Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Dionnes

I started reading The Dionnes by Ellie Tesher while in the Cape Town departure lounge waiting for my flight to Johannesburg. Since I did nothing but read this book while flying back to Toronto, I almost finished it on board. I have always been attracted to the Dionnes' story yet this is only the first book I have ever read about them. When I read a book I start from the front cover, and I mean it. I am interested in the bibliographic and publishing data and I like to see how the book is catalogued. The first page of cataloguing information credits one of the cover photos to Peter Powell of the Toronto Star. Yet on the first page of the Acknowledgements it says:

"I thank Peter Power of the Star for the powerful photo that helped connect me to the surviving Dionne quintuplets and their story, and that so appropriately graces the book's cover."

So I rolled my eyes at the shoddy editing job even before I got to the official page one. Tesher herself works for the Toronto Star so I wonder how that mistake could have been made.

The Dionnes' story is nothing less than tragic. The quintuplets were removed from their northern Ontario household shortly after their birth and under the pretext of maintaining their fragile health they were isolated from their parents. What may have been a noble yet necessary precaution to protect five premature infants turned into a circuslike freakshow where five toddlers were exhibited at scheduled times in a grotesque human theme park known as Quintland. The girls never knew their own parents or their siblings, and by the time they were reunited as a family the estrangement had already set in. The girls were regarded as pariahs in their own family and Tesher reports that to this day their many siblings shut them out of their lives.

At the time The Dionnes was published in 2000, three of the quintuplets were still living (Annette, Cécile and Yvonne; Yvonne died in 2001) and Tesher was given rare access to them for this biography. The Dionnes usually shun the media but needed Tesher's help as they sought publicity in their threatened lawsuit against the Ontario government for pilfering their trust fund. Tesher exposed how the girls' fund was emptied as it paid for the means of their own blatant exploitation, for it was the quintuplets' own money that funded Quintland, not the government's, even though the government was raking in millions of tourist dollars in the years immediately following the Depression:

"The commercialization had turned the sisters into a flourishing industry instead of five members of a family. And it was all made possible by the unique legal structure the provincial government had set up to exploit the situation."

Legislation was rushed through parliament to give the government some veil of legitimacy behind its money-making exploitation of the Dionnes. The doctor who assisted in their birth, Dr. Alan R. Dafoe, was portrayed as a self-obsessed egotist with a God complex, who wrested the sisters from their parents and put them under his care in a facility specially built for them named not after the Dionnes but after himself: the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery:

"What was really wrong in all of this was the official stamp of approval given to Dafoe's belief that he had more rights as regarded the five girls than did their real father and mother."

Numerous medical and psychological tests were conducted on the Dionnes and it was also their own trust fund money that funded these dubious tests, as well as paid for the doctors and nurses:

"A 1937 scientific paper that [Dr. William E.] Blatz and his associates coauthored in Collected Studies on the Dionne Quintuplets for the University of Toronto openly enthuses that 'for the first time in history five children are growing up in a restricted social atmosphere of multiple contemporary siblings.' In its conclusions, the paper also points out fairly proudly that 'for the past two years they have been on display almost daily.'
"Although Blatz is still revered by some as the father of child psychology in Canada, none of the tests he administered was necessary for the healthy development of the five little girls. The children received no counselling or treatment with regard to their unusual upbringing, or as a result of his findings."


"If anything further was needed to confirm the sisters' feelings that they were part of a sideshow, it was the fact that they were treated as laboratory specimens by scientists, with the government's blessing."

I did not like Tesher's overwrought maudlin tales of woe as she reported how Annette, Cécile and Yvonne were stricken with health problems and couldn't work any longer, or couldn't work at all in the first place. The sisters are portrayed as pathetic figures without any sense of inner strength to triumph over past tragedies. Ironically, it was hard to have any sympathy for these sisters since Tesher made them out as cowardly weaklings afraid to set foot outside their own front door. In spite of this portrayal, by the end of the book they found the resolve to make the Ontario government right its past wrongs against them by awarding them $4 million in compensation. Without a lawsuit, and only through the negotiations between the sisters with their lawyers and the government, they found the strength and confidence to turn down smaller offers, some of them as high as seven figures, until they reached a figure they felt they deserved. The sisters can stand tall knowing that they will live the rest of their lives proudly vindicated, and not as victims of the exploitative Ontario government.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Be My Guest

