As the World Turns might never have existed if Procter & Gamble had allowed Irna Phillips to expand Guiding Light from 15 minutes to a half-hour in 1955. Irna didn't want a bigger cast or more story; what she believed was "that better story and characterization could be developed in the half-hour format." Since GL was in a statistical tie with Search for Tomorrow for the top spot in the daytime ratings, P&G was understandably reluctant to alter its format. So, as she had when P&G opposed her proposal to move GL from radio to television, Irna dug into her own pocket, and in collaboration with Agnes Nixon and Ted Corday, wrote and taped a pilot of the show initially called As the Earth Turns.
As The World Turns was a radical departure from the daytime soaps that preceded it; for the first year, there was virtually no plot. According to critic, Robert LaGuardia, "story to Irna was simply a vehicle; it was from the moment-to-moment emotions of her characters, expressed to each other in quiet scenes, that viewers derived vicarious pleasure." Irna knew that viewers would need time to get used this new format, and the contract included a clause requiring CBS to air the show for a full year, regardless of the ratings. It took a while for 'World Turns to find its audience, but within two years the show was at the top of the Nielsen ratings, where it would remain until 1978, when the success of General Hospital's Luke-and-Laura upended the entire soap opera genre. For those who grew up thinking of ATWT as "their mother's (or grandmother's) soap opera," this 1957 episode (#268 part one and part two) illustrates the show's mesmerizing power.
The truth is, no one derived more vicarious pleasure from those quiet scenes than the woman who created them. In her unfinished memoir, All My Worlds, Irna acknowledged that "in As the World Turns I fantasized as well as fictionalized my own life." But it was more than fiction or fantasy; through ATWT, Irna, both explicitly and implicitly, played out her deepest secrets and unrealized hopes and dreams. LaGuardia took it a step further, noting, "It was quite as for Irna Oakdale was a real place -- far more real than New York or Chicago, and far better."
The events that led to Irna's intense desire for Oakdale to be a more real, and far better, place than New York or Chicago began in the mid-1920s in Dayton, Ohio. While visiting her brother before beginning a graduate fellowship in speech at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Irna met a English doctor. Eight years older than she, "not handsome," but he had charm and intelligence, and Irna, who never had a date in high school or college, "decided he was the man I was going to marry." She declined the fellowship and found a teaching job in Dayton. But, in true soap opera fashion, things did not work out as Irna had hoped. An unplanned pregnancy left her alone, with neither a baby nor the possibility of another. The ramifications of Irna's sterility, would, in the words of her adopted daughter, Kathy, "divine the path Mummy would take for the rest of her life."
The one person Irna was able to count on through her ordeal was a young attorney in Dayton, Ralph Skilken. Prior to the pregnancy, he warned her about the doctor, and wondered why Irna "couldn't like someone like him," instead of "a lover boy." After the pregnancy, Irna is maddeningly vague about their relationship. Within a single sentence,"If memory serves me correctly, I believe I might have fallen in love with him," she displays three degrees of indefiniteness. And while Irna says, "Ralph's friendship and companionship did much to help restore confidence in myself as a woman," it's not clear that the relationship was ever sexual. What Ralph did make perfectly clear to Irna was that "if he couldn't have children of his own, he would not have any." But their friendship endured, at least for a while; Skilken's two older children, Ralph and Susan, remember a trip to Los Angeles in the late-1940s to visit Irna and her children. Ralph Skilken died in 1994; when someone researching Irna's life asked about their relationship, he said, "Irna was a lady!" then slammed down the receiver.
Whatever the nature of their relationship, Ralph and Irna shared a great deal. Both were Jewish, though unlike Irna, he was raised in an Orthodox home. The two shared a worldview that sprung from their Jewish roots. While Ralph eventually married a Catholic woman, and his children were raised in their mother’s faith, his daughter recalls childhood memories of her father telling her and her brothers that “things aren’t black and white, they’re gray.” Only later did she realize “that he was teaching us about Judaism.” Irna’s storytelling embodied a mantra she repeated often: “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.”
