My mother kept a Deanna Durbin scrapbook. This is one of the few items I have that belonged to her since she died 30 years ago this month. I kept a scrapbook at her age as well. It had pictures of The Beatles, programs from the plays I was in and later rock concerts I attended. Her book was all DURBIN, no exceptions.There are hundreds of pictures. I had no one I was in love with like she was with Deanna, except maybe Captain Kirk. Both Deanna and Kirk lived in fantasy worlds, but the actors who played them were/are long lived and showed a shrewd intelligence with age. They beat the Hollywood odds. They got out alive. I don’t think anyone but me would ever put Edna and The Shat in the same category but I believe they shared the capacity to “shat” on their Hollywood image.
Deanna Durbin died last week. She was born 3 years before my mother. Deanna Durbin was the Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus of the 1930’s . My mother loved Deanna, Barbara Streisand and Beverly “Bubbles” Sills for their voices and the dream they stood for.
The Great Depression was not as hard on my mother as it was on many people. Her father had a job with Pillsbury flour then eventually, he and my grandmother started their own funeral home. They and their six children lived over and in the funeral home. Perhaps this led to dramatic tendencies. Despite being quite a practical person, my mother had dreams that didn’t die with her adolescence. She didn’t go to college, neither did her sisters. Her brothers did. She had ambitions to sing and be in the movies. She was star struck. She passed the habit on by buying us movie magazines, those old black and white versions of People magazine when we were sick. I got sick a lot.
Would she have traded lives with Deanna Durbin? I think so. Hell, so would I! She got to be a movie star and got to have a long marriage, kids and live in France. My mother had a lovely voice which she passed on to my sister Beth, who now lives and sings in France. I have a loud voice but live in Alaska where no one can hear it, except through my blog.
Here’s some photos of Deanna at the height of her popularity. Her real name was Edna Mae.
Here’s a some photos of my mom after high school. That’s her in the pin stripes.
My mother’s middle name was Winifred. I took that as my confirmation name. My middle name is Cecilia, the patron saint of music. If my mother meant to offer me up as tribute, she chose the wrong kid. Yet, in a sense, I am still singing. Yesterday at work we sang about twenty karaoke songs. We did this out of joy, which is sometimes difficult to locate in the constellation of symptoms and regulations which restrict the lives of those who are recovering from mental health disabilities. Singing is a tool to release feeling and move out of the spectator role. It’s helpful to feel like a star once in a while.
Edna Mae got tired of being Deanna Durbin. Like Pinocchio, and the I Robot robot, she wanted to be a real person. Even though Anne Frank had two pictures of her on a wall in The Secret Annex, even though both Churchill and Mussolini were tremendous fans, even though she was one of the highest paid stars at the time, she opted out. She moved to France where they have socialized medicine.
From The New York Times article by Aljean Harmetz
“Ms. Durbin, who gave almost no interviews after she left Hollywood, did send reporters a letter in 1958 that read in part: “I was a typical 13-year-old American girl. The character I was forced into had little or nothing in common with myself — or with other youth of my generation, for that matter. I could never believe that my contemporaries were my fans. They may have been impressed with my ‘success.’ but my fans were the parents, many of whom could not cope with their own youngsters. They sort of adopted me as their ‘perfect’ daughter.”
(Clearly Ms. Durbin did not know my mother.)
….” she also wrote: “I was never happy making pictures. I’ve gained weight. I do my own shopping, bring up my two children and sing an hour every day.”
(On the subject of carrying the cross of fame…)
“When my first marriage failed, everyone said that I could never divorce. It would ruin the ‘image,’ ” she told Robert Shipman in Films and Filming magazine in 1983. “How could anybody really think that I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man I found I didn’t love, just for the sake of an ‘image’?”
My mother did her own shopping, when she didn’t make us do it. This was good training. I ‘ve been doing shopping for the kitchen at my job for the last ten years. My mother was a pretty woman and a good singer. She entered a Miss Television Contest and was a runner up. She sang at The Massachusetts State House, where she worked for a time and in our church choir. Like Edna Mae, she raised a family but she shat on the image of a mother being just that. She was herself, kind of a combination of The Shat and The Durbin.
After my father died, she seemed to come out of her girdle. She dated, wore mini skirts and swore. She had some white patent leather boots and sewed me a home made bikini because I was so tall the regular ones wouldn’t cover my nether regions. This said bikini was made out of an old dress of hers and I busted the butt out of it in the water at the beach. Luckily is was lined. I still like fashion but usually wear things no one else would wear. I have another sister who lives in L.A. and has made TV commercials. I am not commercial material.
Deanna Durbin figured in a good number of advertisements. She sold Kotex, soap and Desotos. She not only saved the movie world she was also saving the economy. Like the former Lance Armstrong, she was a marketer’s dream, if not a reality.
Here’s a clothing tag my mother stuck in with the photos.
Deanna mellowed a bit concerning her career as she aged, courtesy of Michael Freeland, The Guardian.
“In a rare interview, given in 1983 to the film journalist David Shipman, she said:
“I did not hate show business. I loved to sing. I was happy on the set. I liked the people with whom I worked and after the nervousness of the first day, I felt completely at ease in front of the camera. I also enjoyed the company of my fellow actors … What I did find difficult was that this acquired maturity had to be hidden under the childlike personality my films and publicity projected on me.”
The light comedy For the Love of Mary (1948) was her swansong. The Universal producer Joe Pasternak constantly tried to change her mind, but Durbin told him: “I can’t run around being a Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song”
This is where I fall in line with the dream. My mother put me in a pageant once. The infamous Jody Jordan contest in Boston. Only I did not want to be there and could not even pretend to hide my dismay. I’m not that good at acting. I’m good at being absurd and making people laugh. I’m passingly pretty, but isn’t everyone until they get really old? I’ve recently gotten tired of my role as “Little Miss Fix it.” Like my mother I’ve lived through some difficult economic times but I’m not too bad off and I still have my dreams. I’ve worked in Community Mental Health for over ten years now and I would love to be able to retire to France but that’s just not going to happen. It’s silly to think you can change the world but we all try either through social work or singing or politics or ice cream. I can hardly fix myself, let alone the people I serve. I really should spend more time just being me.
We are made in our own image. God may be in there somewhere but when we try to remake our image into what we think is God’s we run into trouble. I keep thinking if I dye my hair I will meet men. But I always meet men. The men are just as odd as I am. If I dye my hair I will just meet odd men who would rather me not look as old as I do. Better to save the money for brownies and a trip to see my sister in France.
So for all you dreamers and travelers, here’s the weather report for your travels where no man has gone before. and Deanna Durbin singing one of my mother’s, and my, favorite songs.