Life Is Not a Stage: From Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyondby Florence Henderson
For millions of people around the world, Carol Brady is synonymous with motherhood, but growing up as the youngest of ten children in rural Indiana in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Florence Henderson lived a life quite different from that of the quintessential TV mom she later played on television.
Florence's father was a dirt-poor tobacco tenant
For millions of people around the world, Carol Brady is synonymous with motherhood, but growing up as the youngest of ten children in rural Indiana in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Florence Henderson lived a life quite different from that of the quintessential TV mom she later played on television.
Florence's father was a dirt-poor tobacco tenant farmer who was nearly fifty years old when he married Florence's twenty-five-year-old mother, and was nearly seventy when Florence was born. Florence's childhood was full of deprivation and abandonment. Her father was an alcoholic at a time when there was no rehab or help for the disease. Their home rarely had electricity or running water. When she was twelve, Florence's mother left the family to work in Cleveland and never returned.
Florence opens up about her childhood, as well as the challenges she's faced as an adult, including stage fright, postpartum depression, her extramarital affairs, divorce, her hearing loss, and heart problems. She writes with honesty and wisdom of how her faith and ability to survive has brought her through rough times to a life of profound joy and purpose.
I count Florence as one of my dearest friends. Now I count her as one of my favorite story tellers. I have always loved the way she looks at life with humor and inspiration. This book proves that-in spades!"Carol Burnett"
The teenaged Florence Henderson only needed a one-way ticket to Broadway when she left her hometown in Southern Indiana. The great Rodgers and Hammerstein quickly recognized in her what the rest of us would also soon discover -a big talent matched with an even bigger human spirit."Bill Cosby
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Life Is Not a StageFrom Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond
By Henderson, Florence
Center StreetCopyright © 2011 Henderson, Florence
All right reserved.
The Faith of a Child
Please, can I go home?”
When I got the news of my father’s death, I asked for a leave to travel back to Indiana. His funeral was to take place in two days. I had just been cast in the lead in the last national touring company of Oklahoma! We were set to open the next night in New Haven. It was the big break, a dream come true for an eighteen-year-old girl. It had come only months after I had moved to New York City to study theater and hopefully to find work.
At the first opportunity during the rehearsal, I had gone over to Jerry White and Richard Rodgers. The director and the composer were seated in the audience of the empty theater in New York. “We don’t have an understudy for you yet, and the place is sold out,” Mr. Rodgers told me in sympathetic but no uncertain terms. He was the Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the legendary duo behind such other Broadway classics as The Sound of Music, The King and I, South Pacific, and Carousel. Jerry White told me about all the publicity they had done. There was a lot riding on this first performance. They went out of their way to tell me how bad they felt about the situation. It made me feel even worse, which almost immediately manifested in a painful medical problem that made me wonder if there was some divine payback as a consequence for my actions. Strange how the mind works, but I’ll get to more on that later.
Ironically, I knew that this dilemma, as gut-wrenching as it was at that moment, was within the natural flow of an improbable, sometimes horrific, and often miraculous young life. Despite the abandonment, neglect, and poverty I experienced as a child, I had an abiding faith I would do better than just survive. I knew with absolute certainty that everything was going to be okay in the end. I felt the undeniable presence of a guiding and protective hand from a higher power above. This gave me a sense of optimism, as if my spirit were still free in spite of my circumstances.
As I look back on that time, I wish I could recapture the unswerving faith of that child. Unfortunately, my doubts grew with time as life circumstances and relationships became more complicated and challenging. Thankfully, my spirituality remained intact and prevented me from the kind of nihilism people often develop in that situation.
That I was standing on the rehearsal stage with this legendary composer was, in my mind, a miracle of sorts. Only a few years earlier, when the conditions around me were at their worst, I would escape from my house to go to the local movie theater. Musicals like Easter Parade were my favorite. I would sing and dance on the street all the way home, mimicking the tunes I had just heard.
I decided at a very young age that performing was what I wanted to do. To make it happen, more was required than just natural talent. To go beyond singing in church or in the shower, a performer needs an endless supply of grit, determination, and a passion for performing. If I was having a bad day or things were just not going my way, these qualities helped keep my priorities in focus and made me more tenacious in my commitment.
For many reasons, it would have been impossible to tell Mr. Rodgers that my family came first and they would have to get along without me. Mr. Rodgers’s “the show must go on” mentality was not to be violated.
