Articles

MY NEIGHBORS THE QUINTS

Rumors and myths grew up around Callander’s famous five faster than the girls themselves. Are they dumb in school? Do they wear false teeth? A reporter who’s known them, and the controversial people around them, ever since that startling day in May, 1934, tells the real story

BRUCE McLEOD December 15 1950
Articles

MY NEIGHBORS THE QUINTS

Rumors and myths grew up around Callander’s famous five faster than the girls themselves. Are they dumb in school? Do they wear false teeth? A reporter who’s known them, and the controversial people around them, ever since that startling day in May, 1934, tells the real story

BRUCE McLEOD December 15 1950

Rumors and myths grew up around Callander’s famous five faster than the girls themselves. Are they dumb in school? Do they wear false teeth? A reporter who’s known them, and the controversial people around them, ever since that startling day in May, 1934, tells the real story

MY NEIGHBORS THE QUINTS

BRUCE McLEOD

THE BUXOM matron with OHIO stenciled on the back of her white shirt slid off a stool at the soda bar of a North Bay dime store.

“How about driving down to Callander for a look at the quints?” she suggested to a slack-clad companion.

The second woman shook her head. “You can’t see the Dionnes any more,” she said. “I hear they’re going to be nuns.”

“OHIO” dabbed at her chins with a serviette. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she nodded. “A friend told me that’s why Mrs. Dionne went to see the Pope last year. And have you seen recent pictures of them? My goodness

A few feet away two pleasant-looking teen-agers, with chunky legs and high cheekbones, examined a counter filled with costume jewelry. As the Americans strode toward an exit the girls politely stepped aside to let them pass. But neither “OHIO” nor her friend realized they had just brushed elbows with two of the Famous Five.

Indeed, with the possible exception of a few North Bay people, it is doubtful if anybody in the store recognized the youthful shoppers as Emilie and Yvonne Dionne.

Few persons, of course, expect to find the quints, whose bank account runs into a million, shopping unescorted in a crowded five-and-ten. Or anywhere else, for that matter. For reasons which Oliva

Dionne, their farmer father, professes not to understand, the public usually associates movements of the quints with burly police guards, deep secrecy and special precautions. Actually, this is not always the case, though Dionne still fears crowds and seldom permits more than two or three of his daughters to appear publicly at one time.

Members of the North Bay detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police, who always disliked being nursemaids to the quints, are happy about Dionne’s decision to let his daughters sally forth without a police guard. “Thank God,” one of them remarked to me recently, “we’re no longer assigned very often to the Petticoat Patrol.”

Actually, it’s surprising how many people wouldn’t know a quint if they bumped into one. Not long ago I was in a North Bay grocery when three of them, accompanied by classmates from Villa Notre Dam, their private school, bustled up to a fruit counter. A woman nearby nudged her husband and whispered, “Look, triplets!”

She, like countless others, probably still thinks of the Dionne quintuplets as they were when they were five or six years old. She doesn’t picture them as they are today; doesn’t realize that Marie, Emilie, Yvonne, Cécile and Annette, now approaching 17, have, in fact, grown up. The fact that they have been seen so little in recent years, coupled with a declining interest in them generally,

has left the public with some rather vague and antiquated notions.

When the quints traveled to New York last October they received a rousing welcome. But this has always been the case when they appeared in a group of five, dressed in identical clothes and preceded by a tremendous publicity blast. Many people think that the quints, attired in contrasting costumes and appearing in twos or threes, could walk down Fifth Avenue without turning anybody’s head. As a matter of fact, after their hectic welcome at the New York station, they stopped off at church on their way to the convent at which they were to stay and none of the worshippers guessed their identity.

Unfortunately, the people who best remember the quints as they were 10 years ago sometimes take it for granted that the unhappy situations which developed in those bygone days still exist. Too many ill-informed people write the sisters off as stubborn, not-too-bright Canadiens who suffer from inferiority complexes because of the controversies and bitterness which swirled around them during their formative years.

Once the annual summer rush of holidayers gets under way, receptionists at the North Bay Chamber of Commerce Information Bureau can expect questions such as these: “Why don’t the quints

speak English?”—“Has

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Marie a bad eye?”—“Is it true that the Quints have false teeth?”—“Does Oliva Dionne set dogs on people who go on his property?”—“Is Mrs. Dionne really going to have triplets?”—“Will l’oppa Dionne still sell his autograph?”— “Do the Quints have boy friends?”

