pour down lavishly.  I wanted a sky that was not just blue, but perfectly blue.  In another room of Mark's and my house, our friends John and Dennis were sleeping.  Tomorrow, John,  Dennis, and I were going to make a pilgrimage to Gilmanton, to the fictional Peyton Place, in honor of Grace Metalious, whose story all three of us had been obsessed with for years … for years and years and years.

Mark cared nothing about Grace Metalious or Peyton Place.  He'd be driving over the mountains in the opposite direction to visit his parents in Massachusetts.


As I waited for sleep to come I compared myself to those children in the Virginia Woolf novel who have been promised an outing to the lighthouse tomorrow.


Contemplating a scene in that novel I sensed some sort of change come into the room.  It was odd -- a feeling of goodness, some sort of cordiality.  It fell upon and then seeped into me.  This  blanket of goodness, this blanket of cordiality, felt palpable.


I opened my eyes.


Mrs. Ramsey, having stepped right out of To the Lighthouse, was, like a saint, levitating at the foot of my bed.  Her face was kind, lovingly maternal; its expression was that of pure love, such as is often depicted in paintings of the Virgin Mary.  My Mrs. Ramsey wore a knowing smile


"Is everything set for tomorrow?" I ask her.


"Yes, of course, if it's fine," she answers.


That if bothers me a little.



Then, making some little twist of the reddish-brown stocking she was knitting, Mrs. Ramsey said, "I expect it will be fine."

***

John had telephoned a few weeks earlier.  He said that he and our friend Dennis were hoping to visit the New Hampshire grave of Grace Metalious soon, and would I like to join them.

I certainly would!  We decided we'd do the pilgrimage on Saturday, July 16.  I invited John and Dennis to spend Friday night here in Keene; meanwhile I would learn exactly where in New Hampshire Grace is buried.

Later that week I drove to my local library.  I approached a woman who stood behind the counter.  "Do you maybe know where Grace Metalious lived?" I asked.

"Yes.  She lived in Gilmanton Iron Works."

It sounded to me like a place where people punch a time clock for work, not the name of a town.  I repeated the librarian's words back to her to make sure I'd heard them right.

I went to the reference section and pulled out an atlas.  I found that there actually is a town named Gilmanton Iron Works.  I thought: Good lord, if you lived in Gilmanton Iron Works, you'd want your name and address put on one of those rubber stamps so you wouldn't have to be writing or typing out such a long name on your envelopes and such.

I saw also in the atlas that, contiguous with Gilmanton Iron Works, there are places named Gilmanton and Lower Gilmanton.  I learned that these three entities are villages, and that these three villages comprise a town.  The town as a whole, like one of the villages it is comprised of, is called Gilmanton.

Back home I called the Town Clerk of Gilmanton.  I asked her if she knew where Grace Metalious is buried.

"Yes," she said.  "Her grave is at Smith Meeting House."

"Is that a cemetery?"

"Yes."

These damn names!  Who would name a cemetery Smith Meeting House?  Who would name a village Gilmanton Iron Works?

"Is there any sort of memorial to Grace in Gilmanton besides her gravestone?"

"What do you mean by memorial?"

"You know, like a plaque on the town green, or a sign at the entrance to town that says she lived there."

The Town Clerk, who'd said her name is Betty Smithers, gave me a little snorting honk of derisiveness.  "Not likely," she said.  "It's not as if she's highly regarded in these parts."

"You're kidding me!  Peyton Place is a great novel!  It was a huge cultural event!  She was a big celebrity!  I'd think the town would be proud of the connection."

"Well … let's just put it this way: she didn't do the town any favor by writing that book."

"But it wasn't really Gilmanton she was portraying in the novel, was it?  The town of Peyton Place seems larger than Gilmanton must be."

(The population of Peyton Place in the novel, according to a sign nailed to the front of the railroad station, is 3,675.  The population of Gilmanton, according to the atlas I'd looked into at the library, is 600.  Further, Grace Metalious situated Peyton Place on the Connecticut River, while Gilmanton lies some fifty miles east of the river.)

"As I understand it," Betty said, "she started writing it down on Cape Cod, then worked on it in Manchester, and finished it up here.  Who knows what town she had in mind?"

"There's a library in Gilmanton, right?"

"Three of 'em."

"Is there any special display devoted to Grace in any of them?"

"Nope."

This nope was flat out punky … petulant.  I was finding Town Clerk Betty to be, in her fashion, charming.

"Did you know Grace?" I asked.

"Yes … unfortunately."

"I'm kind of shocked.  I just assumed you people there would be kind of proud to have been put on the map by Grace … so to speak, I mean."

"We were doing just fine long before she came to town."

"A couple friends and I are going to drive over there this weekend to visit her grave.  Could we maybe get together with you and talk about Grace?"

