|The press called Grace Metalious "Pandora in Blue Jeans."|
Try to imagine what it was like to be a woman writer in mid-century America—especially a hugely successful writer. Here’s two takes on the fame game, by the most successful female writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, respectively.
|Does that make Jacqueline Susann |
"Pulp Fiction in Pucci?"
Grace Metalious, whose novel, Peyton Place, sold 12 million copies yet was synonymous with smut, said: “If I’m a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people got lousy tastes.”
And Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls, which eventually sold over 30 million copies, was dismissed as a self-promoter rather than a real writer, believed: “If the book is not there, you cannot make it a hit.”
Both novels, in their time, riled up critics and clergy alike, and were dismissed as illiterate and filth. Readers devoured the juicy Peyton and Dolls, ripping through the page-turning stories, searching for “the good parts.”
At the time, few reviewers or readers considered Peyton Place or Valley of the Dolls great writing. Harold Robbins, the male counterpart to Jacqueline Susann, was always panned—but with Susann and Metalious, the criticism became personal. Subjectivity aside, the books are now conceded as good storytelling, with strong female characters acting on their desires.
The Skinny on Scandal Books
|"Peyton Place" came out September, 1956|
|"Dolls" was published February of 1966.|
Masterfully written or not, both novels had memorable opening lines. Metalious even makes the weather in Peyton Place sound sexy! She begins: “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.”
Susann starts her showbiz saga with a chilling and campy cautionary poem. An excerpt:
“You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest
to reach the Valley of the Dolls.
It's a brutal climb to reach that peak,
to reach the Valley of the Dolls.
It's a brutal climb to reach that peak,
which so few have seen.
You never knew what was really up there,
but the last thing you expected to find
was the Valley of the Dolls.
You stand there, waiting for
You stand there, waiting for
the rush of exhilaration
you thought you’d feel—but
it doesn't come.”
Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
Peyton Place scrutinizes the slimy secrets of the small towns—under a fictionalized title guise—where the author had restlessly lived as the wife of a school teacher. Metalious wasn’t speaking for the New Hampshire Visitor’s Bureau with this famous quote about their quaint burgs: “To a tourist, these towns look as peaceful as a postcard picture. But if you go beneath that picture, it’s like turning over a rock with your foot.”
|Grace, looking for inspiration?|
Sure, Peyton Place found alcoholism, prejudice, rape, incest, premarital sex, abortion, illegitimate children, mistresses, and murder under those rocks. However, Metalious goes beyond skin deep sensation. The author creates a full-bodied, fully-dimensional look at the lives of small town people. Peyton Place still resonates.
Valley of the Dolls is all big city heartbreak. Dolls dishes on three young women on Broadway and later, in Hollywood. These showbiz dolls find success, but alas, not happiness. As sales-oriented as Susann seemed, she fought for her Dolls’ unhappily ever after: “I’m not going to put a happy fucking ending on this book. That’s not the way life works for these people.”
With Dolls, Susann knew how to create the sizzle. Her showbiz dolls make their arduous climb to the top, with a few stops along the way for illicit affairs, pills, booze, the funny farm, abortions—not to mention discreetly described oral and anal sex. But Jackie cooks up an authentic showbiz story that’s meaty and still matters in our scandal-driven media.
In both books, Metalious and Susann write female characters that might make mistakes or endure setbacks, but are ultimately in charge of their destinies.
Peyton Place is equated with the buttoned-down 1950s, while Valley of the Dolls is synonymous with the swingin’‘60s. Despite the fact that both books mostly take place during the World War II era, they are really a mirror to the era in which they were published.
Beginnings to Best-Sellers
The name Grace Metalious may be forgotten, but Peyton Place is remembered—and still a catch phrase for small town scandal and gossip. Metalious spent her twenties as a housewife before pouring her frustration into her first novel. By August of ’55, the Metalious family well had been dry for nine weeks and they were living on lettuce and tomato sandwiches, washed down with powdered milk. When Metalious finally got the call saying Peyton Place had sold, a stunned Grace forgot to ask for how much!
