The Strange Case of the Dionne Quints
Collier's - April 23, 1949
The reporter who scooped the world with the Quintuplet story revisits the famous Callander farm. What does he find? Five bustling teen-agers whom he hardly knows; five precious young ladies who haven't yet had a boy friend; five criousities behind a high wire fence who still get mobbed when they put in a rare public appearance.
It was deeply exciting to see the five strapping girls standing there. They were big girls, five feet two in height; 130 pounds in weight. It was exciting for many reasons, but chiefly because the first time I'd seen them the five weighed a total of ten pounds. Then they were only a few hours old. Four were bundled in a meat basket, the fifth was in an incubator. But now those big girls, the Dionne Quintuplets, aren't growing up. They've grown.
They advanced with lowered glances and shook hands, murmuring, "Ow do you do, M'sieu?" I thought how charming those French accents were. I realized too that I no longer could tell them apart. I guess I was too excited. The Quints do that to people. I should have known them too, for although I hadn't seen them for five years, the seven years before that I had seen them nearly every day. Those five young ladies and I had been through a lot together and as I saw them again I wondered how much they remembered. We'd met royalty together. We'd launched ships, raised money for the Red Cross, been in war bond drives. Why I'd even brought them their first diapers; I had seen them grow from babies into exuberant little kids, then into shy, inhibited girls, buffeted by the tides of the propaganda battles that was waged for control. I saw Oliva and Elzire Dionne finally take over from Dr. Dafoe and the board of guardians that the government had appointed to run their affairs. I had built them a house.
As a reporter for the Toronto Star I had written about their birth, their growth and their development. Later, as their manager, I signed them to contracts for endorsements, for advertisements, for movies. In fact, from the day they were born, May 28, 1934, until I left them ten years later, our lives had been strangely interwoven. Now I was seeing them again after a gap of five years.
I shook the first hand and mumbled, "Is this Marie?" It wasn't Marie, it was Yvonne. I should have known because Marie has always been the smallest of the five and the one that wore glasses. But I ignored these clues. I guess it was the excitement that had been building up all day.
I had begun to feel the excitement when I stepped off the train at Callander that morning. The drive out to the Dionne home was memory-stirring. The road is paved now, but the first time I drove it fifteen years ago it was little more than a lumber trail. I had dragged the chassis of my car over rocks and boulders until I thought it was done for. I was a reporter hurrying to a big story, and I couldn't wait for the paving gang. Now, we rounded a curve and there I saw the old Dionne homestead very much as I remembered it. Across the road stood the big, new home. It is Georgian style, built of buff brick, and it looks a little out of place on that rocky hill with the pine and spruce background. There around it, just as I remembered it, was the high wire fence. It is a fence designed to keep the curious out. But it also keeps people in. The Quints have been surrounded by this fence since they were born. They've come to depend on it. When they come face to face with strangers they miss it.
Home for the Entire Family
I rang the bell and the big gate opened. I was in the grounds. Dionne met me at the door of the big home. Like myself, he was grayer than last time we'd met. I was all eagerness to see what had happened to the house in the years I'd been away. The last thing I'd done for the Dionnes was to get this home built, decorated and furnished. It was the realization of Mr. and Mrs. Dionne's dream - a house where the family, Quints and all, could live together.
The house seemed strangely empty and quiet. Then I realized the children were in school. Dionne explained almost apologetically that he would rather not disturb their studies. I could see them later. I found the tour of the house very reassuring. It was marvelously kept. Kept by the Quints, too, Oliva told me. They can't get help and the older girls are away at school. That leaved Mrs. Dionne and the famous five to keep the home running. The paneled study, the yellow dining room, the gray-walled parlor with the immense Persian rug, even the playroom were just as they had been. The wire fence that encircles the grounds protects three buildings: the Dionne home; the chapel where the three teachers, nuns from the Sisters of the Assumption, live; and the small building which became world famous as the Dafoe Nursery and is now the schoolhouse, known as Villa Notre Dame. The school is a private one attended by the Quints and ten other French-Canadian girls, chosen by the Sisters. The importation of the ten girls is an attempt to get the Quints accustomed to being with people outside their own family.