"First of all, you'd have to catch me in the right mood, plus you'd have to come on a day when I'm not going to be in a golf tournament.  I'll be on the golf course all day Saturday.  Why don't you try Marian McIntyre?  She's the librarian.  She'd be a good guide."

I phoned Marian McIntyre.

"I'm just ready to step out the door for a trip to Vermont," she said, "but I'll be back on Saturday sometime around two and can meet you after that.  Give me a call then."

***

At the junction of two state highways we found a steepled church, a Town Hall, and a tiny library with a sign announcing hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; all clad in white clapboard, and set in an arc on a greensward.  This array of white buildings, beautiful as they are against the day's true blue sky, is the center of Gilmanton.  There is no Main Street, nor, as there was in Peyton Place, an Elm Street, which was the main drag.


In fact, there are no streets, as such, at all in Gilmanton.  Nothing here could be called anything more than a road -- and most of the roads are unpaved.

The clerk in a convenience store across from the greensward said that what is now Town Hall was formerly the town's school, the place where Grace's husband, George, was the principal until his contract was not renewed when Peyton Place was about to be published.



With John in front of Center
Congregational Church, Gilmanton

Gilmanton, then -- we see immediately -- is definitely not Peyton Place. There is, for another instance, no gymnasium here for us to gaze upon and recall as the place outside of which the spoiled rich kid Rodney Harrington, with his mass of black, curly hair and heavy-lipped mouth, parked with Betty Anderson, who happened to be pissed off because Rodney had brought a different girl to the prom; in the middle of making out she says:

          "Is it up, Rod?  Is it up good and hard?"

          "Oh, yes," he whispered, almost unable to speak.
          Without another word Betty jack-knifed her knees, pushing Rodney away from her, clicked the lock on the door and was outside the car.
          "Now go shove it into Allison MacKenzie," she screamed at him.  "Go get the girl you brought to the dance and get rid of it with her."
       


***


We'd also asked the clerk at the store how to find Smith Meeting House; she said it was a straight shot down Route 140, which, right here in what appears to be the Town Center, crosses Route 107.  We go to the cemetery that lies next to Smith Meeting House.

The day is turning out to be bright and hot.  The cemetery is lovely.  (But I find all cemeteries to be lovely.)  We find Grace's grave on the rear perimeter, marked by a simple upright white slab of granite.  



METALIOUS
Grace
1924 - 1964



The site almost but not quite overlooks, off to the right, a scenic view of a pond.  Dennis wonders if it is the pond in Peyton Place in which Constance MacKenzie and Thomas Makris went nude-swimming in the moonlight.  Yes, we could be looking at the place where Tomas Makris, a Mediterranean-dark sexy man of thirty-five, took the town's young widow -- as so, for propriety's sake, she claimed to be -- the beautiful Constance MacKenzie, for a moonlit swim.  Tomas ordered Constance harshly to untie the top of her bathing suit.  When she didn't do as he'd ordered, he, with one motion of his hand, did it for her.

Tomas Makris is a hero in the novel, a prince among men; he was also my first literary crush.  Grace Metalious knew how to portray a handsome sexy man.  How could I not have fantasized about him while reading Peyton Place at the age of eighteen, even if I had not yet finished sorting out my own sexuality, even if I was puzzled at myself for finding men attractive in a way that women were not?  Tomas was massively boned.  His muscles seemed to quiver every time he moved.  His arms were knotted powerfully.  He was six feet four inches tall, two hundred twelve pounds.  Further, wrote Grace, he was handsome, in a dark-skinned, black-haired, obviously sexual way.


After that moonlit swim in the novel Tomas takes Constance to her home.  Once there he:


     … carried her, struggling, up the dark stairway, and when he reached

     the second floor, he kicked open the door of her room with his foot.
          "I'll have you arrested," she stammered.  "I'll have you arrested and
     put in jail for breaking and entering and rape . . . "
         He stood her on the floor beside the bed and slapped her a stunning blow
     across the mouth with the back of his hand.
          "Don't open your mouth again," he said quietly.  "Just keep your mouth
     shut."

I remember the above scene almost as well as I remember the novel's famous opening sentences: “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.”  I ponder how, in 1957, terms such as domestic violence and date rape had yet to be uttered.  A woman was routinely regarded, more or less, as the property of her man; thus not I or anyone else would have raised much of an eyebrow at the act of Tomas giving his chattel a stunning blow.


In the early seventies, when efforts at consciousness-raising had penetrated our culture, I read the novel again, and now Tomas Makris's technique struck me as downright dangerous; he very well could land in jail.


By the time of our pilgrimage to Gilmanton, having recently finished the book a third time, my apprehension of the scene has greater nuance.  I'd by now observed over many years that human sexuality is a deep and dark and mysterious ocean, and I could think that perhaps Constance MacKenzie wanted -- perhaps even craved -- that stunning blow; and that Tomas, like his creator, Grace Metalious, knew that exactly.  The handsome ... dark-skinned ...  black-haired Greek, Thomas Makris, was not a clumsy seducer.


