became a sin of commission...
Back in 2009, I had just begun researching the life of Irna Phillps, soap opera's single mother, when I came across an article about her in the now-defunct publication, The Common Review, titled "Imperial Soap Opera," by Chicago writer, Les White.
Six paragraphs into the piece, White states, without attribution, "A affair with a married doctor left her pregnant and with syphilis; a botched back-alley abortion rendered her sterile," then goes on to detail Irna's rocky start in radio soaps. While "Imperial Soap Opera" is certainly an entertaining read, White undermines his credibility with fanciful and unsubstantiated tales that include Irna's associate, Warren Swanson, stating that "the love of her (Irna's) life" was head of Ohio's crime syndicate, and an unnamed relative suggesting that the lover was, in fact, part of Bugs Moran's gang in Chicago,.
Fast forward to this summer: in his essay, "Brave Tomorrows for Bachelor's Children," included in The Fan Who Knew Too Much, Anthony Heilbut repeats, verbatim, the story of Irna's abortion, attributing it "according to Les White," whom Heilbut describes as "a writer and psychologist who has thoroughly examined her (Irna's) secretive career." However, what both White and Heilbut neglect to include is Irna's version of events: in her unfinished memoir, All My Worlds, the physician was single, not married; she mentions an infection, but doesn't specify syphilis or gonorrhea; and her pregnancy ends with a difficult labor and a deformed, stillborn daughter; a subsequent infection left her sterile. While White never mentions All My Worlds in "Imperial Soap Opera," when we spoke, he acknowledged that he's known that Irna's tale is very different from his. When I asked what he made of the disparity, White replied, "she's a liar."
Heilbut, on the other hand, references Irna's memoir several times in "Brave Tomorrows..., first noting, "in her unpublished memoir Irna's self-hatred and alienation were transparent." He would had to have read Irna's version of her pregnancy to know that, "her sisters and sisters-in-law exhibited no sympathy, treating her like a fallen woman." Yet, Les White's is the only version of Irna's pregnancy Heilbut includes.
Les White and Anthony Heilbut were not the first to play fast and loose with the manuscript. At the time of her death in 1973, Irna had a contract for her memoir. When she died, her estate repaid the advance and “all known copies of the manuscript were returned from the agent and (the publisher) Dutton.” Her adopted daughter, Katherine, chose to keep the All My Worlds manuscript private; when Kathy died in 2009, her adopted brother, Thomas, sent the manuscript to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which houses Irna's papers. According to WHS staff, there have been only a handful of requests to examine the manuscript. Yet, the late Christopher Schemering was able to include portions of the manuscript in his 1986 book, Guiding Light: a 50th Anniversary Celebration; how remains a mystery. The story Schemering relays diverges from the manuscript in several ways: Regarding the pregnancy, he says, "Although this was 1919, Irna was bound and determined to have the baby.” But Irna had already been out of college for several years when she meets the doctor. She was very stingy with dates (and names), but in all likelihood, she became pregnant in 1928, possibly 1927. Perhaps Schemering thought that an 18-year-old being led down the garden path by an older man created a more sympathetic character than a women in her mid-to-late- 20s.
Of Irna's love life Schemering wrote, "Although she appeared a lonely figure to the press of the day, Irna had a full social life. According to her unfinished memoir, Irna had many romances – almost exclusively with doctors and lawyers! (Which, of course, explains her long obsession with doctors and lawyers in her serials.)" While this may be another example of Schemering trying to paint Irna in a more flattering light, nothing of the kind appears in the manuscript. After the ill-fated affair with the physician, Irna vowed to avoid “the pain and embarrassment of telling a man I couldn’t have children,” and “made up (her) mind never to become involved with an unmarried man.” The only relationship Irna subsequently mentions is with an unnamed, married Guiding Light director (Les White believes it was Howard Keegan) whose wife would not give him a divorce.
