We Were Five

by James Brough
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $5.00

Dionne Quints
Dionne Quints; drawing by David Levine

There is nothing more tedious than a newspaper “sensation” dredged up from the sludge of yesteryear. In sixty years’ time, our grandchildren will be bored with obituaries of Ringo Starr and Christine Keeler. The old grinning pictures and the dated clichés of commentary will be wheeled out of the cuttings library for a final airing—with a kind of diffidence: “it seemed so exciting at the time.” sub-editors will explain. At last the waste-paper will reach the incinerator, at one with the Duke of Windsor and the Rector of Stiffkey. This tale of the Dionne Quintuplets is drearier than most, not through the author’s fault but because the senseless misery of their childhood was the direct result of the sentimental picture story. Any “sensation” implies insensitivity.

Not long ago, the four surviving sisters, now aged thirty-one, received a letter from a Massachusetts housewife recalling her own Depression girlhool and her treasured present of a five-cent book of paper dolls called “The Dionne Babies.” She wrote: “For me, the Quints were five fairy princesses, dressed in lovely clothes that I could only dream about…Without all the hated publicity, people like me would have been deprived of much pleasure…You acquired an identity that belongs to you alone—the Quints. No one will ever be quite that special again.” Like real, royal princesses, the Quints helped supply opium for the masses in that ugly era; they themselves sought the more coherent comfort of the Roman Catholic Church.

Their determined piety is typified by the book’s dedication: “To James Brough, for the perception and grace with which he has set down their story, Annette, Cécile, Yvonne and Marie Dionne say, ‘Dieu vous bénisse.’ Mr. Brough has written their biographies in the first person plural, thus: “The description that magazine and newspaper writers attached to us as babies—’human nuggets’—proved to be all too apt. There was a terrible tendency on the part of some people to think of us in terms of property.” That sentence contains the main point of the book. Yet there are certain advantages in being treated as “property,” rather than “labor”; there is always more legislation to protect the former.

Freaks can be good business. In some parts of the world the hopelessly poor will distort their children’s bodies so that they may become appealing beggars; elsewhere parents merely take advantage of nature’s bounty. Freakishness is a matter for simple measurement and calculation. A shrewd father will quickly recognize his daughter’s potential; a few dozen inches more or less than the average, top-to-toe or round the waistline, and you’ve got Fifi the fat lady, Mimi the dainty midget.

From the freak’s point of view, there are several disadvantages in this business, notably in the sexual department. But any parent worth his salt should be able to show her where society’s best interests lie. She must adjust, not try to fight the system. The midget and…

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