Yes, people can be stranger than I'd have thought at seventeen, and I've known now for a long time that it's not for me to understand why someone would crave abuse, just as I've never understood why someone would like being tied up, why someone would want to be spanked, whipped, degraded in any way.  But whatever people want along these lines is okay with me; as my dad was said to have liked to say, "Live and let live."


Whatever gets them through the night.  It takes all kinds.  And so forth.



***

John has brought a pint of Canadian Club and a pack of Parliament cigarettes as gifts for Grace.  He, Dennis, and I each take a swig from the pint of whisky.  John pours the remainder onto the grave, as if it might seep into the ground, through the vault, and into the casket, finally reaching Grace.  Now John carefully opens the Parliaments, taps a few somewhat out of the pack, and props it along with the now-emptied bottle of booze on the narrow plinth of Grace's grave.


I thought Dennis, contemplating the gravesite after John had wandered off to another area of the cemetery, was having a somber and tender moment, that he was moved almost to tears to have reached the hallowed ground where his literary heroine lies; I've said that all three of us have been obsessed with Grace but perhaps Dennis most of all.  He seems drenched in nostalgia, melancholia.


The sun's warmth is wonderful.  I light up a Camel.  I fantasize, staring at the blue sky, that Grace and I could have a drink and a smoke together; we would have a discussion about beauty and beastliness.  Maybe she could explain to me why it is that when I speak in a certain deep voice to my friend, Abby, it sends shivers of sensuality throughout Abby's body, especially if we're in some place like an ill-lit basement, or crossing Central Park in the dusk; and Grace might explain, too, about abuse and whips and degradation.


I gaze again at the pond in the distance.  In my mind I form a picture: Tomas Makris and I are sunning ourselves there on the grassy shore.  We're in our swimming trunks.  We're reading.  We're chatting.  We're dozing.  He is just as Grace Metalious described him -- a Greek god.  After a while Tomas and I decide to cool off in the pond.  We wade out until we're up to our waists.  We stand facing each other, laughing, splashing.  Then I move my hands beneath the surface, reach them toward him.    


It hurts to imagine him.



***

We have lots of time to use up before our two p.m. meeting with the librarian.  We drive aimlessly around Gilmanton; it seems as if to be spread all over creation.  The only business we come across, aside from the general store at the center of town, is a bed-and-breakfast called Temperance Tavern.  Another odd name … Gilmanton Iron Works, a town … Smith Meeting House, a cemetery … and I'm beginning to think, when it comes to names: whatever.


Then, using information from the Toth biography, we decide to go looking for Grace's house.  After one not-so-good guess,  where the resident explained that it was actually down the road a few miles further, we find ourselves staring at the house house she bought with her first royalties.  We crave to see the inside of the house.


"What can they do but kick us off their property?" I reason aloud, while thinking that they could shoot us if they like.  Are the current residents bothered a lot by Metalious groupies?  Are they sick of us before we even get out of our car?


At the end of the driveway we are met by a man who looks to be in his mid-thirties.  When we explain our pilgrimage, he says he will fetch his father.



Dennis in front of the house that Grace re-built.
It turns out that the librarian had earlier called the owner of the house, a man named Alan Hugelman, and asked him if he might let us visit.  Soon enough he comes to the door and leans his head out.  He is friendly, even welcoming, and invites us in.  He is tall and elderly, his gray hair slicked back, and he wears glasses.  He seems pleased to have visitors.

It's a large, handsome house, painted white with green shutters.  When Grace Metalious bought it, the house was a simple, moderately sized Cape Codder, but she subsequently spent -- mostly unwisely, it is said -- a hundred thousand-plus mid-fifties dollars remodeling the place.  One extravagance was a three-bay-garage.


Reports are that she had a friend do the work, which friend was not a carpenter by trade, and had little building experience; consequently, corners were not squared, lines were not plumb, floors were not level.   In the end, another big wad of money was spent correcting the results of the original carpenter's ineptness.


After Mr. Hugelman gives us a rather cursory tour of the rooms on the first floor he invites us to have seats in the living room.


"I read that this house is haunted," I say.


"It's true, it's true!" Hugelmann says.  "I've seen the ghost of Grace and I've also seen the ghost of a woman named Anna Mudgett, who lived and died on this property in the early eighteen-hundreds."


"Really!  What is Grace wearing when she appears?" John asks.


"Oddly enough, she's always in a white wedding gown!  And I've only ever seen Grace at around five-thirty in the morning.  The other one -- Anna Mudgett -- she likes to show up at around two in the morning.  And, let me tell you …."


He pauses, as if wondering if he should complete his sentence.  "Are any of you fellows married?" he asks.


"No!" we all respond.


