"There was so much more money than love in our existence. It took a long time to realize the effect it had on all of us . . . " - The Dionne Quintuplets, from "The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama."
They were freaks, the Dionne Quintuplets - Emile, Annete, Marie, Cecile, Yvonne - and now, 44 years since their birth, despite fertility drugs and test tube babies, such a feat has not been duplicated.
Quintuplets, yes, but not identical; not from the same egg, as were the Dionne Quintuplets - and they became the world's most famous international celebrities. On that pre-TV, Depression day of May 28, 1934, when the Dionne Quintuplets were born in a small Canadian farmhouse that had not electricity or running water, it was as if Lourdes had found its rival. The famous of the day - from Alexander Wooleott to Ametla Earhart - were among the millions of curious who came to see the "miracle."
For nine years they were housed in a compound, left only once, to see the queen of England. Close to 3 million persons in those nine years made the unbelievably difficult pilgrimage to the desolate part of Canada known as "Quintland."
Father Oliva and mother Elzire Dionne ran two souvenir stands and the sign told everyone they were "operated by parents of the world's most famous babies." On one frame structure were the words "Madam Legros and Madam Lebel, Midwives of the Quintuplets, Bid You Welcome."
"There were people everywhere, pouring out of cars and buses, and spending money - buying souvenir postcards, pamphlets about the birth, binoculars at inflated prices, British woolens and china, candy, poP, hot dogs and, for a quarter, Oliva Dionne's own autograph.
"They came as early as 6 in the morning. By the time the first observation period begans at 9:30, the queue could stretch back for half a mile or more. As the people moved forward they passed a long jrough labelled STONES FROM THE QUINTUPLETS' PLAYGROUND. These were the famous fertility stones,' gathered each morning from the shores of Lake Nipissing in the trucks of the Ontario highways department and widely believed to be a boon to barren women. Everybody took one; like the view of the Quints, they were free." -From Pierre Berton's "The Dionne Years."
Pierre Berton was a 13-year-old Canadian when the Dionne Quints were born and, like anyone alive during that time, he had them as indelibly stamped on his memory as Shirley Temple or Charlie Chaplin or FDR. "It is not possible to trace the social history of the '30s without reference to the Dionne Quintuplets. The reverse is also true . . . Had they been born into an earlier decade, they would have expired swiftly - one-day wonders . . . It is equally certain that had the miracle occurred a generation later, the spotlight would have been softer and the melodrama muted," Berton writes.
But Berton - a Canadian author of 25 books and a well-known Canadian TV personality - had a difficult time selling his publisher on doing a book about them. The irony is it now seems destined to be his best read book in the United States and is a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate. It has already sold 60,000 in Canada," enough for my publisher to eat crow."
Berton is not your diffident author. He seems to have a supreme sense of self-confidence, loves the freedom of book writing ("there is no son of a bitch telling you what to do") and is equally at home with his Canadian fame ("anyone who says he doesn't like it is lying, it gets you a better table at any restaurant.")
Publishers, ever, gimmick-minded, pushed his book in Toronto with the sales pitch that if you had triplets, you would get a book free. "One woman brought her three identical triplets. Everyone was staring and I said, 'Now you understand the fascination of the Dionne Quints. Just suppose that right before you eyes there were FIVE.'"
Even today, Berton cannot stop staring at the old Pathe News films or photographs. They were so beautiful, so dark curly-haired and smiling, and, in an 'era that had never heard of clones, so absolutely the same.
They were also a respite from the Depression and incipient World War II news. "The New York Times regularly, ran editorials that they were an 'affirmation of life in a world gone mad.' Two editorials a year, always the same. It was as if the editorial just got recycled," says Berton with a laugh.
Berton himself reaches behind the headlines of that day to tell an arresting story of human frailty and hunger for power, of a family that would wind up estranged.
The five beautiful Quints would end up frumpy young women. One had a nervous breakdown and died a heavy drinker and another died of an epileptic seizure and two divorced. The surviving three live in obscurity. it was merely, Berton says, "their destiny."
"There are no villains or heroes in this story. All are prisoners of their time and the image created for them," says Berton.