Jacqueline Susann was an aging starlet and socialite, who felt restless merely on the arm of her publicist husband. Encouraged by friends, Susann wrote a short book about the adventures of her poodle, Every Night, Josephine!, which sat in publisher limbo. “Time is life” was one of Susann’s favorite sayings. Christmas Eve of 1962 was Jackie’s time to face the facts of her life: she had breast cancer, needed a mastectomy, and got a warning that it would likely reoccur. Jackie claimed to make a deal with God: “Give me ten years and a bestseller and I will die a happy woman.” Jacqueline Susann was 44 at the time.
Susann, with her dark good looks and over-the-top style, and Metalious, a plump housewife who wore plaid shirts, rolled-up jeans, and no makeup, appeared to be polar opposites. Despite outward appearances, both women fought uphill battles to be taken seriously and validate their self-worth.
Grace and Jackie were both married at 19. At first, they looked up to the men they married. Despite ups and downs, Jackie and publicist Irving Mansfield made a great team; Grace and schoolteacher George Metalious had a typical marriage—a hot honeymoon that became warmed up leftovers. The ironic twist was that sexy Susann’s wedding night was a disaster, with Irving fumbling over virginal Jackie, while the small town Metalious’ were sexually compatible. Grace commented that the only time they were completely happy was in bed. Gradually, both women flaunted convention by having affairs, and an increasing reliance on substances—drink for Grace and “dolls” for Jackie—to get through the rough spots.
|"Who says I look like a truckdriver in drag?!"|
Susann was strongly influenced in life and writing by her charismatic yet distant father. Metalious had it worse, an unloving mother, which hung over her search for happiness. Yet, this gave Grace her drive to prove herself as a writer. Also, Jackie was a promiscuous charmer like her artist father, and Grace became a neurotic spendthrift like her mother.
Small town Grace dreamed of a better life, and planned to accomplish this through writing. She often locked the kids out to write, and they’d go to neighbors and friends to play. Friends and family had mixed feelings about Metalious’ ambitions. Laurie Wilkens, a local newspaper person who became Grace’s best friend, helped with feedback during the writing process. Wilkens said of the fledgling writer: “It did not take me long to realize that Grace Metalious was an extraordinary woman of brilliant intellect.”
But more often, Grace heard the classic complaint to conform from husband George: “Why can’t you be like everyone else?”
Both women’s pregnancies were problematic. Susann’s one pregnancy produced a severely autistic son. Jackie and Irving were crushed. Their boy, Guy, was unable to live at home, and eventually institutionalized. Jackie was haunted by the outcome and it drove her even more to succeed. For Grace, childbearing was dangerous and finally forbidden. Grace was filled with self-pity after her tubes were tied, but her doctor said that after three dangerous pregnancies, he wouldn’t attend a fourth. George Metalious, who pointed out they couldn’t even support the children they had, also insisted the procedure be done. Grace lamented that she no longer felt like a woman: “Even an alley cat can produce her own kind, but you can’t.” Metalious turned to writing as a source for productivity.
|EVERYONE read "Peyton Place" in the '50s!|
Metalious grew up in New Hampshire, in various stifling small towns, but it provided her with a wealth of material. Grace got her most notorious story from Laurie Wilkens. A farm girl from Gilmanton had killed her father, after years of raping her, and buried the body in a pig pen. This became a Peyton Place subplot, one that locals later criticized Metalious bitterly for writing.
Jackie had cut her teeth as a model and actress in NYC during the late ‘30s and through the WWII years. Much of this experience is the basis for Valley of the Dolls. And Jackie’s told out of school tales were about thinly-disguised show biz legends like pill-popping Judy Garland and Broadway’s tough broad, Ethel Merman. Critics and columnists alike called Jackie’s roman á clef style tacky—though they kept writing about her!
Ironically, protagonist Allison McKenzie goes off to seek her fortune in New York City at the end of Peyton Place, much like Susann’s main character, Anne Welles, does at the beginning of Valley of the Dolls.
Making the Cut
“I thought about it twenty-four hours a day for a year,” said Metalious of Peyton Place. “I wrote ten hours a day for two and a half months.”
|"Honey, what are you writing about?" George and Grace Metalious.|
Jackie Susann wrote Valley of the Dolls in a year and a half, writing seven hours each day. Susann’s story of pill popping in showbiz circles wasn’t made up; she and her friends used “dolls” to go to sleep, get up, and get on with life, and sparkle for decades.