"Well, I guess I'll say this anyway.  You look plenty old enough to know about the birds and the bees."


John and Dennis are in their late forties; I'm nearing my mid-fifties.


"Usually when this Anna Mudgett comes, she is desperately in need of sex.  She sits right on my crotch."  He measures with his hands a wide girth above his lap, aiming to present us, I guess, with an impression that Anna is somewhat broad across the beam.  "And -- excuse my frankness, I don't want to offend you -- but the room becomes filled with an overwhelming female scent.  It's like that of a woman who doesn't practice the best hygiene, like she hasn't washed herself down there for months.  And then, immediately after she leaves, that pungent odor changes.  It becomes the awful stench like you'd find in a horse stable.


"And here's what I find interesting -- I've done some research, I'm on the town's Historical Commission, and local history is my main occupation now that I'm retired -- so what I've learned in my research is that Anna Mudgett was real and she was killed in a stable.  As near as I can figure the stable was across the road from where this house stands.  Nothing I've read indicates that there was any foul play, nothing indicates, you know, that she was murdered, for instance, but perhaps she was killed in an accident.  I just don't know.  But I do know that her death came during the winter and in those days, before they had the power-tools and all that we have today, they couldn't bury someone in the hard-frozen ground, so I've come to think that perhaps they buried her in a shallow grave right there in the stable.  And because she was never buried properly, her spirit is not able to rest."


"That makes sense," says John, "but I wonder why Grace's spirit isn't at rest."


"Oh, who knows?  I assume she left something undone here -- the raising of her children perhaps?  Something … something not completed, something that makes her come back to this spot."


"Did you ever meet Grace in real life?" I asked Hugelman.


"Yes! Yes!  And I got to know her well.  I can tell you sincerely that she was one of the brightest people I've ever met.  The first time I met her was actually down in Manchester.  It was 1945, and I was at some sort of affair sponsored by the USO.  Grace was very young then, and someone told her that I had just been released from the Marines, and that I'd served in Europe.  She came up to me and introduced herself, and, let me tell you, she immediately zeroed right in on me, started grilling me, asking all kinds of questions about the conduct of the guys serving overseas.  She was very frank.  She said that she'd recently learned that her husband, who was in the Army over in Germany, was having an affair with a fraulein, and she was trying to understand how he could do such a thing … what the conditions over there were like, and such … what was it like to be separated from your wife or sweetheart, what sort of temptations did the soldiers run into?


"I had truly never met anyone who was so intense, and, frankly, I still don't think I've met anyone so intense -- not in all these years -- as this woman was that night in Manchester!  Talk about getting the fifth-degree!  She fired question after question at me for something like half an hour, trying to get an entire picture of what it was like to be far away from your loved one, as so many of us were when we were serving overseas.  She was determined to understand the conduct of her husband.  And when she decided, I guess, that she'd gotten all she could out of me, I felt totally drained.  Honestly!  She'd been a ball of wound-up intensity!  It showed especially in her eyes, and somehow it gave me the feeling that she was looking right into my soul.


"Years later -- it must have been a good ten years later -- after I'd settled here in Gilmanton, I went to a PTA meeting.  I watched as a woman from the audience intensely questioned the board about some item on the agenda; I forget what the subject was.  I did not realize that this woman was the soon-to-be-published Grace Metalious.  But somehow she seemed familiar to me; I just felt like I should know her, and sure enough, it suddenly dawned on me that she was the very same woman who'd grilled me at that USO event down in Manchester all those years earlier!"


When that meeting was adjourned, Hugelmann says, he approached Grace Metalious, reminded her of their earlier encounter, and introduced his wife to her.  He invited Grace to come to his home (not the infamous one he now owns, of course) for a drink.  She accepted.


"She stopped by to visit once again after she'd become famous.  She'd bought this house by then, and was in the process of remodeling it.  Even back then I was on the town's Historical Commission and was interested in the house's history.  I was hoping she'd tell me what she knew about it, and I thought she'd talk about all that was happening in her life, all the hoopla and excitement connected with having a bestseller.  Instead, she spent the whole time sitting on our living room floor talking to our boy, who was then about three years old, telling him the most marvelous stories, which she seemed to be making up as she went along, and he was absolutely mesmerized by her.  He's never forgotten that evening, young as he was.  He's a grown man, in his thirties now -- he's the one who answered the door when you first arrived -- but he clearly can recall that woman sitting on the floor telling him stories.  She absolutely enchanted him.


"So that was Grace … if I had to describe her in one word, I'd say she was intense.  And I'd say she knew how to tell a story.  That's obvious, I guess, from her novels, but I'm thinking of her down on the floor with my three-year-old boy, holding him spellbound with her words."


We'd been chatting for nearly three-quarters of an hour when John looks at his watch and mentions that we need to get going because we are to meet the town librarian at about 2 p.m.