I picked up Be My Guest by Conrad Hilton when I stayed at the Milwaukee Hilton several years ago. Guests of Hilton hotels in addition to finding the standard free soap and shampoo also receive a complimentary copy of Hilton's memoir, originally written in 1957. I started reading Be My Guest while aboard S. A. Agulhas II en route from Cape Town, South Africa to Tristan da Cunha. I finished the book on board and while I wanted to leave it in the ship's library when I had finished it, the lack of Internet on board, both on my way to Tristan as well as coming back, precluded me from posting this review from the ship. Thus I have waited until my return to Cape Town to post this.

Be My Guest was an engaging story that I enjoyed reading each night. It was a can't-put-down book, wherein Hilton documented his family story, often with humorous anecdotes, from the courtship of his parents and his boyhood growing up in New Mexico to his founding of one of the greatest hotel chains worldwide.

Each of Hilton's parents instilled in him a guiding principle that he has followed all of his life. From his mother, Mary Laufersweiler Hilton, he learned the power of prayer and from his father Gus he learned the value of work. In addition to these principles Hilton added his own: that one must never be afraid to dream. And to dream big . And big is exactly how Conrad Hilton dreamt.

Hilton got his first taste of the hotel industry when a currency panic in October 1907 left his father nearly broke. His family soon realized that they had been literally sitting on a moneymaker:

"We had the biggest, ramblingest adobe house in New Mexico directly facing a railroad station on a main line. And we had my mother's cooking. This added up to only one thing--a Hilton Hotel."

Be My Guest had plenty of humorous moments and I can imagine Hilton himself laughing out loud as he recalled some moments from his childhood. I'll bet he had a good time writing (or dictating) his story. Having such a devoutly Catholic mother kept a young Connie always on his toes:

"Almost as much as going to church or playing hooky, I liked going down the road to talk with Charles Hislie, the carpenter, or Carl Jenks, the village blacksmith and dentist. Mr. Jenks shoed horses or pulled teeth, whichever service was required at the moment. My brother Carl, after an extraction, claimed that he used the same instruments for both operations, but I have no first-hand knowledge of that.
"As I seldom had a toothache I loved to hang around Mr. Jenks' emporium and smell the pungent hot smell and listen to the hammer ringing on the anvil. I also liked to hear Mr. Jenks cuss. He was very talented in that direction and to this day I believe he had as extensive a vocabulary as any man I ever met.
"This hero worship was rudely interrupted when an unsuitable word escaped my lips at dinner table. Mother was shocked. Gus paused in carving the roast only long enough to glare at me and say, 'You stay away from the smithy.' From that time I did, except on dental business when I was accompanied by my lady mother."

Mrs. Hilton also features in an amusing story after her son had made his fortune in the hotel business. She could not accustom herself to having others do for her what she had proudly always done herself:

"My mother, I might add, never did modernize her views on tipping. When she lived for some years at the El Paso Hilton, this was a source of some amusement and much conniving on the part of her children. I, myself, would take her twenty or thirty quarters with specific instructions that she was to give one or two to any bellboy, any waiter, anyone, indeed, who gave her special service, depending on the extra amount of trouble it gave him.

"'I'll try, Connie,' she'd say.
"And I would find out from my sister Helen that, as soon as my back was turned, she'd trot down to the cashier and have the quarters converted into dimes, with which she reluctantly rewarded any service she absolutely could not do herself. Ten cents remained all her life the most she could bring herself to tip."

Be My Guest traces Hilton's shift from buying banks to buying hotels. At first he took over older hotels and transformed them according to his vision. The Hilton empire of new hotels was not his immediate intention. Only after his frustration in having to renovate yet another older building did he consider starting to build his next hotel from the ground up.

It was however not a new hotel but the palatial Queen of all hotels, the Waldorf Astoria, that was his prime target for many years. Its prestige as the height of luxurious hotel accommodation and reputation for unparallelled service made it the diamond in the eye of the Big Apple. He dreamt of owning it one day, and this big dream of his would one day become true. Hilton wrote of his many offers and counteroffers, and offered his insights into the skills of negotiation and the honour in keeping your word with a handshake.

