Grace Metalious. Photo: Larry Smith.
The photograph captioned “Pandora in Blue Jeans” is one of the most widely circulated portraits of a woman in history. Like most people, I first saw it on the back of a pulpy paperback book. A black-and-white fifties author photo that seems like a snapshot, it is a side view of a solidly built young woman in a prehipster buffalo plaid shirt and men’s jeans, sitting at a table with a typewriter on it in what looks like a kitchen. She’s not wearing makeup, her hair is pulled back in a lumpy ponytail, and she’s leaning forward with her hands folded anxiously or pensively in front of her face, so we can’t really see what she looks like. There’s a half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray next to her typewriter and a messy stack of papers behind it. She is staring at what she’s writing, and she seems not to know or care that the photographer is there.
Some author photos develop a life of their own, and those are often the ones that bend a gender or pose a challenge. Perhaps the first of these was the engraved daguerreotype of Walt Whitman from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. The book didn’t disclose Whitman’s name on the title page, but it included his full-page frontispiece portrait as a personal welcome, his shirt unbuttoned and his undershirt showing, a hand on his hip, a hand in his pocket, his gaze direct, his head cocked. “I look so damned flamboyant,” he later said about this image, “as if I was hurling bolts at somebody—full of mad oaths—saying defiantly, to hell with you!” Flamboyant, yes, without a doubt, but the direction of the defiance is harder to read. Is he really saying to hell with us, or is he defying us to look away? Does he want his lightning bolt to fatally pierce us, or does he just want to electrify us?
For his authorial debut almost a hundred years later, on the dust jacket of the 1947 first edition of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote went Whitman one better by draping himself on his back on a couch, one hand on his stomach and one on his crotch, and looking up at the viewer with a knowing gaze. Hilton Als reads this author photograph as both a metamorphosis and an expression of desire. The image turned Capote into “an American woman of style,” Als writes in White Girls, and “the woman he became in this photograph—itself better written than Other Voices, Other Rooms—wanted to be fucked by you and by any idea of femininity that had fucked you up.”
The woman at the kitchen table in “Pandora in Blue Jeans” has undoubtedly been fucked up by femininity, as all women have, but she does not appear to want to be fucked by it or by us. Indeed, she doesn’t seem to want anything from us at all. If Capote’s photo is famously seductive and come-hither, “Pandora in Blue Jeans” is famously unsexy, telling us to go away. Circulating on the back of one of the most sexual and successful books of the decade, Grace Metalious’s scandalous 1956 mega–best seller Peyton Place, “Pandora in Blue Jeans” represents a white girl’s rejection of white-girl conventions, an unprecedented opting out of mainstream commercial feminine iconography that still managed to be wildly popular (if rarely imitated) and made an unlikely icon of a woman whose life seemed to consist of unglamorous obliviousness, unremarkable domesticity, and totally depraved thoughts.
It’s an icon that doesn’t quite fit with Als’s compelling account of gender and author photos at midcentury, which focuses on a higher class of author. In contextualizing Capote’s pose, Als tells the story of ambitious literary women performing a certain kind of anxious drag in order to be taken seriously: “In 1947, women did not publish books. So determined to be authors were they—Jean Stafford, Carson McCullers, Marguerite Young, say—that they buttoned themselves up on dust jackets in some Hemingway-influenced image of a male American author.” This gendered story of authorial aspiration might explain Capote’s self-presentation—Als suggests that as a man he ironically had more room to be womanly—but it hardly explains that of Grace Metalious. She was aspiring to a very different kind of authorship than Stafford’s, McCullers’s, or Young’s—less glossy New Yorker, more high-acid pulp paperback—and her homely mise-en-scène of cheerful curtains and pleasant potted plants is worlds away from Hemingway.
Still, the woman in “Pandora in Blue Jeans” is bending a gender and posing a challenge. But what is her angle, and what is her challenge?
“In her blue jeans, sneakers, and flannel shirt,” Ardis Cameron claims in Unbuttoning America: A Biography of “Peyton Place,” “Metalious offered women a sartorial counterpart to the antiestablishment Beats.” Cameron is right that Metalious’s clothes overlapped with the Beats’ (and, like theirs, prefigured grunge), but this account of what the image offered doesn’t seem exactly right either. Like Jack Kerouac, Metalious was a Franco-American from a New England mill town whose literary persona depended on an outsider status. But her style seems less a woman’s answer to the countercultural clothes of the self-consciously subversive male Beats, who bought their working-class castoffs in thrift stores on road trips, and more a reflection of what ordinary housewives actually wore—at least the ones who weren’t wearing pearls while vacuuming, as in Madison Avenue fantasies. In the fifties, blue jeans could reference Kerouac, James Dean, or Marilyn Monroe, but in this photograph they are something utterly uncinematic: the unfraught, unstudied, everyday drag of borrowing your husband’s worn-in work clothes without bothering to ask, thus giving a literal meaning to the phrase “effortless style.”