"I want you to see the upstairs first," Mr. Hugelman says.


We follow him up the stairs, through the narrow hall in the older part of the house, and then into a newer wing, the one that Grace had added to the original structure.


"This was Grace and her husband's bedroom.  His name was George -- same as yours," he said, indicating me.  "I suppose you know from your reading that he was the principal here at the school, but was fired after his wife's book came out.  Unfairly, in my view, but … well, times were just different then."  He spread his hands as if to express that in those days there was just nothing to be done about these sorts of injustices.


Then Alan Hugelman gestures his right hand to the far wall of the room.  "We just exposed this," he says, and he sweeps his arm around the room to indicate the wallpaper.  It was of a pattern of muted red roses and greenery on a creamy background.  "Grace and George brought this wallpaper back from Paris after she'd become rich."


Much better, I thought, than a miniature of the Eiffel Tower.


The bedroom, for a woman who was making so much money, seems quite small to me, barely larger than the cedar-lined walk-in closet that adjoined it -- a closet in which, I couldn't help but imagine, Grace stored the jeans and flannel shirts she liked to wear.  In a space off the bedroom is a tiny study, almost an alcove.  There is a desk built in a cubbyhole in the wall -- a small writing surface, drawers below, shelves above.  "This is where she worked."


"It ..." -- meaning the alcove --  "seems so cramped!" I say, but I suppose there was enough room for a typewriter, a glass of Canadian Club, a pack of Parliaments, and an ashtray.  Plenty of room of course for her imagination, as oversized as it seems to have been.

***

We travel back to the center of town via the dirt road.  It is narrow and pretty, with a greenery of trees hung over the road, making it seem cool and tunnel-like.  We pull over to the side.  I dig into my knapsack, find the librarian's number, and John dials her on his car-phone.


"Hi Marion! This is George Fitzgerald calling!"


"Yes!  Where are you?"


"Uh ... uh."  I am flummoxed.  I don't know exactly where I am.  I am not anywhere.  I am en route.  I am in a leafy tunnel.  Finally I say, "We're on the road. 
We are here!  We're in Gilmanton!"


"Oh, so you're in town!  I thought you said you were on the road."


"Well ... I guess I should say we're on a road, not the road.  Wait!  I see a sign ahead ... okay, let's see ... we're on Meadow Pond Road.  I'm using one of these newfangled car-phones for the first time!"


"Oh, okay, now I get it!" she says cheerfully.  "Actually, you're on the very road that Grace lived on!
  The owner's name is Alan Hugelman.  He's expecting you.  He's the head of the local historical society.  Call me after you've visited with him and I'll meet you at the library."


I explain that we had already visited him on our own initiative.



John and Dennis outside one of Gilmanton's three libraries.

"Oh, in that case, I'll come to the library now.  Give me ten minutes.  I just got back from Vermont."

I like Marian McIntyre immediately, even as we are shaking hands, even as she is unlocking the library, even without any of us having had time to say hardly a word to one another.  She has a wonderfully kind ready-to-smile-anytime face.  She looks to be somewhere around sixty, and is on the stoutish side.  She is wearing baggy lilac-colored shorts, and a busily patterned blouse with colorful small flowers against a lilac background, and, on her feet, cheap tennis shoes.  She has a round, bespectacled face.  Her hair has turned gray but with a lot of gold remaining.


Inside the library she pulls open a drawer of the desk, removes a manila folder, and hands it to me.  It is stuffed with a disarray of newspaper clippings and magazine articles about Grace Metalious.  I can't begin to take these contents in.  I want to read every article, but I want to be present with Marion; I'm too distracted.


"Do you have Peyton Place on the shelves here?" John asks.


"Yes ... right over here," Marian says, and moves to fetch it.  The library, as I look around, is nothing more than one large room; everything in it is, so to speak, at hand.


"I read in a Yankee magazine article recently that during the 1976 New Hampshire primary the "Today" show came to Gilmanton, and Barbara Walters presented her own copy of Peyton Place to the library because she thought it was disgraceful that Grace's hometown library didn't stock it."


Marian McIntyre sighed, rolled her eyes, and shook her head.  "It's true that she gave us a copy of the book, but it was not true that we didn't already have one.  Now that Barbara Walters -- there's a real ding-a-ling for you!  That one knew how to grandstand -- that's what she knew how to do.  And I can tell you that her grand gesture on television insulted quite a few people around here, because if she'd really cared about the town and done her homework, she'd have learned that there are three libraries in Gilmanton, and that there was in fact a copy of Peyton Place in the library over at Gilmanton Iron Works.  We don't keep every book in all three of our libraries ... we don't have that kind of space, or that kind of money ... but we most certainly had it readily available for anyone who wanted to read it.  And, I might add, we've had it all along from the time it was published."


