‘Peyton Place’: Selena Cross Was Based On a Real Woman Who Killed Her Father

Before there was an abundance of true crime shows, the prime-time soap opera Peyton Place addressed some difficult issues. The show, which aired in the ’60s, was considered a groundbreaker in dealing with such issues as sex and infidelity.

Peyton Place was based loosely upon a 1956 best-selling novel of the same name written by Grace Metalious. Preceding the series was a film adaptation of the book, made in 1957. One of the most immoral storylines was that of Selena Cross. Her story was revealed in the movie, but rejected by TV execs, as it was considered too scandalous to air on television.

The cast of American soap opera 'Peyton Place', circa 1966.
The cast of Peyton Place Back Row (L-R): John Kerr, Lana Wood, Stephen Oliver, Leigh Taylor-Young, Gary Haynes, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ruth Warrick, George Macready, Evelyn Scott, and Frank Ferguson. Front row (L-R): James Douglas, Barbara Parkins, Ed Nelson, Dorothy Malone, Tim O’Connor, Pat Morrow, Chris Connelly, and Ryan O’Neal. | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The basis of ‘Peyton Place’

The book “Peyton Place” takes place in small-town New England during the 1930s and ’40s. It was the first novel written by homemaker Metalious. She was 32 when it was published. A New Hampshire native and mother of three small children, she based her characters in the fictitious town on people she knew and experiences she had growing up, according to Encyclopedia. The town name, Peyton Place, comes from its founders, the Peyton family, which was entwined with another family, the Harringtons.

Teenager Allison MacKenzie, played in the movie by Diane Varsi, is the main character. Her mother, Constance, played by Lana Turner, is said to be a widow. But further along, it is revealed she was never married, and that Allison is illegitimate.  

Other primary characters include Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), Norman Harrington (Christopher Connelly), Betty Anderson (Terry Moore), and the school’s new principal, Michael Rossi (Ed Nelson), who poses a love interest for Constance. The book and film share stories of marriage and divorce, insanity, forbidden love, and murder.

Mia Farrow posed with a crow perched on her arm
Mia Farrow in ‘Peyton Place’ | Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

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The Selena Cross storyline

Allison’s best friend, Selena Cross, is an integral part of the book and the film. She lives across the tracks also known as “the shacks.” The real-life story of a young woman, Barbara Roberts, was where Metalious’s inspiration for Selena came from.

Roberts had a younger brother, William, whom she raised following her mother’s death while they were still quite young. At 17, she shot and killed their father, a horrific man, while he was threatening William and herself. They buried his body in the New Hampshire farm’s pigpen. 

When the body was found, Roberts was tried and convicted of second-degree murder. Later, upon the realization that she had been sexually abused by him for years, her conviction was lessened to manslaughter.

The incident was a central feature in the book and film. Lucas Cross was a drunk who beat his wife and raped his stepdaughter, Selena. She becomes pregnant, but the town doctor secretly performs an illegal abortion, according to Gizmodo.

Originally, Metalious wrote of Selena being Lucas’ own daughter, but her editor felt “the American public wasn’t ready for full-on incest.” After killing her stepfather, Selena buried him in a sheep pen on the family farm.

Hope Lange played Selena in the film version. Arthur Kennedy played her treacherous stepfather, Lucas Cross.

(L-R) Hope Lange sitting on a chair and Lana Turner checking on her in 'Peyton Place' (black and white)
(L-R) Hope Lange and Lana Turner | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

The TV series ‘Peyton Place’

The show, Peyton Place, aired on ABC from 1964 to 1969. It featured big-name stars such as Mia Farrow, who portrayed Allison, and Dorothy Malone, playing her mother, Constance. Ryan O’Neal portrayed Rodney and Christopher Connelly played his brother, Norman. The storyline of Selena was originally scripted and cast with Gyl Roland to play her. But it was later nixed in pre-production by ABC execs.

Peyton Place was a forerunner of forthcoming prime-time soaps such as Dallas, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest. There was a daytime sequel, Return to Peyton Place, which ran from 1972-1974 on NBC. There was also a TV movie made in 1977 reuniting the original cast save for Farrow and O’Neal. Their characters, Allison, and Rodney were killed off in the plotline, hence the name Murder in Peyton Place