Dionne suggested that I come back in the evening to see the five and I readily agreed. After all, they do follow a pretty rigid schedule. They rise at six thirty A.M. and attend Mass in their own chapel with their own priest, Father Rene Poirier, at seven. Then they help Mother with the breakfast, wash the dishes, make the beds, are at school by eight thirty. At noon the five run up the hill to home to help Mother with dinner - and the dishes. By one thirty they are in the classroom again. Classes end at four, but they remain at school and study until six. All are musical, so there is heavy emphasis on music - voices and piano. At six the five again help their mother with the supper and the dishes. These chores completed they still have an hour and a half's homework to do. They are all in bed by nine thirty.
That schedule doesn't seen to leave much time for play. Yet all five are good skaters, all ski well and play any number of games, such as softball and table tennis. They swim, they have bicycles. Best of all they love to ride horseback. It sounds like fun but still is all mostly inside that fence. Dionne and I sat in his study while he told me about his daughters. Sitting there made me think of the little doctor who had once been so important in the children's lives. Perhaps you ought to know Dr. Dafoe's story just in case you've forgotten. He was a roly-poly little country doctor when the Quints were born. His battle to keep them alive was front-page stuff, which was right because never before in medical history had quintuplets lived more than a few hours.
An Unwise Contract
While Doc was winning world applause, Dionne, through no fault of his own, seemed to be doing everything wrong. He got himself tied up in a contract to take the children to the Chicago World's Fair. He never meant to take the babies to the Chicago midway. He was just a frantic country boy trying to raise money so that he could feed five more mouths in addition to his other six. Dionne's press was so bad that the public demanded that the government take over. Doc was put in charge. So the parents found themselves shut out from their own children. Science took over. The babies lived by schedule - so much cod-liver oil, so many vitamins. Sometimes each child was on a different diet. But it can't be said that they lacked for love. The nurses supplied plenty of that. While that may have been good for the children, it hurt the feeling of the mother and father. Strangers were feeding, dressing, caring for, loving their children and there was nothing they could do about it.
As for Doc, he gradually gave up his practice and devoted his time - and his whole heart - to the Quints. Mornings he spent at the Dafoe Nursery, as their home was called. Afternoons he saw visitors, writers, distinguished callers. He had to get a secretary to handle his correspondence. The Quints became his whole life. He had great plans for them. They would be raised to take their unique place in the world. They would not be freaks; they would be princesses, figureheads, ambassadors of good will. They would live down any suggestion that they were freaks. Public opinion was right behind the little Doc at first. But after four or five years the parents' rights began to win sympathizers. The Doc was losing the fight but he wouldn't admit it. More and more the Dionnes insisted on coming to the nursery, being with the children. More and more the nurses that Doc had placed in charge clashed with the mother and the father.
On the surface it may have looked like a dramatic struggle for control. But for the kids it was tragic and soul-searing. Gradually the family took over. So much so that in the fall of 1941 the Quintuplet Act was revised by the government. The parents were in. Doc was out. He died early in June 1943. Cause of death was given as pneumonia. I think he was just tired of living.
While Dionne and I were talking, school closed for recess. I was hoping I'd get invited out to the playground to meet them, but I wasn't. Instead, Dionne brought the Mother Superior, Soeur Aimee des Anges, to tell me about his daughters and how they are developing. "The Quints are old for their age," Sister Aimee said. "They are only fifteen, but they are more like seventeen-year-olds. They are much more introverted than the avearge youngster. In fact, I think they're all pretty good psychologists. They seem to analyze everyone they meet. It isn't a malicious trick. But when someone new comes along, all five seem to take the person's measure. For one to react that way, yes. But for all five - it's uncanny."
Quints center of Controversy
When the sister said this I thought I could supply the answer. During the four years of the struggle between the Doc and their parents the Quints were in the middle of it all. Nurses sometimes sided with the Doc, sometimes with the family. The kids were pulled this way and that. Every person around them presented a problem. So they began analyzing people just to try to solve those problems. "All the girls are musical," the sister continued. It didn't take Sister Aimee to tell me this. I knew that Annette, when she was only five, could play berceuse on the little organ she got for her birthday. She played it with two hands too. None of that one-finger stuff. You might even remember hearing her on the radio. They have a huge collection of records - jazz, musical comedy, hillbilly, cowboy laments. But recently they have shown a distinct preference for fine music, symphonies, operas, tone poems - long-hair stuff.
Sister Aimee has been with the Dionnes for six years now and she has made it her business to study the five from all angles. She says they have completely different personalities - so different in fact that she thinks that is why they no longer look alike. They mix well with the other pupils of the school, but let one get into trouble - bingo, the other four are beside her. That bond of birth is still a bond.