Three copies of "Peyton Place" on a Gilmanton shelf.
"So that is the copy Barbara Walters gave you?" John asks.

"I think it probably is."


"Can I take a picture of you holding it?"


Marian laughs and, patting her ample thighs, says, "Well, okay, but you'd better have a wide-angle lens on your camera!"


After posing, addressing all of us, she asks, "Why are you all so fascinated with Grace?"


John says he had seen an article about Grace in Life magazine when the book first came out, and he thought it was neat that she'd become so famous.  He liked the rags-to-riches story.  "I guess you could say it was an early manifestation of a taste I have for sensationalism."  He doesn't mention what he had once told me -- that his very first instance of self-abuse occurred when he came across the place in the novel where Rodney Harrington's hand "found the V" of Betty Anderson's crotch.



Dennis says, "Peyton Place was one of the first books I ever read.  Maybe the first book I read since I didn't really read the ones we were supposed to read in high school -- crap like Silas Marner, which just bored me to death.  Peyton Place came out when I was about sixteen, but I didn't read it until it came out in paperback, maybe a year later, or a year and a half ... whatever."


***


"Did you know Grace?" I ask Marian.



"Ooooooh, yes!" she says.  "I moved to town about six months before her book came out.  We were both on some PTA committee ... I don't even remember what the committee was anymore."



"Alan Hugelman told us she was one of the brightest people he'd ever met."



"He said that?" Marian says disbelievingly.  "I certainly wouldn't call her bright!  Most of us who knew her didn't think she was anything special in the brain department.  A  lot of people didn't even think she was smart enough to write a book!  And I, for one, don't think the book is that well-written anyhow, do you?"

"Well … yes," said Dennis, tentatively.  "I do.  And I definitely think she was capable of writing it, simply based on her novel No Adam in Eden, if on nothing else.  Did you read that one?"


"No.  I never got around to her later ones.  I know they said that her second one … what was it called? … Return to Peyton Place or something like that … they said that was written by Hollywood hacks."


"That's probably true.  They were in a rush to get a second novel out so they could cash in on the fame, and Grace wasn't getting it done quickly enough to suit them.  But No Adam in Eden is about three generations of women in Manchester, and it is clearly about Grace and her mother and her grandmother.  Only one of them could have written it, and that means it was Grace who did, and I think it's good.  It is so vitriolic toward women that sometimes you just have to stop and catch your breath.  Such animosity toward women is just so shocking in this day and age.  But, like I said, it's really well done."


I put my two-cents worth in: "As for Peyton Place, it's not Henry James, it's not anywhere close to the great stylists, but I think it is written well enough.  For the most part, it's well expressed, and it has interesting characters, and it's certainly a good story, sensational and dramatic.  Not that it didn't have some weak places, like the chapter where those five or six guys are holed up in a basement for six weeks, staying drunk, and then running out of beer and getting the dee-tees -- that whole scene just didn't true to me at all."



Dennis says, "Another thing about Peyton Place that is not quite right is that it is set in 1939 and the succeeding few years, but it reads like it's set in the fifties, the time it was written.  But that doesn't really take anything away from the pleasure of reading a great story."

Peyton Place was on The New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks.  Millions of hardbacks have been sold; more millions of paperbacks have been sold; it is estimated that in the half century after its publication, upwards of 80 million copies have been sold.  Still, Grace Metalious had her critics, and Grace Metalious had a marvelous response for them: "If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste."

"Well, it's like I said," says Marian.  "We just didn't think that much of her.  We did think highly of her husband, George.  We thought he was an up-and-coming sort of guy.  He'd gone to college and all.  But Grace, I don't know if she even finished high school ...."

"Oh, I think she did," I say, though I am not sure.  "Maybe not, but I think she graduated in Manchester."

"... and besides being none too bright, she was rude and obnoxious.  Plus she was a drunk!  Now tell me, how can you write a book when you're drunk all the time?"

John gestures his hand toward a few shelves of books.  "Half the books on these shelves were probably written by drunks."  I just happened to have noticed a book by John O'Hara when John made that comment.

"I guess you've got a point there ... maybe so," Marian said laughingly.  "But whether Grace wrote her novels herself or, as a lot of people think, had somebody help her, she was another ding-a-ling!  Like the time she came down to use the phone booth right over there."

Here Marian turned to the front window and pointed to the general store across the road, where there is still a pay phone booth out front.  "And she was wearing nothing but a mink coat!  NOTHING!  Just a mink coat ... NOTHING UNDERNEATH!"

Marian's eyes are filled with tears of merriment; she is giggling so at the memory that she could only almost screech her punch line: "AND IT WAS OPEN ALL DOWN THE FRONT!!!"

"Well!  I guess that gave the town something to talk about!" John says.

"Believe you me, it sure did!  She was just considered to be such a slob.  A disgrace, really.  In fact ... guess who is exactly like her!"

