Melissa Francis is a Harvard graduate, a Fox News Business anchor, and a former CNBC financial news journalist, but she made her first major imprint on the world decades earlier. In fact, she was just six months old when she debuted on TV in a Johnson & Johnson commercial. Thanks to an archetypal stage mom, Melissa appeared in nearly one hundred other commercials and several television shows and movies, most notably in the primetime Little House on the Prairie. In this memoir, she describes a show business that other little girls envied, but she often despised. A searing family portrait, justly typified as "The Glass Castle meets The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.
Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter: A Memoirby Melissa Francis
The Glass Castle meets The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in this dazzlingly honest and provocative family memoir by former child actress and current Fox Business Network anchor Melissa Francis.
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When Melissa Francis was eight years old, she won the role of lifetime: playing Cassandra Cooper Ingalls, the little girl who was adopted
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The Glass Castle meets The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in this dazzlingly honest and provocative family memoir by former child actress and current Fox Business Network anchor Melissa Francis.
When Melissa Francis was eight years old, she won the role of lifetime: playing Cassandra Cooper Ingalls, the little girl who was adopted with her brother (played by young Jason Bateman) by the Ingalls family on the world’s most famous primetime soap opera, Little House on the Prairie. Despite her age, she was already a veteran actress, living a charmed life, moving from one Hollywood set to the next. But behind the scenes, her success was fueled by the pride, pressure, and sometimes grinding cruelty of her stage mother, as fame and a mother’s ambition pushed her older sister deeper into the shadows.
Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter is a fascinating account of life as a child star in the 1980’s, and also a startling tale of a family under the care of a highly neurotic, dangerously competitive “tiger mother.” But perhaps most importantly, now that Melissa has two sons of her own, it’s a meditation on motherhood, and the value of pushing your children: how hard should you push a child to succeed, and at what point does your help turn into harm?
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Diary of a Stage Mother's DaughterA Memoir
By Melissa Francis
Weinstein BooksCopyright © 2012 Weinstein Books
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen I was growing up, people often asked me, "How did you get into show business?" They came up with all kinds of theories and assumptions that were all wrong, like my parents must have been actors, or worked on a production set, or one of them was a talent agent. But Mom loved to tell the real story.
She had been standing in line at a carnival in West Hollywood with my sister, Tiffany, who was three years old at the time, when a man approached her and gave her his card. He claimed he was a big children's agent, and said he thought Tiffany was so beautiful she should be on TV. Mom didn't believe him, she always said, but the offer got her thinking. The following week she set out to discover who represented Rodney Allen Rippy, the most famous child actor of the time. Rodney was making a mint hawking Jack in the Box burgers, and Mom convinced his agent to take on Tiffany.
When Tiffany had about half a dozen commercials under her belt, Mom took me with them to a shoot. I was less than a year old. I don't remember the day I earned my Screen Actors Guild membership card. But Mom always described how she bounced me gently to keep me quiet, though I hadn't made a noise. I was too mesmerized by what was happening to my sister. Tiffany was twenty feet away, soaking in a tub, surrounded by lights, practically drowning in bubbles.
Tiffany's long, brown, shiny hair was piled on top of her head, wet strands curling around the base of her neck. She was adorable, but hardly the cheerful toddler the directors were anticipating. Her eyes were wide and timid.
"Me!" I shouted. Mom flushed as the crew turned and looked at us, and she wished she had left me at home. The director walked in our direction. Now I was going to ruin Tiffany's first national commercial, she thought. Johnson & Johnson's No More Tears baby shampoo. Only Gerber had launched more careers.
"Is this her sister?" the director asked.
I smiled, flaunting my two new teeth.
"Yes, I'm sorry," Mom said. "My sitter fell through. I can take her in another room ..."
"How do you feel about putting her in the tub with the other one? Does she sit up well?"
Mom lit up. "Oh, yes! She'd just love it. They usually bathe together, that's why Tiffany isn't smiling." That and the thirty-five fully clothed strangers watching her.
Mom said that before she could finish her sentence, six hands had stripped me down and plopped me in the warm sudsy water. I let out a big laugh and slapped the surface of the water, catapulting a perfectly formed bubble to the tip of Tiffany's round nose. She giggled.
"Please tell me you were rolling," the director said to the cameraman.
Mom always describes it as the moment she knew I would be a star, though I can't swear to any of it, since I was too young to remember. My earliest actual memory is of my first best friend, Brian. Like most three-year-old friends, we didn't choose each other. We had older siblings the same age who went to the same schools. We were thrown into the same carpools and played on the floors at the same ladies' casserole potluck luncheons. I still remember how Brian's mom's brown loafers looked standing next to my mom's tan wedges.
