Bad dirt

The author of "Peyton Place" implicated her neighbors in many sins. Now, they're returning the favor.

Published April 15, 1999 4:49PM (EDT)

The summer I turned 12, there was not much to do in Gilmanton, N.H., so I went to the post office daily and hung out, listening to the old-timers who congregated by the mailboxes to chew on the town's choicest rumors -- or "roomahs," as they pronounced that powerful word. These were true Yankees, men with calluses on their hands and framed photos of the grandkids atop the TV back at home, and listening to them, I could discern how a New England town works. People know one another's lives; every human error is as public as a sheet on a clothesline. Usually, the error is small -- a neighbor forgets to return a borrowed chainsaw, say -- and it is forgiven, laughed off as charming. Occasionally, though, the error is wounding and unforgivable. It is a sin, and it can be digested only through myth.

The greatest myth floating about the post office that summer of 1976 was an ancient one, and it involved Gilmanton's most famous writer, Grace Metalious, whose blockbuster 1956 novel, "Peyton Place," aired the pettiness, the crimes and the carnality of, ahem, a small town in New Hampshire. "Peyton Place" spawned a movie and a TV series. It will be reissued today by Northeastern University Press, and reissued again this fall by Random House. But in Gilmanton, a town of 2,600 that I have lived in, at my grandmother's house, every summer of my life, rumor still insists that Grace did not write the book.

Born Grace DeRepentigny, Metalious was a hard-drinking, sexually frank French Canadian from a rough working-class family and, according to legend, she was too drunk and too randy to compose cogent prose. She may have invented the seamy plot for "Peyton Place," but she relied (supposedly) on her best friend, Laurie Wilkens -- a Barnard grad and the Gilmanton correspondent for the local Laconia Evening Citizen -- to actually write the novel. In the mind's eye of many Gilmantonites, troubled Grace Metalious will be forever escaping her rented tar-paper shack on Loon Pond Road and trundling up Frisky Hill to find solace -- and serious editorial help -- at Shaky Acres, as Laurie's commodious old farmhouse is called.

Grace died of cirrhosis in 1964, when she was 39. This spring I deemed it safe to finally investigate the rumors about who really wrote "Peyton Place."

Laurie Wilkens is still alive. Now Laurie Wilkens MacFadyen, she is 86 and the proprietor of a Gilmanton dog kennel. I called her up and she was, it seemed, wearied by my probing. "Grace would come up here in the evenings," she said, "and we'd sit by the fire and she'd read what she'd written that day in a lovely voice. That's all there is to it. I never tried to change a word."

I decided that an old friend of my grandmother's, 82-year-old Gerri Besse, might be able to shed some more light on the matter. Besse has lived in Gilmanton since the early '50s, and she intimated to me that Grace often spent long stretches of time, sometimes a whole week, up at Laurie's. "Why else would she go up there," she reasoned, "except to get help on the book?"

I asked Besse how she knew of Grace's long visits.

"Well," she said, "It's just one of those things you hear and then you hear it again several times and then it just becomes old hat."

Besse suggested that, for confirmation, I call Marion McIntyre, who ran the Gilmanton Corner Library for 23 years, until 1997. McIntyre started off by noting that once, on a warm day in July, Grace Metalious showed up at the Corner Store in a "long mink coat. There was nothing on underneath," McIntyre said, "and she went into the phone booth and flashed herself! I wasn't there, but this is what I've been told. In those days," McIntyre continued, "morals were a lot different and ..."

Eventually, I realized I needed to phone Roger Clark. Roger, 55, is the son of Al Clark, the leader of the old post office gang. He is also an ex-hippie and a sort of uncle to me. His son and I were best friends throughout adolescence, and many times in my youth Roger honored me with small wisdoms that my own parents -- older, more stolid -- could never impart. "A couple beers is OK," he'd say, "but stay away from mescaline ... If you get trashed and throw up, Bill, at least have the courtesy to clean up the mess in the morning."

Roger was, it turned out, also certain that Grace was not the sole author of Peyton Place. "She couldn't put two sentences back to back," he said, "and Laurie was an educated, wonderful lady. She was an excellent writer and, as a reporter, she knew what went on in town; she probably knew more than Grace. There were poker games then where men would get together and gamble money that couldn't be lost; someone's house would be gambled away. And then there was a guy who drove out onto an icy pond with another man's wife. The ice cracked and they both drowned."