We have no idea, not even a guess.

"Roseanne Barr!"

Having read a fair amount about Grace's manners, but not having looked at much television, and having read only a few gossipy things about Roseanne Barr, the comparison still didn't seem rash to me.

"I'm not kidding," says Marian.  "She's the spitting image!  What you see on Roseanne is just what Grace was like.  Except that Roseanne, on television at least, is a better mother.  At least her kids are clean.  You'd see Grace's kids going to school dirty.  Wearing dirty clothes.  And half the time they didn't even have their lunch money!"

"I guess she was preoccupied with getting her novels written," I say, wanting to defend Grace.

"I suppose so ... or too drunk!  There was no doubt that she loved her kids, so you'd think she'd at least care what they looked like.  But ... I don't know ... I guess, like you say, she had other priorities.  And what strikes me as funny now is that her book caused such a stink, but if it came out today, nobody'd think anything about all that stuff that had people so upset back then.  I guess you could say she was just ahead of her time." 

"Why were some people in Gilmanton so upset about the book?" I asked.  "Still upset!  It's clear enough that the town of Peyton Place is nothing like the town of Gilmanton, at least not physically."

"Well, it is about Gilmanton in some ways, and it is about some of the people in town … I can point to a lot of the characters in the book who are based on real people … people who live right here.  And, take my word for it, some of them didn't appreciate it."

I'd begun looking through the folders of clippings and articles, using the room's heating stove as a table.  There was simply too much stuff and not enough time  -- to say nothing of the delightful distraction of Marian -- for me to look through the folder carefully.  "If I come back another time," I asked, "could I photocopy some of this stuff?  Or is there someplace nearby where I can copy some things now?"

"Not here in town.  Maybe over in Concord.  But … I don't know why, but I trust you!  You have an honest face!"  She laughed as if the idea of trusting anyone is completely crazy.  "So I'll let you take them with you if you promise to get them back to me."

"Oh, great!  I will!  I promise!  I'll copy everything Monday and get it back to you in the mail right away."

The afternoon was falling away; it was time to wind down.

"Okay," Marian said, "you've been to Grace's house, and you've seen the cemetery, and you've got the clippings.  What else would you like to see?"

"Is the site where Selena killed Lucas Cross in the novel based on a real place around here?" I asked.

"Yes, but it's long gone ... burned down years ago.  It was actually a farmhouse, not really a shack like in the book.

Here Marian put her thumb and forefinger to her chin and seemed to be running things through her mind.  Finally she said, "What I could show you is the grave of the man Lucas Cross was based on.  I'd have to lead you there.  It's not marked, and you'd never find it on your own."

"Sure!  I'd love to see it.  So Lucas Cross was based on a local person?"

"Oooooh, yes!  The real Lucas was a man named Sylvester Roberts.  It's such a shame because he came from a really good family here in town.  And since you live in New Hampshire, George, you might know of the George Roberts who's Speaker of the House over in Concord?  He's from the same family ... let's see ... he'd be Sylvester's nephew.  And Sylvester's own brother died just recently over in Laconia."

***

In real life, on December 27, 1946, a twenty-year-old woman named Barbara Roberts murdered her father, the aforementioned Sylvester Roberts, of the locally prominent family.  With the help of her younger brother, Barbara buried her father in a shallow grave in a sheep barn.

Some nine months later, the body was discovered; Barbara Roberts quickly confessed to the murder.


As it turned out though, there were fair reasons for her to have killed the bastard.  Her entirely believable accounts of being sexually abused by him over many years elicited a great amount of sympathy among the jurists; Barbara Roberts was sentenced to just a single year in prison.


The central drama of Peyton Place is based on this incident.  Lucas Cross, the fictional father, is depicted as an incorrigible drunk who habitually beats his wife and rapes his beautiful and lovely stepdaughter, Selena.  She becomes pregnant by him.  The town's good doctor, Matthew Swain -- against his principles, but full of a wonderfully touching sympathy for Selena -- secretly performs an illegal abortion. (Mind you, in real life, it was Sylvester Roberts abusing his daughter, not a step-daughter.)



***

We follow Marian McIntyre as she speeds east on Route 140.  After five or six miles we arrive at the village with that unlikely name of Gilmanton Iron works.  At a cemetery there, Marian leads us to the Roberts family plot.  Pointing to a featureless area of grass at the far end of this plot, she says, "It's right here."

I stand staring stupidly at this featureless area of grass.  It seems stupid to stare because there is really nothing to look at, nothing to focus on.  An unmarked grave, I thought, must be the ultimate retribution for black sheepdom, a fervent gesture of disrespect, a forever-silent declaration that one and one's doings on earth brought such great shame as to have made one unworthy even of a slab of stone; made one, for eternity, unworthy of remembrance.