Brian was a great playmate. He let me have whatever I wanted. He was a keeper. He had soft blond hair that fell in his eyes as we spent countless hours together playing house. Even when he wasn't there, I pretended he was. He didn't say much, either in person or in my imagination, making him the perfect match for a bossy, precocious girl like me.
Brian and I went to a little Presbyterian preschool in Granada Hills, California, that we called Turtle School because of the large turtle that lived on the grass-covered playground. We ran into the yard every morning and force-fed the poor beast dandelions until she escaped in slow motion or just recoiled inside her shell to wait out the storm of toddlers.
Brian and I were blissfully joined at the hip until the day his mom decided she was a lesbian and ran off with her girlfriend. The whole family moved away from our neighborhood in Northridge to Chicago or maybe the moon. Wherever they went, it was tough forgetting Brian, even though he was virtually mute and his mom had a girlfriend (the latter hardly seemed like a distinction, though Mom kept mentioning it). He silently hugged me goodbye, and I cried like crazy.
Brian left on the first day of my second year in Turtle School when I was four years old, and I was unusually blue when I got home. I played lethargically in my room in our tract home in the San Fernando Valley. My room was sandwiched between my parents' bedroom and my sister's on the second floor of the house. The carpet in our home was a bright Kelly green, which Mom said made it look as if the perky lawn outside extended inside our home. I liked to trim the indoor "grass" with scissors.
But having recently lost my scissors as a result of some indoor gardening, I wandered down the hall into Tiffany's room, where she was conducting a kindergarten class with her dolls. I had arrived just in time for reading.
The green carpet stretched to the far wall of her room, which Mom had covered with pink and green fabric printed with a repeating pattern of bunnies and farm scenes. She'd made two pillows out of the same fabric to throw on Tiffany's bed. The room was perpetually frozen in a cheerful spring day.
Tiffany raised her eyes to mine. "Why are you pouting? Beth is gone too, you know." Beth was Brian's older sister. I couldn't consistently count on Tiffany for sympathy.
"Here, let's work on my homework." Tiffany was in first grade now and extremely advanced. She went to San Jose School for the Highly Gifted, which apparently meant she was the smartest person in the universe. I thought that made me brilliant by association. I noticed she tensed her shoulders when Mom sang the name of the school to other adults, emphasizing the words highly gifted as if you wouldn't notice them otherwise.
"Sit here," she said to me. "Here are the words in the sentence. Unscramble them." I looked at the words on the page. I knew most of them on sight.
"Here's a trick," she continued with the authority of a flight attendant who knows the location of the only emergency exit. "The one with the capital letter goes first." She pointed at the only word that started with a big letter. Neat trick.
"The one with the period next to it, that dot, goes last. The rest you have to figure out on your own. No more shortcuts."
I looked at the page; there were only two words left! This was so exciting I forgot to grieve over the loss of Brian for a moment.
"Finish your homework and you can play with my toy," Tiffany said.
I glanced at the red Mattel box on the shelf with the picture of Tiffany playing with a car on a ramp on the side. I loved that she was featured on a toy box. This particular piece of packaging was so very special that Mom told us we were not allowed to actually play with it or its contents. But she left the alluring red box on the high shelf in Tiffany's room, so we'd climb up there and get it as a special treat.
You could always hear Mom coming down the long hallway. Even though the hall was covered with carpet, the floor creaked in predictable spots. She'd thundered down it so many times to stop us from wrestling over a toy or making a racket that when we heard the first footfall, we knew exactly how much time we had before she reached the bedroom to murder us both.
This time we were just looking at the toy when the footsteps started. We jumped even though we weren't technically guilty yet.
"What are you two doing?" Mom asked.
"Missy's doing her homework," Tiffany said. Mom looked over at me, sitting on the floor with a workbook open in front of me.
"What's the assignment?" she asked, as though a four-yearold really could have homework.
"Unscrabble the words," I started.
"Un-scramble ..." Mom corrected.
"Yes." I looked at the page. I was easy and was already a big letter so I knew it went first. Book had a dot after it, so I knew it was last. See was there. That was an easy one too. Jackpot!
"I see the book!" I said proudly. Perhaps I was also highly gifted. Tiffany looked pleased at having orchestrated this show.
"Very nice," Mom said. "Tomorrow, though, no one is going to school. McDonald's has booked both of you for a national commercial."
My sister and I were often booked together because we showed a family resemblance without appearing too much alike. Tiffany was always referred to as "the pretty one." With her thick brunette hair and heavy brows, she reminded casting directors of a young Brooke Shields, which at the time was a major selling point. By contrast I was always "the cute one," with my distinctive yellow eyes, a ready smile, and round cheeks. Between us, we had appeared in dozens of commercials already.
