COVER

A FAMILY TRAGEDY

BARRY CAME November 21 1994
COVER

A FAMILY TRAGEDY

BARRY CAME November 21 1994

A FAMILY TRAGEDY

COVER

BARRY CAME

Cécile Dionne bears no visible scars. She arrives for lunch at a downtown Montreal hotel, a petite woman in pearls and knitted wool, looking much like any other 60-year-old suburban grandmother. Once the conversation begins, however, it does not take long for the pain to surface. “We’ve suffered a lot,” she says, reluctantly summoning memories of a period when she and her four identical sisters were better known to the world as the Dionne Quintuplets. They were, for a time, the most celebrated children on the face of the planet, courted by kings, pursued by

movie stars, gawked at by millions. But the five paid a terrible price

for their childhood fame. And, as Cécile is the first to testify, the old wounds fester still.

“It’s been very difficult,” she quietly remarks, “reliving all of that.” She is carefully stirring a cup of cinnamon-flavored tea at the

Cécile Dionne recalls the quints’ rift with their family

end of what has turned into a long lunch. For the previous two hours, the notoriously publicity-shy woman has endured an interview, the first that any of the three surviving quints has granted to a Canadian publication in a decade. For most of the past 30 years, Cécile and her two surviving sisters—Annette and Yvonne—have shunned the spotlight, choosing to live a largely anonymous life in St. Bruno, a bedroom community southeast of Montreal. Since last November, when Yvonne underwent reconstructive hip surgery, they have shared a modest house in the quiet town. And, according to Cécile, it is where they all would prefer to

remain. ‘We are certainly not recluses,” she declares, bristling a little at the suggestion. “But it is true that over the years we have come to learn the value of privacy.”

The comment begs an obvious question, because the privacy that Cécile claims she and her sisters cherish is certainly about to be shattered, perhaps irrevocably. And the three women themselves bear much of the responsibility. They agreed to collaborate in the production and promotion of Million Dollar Babies, the television mini-series dramatizing their early lives that is scheduled to air on Nov. 20 and 22 on the CBC in Canada and CBS in the United States (page 46). They will also publish a new autobiography early next spring, ghostwritten by Quebec novelist Jean-Yves Soucy and titled, enticingly, The Dionne Quints: Family Secrets. At the same time, they are exploring the possibility of launching a legal action against both the Ontario and federal governments, seeking redress for the rank exploitation they suffered as children. No matter how justified, none are actions that seem calculated to curtail public curiosity.

Cécile, toying with the remains of a green salad in the Montreal hotel, is willing to concede the point. But she has a ready explanation. “We need the money,” she bluntly admits. “I want it for my old age. I want it for Yvonne’s old age, for Annette’s old age. I wish there was some other way but there isn’t. We are all in need. If we were not, we’d remain silent. I certainly would.” She pauses, nods emphatically. “Oh yes, you can be sure of that.”

Money has always been a problem for the Dionnes. It has hung like a curse over the family almost from the moment that 25-year-old Elzire Dionne, the wife of a proud and struggling Franco-Ontarian farmer named Oliva, and already the mother of five children, gave birth to the quintuplets on a humid morning in May, 1934. Identical sisters developed from a single egg,

they were bom two months premature in a six-room farmhouse in the hamlet of Corbeil, 10 km outside North Bay. No one expected the five tiny infants, who weighed between one pound, eight ounces and 2Vá lb., to survive, least of all the country doctor who helped deliver them, Allan Roy Dafoe, who lived in nearby Callander. But when Annette, Emilie, Yvonne, Cécile and Marie pulled through—the first quintuplets ever to survive—they quickly became a sensation, a symbol of hope amidst the gloom of the Great Depression.

Within days of their birth, their father, acting on the advice of Dafoe and local parish priest Father Daniel Routhier, sold the rights to promoter Ivan Spear to exhibit his daughters. Under the terms of the deal, Oliva would get to keep 23 per cent of admission fees. Stung by the resultant public outcry, the Ontario government stepped in. The girls were taken away from their parents and made wards of the state. They were placed under the care of a board of guardians, including Dafoe but excluding both Oliva and Elzire Dionne. ‘Their parents were viewed as nothing more than a nuisance, a pair of barely competent French-Canadian rustics,” says Ottawa-based writer John Nihmey, co-author along with Stuart Foxman of Time of Their Lives: The Dionne Tragedy, the 1986 book upon which the upcoming television drama is based.