Still Attract Curious
All are good cooks and housekeepers. If they married farm boys they wouldn't be out of their element. Their tragedy is that they must find their interests on their father's farm. When they go outside the farm's 340 acres and appear in public they are objects of curiousity, and this means embarrasment. It was Dr. Dafoe's dream to bring them up to take that sort of thing in their stride. "They will be brought up like little princesses," he used to say. But the parents had different ideas. They wanted the five to enjoy a normal family life as normal children do. So the Quints got neither. You can't be brought up behind a high wire fence and have more than a speaking acquaintance with the ordinary world.
When they were little it seemed fun to dress them alike and stress their similarity. Now, except for special occassions they dress as unlike as possible. They have learned that this device makes it possible for them to go outside with a minimum of embarrassment. When we had them in Toronto in 1942, the children yearned to see a large department store. We thought they wouldn't be noticed in a big store so we took them to one, all at one time and dressed alike. It was as if someone had gone out on the streets with a loudspeaker and announced: "The Quints are here." Within a matter of minutes crowds surged in. Counters were overturned, showcases wrecked. The surge of the mob threatened out little party. It might have been serious if we hadn't hurried to an elevator which took us away so we could get out by a back door. It was a frightening experience for us and for the kids.
Now they go out in two and threes, dressed differently. In this way they can't shop and dine out. They can't even see movies in the little town of North Bay. Both Dionne and Sister Aimee say you'll never see the quints on the stage or on the screen. Olica thinks the years when they were stared at by visitors destroyed any desire to become public figures.
It was evening before I got to meet them. They were grouped around the dining-room table, busy with their homework. How different their greeting was from the old days. When they were five or six they would charge me like a football team. Now they were shy and self-conscious, There was no wild babel of greetings as I had hoped there might be. Yet they seemed very glad to see me again. Just as I remembered, Yvonne was the leader. The others looked to her to do the talking. She asked a few polite questions about me, about my wife. Even about wee Jeannie, our small Scotty dog. They were sorry to hear that she was dead. We stood there awkwardly for a few minutes. I thought if we sat down it might relieve the atmosphere. So we did.
I asked the obvious questions: Did they like housework? They said they did. At least Yvonne and Emilie said so. Annette and Cecile nodded their heads. Marie was motionless and speechless, the poor kid. Without too much difficulty I found that they like school. "All by mathematics," Yvonne added. The others nodded vigorous agreement. They were all dressed differently. I picked out the one who wore her clothes with the most style, and sure enough it was Cecile, always the stylish one. "Cecile," I ventured, "you were always interested in clothes, weren't you?" Cecile blushed so that I decided to refrain from further personal observations. From Oliva and Sister Aimee I learned that Cecile is an unusually good singer. "Cecile is the liveliest of them all," Sister Aimee informed me. "She is more socially inclined. She gets along with others more easily."
Then came the sixty-four-dollar question - the one everyone asks me when they learn that I know the Quints: What are they going to be when they grow up? "Marie," I said, "what do you want to do when you finish school?" No answer. "Yvonne, what career would you like?" A shake of the head but no answer. I drew five blanks. Emilie is still the comedian of the crowd. She still makes the others laugh. When I came in she had something to say in French about me that I didn't catch. They all giggled, but it wasn't malicious. I could tell that. It shot memory back ten years. The girls were five then and they were making one of their public appearances. One of them clutched a toy monkey that was the favorite of the moment. Emilie looked at her sister with a wide grin and said, "If you don't drop that monkey they'll think there are six of us." Emilie is the best writer of the group. "She seems to have a feeling for stories," said Sister Aimee. She expresses herself better than the others. "Do you want to be a writer?" I asked Emilie. She shook her head. "She prefers music," Yvonne informed me with great politeness. "She's the musician all right," the father told me. "She likes to compose. She is always going off in a corner and playing little tunes she thinks up by herself." Annette is the quiet one. She keeps more to herself than the others. Perhaps more than any of her sisters, she has made her mind up about the future. She wants to devote herself to music. I know because I asked her and she said, "Oui." Then she blushed red as fire because she hadn't answered me in English.