Considering the text of Irna's memoir in relation to the proposal for the show, it seems likely that Ralph Skilken was, at least in part, the model for the patriarch Irna created for Oakdale: attorney Chris Hughes. Chris was the loving husband Irna never found for herself, the devoted father she never found for the two children she adopted as a single mother. The similarities between the two men go beyond that fact that both were lawyers. Chris Hughes was only able to attend college and law school with considerable sacrifice on the part of his farming family, and the understanding that he would, in turn, help finance the education of his brother and sister. When Chris married Nancy right after graduation, he had a hard time "understand(ing) the disappointment he saw in his mother's eyes, the bitterness and coolness, too..." Nancy soon became pregnant, and Chris wasn't able to fulfill the promises he made to his parents and siblings. Like Chris, Ralph worked hard, and and his family sacrificed to put him through law school. And when he married his Catholic wife, disappointment, bitterness and coolness would have been the least of it; more likely the mirrors were covered as his family sat shiva.
Irna's sterility forever changed how she interacted with men. She made up her mind "to never become involved with an unmarried man," thus sparing herself "the pain and embarrassment of telling a man I couldn't have children." Irna played out her vow through characters like Chris Hughes' sister, Edith, whose fiancé jilted her to marry another woman. When Edie fell in love with her brother's unhappily married law partner, Jim Lowell, there was an almost Talmudic quality to their story as opposing points of view were given equal weight, forcing the audience, in LaGuardia's words, “to grieve over the heartbreak of the human condition rather than hang on to a fixed value judgment.” Irna's plan was for Jim to divorce his wife so he and Edie could marry. Of course, when P&G finally caught on they vetoed idea, and in a fit of pique, Irna killed off Jim in a boating accident. Fifteen years later, history would repeat itself.
By all accounts, Irna Phillips was a neurotic, demanding and difficult woman. While talking to actors, she called them by their character's name.And if creating Chris Hughes as a surrogate for Ralph Skilken made Oakdale "a far better place," it was Rosemary Prinz, who played Chris's daughter, Penny, the pretty, popular teenager Irna never was, who bore the brunt of Irna's obsession with Oakdale as a place "far more real than Chicago or New York." Irna would often call the studio within minutes of the show ending to berate Prinz about her performance. Even more bizarre, Irna's insistence that Prinz behave as Penny would offstage, as well as on. So, when Prinz was photographed at a nightclub, her drink and ashtray were out of camera range, because, of course, Penny neither smoked nor drank.
As the show continued to top the ratings, As the World Turns became the first soap opera to fully penetrate the cultural landscape. When Carol Burnett's variety show (1967-78) ran a series of skits spoofing the show, As the Stomach Turns, the audience required no explanation. And while many might assume that the mocking came from Burnett's contempt for soaps, she was, in fact, a great fan of the genre, and made numerous appearances on All My Children, created by Irna's protege, Agnes Nixon.
More recently, the second season (2008) of Mad Men included a episode, "A Night to Remember," where Sterling Cooper’s office manager, Joan Holloway, volunteers to read some scripts to help out the agency’s head of television, Harry Crane, and finds herself engrossed in what lies ahead on As the World Turns in the summer of 1962. The story she describes as “unmissable” is the end of soap opera’s first super couple (more than 30 years before Luke and Laura came on the scene), Penny Hughes and Jeff Baker. Four years earlier, their wedding had attracted 20 million viewers. Now, Mark Rydell, who would go on to direct The Rose and On Golden Pond, left his role as Jeff in what TV Guide called “the automobile accident that shook the nation." When the prospective advertiser said of soaps, "they all do the same thing," the magnitude of Jeff's death allowed Joan to explain why they don't.