For the record here’s the answers:

The famous five do speak English but with an accent and usually only when making guest appearances. The legend that they never speak English became popular after a Mother’s Day broadcast in 1941 when the quints insisted on delivering their message in French. They received 4,000 indignant letters.

Marie wears glasses and has trouble with one eye but* the story about false teeth is a myth. Their teeth are bad, however, and Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe once told me that if Mrs. Dionne had given her permission operations would have been performed when the girls were babies to correct malformations of their jaws.

Recent reports that Mrs. Dionne was expecting again and that X-rays had disclosed the birth was to be multiple (triplets) are indignantly denied by Mrs. Dionne.

Poppa Dionne keeps at least one large watchdog, but he insists it’s friendly. This view is not endorsed, however, by a Toronto reporter who barged unannounced onto the Dionne property not long ago and was chased back into his car by a dog which he described “as big as a horse and eager to taste-test my leg.”

Poppa Skipped Grade 8

As for boy friends, the quints haven’t got to that stage yet, though dates may be arranged for them before long. Last New Year’s Eve, when Dionne invited neighbors Mrs. Orma McNaughton and her husband to the Dionne home for a house party, he asked them to bring a boy friend for elder daughter Therese who was home for the holiday.

“I’m just testing you.” he chuckled to Mrs. McNaughton. “One of these days 1 may be calling you for five at a

When dates are arranged you can bet they’ll be boys carefully chosen from French-speaking families.

One woman columnist who came from Arkansas to write a feature on the I quints, only to be brushed off by Oliva ! Dionne, indignantly told me last July: "They can't be very bright. If they were, why wouldn’t their father let them write their entrance examinations like other school children?”

Actually, the quints are capable students with a flair for art. music, history and literature. The controversy over their entrance exams was touched off by their father, who refused to let them leave their private school to write the tests. Villa Notre Dam was not an inspected school as required by the Ontario Department of Education, but Lucien Laplante, a French-Catholic inspector, suggested that the quints should be graded on the recommendation of the sister who was conducting their classes. The Department of Education offered to make a token inspection of the quints’ school.

“That’s not suitable to Mr. Dionne,” | said Laplante. It was suggested that the quints could write their exams in Bonfield. North Ray or Callander, and if poppa didn’t want them to associate with other children they could arrive late and leave early. “Not satisfactory to Mr. Dionne.” Laplante insisted. As

a result the quints never did write the tests, but they were passed on to the next grade.

Oliva Dionne is a stubborn and sometimes irascible man in most matters concerning his famous daughters, especially when he tries to reconcile the myths with which the public often surrounds the quints with the facts as he knows them.

When it was announced the girls would visit New York in October to attend a benefit dinner for the Alfred Smith Memorial Building, a New York department store offered to outfit Dionne’s daughters with identical gowns. Oliva accepted, then indignantly rejected the proposal when New York newspapers suggested he couldn’t afford to clothe his children.

“Whv don’t people find out the truth?” he complained. “I wish they’d leave us alone.”

But when the girls returned from New York Oliva said he was grateful for the attention focused on them and the kindness shown to them. The quints visited young movie star Margaret O’Brien and the 17-months-old Collins quadruplets of Brooklyn. Oliva refused to comment on the suggestion that the trip was all part of a plan to recoup some of the public notice the girls had lost in recent years— along with advertising contracts which had fallen to an all-time low.

These incidents provide an insight into the enigma that is Dionne. In one breath he invites people to know him better. In the next he rebuffs them with a demand to be left alone. He deplores publicity, yet is piqued if ignored. On occasion he can be most gracious: on others, exasperating, unreasoning and difficult.

Allowance for Five S10

I remember once while working for the North Bay Nugget 1 called on Olive and he greeted me very coolly.

1 mentioned this to Keith Munro, business manager for the quints, and he offered to investigate.

It turned out that Poppa was peeved because the Nugget, quite by accident, had dropped him from its mailing list, of free papers. When the paper was restored he was all smiles again.

For some time now Oliva hasn’t spoken to me not since 1 mentioned in a newspaper story that people didn’t seem interested in the Dionnes. Before starting this article for Maclean’s I called him at his home (his phone is unlisted). This was the conversation:

“Is Oliva Dionne there, please?”

“Oliva Dionne speaking.”

“This is Bruce McLeod, Oliva.

. . ”

“This is Ernest,” interjected the same voice. “Mr. Dionne is out.”

“Well, Ernest,” I continued, “I hear your father is annoyed with me—

but would ”

“Maybe I have reason to be annoyed,” snapped the voice.