Naturally, I felt tremendous guilt about the situation. But secretly, deep down inside, there was a sad truth. I was relieved that I didn’t have to go to the funeral. True to character both in life and now in death, the situation with my father, Joseph Henderson, was both complicated and problematic.
“Gal, rub my back,” my father had said to me one of the last times I saw him alive. Since I was the last of his ten children, he called me “Gal” rather than rattling off the long list of names of all of his girls to remember it.
A dirt-poor tobacco tenant farmer, my father was nearly fifty years old and my mother twenty-five years younger when they married. Both of my parents were from Kentucky and each came from very large Catholic families. One plausible explanation why my father married so late was that he had spent years taking care of his immediate family. That responsibility also turned him into quite an accomplished cook, something I’m sure would have given him a more successful and fulfilling career than growing tobacco and tomatoes for the canning factory. We maybe never had all the delicacies, but he sure knew how to whip up a great vegetable soup from whatever was handy or plentiful.
By the time my next oldest sister, Babby, and I were born, my father was getting close to seventy. The family had moved across the Ohio River to a small farm in Dale, Indiana. One of my earliest memories from that time was going out to the fields to “worm the tobacco.” And if you ever had to worm tobacco, you wouldn’t forget it either! First of all, working with tobacco is very gummy. The resin sticks to the little hairs on your arms and it felt highly unpleasant when anything would brush against us—our skin became like Velcro. My brothers and sisters and I would have to inspect every leaf. When we found the green, two-inch creatures holding on to the back sides of the leaves with their many legs, we’d pick them off, pull them apart, and throw them on the ground.
One day, my brothers said that they’d give me a dime if I bit the head off of one of the worms. I did it. I got the dime. It tasted as you might expect, but it was worth it. I went out and bought some candy with it. They also challenged me to do things like carry a big canister of coal oil from the little store. We used it to fuel the lamps that lit our house at night. I was competitive in nature even back then. The canister must have weighed more than I did at the time, but I dragged it for the required distance. The end of the dares officially came another day when they asked me to swing from one rafter to the next in the barn. I fell and almost killed myself, and that sure scared the heck out of them.
During my early childhood, we moved from that farm to another farm, and to a successive number of homes (possibly to evade the landlords due to unpaid rents?). Finally, we ended up in a small house in Rockport, population 2,400. By then, most of the other eight children had grown up and moved out of the house, my older sisters having married and my brothers gone off to the war. In the end it was just Babby and me. She was three years older and sported a short dark Buster Brown hairstyle of the time. Babby’s real name is Emily, which was what I called her then. The nickname Babby came much later. In our early twenties, we were goofing off role-playing from a wonderful film we had just seen called The Little Kidnappers. The young actors had Scottish accents, and we loved the sound of their voices. So I played the “Grandmommy” with my faux Scottish brogue, and Emily was the baby, pronounced “Babby.” Babby has stuck to this day, but mercifully not Grandmommy!
My father was a big and powerful man in the eyes of a little girl, but by the time I reached high school age I had surpassed him in height. He had dark eyes and a nice smile, and he was considered to be a handsome man of strong Irish stock. Both of his parents and their families happened to travel together on the same boat from Ireland to America, but met only after they were settled in their new country. He had been bald since his late twenties, with only fringes of hair on the sides, so he was never without his favorite hat. The worn-out fedora had a ring of dried sweat from his being in the hot sun while he tended the fields. He smoked a pipe, and his clothes, which were never so clean to begin with, were pockmarked with burn holes from embers that would fall from his pipe when he fell asleep in his chair. As he dozed off, his suspenders would sag and his dime-store eyeglasses would go down the bridge of his nose.
I could see the good in my father, but his alcoholism had a devastating impact on himself and his family. When he wasn’t drunk, he could be the sweetest, kindest man. He could stay sober for weeks and months, and remarkably, sometimes for a whole year. During those tranquil periods, he would get us up to go to mass every Sunday morning. He loved to read, especially books about Wyatt Earp and the Wild West and Abraham Lincoln.
He was also a man full of considerable wisdom and advice, which he’d share with Babby and me in a repetitious manner that made it stick. When we heard that familiar tone in his voice, we would roll our eyes and say under our breaths, “Here it comes again.”
“Gal, now, you know, you have to be careful,” he would tell us. “You’ve got to watch your reputation and your character. We don’t have much money and we don’t have many material things, but you’ve got a great reputation and a great character. People can take your money and your possessions, but they can’t take your good reputation and your character. You give that away.”