It was not long, however, before the guardians, too, began to exploit the quints. The Ontario authorities built a nine-room nursery on Oliva’s 195-acre farm right across the road from the family home, later expanding it into a bizarre, carnival-like facility nicknamed Quintland. It included a horseshoe-shaped observatory, where

crowds peered through screened glass windows while the little girls played. The quints soon developed into a major tourist attraction, drawing as many as 10,000 visitors a month. They sparked a boom in the local economy, rescuing the city of North Bay and the neighboring town of Callander from possible bankruptcy.

The quints, too, should have earned a fortune, certainly enough to last them the rest of their lives. By the time they were toddlers, those dimpled faces framed by the dark, beribboned ringlets were everywhere. They were on the covers of Life, Look and Time. They appeared in films and on radio. They endorsed a host of products, everything from Carnation Milk to Remington typewriters. There were quint cutout books, and quint dolls even outsold the Shirley Temple variety for a time. But there was a huge catch: the people who looked after the quints also spent a lot of the money that the girls earned. ‘The guardians took their fees out of the money,” says Bertrand Dionne, the 33-year-old son of Cécile, who works full time doing public relations for his mother and two aunts. “They paid for the salaries of the staff at Quintland and all of the costs of the day-today operations of the place. It cost them $200,000 to build that ridiculous observatory. They were even charged $5,000 for the construction of a toilet for the public.”

Still, by the time the quints were seven years old in 1941, $1 million had accumulated in a trust account held for the girls. They were supposed to collect when they turned 21 in 1955. Emilie never did. She died in 1954, at the age of 20, in a Quebec convent, the victim of the epilepsy that began to plague her soon after the quints were finally reunited with their parents and siblings (three more were born after them) when they were 9. Around that time, the parents won back custody of the girls and greater access to the trust fund fed by their earnings. When the four surviving sisters reached their 21st birthday, the trust had dwindled to $800,000. “What happened to that money?” asks Bertrand. “How could $1 million in 1941 turn into $800,000 14 years later? Somebody must know.”

In their ghostwritten 1965 book We Were Five: The Dionne Quintuplets Story, the sisters say that profligate spending on the part of their father was largely responsible for the loss of $200,000—something that the other Dionne siblings vehemently deny (page 44). About $50,000 did go towards construction of the three-storey, yellow brick mansion that was built to accommodate the reunited family in 1943. As for the remaining $800,000, the surviving sisters got twothirds of it (the remaining third was earmarked for their children) in three instalments, the final one in

1979. And there appears to be very little left.

Cécile insists that the money vanished through bad management. “The contract [for the quints’ trust fund after they turned 21] was flawed,” she says.

“It just wasn’t practical. There was no consideration for inflation and those kinds of things. There were long-term investments where we lost interest.” There were, as well, expensive divorce settlements. Of the four sisters who survived into adulthood, only Yvonne never married. Both

Annette and Cécile wed at 23, marrying the first boyfriends they had ever known, Germain Allard and Philippe Langlois. In 1958, Marie became the wife of Florian Houle, a man 14 years

her senior. Among them, they had 10 children: two for Marie, three for Annette and five for Cécile. But all of the unions ended unhappily.

Marie deteriorated rapidly not long after her separation from her husband in 1964. Always the frailest of the quints in terms of her health, she fell into a deep depression, exacerbated by alcoholism. Marie was 36 when she died alone in her Montreal apartment in 1970, apparently from a blood clot in her brain. Her body was not discovered for three days. Cécile refuses to discuss her sister’s sad fate. “Marie’s death is still too difficult for me to speak about,” she murmurs. “Maybe later.” She is equally reticent about her own divorce, which occurred 30

years ago.

On the subject of the TV movie that she and her sisters are being paid “six figures” to advise and promote, however, she is refreshingly candid, perhaps a little too candid for those who are producing it.

Quebec star Roy Dupuis, who has been cast in the role of Oliva Dionne, “does not fit at all the physi-

cal image I have of my father,” she says. Céline Bonnier, who plays her mother, is equally miscast. “When I first saw her I said, ‘My, you’re little,’ ” Cécile recalls with a chuckle. “My mother was not like that. She was a tall woman, very big.”