“Look,” 1 persisted, “is that Oliva or Ernest?”

Long pause. “Mr. Dionne is out,”

finally came the reply.

Today, at 47, the father of the quints remains a slim sometimes explosive Canadien with large expressive brown eyes, thinning hair and an easily bruised ego. He hates the use of the word “quints.” The bitterness which rankled in him during the long battle to reunite his family under one roof has mellowed, but only a little.

A devout Catholic, Dionne is both a stern and affectionate father wfio does not believe in spoiling children. The quints, in spite of their fortune, get only $2 each a month as spending money. Each has household duties and rises at 7 a m. Mrs. Dionne employs

no help to keep the comfortably furnished, five-piano, 18-room mansion in order.

Oliva likes to entertain, has his own bar. But in the presence of guests never calls his wife anything but Mrs. Dionne. She calls him “Mr.” Sometimes he can he the life of the party. Once he delighted and surprised guests by appearing in a long plaid skirt demonstrate the highland fling.

Bill Flannery, a North Bay lawyer who until his death a few weeks ago acted as Dionne’s legal adviser, had own formula for getting along with Oliva. “Pat him on the back,” used to say. “Never step on his toes.” In the 16 years since the morning May, 1934. when the quints were born I have enjoyed an unusual opportunity to watch their story unfold. I visitée them frequently during their childhood and in 1944 1 conducted the first press interview with them. Several oi the youngsters’ nurses were gooc friends of mine and so was the “LittU Doc” who brought them into tin world and got them started on healthy life.

Looking back over those yean I cannot help but feel that the quinti themselves were less bruised by the problems which beset them than most of t he people around them.

They Want the Stage Alone

Their biggest problemsurvival—if far behind them. They are normal healthy young girls who haven’t required a doctor in two years. Annette perhaps is the brightest and acts as her father’s secretary. Marie is slower than her sisters, but has talent as a singer and musician. They are not good-looking but pleasant, unspoiled, reasonably intelligent girls with varying emotions and abilities. F’ar from being introverts, as predicted by some authorities, they are if anything extroverts inclined to show off. They love people and crowds and even at the age of three displayed all the footlights temperament of born prima don ans.

One of Oliva’s biggest beefs during the years the quints were surpervised by the Ontario Government (until I942i was that they were “being made a show of.” He needn’t have worried. The quints loved it, sometimes wept it bad weather or illness canceled a showing.

Yvonne i-eroux, the quints' first nurse and a woman who knew them best in those early days, once observed, “Each wanted to be leading lady. No matter which one we picked up first for the public to sec, the others’ faces drooped with grief.”

Sometimes the quints still sulk il forced to share the limelight. Two years ago three of them saw their first professional hockey game an exhibition between Chicago Black Hawks and one of their farm clubs at North Bay’s Memorial Arena. When the (joints arrived, escorted by a police guard, the game was delayed while the Hawks’ publicity men got pictures. The crowd, which hadn't blinked an eye when the Dionnes appeared, was impatient. “Come on, get the game started!” bellowed one fan. Others stamped their feet. Not one of the quints cracked a smile or displayed any interest. They sat deadpan, munching crackerjack.

North Bay never got very lietup about the quinta. While many followed the quint story with interest, hundreds in the city have never seen them, couldn’t be bothered traveling 11 miles to Dafoe Hospital even when the famous five were being shown. The late Alexander Woollcott, who

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made a short movie with the quints in 1939. noted this and remarked: “People in Niagara seldom go to see the Falls. When you have one of the wonders of the world in your own back yard it’s only human to take it for granted.”

But this annoys and puzzles Oliva Dionne, who feels North Bay should be grateful to his daughters for helping to augment the city’s $4 million-a-year tourist industry. Most persons agree that the birth of the quintuplets gave the district’s vacation business a tremendous shot in the arm, but many believe that, had it not been for action by the Ontario Government to prevent the babies being exploited, they would not have lived.

They recall how, a few hours after the babies were born, Oliva signed them to a contract to appear at the Chicago World’s Fair. People screamed that for $100 a week this farmer was selling his babies to a midway.

The Doc Got the Brush-off

At the time, Dionne was a confused, desperate man. Poor—though never actually on relief as some people claimed—he was suddenly faced with the problem of feeding, clothing and caring for five new babies. A $3,000 mortgage on his farm was almost due. He consulted his parish priest who recommended that Dionne sign the contract. Not even Dr. Dafoe objected; he was sure the babies were living on borrowed time. When he realized his error Oliva acted to cancel the con-

Dionne has always insisted that he and his wife could have raised their children without government interference, that Dafoe got credit he didn’t deserve.