Though Cameron is alert to the image’s countercultural undertones, she sees the primary appeal of the picture as the friction between Metalious’s status as a humdrum wife and mother and her fiction’s salacious focus on the abuse, abortion, incest, and murder thriving within quaint New England villages. Clearly that is a part of it. But I think what “Pandora in Blue Jeans” offers women is something even more subversive than overt rebellion or explicit sex, or the frisson of a PTA mom who writes in the language of “a bellicose longshoreman,” to quote from a contemporary review. Instead, “Pandora in Blue Jeans” illustrates the shocking combination of utter apathy and utter focus. This woman doesn’t give a fuck about us and the kitchen, her husband and children are nowhere in sight, but she is riveted, thunderbolted to the chair, by the vision of her own words on the page. She is not herself an object of desire, but she has one, and she gazes at it steadily, seduced by the sight of her book in progress.
The picture is perverse in its refusal to perform for the viewer’s expectations, not just because “Pandora in Blue Jeans” is an ordinary housewife who wrote dirty books, but because she is an unkempt woman who doesn’t seem to care what we think of her, and who cares intensely about something else. What could be more disturbing, after all, than the possibility that unremarkable, unenviable, uninviting women might have searing stories burning inside them? Maybe only the possibility that a woman might not need to try to please us; that she might not ever choose to look up from her page.
Almost immediately, pulp fan fiction began to be written in response to this unsettling new author persona and the threat it posed. One notable novel inspired by Metalious’s life and image was The Girl on the Best Seller List, by Vin Packer, published four years after Peyton Place, which told the story of a small-town housewife who wrote an unexpected and lurid best seller. (Packer was the pseudonym of Patricia Highsmith’s girlfriend Marijane Meaker. Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Price of Salt, which was recently adapted for the screen as Carol, and Meaker wrote groundbreaking young adult fiction and lesbian pulp in addition to whodunits like The Girl on the Best Seller List.) In a pinup-style riff on “Pandora in Blue Jeans” for the cover of Packer’s book, the illustrator tried to pretty Pandora back up, putting her on a diet, shrinking and cropping her jeans, unbuttoning her plaid shirt and tying it tight above the waist, and sliding some bracelets over her bare wrist. This made-over authoress ignores her typewriter and looks straight at the viewer, holding a pencil close to her parted lips and languidly stretching her other arm over the back of the chair so her body is open to us. It’s an infinitely sexier image, but it looks like a million pictures we’ve seen before.
In Packer’s book, the Metalious character, renamed Gloria, is universally loathed, and (spoiler alert!) has possibly been poisoned by her agent, who finds her exceedingly difficult to edit. (“I remember how hard it was to get Gloria to make a change,” he muses somewhat menacingly to a new client.) Meanwhile the real-life Metalious struggled to reconcile the roles of “bland housewife,” as she was dismissively labeled, and best-selling superstar. What made it especially hard for her is that she was never actually able to be the woman in the picture, self-sufficiently sitting at her typewriter. Her writing life was troubled from the start.
“During the long year of editorial revisions,” Cameron writes, “Grace turned into a difficult author, insecure, needy, and emotionally unstable.” After the book came out she had an affair with a DJ, divorced her husband, broke up with the DJ, remarried her husband, and squandered a staggering amount of cash. She was Grace Metalious, not Pandora, and she wanted sex, liquor, love, and money, not just writing and more writing and yet more writing. In the end, she dissolved in alcohol, disintegrating like the picture of Dorian Gray, and dying at thirty-nine, only seven years older than her most famous portrait.
It would be nice if immersive work were a way to experience the drive of desire without its difficulty, and if writing were a way to escape the demand to be vulnerable, available, and easy to love. But unfortunately it’s apparently impossible to stare into typewritten sentences forever and keep the world at bay. Still, for me this photograph offers an image of existence that’s every bit as thrilling as lounging suggestively on chaises longues, or hurling thunderbolts, or buttoning up your shirt and channeling Hemingway, or unbuttoning your shirt and slowly lifting a phallic pencil to your parted lips. Peyton Place is an American cult classic that sold twelve million copies and is finding new life as a feminist text, but “Pandora in Blue Jeans” is the part of the Metalious legacy I prize the most: a rare iconic image of a woman dressed to unimpress, oblivious to viewers’ expectations, deep in her work, absorbed in a world of her own making.
Briallen Hopper has written about books, pop culture, religion, politics, friends, family, and herself for the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York magazine, The Cut, The New Republic, The New Inquiry, and Avidly, among other publications. Her essays have been recommend by the New York Times, The Rumpus, Flavorwire, Longreads, and others. Hopper grew up in Tacoma, got a Ph.D. in American literature from Princeton, and attended divinity school and taught writing at Yale. She is now an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY. She lives in New York City.
Excerpted from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, by Briallen Hopper, with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing. © Briallen Hopper, 2019.
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