By Emily Toth for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on May 17, 2010

“You have the mantle of impertinence,” an older writer told me when I was fretting about interviewing people I didn’t know and asking them about their dead relatives’ lies and flings and treacheries.

Would they want their family secrets in my books?

This was in the early 1980s, before everyone bared their souls and body parts on the Net. The “let it all hang out” hippie ethos was still around, and people were starting to talk about family crimes (especially incest) with Oprah.

I, a budding biographer, was suddenly part of the Zeitgeist.

I could claim that I was seeking Pure Truth. I could claim that it was my feminist duty to learn the facts and think back through our mothers, as Virginia Woolf put it. But I was really motivated—a lot—by love of gossip.

I owe it to my mother, who’d ride the bus and make up stories about the other passengers. She’d also ask real-life people impertinent questions (“So, did they shack up?”) and no one ever seemed offended. And so, after I got the Ph. D. and a day job as a literary critic, I really wanted to know what had happened to Grace Metalious, author of the scandalous novel Peyton Place (1956), the beloved dirty book of my youth. I was also sure there were real-life passions that had revved up Kate Chopin to write The Awakening (1899). Surely she was much more than a devoted widow, as her first biographer had claimed? (He was a priest.)

I wrote to Chopin’s descendants (she died in 1904) and Metalious’s family (she died in 1964). I found friends and descendants of friends—and everyone wanted to meet with me to tell their stories. I learned about the authors’ lovers, enemies, and enormous ambitions. Kate Chopin had at least one illicit affair, and Grace Metalious several. They were ambivalent about children, sometimes “unfeminine,” sometimes too flirtatious with other women’s husbands. But my sources were the ones who were really living in Peyton Place.

The people I interviewed, in Louisiana and New England, raced through what they knew of Chopin or Metalious. Then they rolled out the local news: who’d been sneaking down the lanes to meet whom, and murders disguised as accidents, and young men who weren’t straight, and addled children kept in the attic. There was the husband who brought his mistress into his bedroom and exiled his wife to the dog house. No one seemed to worry about whether I’d publish any of this. They knew it wasn’t part of my story, and this is the first time I’ve mentioned most of it.

I also know why, as a biographer, I got so much. It wasn’t my impertinent questions, but my following the advice Kate O’Flaherty (Chopin) wrote at 19 in her diary: Look “interested and entertained. Lead your antagonist to talk about himself--he will not enter reluctantly upon the subject I assure you—and twenty to one—he will report you as one of the most entertaining and intelligent persons.”

It works for me.

Emily Toth is the author of three published biographies: Inside Peyton Place: the Life of Grace Metalious; Kate Chopin: a Life of the Author of “The Awakening”; and Unveiling Kate Chopin.



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