1 remember visiting Dafoe one afternoon in 1941. It was on his 58th birthday. He had been away for medical treatment and when he came home he discovered that the forces which had always sought to turn the quints against him had finally succeeded. The quints refused to speak to him. The clash of personalities, religion, money, language; the constant bickering and jockeying for position all were ended. And the “Little Doc” had neither the heart nor the desire to rejoin battle.

“Do you think,” 1 asked him, “that there was a better way to have handled this business? Perhaps a greater understanding of the parents’ point of

He scratched his massive head. “Maybe,” he shrugged. “I don’t know. My job was to keep the babies alive. Sometimes when you rescue a man from drowning it’s necessary to poke him on the jaw.”

“Hut maybe if someone had taken the time to explain things to Oliva . . ”

Dafoe Was Stern and Sharp

“Impossible,” Dafoe stabbed air with his pipe stem. “Dionne wouldn’t believe anything he couldn’t see.

1 tried to explain to him about germs why diapers and bottles had to be sterilized. His babies were dying of dysentery and he wouldn’t believe it because I couldn’t actually show him the germs How could anybody talk sense to a man like that?"

The day the “Little Doc” was ousted Dionne ordered the metal plaque bearing Dafoe's name removed from the stone gates in front of the Dafoe Hospital. And Dafoe died without collecting the $15 which he billed Oliva for attending Mrs Dionne at the birth of the quints. “He got enough out of it as it was,” Oliva once told

Dafoe at times was a stern, over bearing man with a sharp tongue. The welfare of his charges came first. Pat Mullin. a nurse in the Dionne home, asked once if she should iron the diapers used by the quints. “Iron everything but the babies themselves.'” ordered Dafoe. He was not always the easygoing, chuckling country doctor. 1 am not alone in thinking that it was only after watching Jean Hersholt. portray the role in a quint movie that Dafoe fell into character and became the homespun philosopher.

Few tourists today visit the site the quints’ 18-room Georgian-style home on Highway 94. The wide stretches of pavement in front of the new residence are deserted most of tiie time. They make a fine practice ground for the quints who are learning to drive their father’s new car. Even on a Sunday afternoon in midsummer there are seldom more than half dozen cars parked where once 7.000 cars a day stood bumper to bumper.

A Glut in Passion Pebbles

Two of the old souvenir boothsone still operated by Oliva remain open for business. The building which was the Da toe Hospital is used as the quints’ private school and the logsided nurses’ residence is occupied by sisters of the teaching staff. The pavilion where the quints appeared daily stands deserted and neglected. Nobody looks in the wooden trough where childless couples and honeymooners used to buy stones as goodluck charms “passion pebbles” one guard at the nursery used to call them'.’

The quints spend much of t huilt leisure time on the so-called "back lot” behind the Dionne home. There they picnic, hunt, ski and skate and cut their own Christmas tree each winter. The grounds are surrounded by a high wire fence and flood-lit. The gate, which is always open, bears a “NO ADMITTANCE” sign. Many people who eye the yellow brick mansion with its red roof and bright red door think it looks more like a government institution than the kind of home you’d expect to find in the northern pines. '

They Have Seen a Lot

In Callander, two miles away, 'the quint boom is a fading memory. There are empty stores and rooms for rent in hotels and tourist camps. Gone are the promoters, hucksters and shysters who thronged the village streets. Madame Legros, who helpe d deliver three of the quints before Dr. Dafoe arrived, runs her small souvenir shop and still advertises “the original basket of the quints" in spite of Oliva’s claim that he gave her a substitute and Dafoe’s statement that he burned the original basket.

Villagers sit m Keeve Len Wookey’s Bed Line Inn, sip their beer and t ; 11 ly about the days when 300,000 cars a month rolled past the taproom on thu wav to Daloe Hospital. And the reeve, a retired opera singer who went to Callander at the height of till* rush, shakes his shaggy mane of black hair and delivers ringing arguments in favor ol a monument for the “Little Doc” i in a park directly across from the Bed Line

And the quints’ future? It’s anybody's guess I wouldn’t lie surprised il they go abroad perhaps to Europe, in the next year. Oliva Dionne says simply: “They will make their own decisions with no pressure from us. They are getting their religious imd social life as well as we can give it to them They have seen a lot more tliuA we ever did at their age." if