The unmarked grave of Sylvester Roberts
***

I grew up in a small town in Indiana.  It's easy for me to imagine how the people of my hometown might have reacted if an outsider, such as a Grace Metalious, had moved into our town, appropriated a scandalous story that had brought shame to a well-liked and respected local family, and told that story to the world.  And, in the process, made a million bucks, and showed up in the center of town wearing a mink coat with nothing but skin beneath it.  They wouldn't have liked this interloper.

Thus I understand why many in Gilmanton didn't and don't like Grace Metalious.

But I'm not from Gilmanton.  I have a really soft spot in my heart for the woman who gave the world a place called Peyton Place.

I like the odd wad.

I like the black sheep.

***

Grace Metalious died in a Boston hospital, of liver disease, at the age of thirty-nine.  Though she'd earned millions, she'd also spent them.  She'd also been screwed out of other millions by unscrupulous people she'd dealt with -- agents, lawyers, lovers, publishers, moviemakers.  Even her own mother once sued her for sixty thousand bucks, claiming to have been injured in a slight accident in her rich daughter's car.

Just days before her death, Grace made a will leaving everything to a British journalist she'd recently taken up with, a man who hadn't bothered to tell Grace that he had a wife and children back in  England.

The value of Grace's estate was placed at only about $127,000.  The Internal Revenue Service claimed she owed them that plus another $43,000 in unpaid taxes.  Thus, the estate of Grace Metalious was bankrupt.  The British journalist decided that he didn't want to be her heir after all.

***

John and Dennis head for Provincetown, where they will vacation for a week or so.  I drive back to my home in the valley.  I make some notes about my day, have something to eat, and then go to bed.  Closing my eyes, I picture the white marble stone that marks Grace's grave.  It stands fresh and proud in my memory, and the sun pours down upon its whiteness.

The day, just as Virginia Woolf's fictional Mrs. Ramsey had expected it would be, had been fine.  I would like to have had it last much longer, but I take what I can get.






Return to Peyton Place

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The town has added a spiffy  sign since my 1994 visit.
Last Saturday I was in New Hampshire, returning from a wedding in Vermont.  I felt like doing some meandering so thought I'd go out of my way and return to Gilmanton, the small town where Grace Metalious lived when Peyton Place was published. I stopped at a Rest Area/Information Center along Interstate 89 to check a map. There was an attendant but he was off to a side arranging brochures. I got a map of New Hampshire and spread it out on the counter. The attendant came over and asked if he could help

"I want to go to Gilmanton but I'm not sure what's the best way from here."

We studied the map together and decided that one way was as good as another. "What would take you to Gilmanton, if you don't mind me asking? You'll be going by both tracks!" He was a man of maybe forty-five or fifty, black hair, swarthy skin, surely of French descent, as are so many up that way; and, as for tracks, he was referring to the famous NASCAR track at Loudon and then a dog track further up the road.

"Gilmanton's the town where the woman who wrote Peyton Place lived ... Grace Metalious."

"Really? She was from Gilmanton?"

"Well, she wasn't from there but that's where she lived when she wrote the book. Her husband was the school principal ... at least until the book came out. A lot of the locals didn't appreciate how she'd portrayed the town, and her husband got fired."

"No, they wouldn't like an outlier."

"Well, she wasn't exactly what I'd call an outlier. She was born and grew up just down the road in Manchester."

"Oh, up here we don't even consider that to be part of New Hampshire. Anything below Concord is just part of Massachusetts as far as we're concerned."

"You're kidding me!"

He was serious.

"Most of them are from Massachusetts anyway. And they're just different! For instance, my nearest neighbor is two-and-a-half miles way, and I wouldn't want one any closer. But them people down below Concord don't care; they'll build a house almost right on top of you. They don't appreciate independence and privacy."

"Oh?"

I guess he was part of the live free or die mentality.

"By the way another author lived not far from here," he said. "Robert Frost's farm is down in Derry."

"I've been there before. It's nothing much to see. Frost wasn't even a published poet when he lived there. He moved from Derry to England and that's where he became famous. After four years or so he came back to the states as a famous poet and bought a farm up north in Plymouth."

"Really? He went to England to become famous? That's like Jimi Hendrix! He went to England to become famous too."

"Well, I don't think that connection ever crossed my mind, but you're right."

I was enjoying chatting with him but thought I needed to get going. Then when I got going and was 5 or 10 miles down the road I had a bunch more questions for him and wished I'd stayed longer.  What did he do when he got to his reclusive home?  Does he have a family?  Does he like to play checkers or Boggle?  Is this position I found him in a real job or is he a volunteer?

But Gilmanton beckoned. I didn't feel like turning back.

Gated entrance to Smith Meeting House (S.M.H.) Cemetery.

Grace's stone in 2013, adorned with three pennies and a cheap pen.


Tags: Peyton Place, Grace Metalious, Roberts Family New Hampshire