While Jackie always had P.R. spouse Irving to sing her praises, Grace’s reporter pal Wilkens announced in the Laconia Evening Bulletin that “NY publisher House Signs Gilmanton Mother for Three Novels.”
Peyton Place was turned down by 17 publishers before Julian Messner, Inc., a small publisher, picked it up and made a fortune, much like niche publisher Bernard Geis Associates, who cleaned up with Valley of the Dolls.
Both books required varying degrees of strong editing, but publishers for Peyton and Dolls felt that they had bestsellers on their hands. Jackie’s required a much more—restructuring, rewriting, and massive cutting; editing Grace was mainly for repetition or superfluous material. Susann, with her healthy ego, took the massive revision in stride; insecure Metalious was oversensitive to every change or cut. At Messner’s, editor Leona Nevler’s cuts were hardly severe, but Grace had the classic author’s reaction. “My rage and hurt were getting worse every minute,” she told Laurie Wilkens.
Metalious ended up working with Kitty Messner directly, who said she “needed Mama’s hand.” An interesting choice of words, when one considers Grace’s withholding mother. Rumors that Messner had taken a hot mess of a novel and shaped it into a saleable product was not true—Kitty called it “a product of genius.”
Don Preston, editor of Valley of the Dolls, had urged Bernard Geis to pass on Susann’s showbiz opus: “90 percent of what appears is listening outside dressing room doors.”
Susann’s hubby Irving put a P.R. spin on this talent: “My Jackie has a photographic ear.”
|When working on a novel, Jackie wrote 7 hours every day.|
The Geis editors hated the title Valley of the Dolls, fearing that it would be mistaken for children’s book. Jackie was adamant that it stay—she knew instinctively that it was a catchy title. Wisely, Grace took Messner’s ad agency’s advice and changed her book’s title. The poetic The Tree and the Blossom became a more to-the-point Peyton Place.
Rich and Famous
Leona Nevler, the editor who discovered Peyton Place, saw the unedited manuscript for Valley of the Dolls when she was negotiating paperback rights: “Editorial help is one thing, but I really think Don Preston did a thorough line re-write of the book.”
Like some quarters dissing Dolls as a total re-write by Preston, some townspeople claimed that Metalious’ pal Laurie Wilkens actually wrote Peyton Place, because Grace was uneducated, erratic, and drunk. Wilkens vehemently responded that she never changed a word: “Here was a real novel, written by a gifted person.”
|Grace glumly signing copies of "Peyton Place."|
National reviewers praised Grace’s writing, but always with a preface to Peyton Place’s sexy side. “When authoress Metalious is not all flustered by sex, she captures a real sense of the temper, texture, and tensions in the social anatomy of a small town,” wrote Time’s reviewer.
One reviewer compared Metalious to such male writers as Sherwood Anderson, Edmund Wilson, John O’Hara, and Sinclair Lewis, who made careers from turning over the rocks of small town life.
However, what sold the novel—and humiliated Grace—was the notoriety Peyton Place received from outraged clergy, women’s groups, local libraries and bookstores that banned the book, withering small town reviews, and livid locals. This pulpy publicity is what drove the promotion of Peyton Place—and pigeonholed Grace Metalious from then on as a writer. No Peyton Place reviewers at the time caught on to the subversive nature of the book, questioning the feminine mystique attitude of the time. All they saw was a smutty book written by…shock…a wife…and a mother! Grace was ahead of her time, yet unable to deal with being that messenger.
On Night Beat with Mike Wallace, Metalious appeared while Jacqueline Susann was working on the show as a spokesperson. Grace was six years younger and Jackie’s personality was eons more worldly. Susann was fascinated by Peyton Place’s publicity and sales. And here was this frumpy woman awkwardly trying to promote it—Jackie imagined what she could do!
Susann was also was sympathetic to Metalious, who was taking a beating for writing about hot stuff that was okay for the boys to pen. Mike Wallace called Metalious’ book “basic and carnal” to her face and Grace, cowed, could only make the lame comeback: “You did, huh?”