Weiner's choice of ATWT made perfect sense. In season three, Sterling Cooper’s involvement with the show provided Mad Men writers with the perfect opportunity to use the tape of the iconic November 22, 1963 episode of ATWT when news of the Kennedy assassination broke across the small black-and-white screen as Nancy and Grandpa Hughes discussed Thanksgiving preparations.
I expect Irna would have found much to appreciate in how Weiner, and writer, Robin Veith, portrayed ATWT. She certainly would have appreciated that Joan was portrayed both taking her task seriously and enjoying the work. Not to mention Joan’s attention to accuracy, asking her physician fiancé, Greg Harris, whether a patient coming out of a coma could have amnesia. Irna was a stickler for accuracy, often consulting with physicians and lawyers.
And then there's the conflict Joan is presented by her fiancee: Greg feels that rather than taking on new responsibilities at work, Joan should be looking for a house on Long Island; instead of reading soap opera scripts, she should be watching them while eating bon bons. The All My Worlds manuscript is filled with examples of the emptiness Irna felt about not being married: "I wanted to be cared for. I wanted someone to look after me, someone to turn to. I wanted a husband for me and a father for my children." Yet, consider Irna's reaction when she thought the married director with whom she had long been involved (thought to be Howard Keegan), might finally divorce his wife and marry her:
The conflict with work was with myself, not with him. I was a successful and highly paid writer. But in those moments when I was most honest with myself, I knew that my career as a writer was a masquerade -- a substitute for what I really wanted most. I did, and always had wanted to have a home, a husband and a family. In a short time I might be given the chance to realize that dream. But I was torn by doubt -- could I abandon the reality of my work for a dream -- even a dream that might come true.
Consciously or not, Irna ended that final sentence with a period, not a question mark. But the director never did divorce his wife, and Irna would never know what she might have done, if only...
In her memoir, Irna says that while she preferred the title As the Earth Turns, she had to change it because it was already the title of a novel (according to Ted Corday's son Ken, the current executive producer of Days of Our Lives, it was his mother, Betty, who suggested the change). While she mentions nothing about reading Gladys Hasty Carroll's 1932 bestseller, the backstory Irna created for the Hughes family suggests that not only had she read the novel, but took great inspiration from it. (to be fair, Irna was writing her memoir forty years after the book came out, so she may well have simply forgotten the substance of the novel.) The most obvious parallel between the Hughes and Shaw families is Lois May, whose plans for college, like those of Edith Hughes, were thwarted because her family had other priorities: one brother, Ed, is buying a house for his new bride, another, Olly, is already in college.
Robert LaGuardia described the power of the Oakdale Irna created as a "day-to-day placidity, warmth and sense of family involvement." That's really all Irna ever wanted; the life she created for the Hughes, and fantasized for herself, wasn't glamorous, or overly romantic. Nor was it idealized; like most families, the Hughes had their fair share of trouble and heartache. But, as a single mother, forever wounded by the loss of the pregnancy that left her sterile, Irna was never able to provide that sense of warmth and family involvement for her children, Kathy and Tom, or for herself. At the end of her life she wrote, "I don’t believe that even today my children can possibly understand, or maybe they don’t want to, that I was as unhappy in adopting them as they were in being adopted by me."
While Irna said both of her children were "a constant source of concern and disappointment," the situation with Kathy was particularly vexing. In the late 1960s, Kathy was listed as ATWT's head writer as Katherine Babecki. However, it's been speculated by many that she was head writer in name only. In 1969, Irna left ATWT to help Kathy create a short-lived autobiographical serial, A World Apart. When the two left the show shortly after its premiere in March 1970, Irna was recruited by P&G to tutor Harding Lemay, who had just been hired as head writer for Another World, a show Irna and Bill Bell had created in 1964. According the Lemay, his relationship with Irna was, shall we say, less than collegial. What Irna thought about him she never said; her unfinished memoir ends in 1964.
