In 1968, John Updike blew the cover off a high-living, raucous little group of people in Ipswich, Mass., with the publication of his novel, Couples. The book told the graphic and salacious tale of the couples of Tarbox, Mass., who had made sex the focus of their lives.
The idea of a new hedonism fascinated America – a country where the combination of birth control pills and antibiotics had eliminated the unwanted side effects of sex. That left behind only the moral and mental consequences to be dealt with.
John Updike plunged in, with a story about a modern utopia founded by couples set on the idea of leaving behind the stodginess of their parents. He gave America a look at these upper-middle-class elites through their dinner party conversations and bedroom squabbles. He showed how they neglected their children. And, most shockingly, how they made swapping spouses in the bedroom a regular part of their lives.
Sex sells, at least in the case of Couples, and the book put John Updike on the cover of Time. The magazine ran an article about “The Adulterous Society.” His racy, provocative new work spent more than 30 weeks on the best seller list.
Couples, however, did not enjoy huge popularity in the historic coastal town of Ipswich, where John Updike lived.
Born on March 18, 1932, John Updike grew up in rural Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard, studied drawing at the University of Oxford and spent two years in New York as a New Yorker staff writer. Then in 1957 he moved his family to Ipswich on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Ipswich was a ‘post-pill paradise,’ to Updike and his philandering, WASPy, middle-class friends.
John Updike believed in writing what he knew. Many of his Ipswich friends and acquaintances provided the raw material for the characters of Tarbox. He himself had affairs with married women in town.
The problem was, everyone knew Updike, and they knew the people he knew.
His characters came a little too close to Ipswich residents for their liking. They included Piet the serial-adulterer and contractor; Foxy, the housewife who drinks and smokes her way through pregnancy; and a 10-couple cast that cavorted through the book. All bore too close a similarity to the residents of Ipswich for their liking.
The characters who weren’t obviously based on someone quickly lead to a game of speculation. Who was who? Were they composites, made up of parts of multiple members of Updike’s social circle?
John Updike, himself a former columnist to the local newspaper, tried his hand at damage control. He sent a letter to the paper flatly denying that Tarbox was Ipswich. But no one bought it.
While politeness prevented much outright discussion of who was who, many in Updike’s circle seethed over his inclusion of their adventures in his work. They fumed partly because they didn’t want their behaviors known and partly because he had spoiled their fun.
In the end, Updike found it convenient to head off on a European trip. Then he moved out of Ipswich altogether to the tonier environs of nearby Beverly Farms. But he would continue to visit Ipswich throughout his life, lunching at one of the downtown clubs and avoiding the scowls from some residents that would follow him until he died.
Today Ipswich is more sanguine about its former, famous novelist resident. But in 1968, the name John Updike was not spoken of kindly in many of the bedrooms in town.
Image of the Choate Bridge in Ipswich By User:Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21983973.
This story about John Updike was updated in 2022.