The best reviews Jackie got for her book were like columnist Earl Wilson dubbing Valley of the Dolls “steamy!”Time called Dolls the “dirty book of the month.” Even Gloria Steinem reviewed the book, saying Dolls “is for the reader who has put away comic books, but isn’t yet ready for editorials in The Daily News.” One critic quipped that Jackie typed on cash register keys. Gore Vidal took the snark one step further, saying Susann “doesn’t write, she types.”
|Critics felt Jackie's true talent was self-promotion. Above:wowing the Teamsters!|
The reviews for Dolls were dismal, but the sales were dazzling. Still, Susann felt compelled to compose a rebuttal, My Book Is Not Dirty. It was not published at the time, but here’s the gist of her gripe with critics: “So many people seem unable to differentiate between the words shocking and dirty. Truth is often shocking. It is not dirty. Life is shocking at times ... it is not dirty.”
Grace and Jackie’s fantasies of life as a famous writer had a similar, more pristine ring. Metalious told an interviewer: “I was an author with a contract which said so, I had a French agent, and a lady publisher. I was in ‘21.’ I had arrived.”
Susann told a friend her goal: “I want to walk into ‘21’ and I want everyone to turn and say, ‘That’s Jacqueline Susann, the author.’”
“Being number one on the bestseller list, that was the review she wanted,” said publisher and film producer David Brown about Jackie. Brown said that Susann knew the tradeoff would be that everyone would put down her commercial success. And unlike Grace Metalious, Jackie would not be at a loss for a witty comeback.
Susann appeared on David Frost’s show in June, 1969, with a “surprise guest,” acidic critic John Simon—who went straight for Jackie’s jugular.
“Do you really believe you are writing art or are you just writing trash to make a lot of money?” accused Simon, sticking his finger in Susann’s face.
Imitating Simon’s middle-European accent, Jackie jibed: “I haff heard of Neil Simon und Simple Simon, but vat Simon are you?”
And that was just the beginning—the low point came when Simon spat out that he would rather “watch dogs fornicate” than read Susann. That same night, Tonight Show guest Truman Capote commented to host Johnny Carson that Jacqueline Susann “looked like a truck driver in drag…a born transvestite.” Jackie was ubiquitous!
Maybe Jackie should have invoked Dolls bombshell Jennifer’s famous line: “You know how bitchy fags can be.” Instead, when Jackie visited Johnny’s late night show a few months later, Carson asked her what she “thought of Truman.” Susann slyly quipped: “I think history will prove he was one of the best presidents we’ve had.”
|Metalious foolishly signed away all rights to "Peyton Place." |
Above, with producer Jerry Wald, who made the deal.
Susann received $180,000 for screen rights to Valley of the Dolls, a paltry payoff considering it was a decade after Metalious got $250K for Peyton Place. Both women were especially unhappy at forfeiting sequel rights to Twentieth Century Fox as part of the deal. Finally, Susann and Metalious hated that happy endings were tacked on to the film versions of their well-known books.
The best-sellers were immediately made into top-grossing movies, both coming out a year after the book releases. The director for both films, a decade apart, was Mark Robson. In each case, the greatest task for the director and his screenwriters was to “clean up” the scandalous stories for the silver screen. This was Hollywood hypocrisy at its best: Let’s buy a salacious book, turn it into a whitewashed movie, and promote it as shocking!
|The film version of "Peyton Place" received 9 Oscar nominations and won zero.|
|Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, & Patty Duke: 20th Century Fox "Dolls."|
With Peyton Place, that formula worked. The critics condescendingly praised the “classy” screen version of Peyton Place as a vast improvement over the “dirty” book. Yet a few critics at the time called the adaptation sanitized or antiseptic. The truth falls somewhere in the middle: Peyton Place was run through the Hollywood Hayes Code whitewash cycle, though it managed to keep key events intact. There was no way in 1957 that the movie could have depicted the book’s dirt intact, so criticism on that score is a cheap shot. Valley of the Dolls however, was rightly panned, critics saying it was even worse than book. Whereas Peyton Place the movie kept the characters empathy and depth, the film version of Valley of the Dolls reduced the book’s characters to caricatures.