We shot the commercial at a fake McDonald's on Highland Avenue. Even though the building sat on a major street in Hollywood, the public couldn't see the production because of a two-story fence that surrounded the lot.
From the outside, the fake McDonald's looked like any other McDonald's, except that it appeared brand-new. Inside, an elaborate maze of greenrooms and production storage bins were set up in the basement to accommodate the constant flood of commercials shot on-site.
When we arrived on set, they let Tiffany and me play behind the counter, using the register and running around the kitchen, even touching the stove. No one moved a muscle to stop us. There was something thrillingly wrong about being let loose in what seemed to be a real McDonald's. I felt like an indulged criminal.
They shot one scene of us ordering at the counter, then one of us sitting with our fake mom in the main restaurant. The latter was much more challenging than I had anticipated. Not only was I supposed to eat a cheeseburger, which I didn't normally like, but the burger was ice cold and doctored with food coloring to look perfect. It wasn't exactly toxic, but it wasn't completely edible either. A grip held a bucket off camera so we could spit out the painted rubbery food after each take. They had stand-by burgers for the rehearsals, and a more realistic "hero" burger for the actual filming
The first time I lifted a hero to my mouth, I grimaced.
"Cut." The director looked nonplussed. Mom called me over.
"You have to smile and look like you can't wait to eat the cheeseburger," Mom said.
"But I don't want to eat it. I hate cheeseburgers." Tiffany stepped up to my side, as if she couldn't wait to see how I was going to get out of this.
"That's why it's called acting," Mom said. I didn't care that much about acting.
"You have to eat it," she said forcefully, with an edge of panic in her voice. The crew and even the wardrobe girl took turns nervously glancing in our direction.
Then she softened and whispered, "Eat it with a big smile and I will take you to Creative Playthings on the way home and buy you anything you want. Anything."
A long tradition of barter was born that day. An extended series of negotiations during which, at exactly the right moment, Mom would promise something irresistible in exchange for my doing something that, ironically, I would usually be willing to do otherwise. But now that I knew there was a potential payment floating nearby, I would extract it. My childish blackmail started with toys and ended with a pony. Naturally. Though by the end, I couldn't help feeling bought and sold myself.
Excerpted from Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter by Melissa Francis Copyright © 2012 by Weinstein Books . Excerpted by permission of Weinstein Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are saying about this
“I am always in search of the book I can’t put down. Well, thanks to Melissa Francis, I FOUND it. I may have missed a few nights sleep, but I am so much better for it. Her book is captivating, revealing and ultimately healing. Who knew the kid from Little House on the Prairie had such a fascinating real-life story? I am in awe.”
"Chilling memoir by a Fox Business Network anchor and child star chronicles the misery of growing up with a cruel, controlling and abusive stage mother. Francis' narrative grabs readers immediately. One of those intimate, heartbreaking, doubled-edged stories that is hard to read, impossible to put down."
"Compelling...A thoughtful trek across a troubled family landscape resulting in a bittersweet yet hopeful final act."
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Melissa Francis, childhood star of Little House on the Prairie, writes a book about her life growing up with a stage mother. Having been an actress her whole life with her mom there every step made growing up anything but normal for Melissa. Between missing school for auditions and her mother’s crazy mood swings her childhood was very emotional and challenging. Not remembering Melissa Francis from Little House on the Prairie, I was not sure how much I would enjoy reading her story. I was very happily surprised by how much of her story really was about her mother and older sister, Tiffany. This was not a story only about Little House on the Prairie, this is a story about a mother who would only accept a perfect child and a picture perfect life and the kids that had to grow up with that mother. Immediately I despised Melissa’s stage mother. How could a mother ever treat her daughters as she had? I do believe that she felt she was doing the absolute best for the girls, but nothing is further from the truth. As a mother myself, I would hope my kids would never feel the fear and pity Melissa and Tiffany felt towards their mother. I loved following Melissa through her childhood journey to adulthood. My heart broke at her youth, getting put down and beat up one minute and the built up the next minute. I find it amazing that she made it to adulthood and to a normal adulthood with a successful career. It truly shows the strength Melissa has. If you read this hoping for the inside scoop on Little House on the Prairie you will be disappointed. If you read the looking for a heartwarming and sometimes sad story about a young girl breaking away from her sometimes cruel mother and becoming a successful journalist, mother, wife and woman you will love this story as much as I did.