Because Schemering's book was for so long the only source of information about Irna's personal life, his misrepresentations have taken on a life of their own. But, misguided and wrong-headed as Schemering's fabrications are, they seem positively gallant when compared to the, well let's say, less than flattering portrait Heilbut paints of Irna. The language he uses to describe her is so harsh and judgmental that the woman who emerges from his pages is a bullying, backstabbing, brutalizing, vindictive, lying, promiscuous, anomalous, possibly subversive, ugly, cavalier, right-wing, neurotic caricature. Now, in reality, with the exception of right-wing, and possibly promiscuous, Irna was all of those things. But Heilbut is able to present her as no more than the sum of her worst traits only because, like the researcher who throws out results that refute his or her hypothesis, he systematically excludes anything in Irna's manuscript that might generate even a scintilla of understanding, much less sympathy.
Statements like, "While the official line is that she celebrated the great American family, she thrived on displaying its fractures. After all, hers was the proud perspective of someone who didn't fit anywhere, the stray whom nobody loved," ignore the pain Irna forever carried after loss of her pregnancy and any chance for another. Of As the World Turns, she said, "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." Left unsaid is that for her, the fantasy of Hughes family, the traditional family she craved, but could never provide for herself and her children, became the family through which she lived vicariously. Proud perspective of the stray nobody loved indeed!
While it's difficult, if not impossible, to understand Heilbut's decision to include a second-hand version of Irna's pregnancy (more like third-hand: White's source was the same Warren Swanson who claimed that the head of the Ohio crime syndicate was "the love of her life.") while excluding hers -- after all, "compare and contrast" is usually covered in freshman composition; Heilbut has a PhD in English from Harvard -- it begs the larger question: where does this fall within the pantheon of literary transgressions, particularly in light of the legal, financial, not to mention ethical, shit storm that erupted a few years ago when James Frey was found to have embellished -- fabricated? -- portions of his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces? But, while Frey embellished and fabricated so that his real life memoir would read more like a novel, what Heilbut's done -- present an incomplete, distorted and, in my view, grotesque, portrait of a woman who's been dead for almost 40 years by excluding much of what she wrote about her own life-- seems to me far more egregious.
So, who exactly is the injured party here? Irna's reputation? Her surviving son and grandchildren? Or, is it Heilbut's readers? Truth is, there's precious little information about Irna available in the public square. The manuscript of All My Worlds ends in late 1963, ten years before her death. The story goes that on the evening of 22 December 1973, when her housekeeper said good night, Irna was sitting in bed, surrounded by papers; the next morning she was dead. While invaluable as a research tool, the manuscript is unpublishable. Christopher Schemering's misrepresentations and fabrications, while well-intended, were misrepresentations and fabrications nonetheless.The late Robert LaGuardia included an extraordinarily insightful interview with Irna, conducted shortly before her death, in The Wonderful World of TV Soap Operas. As for Les White, he's interviewed many people who actually knew Irna, but published nothing since "Imperial Soap Opera" in 2005.
What I find so frustrating is that by boxing Irna into such a narrow, transgressive context, Heilbut undermines so much of what he does get right. He's correct when he suggests that Irna drew her stories from her neuroses; of course, most writers do. The psychological complexity she created was unprecedented. Her understanding "that the halting exposition reflected a psyche in crisis" forever changed the face of soaps. And, yes, Irna did "like her characters ambiguous and ambivalent," but not as Heilbut contends, "so the past to gobble them up," but because, as she often said, "You always have to remember that there are shades of gray with people; nobody is all good or all bad and each human being can exhibit all of these different elements, often at the same time." But, because the main focus of The Fan Who Knew Too Much is not soap opera, but gospel music (Heilbut is a successful producer and highly-regarded critic), few of his readers are likely to possess the frame of reference necessary to place his portrait of Irna Phillips in its proper context.
© 2012 Lynn Liccardo
Limited Licensing: I, Lynn Liccardo, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only.
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