Dr. Allan Ray Defoe - who saved the five just after birth when they looked more like a litter of animals than human, with arms the size of adult fingers - was never quite the self-effacing, saintly, country doctor the press insisted on making him. So shy he stuttered, Dafoe nonetheless quickly learned to like publicity's bright glare, made thousands from commercial testimonials and had a power drive that manifested itself in his rigid control of the early lives of the Quints.
Nor was the father quite the uneducated, grasping, "super-stud" farmer and exploiter of children depicted by the '30s press. Even though Dionne later squelched the deal, people were livid when they read that papa Dionne had signed a contract to exhibit his children (a plan Defoe first championed then publicly denounced.)
"To many," writes Berton, Dionne was an "unsympathetic character," simply because of "what he had done" to his wife. Letters sent to Defoe suggested Dionne be sterilized.
But Dionne was a man filled with pride and embittered that his children - through fame, the Canadian government and Defoe - were lost to him. Eventually, Dionne made some money out of the Quints, got himself a new suit and learned to manipulate the press that had manipulated him," says Berton.
In an unprecedented move, the Canadian government had removed the Quints from the control of their parents. Their father campaigned for years, often in the press, to have his children returned. This finally happened when they were 9, but by then it was too late. They had hardly seen their families in all those years.
When the family was reunited, one Quint recalled, "It was the saddest home we have ever known." Today, there is scarcely any contact between the three surviving Quints and their parents.
Their mother, so horrified at the Quints' birth that she remarked, "What will the neighbors say? They will think we are pigs," was not the insensitive, mother of a "litter" as often depicted, says Berton. "Interestingly, she had seven other children, was a loving mother to them and they are all a very close-knit family."
But the Quints in their book "We Were Five" (1963) viewed the Dionne family as disenfranchized, bitter outsiders: Their parents, they wrote, behaved "as though they were partners in some unspoken misdeed in bringing us into the world . . . We were drenched with a sense of having sinned from the hour of our birth . . . we were riddled with guilt."
Bound by genetics and a bizarre childhood, the three-surviving Quints are unusually the close and live in a Toronto suburb.
In the '30s, the Quints were pure gold. As Canada's leading tourist attraction, they were a $500 million asset to the province of Ontario. By the end of the decade, the Quints' bank account was just under 1 million - net profit. Every profit from Puretest Cod Liver Oil and Musterole Chest Rub to Sanitized Mattress - paid to use their name. In 1939, General Motors paid $15,000 just to use a picture of the five sisters in an auto ad.
Today, their substantial trust fund has dwindled. The remaining three will be eligible for the final installment next May on their 45th birthday, but the principle has dwindled. Yvonne does volunteer work in a library, divorced Annette raises four children on a diminished trust fund and supplements her income with odd jobs. Few customers realize that the clerk in a supermarket is Cecile, one of the Dionne Quints.
Berton - an arresting 6 feet 3 with silver hair - is adroit at spinning stories, writes easily and swifty, wins top Canadian writing awards and lives on royalties that range anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 annually. One of his best-known books, the "Klondike," published in 1958 and reissued in 1972, was prompted by real-life experience. Raised in the Yukon, Berton worked in Klondike mining camps during his university years. At 21 he was the youngest city editor on any Canadian daily (in Vancouver) then moved into his multiple book-TV-radio-magazine career.
Like many writers, Berton seems most interesting when talking about his subject matter than himself. As he left Washington for Toronto, he was switching from the Dionne's to discussing his latest book, on the War of 1812.
Berton, a gardener and bird watcher lives in the country near Toronto with his wife, a former newspaper writer, and their eight children, including one adopted and one foster child. "The rest are ours; we're not Catholic - they were all planned."
The original Dionne farmhouse, bought and moved by a Canadian promoter to a more desirable location, still attracts some visitors. The Quints' bibs, their baby dresses all hang in rows. There is the silverware Gen. Trujillo sent from the Dominican Republic . . . the five original prams . . . the kitchen table on wich the babies were first oiled and bathed.
"And, a final memory from the days when they were, like the National Zoo's Pandas, on display: "They could hear the sounds of children and crying babies in the audience. They couldn't see them, but they began to realize as they got older that these people had come to see the Quints . . . They were little mimics, beautiful actors . . . At the show, they cooperated very well. We'd keep them on their tricycles so they'd make the rounds so everybody come to see the Quints . . . They were could see them . . ." Nurse Cecile Michaud in "The Dionne Years."