Perhaps, in the final analysis, his words to us had more impact on us than we could have imagined at the time. It is one possible reason among others why, despite the harsh poverty and other difficult circumstances, all ten of his surviving children (one of my siblings died before I was born) went on to lead very productive lives. I’ve used what I have learned in my life and as a parent of four children myself to look back and understand both my father and my mother with a clearer perspective. The sadness and disappointment I had in my early years diminished gradually with time. It has made it easier to regard them not just with forgiveness and compassion, but also with a degree of awe and admiration.
My father was dealing with a terrible disease, although it was hardly recognized as such back in the 1930s and 1940s. I know his condition really bothered him. But what could he have done short of abstaining? There were no twelve-step programs or other social services in our community that addressed this problem. Alcoholics Anonymous was only just getting started at the time.
When he was drunk, all hell would break loose. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when I first noticed that there was something terribly wrong. At that time, we were still living on the farm. One night, I heard my mother yelling at my dad. I snuck close by the door and looked in through the crack. My mother was standing by an ironing board, shaking her finger at him. My father was sitting in a chair in his long underwear. He looked so sick and so sad. Then he started to cry. Seeing my father in that condition was devastating. It just about killed me.
My mother, too, would drink with my father from time to time. On Saturday nights, they’d go uptown to a saloon. Babby and I would be outside waiting on a bench for them to come out. Invariably, once home, they’d get into a fight. I worried about my older sister Ilean, who was out on a date with a new boyfriend. “Ilean’s going to be home soon,” I’d say, going into the kitchen where they were yelling at each other. “He [the boyfriend] is going to hear you. He won’t like us. He won’t like Ilean. Please don’t fight.”
“Think nothing of it,” my mother snapped back in her customary rhetoric. “We’re fine. Just say your prayers and go to bed.”
My mother was not an alcoholic. She had more self-control. I think she went along with it just to try to cope with him. As crazy as it appeared to me, maybe it was their form of relaxation, a form of self-medication against the pressures and strains of their life together. They didn’t have the skills to channel it in a healthier way. Nevertheless, when my mother was drunk, usually on beer, I learned to stay out of her radar range. Years later, when we’d go out to a fancy restaurant, I’d cringe every time the waiter would ask her what she wanted to drink. “Bring me a beer. In a can.”
If things were not interesting enough, my father was also a moonshiner. He made a corn whiskey that was popularly known back then as white mule. During the years of Prohibition, my father told my older sister, “Pauline, gal, if anybody comes asking if we’ve got any white mule, tell ’em, ‘Yeah, it’s standing there way out in the pasture.’” He also brewed his own beer.
When my father would go on a binge, Babby and I would find empty bottles everywhere, in the house and piled in the garage. He could have a beer or two without a problem, but once he got a whiff of hard liquor it was all over. It was hard to say what would set him off. I once asked the great comedian Jackie Gleason about this issue when we were having lunch one day, and he brought up the subject of his problems with alcohol. “Yeah, I drink a lot,” he admitted. I asked him if there was any pattern to when he got drunk. He laughed. “No, any excuse will do. A leaf has fallen from the tree. There’s a cloud in the sky. Better have a drink.”
When my father would go on a toot, Babby and I would take turns taking care of him. In this state, he would beg us to go uptown and get him a beer. We would walk into a bar, I’d ask the bartender, and most of the time they obliged. But we found that the best way to slowly get him off the stuff was to give him a protein cocktail of whiskey with milk and a raw egg.
“Come on, Daddy, you can’t keep doing this,” I’d tell him, imploring him to straighten up. Lying down on the sofa as he did for days on end, he looked sick and melancholic. In response, he sounded almost sweet and apologetic. He would tell me what most drunks say. “Oh, Gal, it will be okay. Now don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
“Would you just rub my back?” he’d often ask me. Within a few moments, he’d try to take advantage of the situation. I’d find his hand touching one of my calves. Looking back on these incidents, I know they could have been so much worse than they were. No matter how young or innocent I was at the time, I always had an inbuilt sense of my surroundings and knew when something might be dangerous or harmful. While things never degenerated to a more severe degree of sexual assault, the sacred bond of comfort, protection, and safety that a child wants to have with her father was damaged forever.
If there are any explanations for what triggered his binges, I think it was a combination of factors. As I described before, growing tobacco and farming the land were hard work, and the years had taken a toll on him. He also had the daunting responsibility and pressures of raising ten children.