Give it a few chapters and the juvenile writing steps up a notch. The story in itself is compelling. As a big fan of Little House on the Prairie I remembered the scenes that Melissa describes and she really was so cute and a fine little actor. Her personal story is harrowing, though. Melissa writes very convincingly of her struggle with an ultra-abusive, manipulative mother and a weak father who apparently cannot see his daughters are being hit and kicked out of cars by their own mother - let alone save them. He does not stand up to this mother and yet he is a successful business who chose the entrepreneur route because he could not take orders; somehow, though, he is so helpless and weak under his wife. A bit contradictory but the mother is a real monster. I felt so very badly for Melissa and her sister Tiffany but it was also clear that Melissa had a special inner strength from her earliest days and that strength carried her through. She was awake the the wrong that was her mother and she knew she had the power to stop that family cycle.
Sad, juicy and tragic look into the author's life as the daughter of a stage mother. I tore through it.
Wow. I was blown away by how her Mother treated her and her sister. This is a very emotional book. I was heart broken by the way they were raised. That woman needs serious mental help. I am truely impressed that Melissa turned out to be succesfull in her career and can see her Mothers mistakes for what they are. She's an inspiration for overcoming such a disasterous childhood.
A Quick Read-- However, there were too many unanswered questions, such as what EXACTLY was the cause of Tiffany's death. I had to find out elsewhere on line. Also, I have trouble understanding the father in this book. He loved his children, but seemed emotionally absent. He seemed to be aware of the mother's problems, but not willing to intervene. And if it crossed her mind that her sister was bi-polar, why didn't it cross Melissa's mind that her mother had some sort of mental illness?Too many questions marks in this.
This book is worth every penny it cost!!! At first i thought her and her sister were spoiled brats , but keep reading and you will see it is so awful and unforgiveable the way her mom treats her whole family
Stage mothers get a bad wrap for many good reasons. This is a fascinating book that shows the affects of a stage mother on a child actress.
Little House on the Prairie is only a backdrop to this story of a power crazy stage mother who demands perfection of young Melissa. A fascinating portrait of a very disfunctional family. Five stars!
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Although Little House on the Prairie is not the show I know a lot of, I still wanted to read this memoir to hear an insight into the inner workings of childhood stardom and how it affects not only the child star, but the entire family. Melissa Francis takes you into the inner workings of her family to show you the good, the bad and the ugly when you have a child star and a mom who wants nothing more than complete fame.
Very sad story, brought me to tears a few times. Makes me examine my relationship with my children.
I was a Little House On The Prairie fan. Would recommend it to fans of the show.
I saw my mother in this book, it was so good! Worth the time and money
Although Ms. Francis makes an effort to recount her life in a fair and balanced way, hostility towards her mother drives this well-written memoir. She convincingly presents herself as intelligent, ambitious and responsible, and her mother as volatile, controlling, depressive and generally difficult to live with. Yet through most of the book, the author’s underlying hostility seemed disproportionate to her mother’s wrongdoings. Paradoxically, Ms. Francis tacitly acknowledges her mother’s contributions to her success without really giving her any credit. She writes about how her mother staunchly supported her childhood activities, instilled in her the belief that she could accomplish anything if she worked hard enough, and lavished her with luxuries (many of which were probably bought with the author’s own income as a child actor.) By the time Ms. Francis wrote of leaving home for an Ivy League school, I was impressed with her achievements yet disengaged due to the woe-is-me tone. I wondered if her memoir was written in retaliation against her mother. However, an unexpected outcome brought me around to empathize deeply with her position. I found her book interesting and touching, and I hope writing it gave her some closure.
I LOVED READING THIS BOOK. I BECAME FAMILIAR WITH MELISSA FRANCIS WHEN SHE WAS REPORTING ON CNBC. SHE'S ONE CLASS ACT.
Nothing makes a better read or a better movie than a crazy stage mother! Great details, remembered by Melissa....the mother's greed, the mother's refusal to help out when Melissa's father was going broke and refusal to stop spending, so she could have the best house, the best clothes, etc....tragic story of her sister who was also a child actor at one time.
The beginning is a little choppy but the author's voice soon arrives. Hard work is shown throughout her life. It is a testament about perseverance. She had much to overcome. Well worth the money.
I enjoyed this book very much. It is very nice to see a young child star decide that she wants more out of life than stardom. She made good decisions to get an education, get married and have children and not let her mother dictate the life she felt her daughter should have. The sad part is the death of her sister which I feel influenced the author's life and something she will never forget. A good read with a happy ending.
Iloved this book her mother was bipolar and it was sad that she mad her kids lives misserable missy was great in little house regina montclair nj
A jewel of a memoir!!!!I never saw Little House but I enjoy memoirs. Stage Mother's Daughter was a huge surprise! Candid and heartbreaking, I couldn't put it down.