The poker players depicted in "Peyton Place" are the town's gentry and, while the book does include two haunting lakeside trysts, they involve summertime swimming, instead of ice. "Peyton Place" is not a roman ` clef: It mainly distills, rather than exposes, Gilmanton. But somehow it felt like nonfiction to Grace Metalious' neighbors; it spurred a few folks in town to murmur threats of a libel suit. And, Roger stressed, the book does culminate with a murder closely modeled after an actual killing. In 1946, a Gilmanton girl, 16-year-old Barbara Roberts, fatally shot her father, who had been molesting her for years, and buried his body in a sheep pen. In "Peyton Place," teenager Selena Cross likewise murders her incestuous rapist (in this case, it's her stepfather, Lucas Cross) and buries him in the family sheep pen.

"People talked about the dark things that went on in Gilmanton," Roger said. "They talked about them all the time, but not publicly. You don't put that stuff in a book. Seeing it in print -- that was excruciatingly painful to a lot of people."

There was a brief silence, so I could hear the crackling on the phone line, and then I asked Roger why, if Laurie wrote the book, she didn't take credit for it.

"I suspect," Roger said, "that she was protective of her reputation. She was well-liked; she was a gracious host. She and her husband owned one of the first TVs in town and often on a Sunday, there'd be 15 or 20 people in her living room. We'd be watching Ed Sullivan or whatever on the five-inch black-and-white screen, and Laurie would be passing out crackers and popcorn. She was the life of the party. Can't you see why she wouldn't want her name on that book?"

Well, kinda. What I think is that no book is wholly written by a solitary mind toiling away in a quiet room with the door shut. All writing is collaborative, the result of a dialogue between the writer and his editor and his friends and the people he meets in cocktail lounges. Some writing is shockingly collaborative. Ezra Pound, we now know, played a major part in refining "The Wasteland," ostensibly written by T.S. Eliot. Likewise, editor Gordon Lish rigorously pruned the sentimentality out of Raymond Carver's early stories. As a recent New York Times Magazine story makes clear, Lish cut literally half the words from the Carver collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," and rewrote 10 of the 13 story endings.

No one will ever prove definitively that Laurie Wilkens wrote "Peyton Place," but as I researched this story, I found, here and there, small suggestions that, well, maybe she did more than offer encouragement. First, there is the sad fact that all three Metalious novels after "Peyton Place" were poorly reviewed and that one, the 1959 "Return to Peyton Place," was actually ghostwritten. (Metalious produced only a sloppy, booze-garbled draft, according to "Inside Peyton Place," a biography by Emily Toth.)

Then, there are Wilkens' undeniable literary gifts. The articles Laurie wrote for the Citizen in the '50s are eloquent glimpses of a small town, sparkling vignettes that itch to transcend the limitations of daily journalism. "Up at this correspondent's home," she wrote after the national press swarmed Gilmanton, seeking Grace, "summer pickling was in process and workers in the garden, in the barn and in the house were suddenly horrified to see huge shiny cars zooming into the yard and parking all over the road, while bevies of men, all sizes and shapes, leaped out with purposeful gleams in their eyes."

Laurie was 11 years older than Grace, and maternal. "In moments of crisis," writes Toth, "Grace would call Laurie -- 1 a.m. calls from the Plaza. Fearing something terrible, Laurie would rush to New York." Is it possible that Grace also turned to Laurie in moments of literary crisis? All I know is that, on a 1994 video produced by New Hampshire Public Television, Laurie describes how the murder scene in "Peyton Place" came into being. She learned about it and then she told Grace and Grace "wrote it down," Laurie says, staring straight into the camera, "almost exactly as I told it to her."

I was pulling that tape out of my VCR the other day when the phone rang. Roger. Spring had arrived in Gilmanton, he said. The snow was melting, and the tree toads and the swamp toads were starting to croak. But he was curious what I made now of all those stories about Laurie and Grace.
I didn't tell him right away because, as it turned out, we began clowning around. We spouted silliness, as we sometimes do, in thick, faux-Yankee accents. And then, just before we hung up, I swooped back toward the whole myth of Grace and I cracked a joke that had us both howling. "Rahjah," I said, "ya didn't think I was gonna go and wreck a good roomah, now did ya?"

By Bill Donahue

Bill Donahue has written for the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, DoubleTake and Outside.

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