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Curiosity and the Canadian quints

For decades, they were the most famous children in the world. Impossibly adorable, charming, a seeming paragon of hope in a dark time. On May 28, the two surviving Dionne Quintuplets quietly turned 68. Much as they might wish to be, they are not forgotten.

Their story is too unusual, too much a product of their era, too much entwined with popular culture.

Few know this better than Sharon Clark-Berard, director of the Dionne Quints Museum in North Bay, Ontario. She spends a lot of time thinking about the implications of what happened to the quintuplets.

"I've been here 15 years," she says. "What keeps me interested is that, every few years, another layer peels back and we understand a bit more."

The basic facts are clear. In 1934, at the bottom of the Depression, Mrs. Elzire Dionne gave birth to five identical girls in nearby Corbeil, Ontario. Marie, Annette, Cecile, Yvonne and Emilie. Their combined weight was 14 pounds, 5 ounces. Miraculously, they all lived _ at the time, the only known quintuplets to survive more than a few days.

Although the birth of quintuplets is estimated at 1 in 57-million, the use of fertility drugs has made it slightly more common now.

But the Dionnes' birth and survival were such symbols of hope in those crushing times that they galvanized the public interest.

The Ontario government stepped in and took the children away from their parents. A special facility, Quintland, was built where the children could be viewed by tourists periodically. Their father, Oliva, opened up a souvenir shop across the road. Their uncle opened a gas station with five pumps, each named for one of the girls.

The local doctor who had kept them alive, Dr. A. R. Dafoe, became world-famous. Highway 11 was built to accommodate the 3-million visitors who came to north-central Ontario to see the girls _ spending a few dollars with the local merchants on the visit.

The sisters appeared in feature films, endorsed dolls, calendars, toothpaste, corn syrup, dresses and just about anything else. They met the king of England and, in Canada, were more popular than Shirley Temple.

After nine years of living cloistered yet very public lives, the sisters were "reunited" with their parents and eight siblings _ whom they barely knew. Family dynamics were stressed beyond the average person's comprehension.

Eventually a couple of the quintuplets entered convents.

Emilie joined a religious order and, in spite of having asked never to be abandoned when having one of her epileptic seizures, she died in 1954 in the convent, alone, as a result of one. She was just 20 years old.

Marie died at the age of 35, of unknown causes. At the time she also was alone, and when her body was found, the medical examiner estimated that she had been dead for four days.

The surviving sisters had failed marriages, then moved in together and were living in near-poverty.

They wrote two books outlining what they said was the mental, emotional and even sexual abuse they had suffered by being taken from their family and then, years later, being dropped back into the middle of that group.

There was a great deal of jealousy, the sisters wrote, because some of the other siblings resented the special treatment they perceived the quintuplets had received.

The sisters did have constant nursing care and had their own playground and swimming pool. But, Cecile was quoted as saying in the late '90s, the playground was surrounded by one-way glass that allowed tourists to look in without being seen _ yet the girls could see their shadows and always knew they were being watched.

The quintuplets' parents were allowed to visit, but the girls knew them only as some more visitors, no one special.

In 1997, the three sisters sued the Ontario provincial government for mismanagement of their trust fund, money derived from the royalties and donations sent to them more than a half century earlier.

This fund had been charged for everything from the building of a tennis court for the nurses who looked after the girls, to Dafoe's postage stamps, to their own birthday presents. At least half the fortune that passed through their trust fund had largely disappeared by the time they needed it.

The government at first refused to compensate the sisters, who were then in their mid 60s. Then provincial officials offered a few thousand dollars a month pension for the three of them.

Finally in March 1998, the province agreed to donate about $2.3-million U.S. to a children's help hotline and to pay the sisters about $933,000 each.

Yvonne died last year in Montreal, from the effects of cancer. She was 67.

The two surviving sisters have tried to live out of the public eye as much as possible, unless it is to promote their chosen cause, the children's hotline.

The whole story seems incredible. But as museum director Clark-Berard says, "You catch yourself all the time saying, "What were (the government caretakers) thinking?'

"But it is important not to judge the past by today's standards. What happened was so much a product of its time, a reflection of the attitudes of people in the 1930s.

"Regimentation was seen as important in child rearing. No one questioned it deeply. Bonding and socialization are modern terms. The majority of the damage was created through ignorance, not malice.

"Yes, greed and politics played a role, but most people thought they were doing what was best . . . Whether it is child rearing or what you should eat, people go on a mania and common sense goes out the window."

Clark-Berard added that, as is the case today, "The public feels it owns celebrities. It is different if the people involved are adults, but when it is children thrust into role . . ." She noted that the media fed the curiosity about the girls, too.

And the Depression also helped stir the pot. "The quints represented an enormous influx of cash into the province at an important time. While probably the worst thing to do for the quints, if you take it down to an individual level, people who couldn't feed their family one year had a thriving business the next" by filling the needs of tourists.

Interest in the quints continues. A regular stream of tourists comes to see the small house where they were born, which was conveniently relocated to the intersection of two highways in North Bay.

"Visitors break down into two main categories," says the house museum's director. "Some just wonder what happened. Others come for nostalgic reasons. A gentleman from Africa, on business in Toronto, visited a short while ago. His mother had said if was so close to the quints' home and he didn't come back with postcards and photos, she would kick his butt.

"Some (tourists) have followed the story all their lives. This is a trip of a lifetime for them. For a lot of people in the '30s, the quints represented that things could, and would, get better. They gave people hope. They transcended all social and ethnic backgrounds.

"After all, what's more appealing than a baby? Four more just like her."

Cleo Paskal is a freelance writer living in Ville St. Laurent, Quebec. Information from other news sources was used in this report.

If you go

GETTING THERE: North Bay is about 200 miles north of Toronto, which has direct air service from the Tampa Bay area.

THE MUSEUM: The Dionne Quints Museum, housed in the original home, is open daily, from mid May to mid October. The sisters support the museum at arm's length: They have no direct involvement, but they are paid for the use of their names, and they get royalties on the souvenirs.

A number of artifacts from their years here are on display. One of the the most-touching items is the turnstile that people used to push through on their way to view the kids.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Dionne Quints Museum, c/o North Bay & District Chamber of Commerce, 1375 Seymour St., North Bay, Ontario, P1B 8J8. Call toll-free 1-888-249-8998 or (705) 472-8480 or go to the Web site www.northbaychamber.com/quints.html.

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