It might sound Pollyannaish, but my faith made it possible for me to always be optimistic and feel that there was help available to me to face any situation. It also made me feel a sense of love for everyone. I recently read a passage by the great spiritual teacher Paramahansa Yogananda. He wrote that when you really experience being in union with a spiritual force, you begin to more easily see the good in everybody. This was a bit confusing for a small child confronted by the unpleasant sides of humanity—that I could still love that person despite their hurtful actions. It had made me feel guilty at times.
It is true that my upbringing stressed loyalty and God forbid you should say anything negative about anybody, especially your family. But that will only take you so far. I did not want to go the other way where anger and bitterness take the place of love. I found a piece of writing I did in a notebook when I was six or seven years old. It read, “Dear God, give me the gift of understanding.” That’s the way my little mind worked. I think I realized that I was in a situation for which I needed to have more compassion and understanding. Maybe I understood my situation far better at that early age than I thought.
In the months before my father’s death, I returned home from my studies at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York to see him. That particular visit haunted me the most. No different than I had seen him hundreds of times before, he was on a big toot. But on this occasion he also had a large swelling on his face that was hard not to notice. As I rubbed his back, I told him, “Daddy, I hate it when I see you like this.”
Without pausing, I said, “I’d rather see you dead.”
“Don’t say that, Gal.”
Not long after, I came back from New York and saw him for what proved to be the last time. I shaved him. I had no idea that he was so sick. Despite the abuse I had suffered, my prophetic words to him about wanting to see him dead and the fact that I did not attend his funeral disturbed me greatly.
I was so troubled that I went to confession and told the priest about the situation. His advice was to try to go easy on myself. “Don’t feel bad about it. As young people, we all feel these things about our parents. We all go through rough times. But as we get older, we learn that we didn’t know everything.” He went on to speak to me about forgiveness. Easier said than done. The incident continued to bother me for years and marked the first onset of my insomnia.
There was a strange irony as I accepted my fate that I would not be attending my father’s funeral. There was a sense of gratitude that, for once, finally, I got a free pass from the trauma. Instead, with Oklahoma! and the whirlwind of work that would follow with my success, I was in full stride on my mother’s notorious galloping horse. The ensuing adventures in my life are proof positive that it would be many years before I would feel safe enough to slow down and relax.
My father used to say his prayers every night before bed when he was sober. I once asked him what he prayed for. He replied, “I pray for everybody but I also pray for a happy death.”
Because of my studies in New York, I wasn’t there when he took ill. My sisters Pauline and Babby took care of him. He had a terrible form of cancer that started in the sinuses and spread from there. It was the root of that swelling I had noticed during my visit. Pauline told me that he repeatedly apologized for taking so long to die. When the time was nearing, they called for the priest to give him the last rites and to hear his last confession. Pauline said that she could overhear laughing and carrying on from his room. From those sounds, I think my father’s prayer was answered, but he was also given an extra bonus. From my sister’s account, I have some peace and gratitude knowing that he also had a courageous death.
Singing for My Supper
My mother, Elizabeth, left when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. For Babby and me, it was par for the course. Like the other traumas we had experienced, we had learned that there was little other option than to accept it and try to cope the best we could. We knew that sitting by the door hoping that she would return was a waste of energy and would set us up for more disappointment. It was a nebulous time, of which the memories are a little bit foggy around the edges.
There was also a part of me that understood that the situation was perhaps not as harsh as it could have been, and for one good reason: From as far back as I can remember I had experienced so little maternal love in the first place. Kind words or any gestures of affection from her were virtually nonexistent. I was, after all, the last of her ten children, and she had no doubt already reached the end of her rope. It was the way things were. I didn’t give my mother’s absence that much more thought, I blocked it out. Things would be okay. I put my energy instead toward staying optimistic.
Years later, when I faced a crisis in my own marriage, I had a different perception of what my mother did. I pondered the courage that it took for her to leave. It gave me the courage to change my life. Curiously, both my sister Pauline and I left our marriages at the same age my mother did.
Along with my father’s alcoholism and all the children to care for, my mother had little material comfort or support. There was no running water or electricity at home for much of the time. And medical care for childbirth and everyday problems was basically unaffordable. When Babby and I got a bit older, my mother brought in a little extra money working at a nearby café, but that didn’t improve matters greatly. She also cleaned houses. One day when I went along with her to one of the homes, I could not resist the temptation of a real luxury item within my grasp. It was a stick of gum. My mother read me the riot act that theft was still theft no matter how small the item was, and gave me a whipping to make sure I didn’t forget it.