Accents Sometimes Embarrassing
At this pont Oliva gave me a clue to the difficulty I was having. "They're ashamed of their accents," he said. I was slightly incredulous. Then I remembered that when they were small the language they spoke, like every other detail of their lives had been point of bitter contest. The children have not forgotten that tug of war. I wouldn't say that Yvonne was my favorite Quints. But she was always the easiest to get to and talk with. All the girls are darl complected, with dark eyes and hair that is nearly black. None of them is blond like their sister Pauline or their brother Oliva Jr. But Yvonne comes the nearest of being fair. Her skin is lighter, her eyes are hazel instead of dark brown.
I left Marie to the last, hoping that some of her shyness might wear off. She was always a favorite of mine, right from that first week of their birth. She supplied me with a story daily and it was always the same: "Tiny Marie weathered another crisis today. Her feeble heartbeats seemed to cease. Dr. Dafoe gave her a couple of drops of rum. She rallied, but the little doctor refused to say if he thought she could last another day." In those days Marie weighed one pound ten ounces. Can you believe it! The kid was so shy that there was no use in my questioning her so I learned her story from her father. "Marie is the busy one," he told me. "She loves to help her mother around the house." Marie has one weak leg. They think perhaps it dates back to when she was three months old. Then she had a malignant tumor removed from her thigh by radium. The leg is smaller than the other and weaker, but she doesn't let it handicap her in sports. She makes up for it in daring.
I think the kids were glad when I got up to leave - they still had homework to do and then they were going skating. Oliva and I returned to his study. Its outstanding decoration is a huge picture of the Dionne family tree. More than any other group on the continent, French Canadians can trace their ancestry. The parish church has always kept a strict record of births, marriages and deaths. The tree shows that Oliva's emigrant ancestor came to Canada in 1635. Mrs. Dionne's folks were latecomers. They didn't arrive until 1670.
Uncertain as to Careers
Our conversation again turned to the future of the children. Oliva was frank to admit that he had no idea what they would do. With their musical talents they would seem naturals for the entertainment field. But as fifteen-year-olds they say they don't want that. For the first nine years of their lives they were entertainers, if involuntary. Twice each day the public was allowed in to galleries and, through one-way glass, saw the little girls at play. There were days when 10,000 went through the turnstiles. Perhaps as many as 5,000,000 people have seen them. Even now in summer, tourists come by the thousands and drive to the Dionne home in hope of seeing them. But the girls have learned to play in spots of their father's farm where they can't be seen or molested. The public is still tremendously interested in them. One Californian has sent them flowers twice a year ever since they were born. Others never miss writing them on birthdays.
They don't need to worry about money. Their funds are held in trust by the courts under the Quintuplet Act. When they are eighteen - three years hence - they will divide $1,500,000. If they should make a movie between now and then it could be twice that. There is a good chance too that Oliva might ask the government to extend its management of their finances till they are twenty-one. He feels that girls who have been so sheltered will hardly be ready at eighteen to handle all that money. Yes, they're wealthy kids. But I've never known children to have less fun for their money. I guess it's that high wire fence. It was built to keep the curious out. But it keeps them in and it separates them from the fun the ordinary little girls has, from outside contacts - from boy friends.
Boy Interest Lacking
When I asked them about boys they showed no interest. Perhaps that will come later. I hope so. Even their future schooling is in doubt. Next year they will continue to have classes at home. "I don't know if we'll ever send them away to school or not," Oliva confided. "Sometimes I feel that we should. It might do them good to get out among other people. But should we send them as a group to one school? Or should we separate them? I suppose that sooner or later the group will be broken up. But I don't think I want to be the one to do it."
As she always has done, Mrs. Dionne keeps very much in the background. She still speaks no English, not from nationalistic reasons but because she fears people might laugh at her accent. Dionne himself is still a farmer at heart. He works his farm himself, and raises much of the family's food. He has the typical French-Canadian carefulness with money, but his household is necessarily a costly one - he runs it on a budget of about $30,000 a year. This comes from the Quint fund and all expenditures are passed on by the courts. Dionne is still a little bitter about those early days when he considers his five daughters were filched from him by trickery. "All I ever wanted was to bring my children up in my own home in my own way," he says with feeling. "My whole family has been affected by the fighting that went on. That is why the Quints are so introverted today. That jail they were kept in was bad for them."
As I drove away from the Dionne home that night the question uppermost in my mind was: What will happen to the Quints? Will they just stay there behind that fence? Can they learn to do without it? I was a little sad and a little concerned. Life for a Quintuplet is so difficult. So many bad things can happen. Maybe they've had all their bad luck. Maybe from here on it will be clear sailing for them. I hope so.
Collier's - April 23, 1949