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We Were Five

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

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 the fat lady have little choice anyway. Stares and chuckles make it perfectly clear that she’s a freak and nothing more. It was a little different for the Dionne Quints, who need not have been freaks at all; they were X-rayed, joint by joint, and “considered, reassuringly, to be within the range of normal.” However, the manager and his barkers—father and the press—were not dismayed by this apparent normality. They calculated that the odds against a mother bearing five children in a single bout were 57,289,761 to one. The answer to the sum spelled “freaks.”

The five Dionne girls were born in 1934 to a French-Canadian couple who had five children already. They lived in a poor area of Ontario, near the abandoned lumber town of Callender; mother had refused, in spite of intense suffering, the pre-natal medical attention which her husband could not afford. Their will had never been weakened by the debilitating influence of “Welfarism” and “Medicare”; thus they were well-equipped to operate in accordance with those economic laws which stimulate and reward enterprise and initiative. The obvious course was to offer the Quints to the Chicago World’s Fair as exhibits; the promoter would get 70 per cent of the proceeds, father’s share would be 23 per cent—and the parish priest would receive 7 per cent, to add that note of disinterested benevolence which makes the difference between an enlightened business enterprise and a ramp. The deal seemed a good one, since the Quints were likely to prove a wasting asset: they were expected to die soon.

At this point, the State overstepped the bounds of strict laissez-faire, passed an “Act for the Protection of the Dionne Quintuplets” and made the children technically wards of King George V. Put another way, the State confiscated Papa Dionne’s property, while offering him adequate compensation. It was felt that Papa was merely after a fast buck; the State could ensure a slow and steady succession of bucks. A friend of the family complained: “If you find a gold mine, the Government doesn’t take it away from you.” But this essay in State capitalism made sure of really efficient exploitation. The Administration put the children in a big house, with strong fences and a skilled maintenance staff to provide hygienic diet and necessary discipline; sometimes the nurses tied the Quints to their beds, upon which were painted “Que le bon Jésus vous garde.” This was surely more dignified than a World’s Fair booth, and a regular public exhibition of the Quints at play assured the taxpayers of acceptable returns on their investment; they could hardly be expected to lavish public money on charity.

Exclusive rights were granted for pictures of the children—so exclusive, in fact, that their own father could not photograph them without permission from the Newspaper Enterprise Association. Manufacturers paid royalties for the Quint trademark. “Capitalized at 4 per cent,” said one account, “these Quint-inspired revenues make the Dionne girls a $500,000,000 asset to Ontario.” This type of evaluation depressed the girls in later years, but that’s life, isn’t it? Obviously, in a society based on the freedom of the individual, some individuals are bound to lose their personalities for the sake of society. “No matter how hard the times were elsewhere, business in Callender was booming…Now only the old or the sick remained without jobs of some description, catering to visitors in the souvenir stands, the gas stations, the tourist cabins that sprang up by the hundreds along the once deserted highway…Land that was worth $200 in 1933 could now be sold at $5,000 a lot…” The Quints did not understand all this. They had been taught to be grateful to their generous benefactors and, when they discovered the truth, “it was a little like a servant girl finding out that she really owns the house.”

Meanwhile, the Dionne parents, robbed of their property, had to make do with small-scale private enterprise. Papa Dionne was permitted to offer six-colored pictures of his babies, autographed by himself and his wife, at $1.50 each. From a music-hall tour he netted $2,000, which was better than the $75 per week he received from the Quints’ board of guardians. His act consisted of a film of the babies, followed by an account of the birth narrated by a master-of-ceremonies, and finally the personal appearance of the parents; the father made a little speech and the mother said “God bless you” in French. The press now treated father as a comic peasant, and the Canadian Prime Minister, as spokesman for the official show, made unpleasant remarks about his small-time rival. But what infuriated the father most was the behavior of the doctor who delivered the Quints. In New York, Dr. Dafoe was initiated into the Circus Saints and Sinners, wearing a surgical gown and mortar-board and carrying a medical bag labeled “Mass Deliveries.” Yet people called father’s act undignified; he was glad when the doctor had to admit “financial frailties” to the Quints’ board of guardians.

Father’s case for regaining control of his former assets was not strong on economic grounds. The Dionne Quints wonder wistfully “what might have happened if Dad had known no need of money at the start, like the father of those other quintuplets, the two brothers and three sisters Diligenti, who live in Argentina…Their father sent the children to separate boarding schools under disguised names…to make sure that they grew up as independent personalities…Without knowing him better, it is impossible to tell how or where he learned such wisdom.”

But Papa Dionne was poor. “Poor dad, he could have had such a beautiful life.” Instead, he spent his resources on law-suits. To regain possession of the Quints, the parents had to fight the business element in their society with the aid of religion, racial and linguistic propaganda, and the remnants of royal justice. They insisted that the children must be brought up to speak French; they petitioned the Queen of England and the Pope of Rome; mother Dionne, on her visits, urged the Quints to beg priests to get them out of the State pen and back home with their loving family.

The parents won in the end, and a miserable new chapter ensued. Back home with the family, the Quints found everything had gone sour; they felt outsiders. They were afraid to go out, to buy clothes in a shop, to meet boyfriends. One died, another attempted to become a nun. Eventually, however, three of them married, in spite of their father’s admonitions and private detectives; he took them to see the film of The Heiress, to warn them against fortune-hunters. He communicated with them largely through the interviews he gave to the press. In return, the press did its best to spoil his daughters’ weddings.

Who can be blamed for this dismal story? God? It depends what kind of god you have. The Yoruba people of West Africa had a god called Obatala, who was well aware that he created mankind while he was drunk. Therefore his worshippers were instructed to protect “freaks”—the dwarf and the sacred albino. People don’t stare at midgets in Yoruba country, and midwives permit them to survive; multiple births are welcomed with public enthusiasm and gifts. The Quints had to practice a different kind of piety, the long-suffering piety of the invalid. Their book concludes: “In some ways we are special people. So is everyone else on earth, unique in the eyes of God. Who can say that her search for herself is ever really ended?” Perhaps this insight, or introspection, compensates for the miseries of their early years; such, at any rate, might be the view of the priests and nuns who constantly urged them to endure their lot, respect authority and honor their parents, against all the odds. But they would not have needed quite so much religious consolation, if they had not been trademarked “Quints,” if they had not been brought up in what they correctly call “the Chamber-of-Commerce atmosphere” of a community governed by business ethics.

The final turn of the screw is the fact that, after all the ballyhoo has been exposed, the reader cannot be certain that their piety is genuine, that their ghost-writer is sincere, that even this convincing story is not simply a final effort to squeeze a few more dollars out of Mama Dionne’s labor pains.

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