I'm heading off to NYC to attend the Paley Center farewell to As the World Turns this Wednesday. With so much material to cover, it's unlikely that the program will go into a lot of detail about creator Irna Phillips' deep emotional connection to the show. Over the past year, I've been researching Irna's life. Here's a bit of what I've uncovered.
As the World Turns wasn’t the first soap opera Irna Phillips wrote, nor would it be the last. Beginning with the radio serials, The Guiding Light and Woman in White, Irna drew upon her own experiences to tell stories. But, ATWT was the first show in which she, both explicitly and implicitly, played out her deepest secrets and unrealized hopes and dreams.
In the past I had generally fictionalized my own life. But in As the World Turns I fantasized as well as fictionalized my own life. For me, the Hughes family represented what I imagined and believed the traditional family was at that time.
But the family Irna had created for herself was not traditional – at least not in 1941, when she adopted her son, Thomas, and later, Katherine, and raised them as a single mother. Earlier, in Dayton, Ohio, in 1926 or 1927 (not 1919 or 1920, as often reported), she became pregnant after an affair with a physician. In her unpublished autobiography, All My Worlds, she tells of a difficult labor and delivery resulting in stillborn daughter with a clubfoot, and sterility. A Chicago writer, Les White, claims that it was an illegal abortion that left Irna sterile, and while it’s certainly plausible, even likely, White offers no corroboration. But, however the pregnancy was ended, the result was, Katherine’s words, “a past which divined the path Mummy was to take for the rest of her life.”
Now, had the young lawyer who warned Irna about the doctor, then helped her sue for paternity, been willing to marry her despite her sterility, she might never have created soaps opera. But while it seems likely that Ralph Skilken was in love with Irna, he wanted children of his own. Not wanting to face “the pain and embarrassment of telling a man I couldn’t have children,” Irna “made up (her) mind never to become involved with an unmarried man.” This became a recurring theme she would explore on As the World Turns, first with Edith Hughes, although Irna never noted the connection, and later with Kim Hughes, whom she explicitly acknowledged as her doppelganger.
In her autobiography, Irna never referred to the men in her life by name. It was “the doctor,” “the director,” “the boy wonder” (Fred Silverman, whom she regarded as a surrogate son) – except for Ralph Skilken. According to his son and daughter, Irna maintained a relationship with him and his very traditional family well into the 1940s, with the Skilken’s joining Irna and her children in Los Angeles for a month in 1947 or 48. And there are enough similarities to make it likely that Skilken was indeed the model for Chris Hughes, who Irna created as the embodiment of a strong, dominant man who wouldn’t leave a woman with “less than nothing,” as “the doctor” had left her.
But Irna wasn’t married to Chris Hughes; Nancy was. The woman who portrayed Nancy, the late Helen Wagner, spoke many times about her difficult relationship with Irna, as did Rosemany Prinz, who played Penny Hughes, the pretty, popular teenager who was everything Irna hadn’t been. It’s not hard to imagine that consciously or not, Irna was jealous of the women playing the characters she created to fulfill the life she fantasized having. And the fact that in real life, both actresses were living out Irna’s fantasies as well – Helen was married to Bob Wiley, for whom she was the sun and the moon and the stars; and Rosemary Prinz recently revealed that she and Mark Rydell, who played Jeff Baker, were having a backstage romance – likely made Irna all the more envious – and demanding.
One of the first stories Irna told on ATWT, was of an illicit love affair between Chris’s sister, Edith, and his law partner, Jim Lowell. The late Ruth Warrick, who played Aunt Edie, spoke of the emptiness of the Lowell’s marriage, and how Irna believed that a divorce would be best for all concerned, including Jim’s wife, Claire. Not surprisingly, CBS and P&G thought otherwise and vetoed the idea. In a fit of pique, Irna would kill off Jim Lowell.
The difficult relationship between Irna and her adopted children provided more fodder for her storytelling. While both Tom and Kathy knew they were adopted, Irna regretted telling them. Her eventual belief that adopted children should never be told they were adopted became the centerpiece of the Ellen-David-Dan story that played out throughout the 1960s.
The early 1970s were not a happy time for Irna. Her protégés, Agnes Nixon and Bill Bell, were off creating their own shows. She attempted to bring her long troubled daughter, Kathy, into the fold. She’s listed as ATWT’s head writer from 1966-1970 (as Katherine Babecki), then again in 1970 (as Katherine L. Phillips). But, according to Tom Phillips, Kathy’s “credentials were pretty much limited to being Irna's daughter.” Alluding to Bill Bell’s lengthy apprenticeship with Irna, Tom went on to say, “I don't recall Kathy having served any such time as a back-bencher before she was given ‘creator’ (or whatever the title was) status on the show.”