Lemay couldn't have known that in creating AW Irna was once again replaying the ramifications of her sterility. When Janet Matthews needs a hysterectomy to remove a tumor, her fiancé "deserts her for a woman who can bear him children." But the character through whom Phillips may well have told the truth about her pregnancy was not Janet, but her niece, Pat.
Unlike ATWT's "moment-to-moment emotions expressed in quiet scenes," AW was highly melodramatic from the start. According to the show's first producer, Allan Potter, Irna was eager for instant success. But the storyline that dominated AW for the first year and beyond—Pat Matthews's murder of Tom Baxter, the man who impregnated her, and then coerced her into an illegal abortion that became septic and left her sterile—was more than a ratings grab. There are striking similarities between Baxter, an overindulged, late-in-life baby, and the English doctor, who, according to Irna, "was his mother's favorite." And although Irna says in her memoir that she "never blamed the doctor," she also mentions a college lecture on sublimation and notes that "the word sublimate would have great meaning for me in the years to come."
In her memoir, Irna’s pregnancy ends with a stillbirth followed by an infection that leaves her sterile. The doctor who broke the news told her the baby, "was malformed and had a clubfoot. It's for the best that the child was stillborn." That single, melodramatic detail is as telling as the heightened melodrama of Pat's story. How her pregnancy actually ended will likely forever remain a mystery, but Irna’s efforts to exorcise her demons though Pat's story took its toll on Pat's portrayer, Susan Trustman; after 18 exhausting months, she asked to be released from her contract. Irna soon left the show, as well.
When Irna returned to ATWT in September 1971 the show was floundering. And many of the people upon whom she had depended in the past were long gone. In 1965, Ted Corday, who had directed the show since the beginning, left to create his own show, Days of Our Lives. (While Irna initially collaborated with Ted at the beginning, she was never involved in day-to-day operations of the show. Ironically, Days... is the last of Irna's shows still on the air.) When Corday died in 1966, Bill Bell, who began working with Irna in 1956, took over at Days... In 1973, Bell created The Young and the Restless , followed by The Bold and The Beautiful in 1986. By 1968, Agnes Nixon, chafing under P&G's conservatism, and smarting that they had rejected her baby, All My Children, left to create the groundbreaking One Life to Live for ABC.
In Irna's absence, the show had gone through five writing teams, including one headed by Kathy, now writing under her maiden name, Katherine L. Phillips. Days... was challenging ATWT's place at the top of the ratings, and if the combative tone of Irna's longterm storyline dated September 25th is any indication, she was not a happy camper. In The Wonderful World of TV Soap Operas, Robert LaGuardia details the damage Irna proceeded to inflict upon the show. It's not a pretty picture: legacy characters killed off, "trivial, repetitious, illogical dialogue" and unspeakable cruelty directed toward cast and crew, not to mention viewers. But nowhere in the that longterm is mention of the character through whom Irna, still haunted by what had happened in Dayton more than 40 years earlier, would revisit her long ago pregnancy one last time, and who, by the time As the World Turns went off the air in 2010, would have everything Irna had longed for her entire life.
In an interview a few months before her death, Irna told Robert LaGuarida,
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 looks in the mirror and refers to herself as "lady in the mirror." Well, that was her other self, which no one knew about: the true me, the person I always hid from the world. She's having a child out of wedlock, which will only be hers. I adopted two children -- Kathy and Tommy -- without a husband. We're both the same. And she's going to have that child to prove that a woman can do it alone.
Of course, to conceive that baby, Kim would first have to seduce her sister's husband, Bob Hughes. And once again P&G would veto Irna's happy ending, this time firing her for good. When Kim's pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, it's hard to say what caused Irna more pain, being fired from the show that was so real to her, or reliving the loss of her baby as Kim lost hers. A few months after she was fired, Irna died of a heart attack, or perhaps it was 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 Douglas Marland became 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 the show's 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. 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.
© 2013 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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