The Waldorf Astoria may be the Queen of his "dowager" hotels, yet he still had to revitalize it to meet Hilton standards. However even when confronted with a rather unfortunate reality of hotel ownership, Hilton can still elicit a smile:

"A wire from Carl at the Waldorf pinpointed this vague feeling. 'Fellow in 202 bumped himself off last night. After looking at his room I don't blame him. We have got to fix up those rooms.'
"I somehow doubted that the décor in 202 had driven the poor fellow to suicide. Unfortunately tired people, discouraged people have sought the impersonal solitude of a hotel for their unhappy business since time immemorial."

One of the pleasures of reading Be My Guest were its stories away from the wheeling and dealing and cornerstone laying. I was absorbed not only in the stories of Hilton's boyhood but also in the tales about his wives and children. Hilton's second marriage was to Zsa Zsa Gabor which in retrospect he could see "was doomed before it started". He recounted with heaving exasperation the countless times he tried to curb her spending habits:

"Glamour, I found, is expensive, and Zsa Zsa was glamour raised to the last degree. She also knew more days on which gifts could be given than appear on any holiday calendar. And then, of course, you could always give gifts because it was no special day at all and thereby transform it."


"I have tried to instill sound business principles into my beautiful Circe, but I might as well have practiced on a statue in the park."

Be My Guest , being that it was published in 1957 at the end of the communist red scare of McCarthyism, ends its final chapters with Hilton vowing to fight communism. The anti-communist tone seems like a time warp of a read for today's reader, yet at the time the red menace was seen as a legitimate threat and proud Americans showed their patriotism by publicly fighting against it. To Hilton, his hotels bridged cultures by bringing the peoples of the world together as a united front against communism.

Hilton ends his book by listing his ten ingredients for successful living. His words of wisdom may help others realize their dreams. Herewith are the Hilton top ten:

Find your own particular talent.
Be big.
Be honest.
Live with enthusiasm.
Don't let your possessions possess you.
Don't worry about your problems.
Don't cling to the past.
Look up to people when you can--down to no one.
Assume your full share of responsibility for the world in which you live.
Play consistently and confidently. 

Never Say Never: Finding a Life that Fits

I fell in love with Ricki Lake when I first saw her in the John Waters production of "Hairspray" in 1988. I saw that film over and over in Toronto's second-run cinemas and even bought the all-too-brief soundtrack. What endeared me more than her performance was the way she seemed in real life when she appeared on talk shows, especially her initial appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman". I loved how real she was, totally unaffected by fame, and she was in awe of Letterman as of the adoring attention she received from the audience. Close to a quarter century after the original "Hairspray" I still do not believe there is a phony bone in her body. What you see is what you get with Ricki Lake, and her memoir Never Say Never: Finding a Life that Fits (written with Rebecca DiLiberto) is an extension of herself:

"I can't help but be honest all the time, wearing my heart on my sleeve. Even though I've been on this earth for forty-three years, I'm so naive that every time someone I get close to turns out to be two-faced, I'm shocked. Please do not think I'm trying to take any moral high ground here--I wish I were capable of being sneakier, of concealing my motives--but I'm incapable of acting like a convincing phony, and it never ceases to amaze me when people I think I know well turn out to be acting their way through real life.
"I hate the idea of living in a world where everything I say and do is calculated rather than natural. Performing your way through life is exhausting and no fun at all."

Lake shares her life story yet keeps the pre-"Hairspray" tale brief. The book's focus before she was cast as the first Tracy Turnblad was her childhood ordeal of sexual abuse at the hands of a family handyman. Lake believes, as do most psychologists, that overweight girls who were sexually molested learned to view food as protection, as a way of making them deliberately overweight in order to seem unattractive to future abusers. The molester was never caught and Lake's own parents did nothing to comfort her when the truth came out. Her parents hoped everything would go away, yet Lake remains crushed in that she was never given any support from her mother and father.