Even more questionable in Cécile’s view, Million Dollar Babies paints mother Elzire with far too sympathetic a brush. “It is not the way I remember her,” she says, referring to the script she has read and the rough cut she has seen, both of which portray the woman as consumed by love for the five little girls who were torn from her side barely two months after their birth. “Love?” Cécile asks, a little brutally. “I didn’t feel it. I didn’t even really know my mother. She was always too busy.” She ponders a moment, and her tone softens. “But I suppose there were too many for her to love. After all, she already had seven other kids by the time we went back to the big house.”

What would she say to her mother if she had the chance to meet her again? “Nothing bad,” Cécile replies, shaking her head. “No, nothing bad. When you come right down to it, I don’t think she could have done any better than she did because that was the way she was. She had a hard life even before she was married. She left school when she was only 11, you know, to care for her brothers and handle the household chores. Then, she was married when she was 16. By the time we arrived on the scene, she already had five children. It could not have been easy for her.”

If there is a glimmer of sympathy in Cécile’s attitude to her mother, there is little for her father. “He was a difficult man to know,” she says. “We never did manage to communicate.” She has to think long and hard when she is asked what she would say to Oliva if she were to meet him again. She finally replies, very quietly: “Let’s pass.”

Cécile’s view of Dafoe, played by Beau Bridges in the mini-series as a kind of surrogate father for the quints, is only slightly less cool. “He leaves me very indifferent,” she maintains of the doctor, who died in 1943. “If I remember it well, he came to see us twice a day when we were in the nursery. I never had anything against him, but I don’t like it when I read that we looked on him as a fa-

ther. That is simply not true. We didn’t need a father. It was a mother that we needed.”

Despite the bleak picture that Cécile paints of the principal characters in her life, at the same time she does not remember her early years as being unpleasant. She admits there were harrowing moments, such as those captured in the movie when the quints’ nurses locked them in broom closets or tied their wrists to their beds. “They thought we were playing with our genital parts,” she explains, scornfully. But at the same time, the early years were, on balance, good ones for the quints. “The best part of our lives was in the beginning,” she says, visibly brightening. “When we were young, we were treated like princesses. We didn’t know it at the time but we didn’t care either. We were happy.”

The difficult moments came later, after the family was reunited in the mansion in 1943. “There were two distinct entities in that big house,” says author Nihmey, whose book looks at the quint phenomenon from the viewpoint of the parents. “On the one hand, there were the five little girls who had finally returned home. On the other, there were brothers and sisters who had watched the quints develop from afar, both proud and envious at the same time.”

It was not an easy situation. Cécile remembers it well. ‘We lived separate lives,” she says. “But there was always so much tension in our relationships, always so many quarrels. Our brothers and sisters, even our parents, always clung to the idea that we were the cause of their misery, their unhappiness.” According to Cécile, those early strains within the larger Dionne family—which endured until the quints moved out at the age of 18—were devastating over the long term. “If I am sick now,” she remarks with a mirthless laugh, “it is maybe the result of everything that happened when we all went back to the big house.”

To this day, there is a clear division within the Dionnes between the remaining quints and the rest of the family. Cécile and her quint sisters rarely meet or even talk with that branch of the family, which continues to live in and around Corbeil. “There’s a telephone call at Christmas, not much more,” she says. The surviving quints have returned home only twice—for their father’s funeral in 1979, and shortly before their mother died in 1986. On both occasions, according to Cécile, the atmosphere was “glacial.”

It is not likely to improve much in the immediate future, particularly if the quints’ new autobiography, which is scheduled for publication this coming spring, hews to the same general line as We Were Five. In that book, the quints laid at least some of the blame for their plight on their father and their siblings, who, they say, made them feel guilty for their unusual birth and the family discord that ensued. Neither Cécile nor author Jean-Yves Soucy are ready as yet to divulge details of the new work. “I’m simply telling their story through their own eyes,” says Soucy. “I want the reader to see what they saw, feel what they felt.” According to Cécile, the book will be “very personal,” an intimate exploration “of our own secret garden.” Clearly, amid the rosy patches of the Dionne Quintuplets’ memories there are also many thorns. □