Famous Versus Infamous
When the photo of Grace Metalious curled up in jeans at a typewriter was published, it was instantly iconic, and she was dubbed “Pandora in Blue Jeans.” A decade later, Jacqueline Susann created her trademark look, promoting pulp fiction in Pucci.
Metalious did not fare well with the success of—or criticism—directed at Peyton Place. A love-hate attitude ensued for the last eight years of her life. She divorced, remarried, and re-divorced George Metalious—and married and divorced another man, in between! She spent lavishly, but it brought her no joy. Her drinking escalated. Grace was ill-equipped to deal with the media or book critics. She felt alienated by local townspeople, who in turn felt betrayed by Peyton Place. Metalious resented being thought of only as the housewife who spilled the beans on her neighbors, and not as a real writer. Grace’s downfall has been oversimplified two ways: the small town girl taken in by city slickers in the book and movie biz; or, as in Valley of the Dolls, the “it’s lonely at the top” sad ending. There’s some truth to both clichés, but Grace’s lack of emotional stability eroded her fame and innate talent. A writer who interviewed her toward the end of her life said he found it jarring to see a 30-something woman with the maturity of a high-strung 13-year-old.
Susann relished every minute of her success. True, Jackie could be hurt by harsh reviews and pundits, especially as she became more and more famous…and rich! It bothered her especially when male writers like Capote, Mailer, or Vidal needled her, feeling that sexism came into play. Women writers got in their digs, like Gloria Steinem and Nora Ephron. Even Diane Arbus, who specialized in grotesques, got in the act, photographing over-tanned Jackie and Irving cuddling on an easy chair in their swimsuits.
|Irving and Jackie posing for the infamous Diane Arbus pic!|
Around show business her entire adult life, Susann knew how the game was played, and tried not to take it personally. But Metalious suffered from publicity fallout that Susann didn’t have to face. Grace managed to finish two more novels that proved her talented, but she wasted her physical and emotional energy on drinking and drama. For the last five years of her life, Metalious drank a fifth a day. Grace Metalious died of alcoholism at 39 in 1964. Jacqueline Susann knew that time was not on her side, and made the most of the remaining 12 years of her life. Jackie wrote three #1 best-sellers and became an international celebrity before dying of cancer at 56, in 1974.
Valley of the Dolls sold more copies, owing to the decade-long onslaught of self-publicizing Susann, unlike self-conscious and self-destructive Metalious. Regarding Susann’s follow-up novel, The Love Machine, Michael Korda recalled: “The book would have sold 100 thousand in hard back, maybe, without the promotion. That’s a healthy figure, but it sold four times that because of Jackie’s personal impact.”
|Mia Farrow: "Maybe I'll make headlines someday!"|
However, Peyton Place enjoyed a long shelf life, from two hit movies, a daytime serial version, and especially the ‘60s TV reboot: 5 years, airing 2 to 3 times a week, totaling over 500 episodes. The show made stars of Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, and lots of money for ABC and 20th Century Fox—and not a dime for the estate of Grace Metalious. By contrast, Valley of the Dolls was the only hit film from Susann novels. Dolls, trashed at the time, gradually became a camp classic, ála Mommie Dearest. A television series was announced in 2012, only to be reminded by Jacqueline Susann’s estate that Fox failed to exercise its right of first refusal. Somewhere, Jackie and Grace had a heavenly chuckle over that payback to 20th Century Fox.
The film versions certainly helped keep the books and their authors alive in the public’s memory. Despite their similar journeys, the following answers regarding their legacy speak volumes about the core difference between the two women.
When asked by an interviewer if her mega-seller Peyton Place would be remembered in 25 years, Grace Metalious replied, “I doubt it very much…oh heavens, no.”
|Controversial even in death, some locals did not want |
Grace Metalious buried in Gilmanton.
When asked about the lasting impact of her books, Jacqueline Susann answered, whether with bravado or genuine self-confidence: “I think I’ll be remembered as the voice of the 1960s, Andy Warhol, The Beatles, and me…”