After enrolling in two performing arts schools, Lake gets her big break when she responds to an audition for a happy fat girl who can dance. She gives credit where credit is due, calling John Waters her "fairy godmother" and saying that she "wouldn't even have a career if it weren't for John". Lake spends several chapters talking about the filming of "Hairspray" and of her loving but unfortunately brief friendship with her on-screen mother, portrayed by Divine. Divine died just days after the movie's premiere.

Lake's next big project was the TV movie "Babycakes". I remember when this movie was being filmed because it was shot in Toronto and the media were all over Lake. I had even hoped to run into her downtown since I was attending the University of Toronto at the time. Lake however errs in the photo captions (if in fact she wrote her own captions) for although she does tell the story about shooting the movie in Toronto, the caption in the photos section reads "With Craig Sheffer, my love interest in Babycakes, on a New York City subway platform."

It was after shooting "Babycakes" that roles for loveable fat girls dried up. Lake could no longer find work in a leading role. Throughout her life Lake battled her weight and when there was no longer good work she decided to reinvent herself in an attempt to remain in show business. She writes:

"My need for personal reinvention had never been this intense. This time, it wasn't about being healthier, or happier, or finding some other sane, emotionally sound reason to lose weight. It was about taking care of myself financially. I knew I needed to get a job, and soon."

I remember seeing Lake's first appearance on "Letterman" after she lost well over half her body weight. When asked what motivated her, Lake replied that she at first lost all the weight to try to attract a guy, but then confided that she really did it because she got so sick and tired of having to rest in order to catch her breath after climbing a flight of stairs. She had thus lost the weight for herself, not for another person. In Never Say Never, Lake tells the background of the guy part of the story:

"It's a teensy bit disingenuous for me to claim that 100 percent of my motivation in finally losing weight was financial. I also did it to get this guy to like me."

The guy though was not interested in Lake because he was gay and in the closet. Lake did not need to diet in order to please a man, and she learned to appreciate her body for herself. When she learned the right motivation to embark upon a drastic weight-loss program, she writes:

"Truth be told, I should really be grateful that Aidan was gay. It was because he wasn't sexually attracted to me that I finally decided to lose weight."

Lake looks at her life's disappointments as learning points and no matter how tragic the circumstances, she finds the lemonade within. Even her third-place finish in "Dancing with the Stars" was a triumph. She looks at herself now, and imagines her former fat self squeezing into some of those dresses and being lifted aloft by another man on the dance floor. That show gave her a confidence boost like no other. With an attitude like this, none of Lake's brain space is used to hold on to negativity or grudges:

"How could I so easily forgive someone so inconsiderate? When I think about what my ex-husband Rob and I had to go through with our divorce--how hard it was--I just think life is too short to hold on to negative feelings."

This is one reason why I love Ricki Lake. We both do not hold grudges. I am all too willing to give people second chances, and to forgive those who have wronged me. Why pollute my mind with negative feelings, and allow poisonous thoughts to live rent-free in my mind? Go Ricki!

In Never Say Never Lake seems to discuss her milestones as a series of rebirths: her new self as a movie star; as a wife; and as a mother and filmmaker. The latter two could be considered one and the same, for Lake used the occasion of the birth of her second son as the starting point behind a campaign for the rights of all women to choose the method of birth best suited for themselves. Instead of looking at pregnant woman as patients and at the birthing process as a clinical procedure, Lake regards childbirth as natural, primal and earthly, an event that should be made with educated choices versus being made to feel like a pawn in the medical establishment, going through the motions at the convenience of doctors and pharmacists. Lake used the birth of her second child in her film "The Business of Being Born", a documentary which analyzes all birth options and supports the right of a woman to have the education to choose the best birth option for her.

Ricki Lake has triumphed in Hollywood, in the dog-eat-dog world of daytime talk shows, and in her battle with remaining thin and being healthy. Ricki has the loves of her life in the form of her two sons, Milo and Owen, and at the time of writing she had just become engaged. (Ricki has since remarried.) Ricki's smile, her giggles and her honesty are traits that made me love her for over twenty years, and I am thankful that she opened up her life with no holds barred to her fans in Never Say Never. She would never consider herself as a role model, but she is, for she is living proof that you can realize your dreams.