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Monday, October 10, 2011

Mom and the Dionne Quintuplets --

On a cozy, rainy Monday morning in Tacoma, Washington, when I should have been doing something more constructive, it occurred to me to pick up my mother's diary to see how she spent this day of October 10 back in 1936. I never expected that such a whim would lead to several more hours of investigation.

"All of us kids went to the show 'Country Doctor' this evening. It sure was a swell picture," she wrote on this date, seventy-five years ago. I knew nothing about the movie, so I sat down my cup of tea, opened up my laptop, and started doing some research. The more I learned, the more I realized that my mother had been one of millions of people swept up in a world-wide frenzy that provided an irresistible distraction in the midst of the Great Depression.

The movie "The Country Doctor," as it turned out, was based on the story of Dr. Allan Defoe, the  doctor who delivered the famous Dionne quintuplets, the first in the world to survive past infancy. The children themselves also appeared in this and other Hollywood movies. Here is an entertaining review of "The Country Doctor" published in the New York Times in May of 1936, a few months before the movie came to the small town theater in Western Washington, where my mother saw it on that long ago October evening. The reviewer refers to Mr. Dionne, father of many children, as "a rabbity little man."

I mean no disrespect to my mother when I point out that she took part in the national hysteria. She was a good, kind person, who happened to adore babies, in the extreme, all her life. She was, in fact, obsessed with babies. At the time the quintuplets were born, my mother, then in her late teens, no doubt relished thoughts of marriage and babies of her own. So it came as no surprise to me that she would adore the Dionne quintuplets. I never thought too much about finding old yellowed newspaper clippings about them among her things after she died.

Like everyone else, I knew about the Dionne quintuplets, but somehow I remained ignorant of the the whole complex, disturbing, and still contradictory story, until today.

A French Canadian named Oliva Dionne and his wife, Elzire Dionne, lived on a farm in rural Ontario, Canada with their five young children, when Elzire gave birth two months prematurely to five more, on May 28, 1934. The tiny identical baby girls, all from the same egg and each weighing under two pounds, were named Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie. When word got out, they became an overnight, worldwide sensation.

By many accounts, the babies received loving care at home from the beginning, were kept warm and fed on a regular schedule. But by the time they reached the age of four months, government officials in the province of Ontario, influenced by Dr. Defoe and the potential financial consequences of such an oddity, declared the family unable to properly care for the infants and took custody, making them "wards of the King." Against their parents' wishes, the infants were removed from the family home to live in a special hospital built expressly for them, across the street from the farm. From then on, decisions concerning their care were made by Dr. Defoe and other authorities. Exploitation had never before been accepted with such mindless glee and fascination. One of the girls, as an adult, called it a "circus."

Known as "Quintland," the hospital served as the only home the children knew for the first nine years of their lives until their family won back custody in 1943. It  has been called Canada's first theme park. The parking lot held 1,000 cars and a gift shop sold souvenirs to the thousands of visitors who came each day (the most frequently quoted figure being 6,000 daily) totaling over three million in the years during which the children lived there. Their staff of attending nurses dressed them up in matching outfits and trotted them out on display two or three times each day, in front of large windows with one-way viewing, screened to obscure the girls' awareness of the curious crowds who fought for position to get a look at them. As adults, the Dionne sisters remembered seeing movement and hearing noises beyond the screen, but didn't realize what was going on. Quintland became an extremely lucrative tourist business for the government, even more important and profitable than the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Along with Dr. Defoe, they appeared in countless advertisements for many products.

A trust fund established for the girls grew rapidly, but by the time they were 18 and could have collected the money, only a fraction of it was left. Many profited from their fame, but probably the province of Ontario most of all. Even the girls' family benefited, in that a 20-room mansion was built for them when the quintuplets returned home, to replace the old farm house, all paid for by the trust fund.

Over the years the father, Oliva Dionne, has been portrayed as everything from a heroic and loving parent who fought for custody to a man who sexually abused and exploited his own children. He was purported to have thought of exhibiting the infants in the United States shortly after they were born, which may have been part of what led to the government taking them away. Doctor Defoe lives on in history as both a savior and an entrepreneur, depending on opinion. Books, documentaries, articles, and even the accounts given by the surviving daughters themselves offer differing viewpoints and interpretations of what happened to them.

Seen by some as valuable objects in an exhibit, having only limited contact with their own family, and kept in relative isolation, these innocent children lost the opportunity for a normal upbringing and home life. But then perhaps the home life offered did not offer much. As adults, their struggles to maintain some privacy never ended. As of this month, October 2011, only two remain alive, now 77 years old. They still receive fan mail from all over the world.

Here are three of them, Yvonne, Annette, and Cécile, being interviewed in conjunction with the 1994 release of a Canadian movie, a fictionalized version of the story, called "Million Dollar Babies":

And here is a look at the movie.

An autobiographical book called  Family Secrets told the story in their own words. And this is one of the best, most comprehensive articles I've found:

How strange to think that the five babies my mother adored, as much as today's teenage girls adore rock stars, now number only two, two women about the same age Mom was when her own life came to an end, and maybe not so different. As she matured, I like to think my mother looked at the Dionne quintuplets with compassion rather than fascination. But have we as a society learned anything from this story?

With modern communications faster than anything my mother could have imagined, celebrity can occur in mere minutes and go on to make the individuals involved miserable to a degree never experienced before.

My "to do" list gathered some dust today, but I've learned a lot. Right now citizens of our nation, and the world, feel burdened by economic troubles similar to those of the Great Depression. They too, seem to need distraction. But next time you feel tempted to ride the wave of freak show curiosity and voyeurism, please remember the very real human lives involved.

1 comment:

"Jazz Lives" @ said...

Seems to this reader that what you did was exceedingly constructive and I can't think of anything that would have had such a deeply intriguing result. Hooray for intuition and the wanderings that lead somewhere important!