But the combination of Kathy’s pedigree and experience, at least on paper, was enough for ABC to hire her in 1969 to create A World Apart. Irna left ATWT to work with her daughter as an unofficial story consultant. Both Kathy and Irna were fired shortly after the show premiered in March of 1970. The show would be cancelled after barely a year on the air. Later that year, P&G hired Irna to tutor Harding Lemay, whom P&G had hired as head writer for Another World; it was, according to Lemay, a less than collegial relationship. There was also a gulf between Tom and his mother. He told me that when his first marriage was falling apart, “I don't remember ever discussing any of this with my mother, or turning to her for advice.”
So, when Irna returned to ATWT, she saw one last opportunity to create for a character, in this case, Kim Sullivan (Reynolds, Dixon, Stewart, Andropoulous, Hughes), what she wasn’t able to have for herself – a child of her own.
Kim Reynolds is really me -- at a much younger age. She's fiercely independent, as I was, and she won't settle for second best. She's having a child out of wedlock that will be only hers; I adopted two children, Kathy and Tommy, without having a husband. We're both the same. And she's going to have that child to prove that a woman can do it alone.
That out-of-wedlock child had been fathered by Kim’s brother-in-law, Bob Hughes, whom she had seduced. As they had fifteen years earlier with Edie Hughes, TPTB once again thwarted Irna’s plans to create a happy ending for “the other woman,” and in a case of art imitating life – Irna’s life – Kim’s pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. It’s hard to say what would have caused Irna more pain: being fired or reliving the loss of her baby as she watched Kim lose hers. A few months after she was fired, Irna died of a heart attack. Or maybe it was really a broken heart.
But life in Oakdale continued. In 1985, after more than a decade of trials and tribulations, Kim and Bob were deemed sufficiently rehabilitated to be married and assume their rightful position the show’s tent pole couple. Later, when the late Douglas Marland became the show’s head writer, he did something that had never been done before on a soap opera, and something that has never been as beautifully conceived and brilliantly executed since: he rewrote history. One soap journalist described it as getting the ship out of the bottle, tinkering with it, and then slipping it back into the bottle without anyone noticing.
And so it was that the fetus Kim miscarried all those years ago, a boy, became a young woman named Sabrina, the mirror image of her half-sister, (Bob’s daughter and Kim’s niece and step-daughter), Frannie Hughes, and Julianne Moore's breakout role. I don’t know if Doug knew of Irna’s obsessive attachment to this story, or if he knew, whether he intended to symbolically bring her story full circle. Of course, it’s possible that Irna gave him a little poke from the hereafter. But intentionally or not, that is exactly what he did.
So, at long last, Irna, through Kim, finally had everything she had longed for in life: a man who loved her, Bob, and his child, Sabrina. Not the traditional, nuclear Hughes’ family, nor the pristine, unshakable, indestructible, until-death-do-part first love of Nancy and Chris Irna imagined when she created the show more than thirty years earlier. Instead, a messy, realistic relationship between two people who’d both been around the block a few times and acquired a lot of baggage, and children, in the process; a relationship that hit a few bumps along the way, but ultimately endured until the end of the show.
And while I’d like to think Irna would have been pleased with how things turned out, I’m sure she had a few notes that she’s long since shared with Douglas.
A couple of final tidbits from All My Worlds:
Irna fully understood that organ music on soaps had become a cliché, and said she “rue(d) the day I ever turned to the organ.”
And then there’s the matter of how Procter & Gamble came to own As the World Turns. Of course, it’s a long story. The short version: “However, I did not want to make a formal presentation of the half-hour concept to Procter & Gamble. I didn’t like the way I had been treated by them.” Then, after Irna, Agnes Nixon and Ted Corday paid to make the pilot, and despite Irna’s best efforts, P&G still wound up owning the show, “I didn’t want to sell to Procter & Gamble, and I’m damn sorry I did.”
In many ways, Irna was the embodiment of Emerson’s observation that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that around the same time she was writing those words for an autobiography that would never see the light of day, she was also writing in a published essay, “I should hasten to add that my own association with my sponsors over the years has been gratifyingly open, honest, and straightforward.” Inconsistent perhaps, but when it came to her public image, Irna was nothing if not politic.
© 2010 Lynn Liccardo
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