My sister Ilean, who is ten years older than I, thinks that our parents went “a bit crazy” soon after she left home. She could recall that Daddy went for a decade at one time without drinking. She wrote to me in a recent letter that she was certain he was hurt badly when Mother didn’t come back. She said that life was hard before I was born, but admitted that she had grown up under more tranquil conditions than what Babby and I had to endure. Like me, she also has an appreciation for the fact that our parents instilled in all their children the values we needed to get through life. Despite the hardship and all the traumas, they left us with the skills to take care of ourselves, do the right thing, and have integrity.
Ilean also remembers our mother from her childhood as being strict but fair, with a bark that was far worse than her bite. She thought that behind her toughness was a more loving manner toward all of her children, but that the hard life forced her to be on the defensive. “She didn’t want to leave herself open to get hurt,” Ilean surmised. Our mother didn’t really think she was abandoning Babby and me, according to Ilean’s recollection, perhaps part and parcel of that defensive shield.
Babby and I were only told that she was going to Cleveland to work. Although she left, I still longed for my mother’s affection and never gave up hope for the rest of her life that things would improve in that regard. We spent more time together periodically as I got older and became successful in show business. But she remained a tough nut to crack.
She was a beautiful woman with black hair and bluish-green eyes. Her colorful and larger-than-life character was the kind an actress might dream of playing. She also had a large physical presence, accentuated as she went up and down in weight as she got older. She was tough-talking and strong-willed. No doubt if she were alive today and read this book, she’d probably be angry and try to “beat the gizzard out of me,” even though I write of my father and her after the passage of time with love and forgiveness (along with candor). My father, on the other hand, would have cried melancholic tears of remorse.
Regretfully, I know so little about her life before she met my father, especially about her childhood, because she hardly ever wanted to talk about it. Her maiden name was Elder and her family was primarily from England, with ancestry linked to Sir Isaac Newton. There was also Irish mixed in, and some of her features also looked distinctly Native American. The irreverent joke in the family was that an Indian in the woodshed might have had something to do with her conception.
Questions like how she met my father and why she chose to marry such an older man are mysteries that no one remains around to answer. When I spent more time with her as an adult, some details leaked out from time to time. I asked her once, given all the ten children, whether she and my father had a good love life. “Yes,” she answered, “when he was sober.” She also told me about what happened when she got her first period, a story that shines some light on why her personality was the way it was. She said she was swimming in a pond when she noticed the blood. She immediately ran home and told her mother the news. What did her mother do? She promptly gave her a whacking. Such was parenting in those days.
When my siblings and I get together, we can tell stories about our mother and laugh in retrospect, although things weren’t always so funny at the time. One such episode that best epitomizes the kind of love/hate relationship I had with my mother was about my high school prom. Although I had a job after school working at a soda fountain and lived with the Chinn family taking care of their kids, I didn’t have very much money and not nearly enough to buy a dress. So I wrote to her in Cleveland to ask if she could help me out with this all-important milestone in my life. I would have been overjoyed if she had sent me a couple of dollars, but instead a box arrived. I opened it up, and my heart sank. Inside was a white frilly dress, the kind that a young girl might wear to first communion or confirmation in the church. God knows why she sent it to me. Was it because she had no money? Stinginess? Or was it simply that she was ignorant of what was appropriate for a teenage girl? Or all of the above?
I told my brother Joe about it. I guess I had loaded my entire inventory of disappointment onto this single event. It was impossible to hold back how deeply upset I was about the situation. Like he did in many situations, he came to my rescue. He sent me ten dollars, and I got a dress.
One other memorable example of when Joe stuck up for me happened a few years earlier. It was during World War II, and he had come home on leave dressed in his sailor uniform with the white hat. Mother was fed up, exasperated by how I was asking too many questions all the time. But he had a question of his own. “Why do you think she’s so smart?” he asked her. “It’s because she’s asking questions. Don’t ever stop her from doing that.”
My memories of my mother’s departure from the family seem shrouded in fog. I was resigned to it, but I also didn’t want to think about it because it would remind me that my situation was not okay. It was the child’s mechanism for coping. That was the way it was. I put it off to the side. “If she comes back, she comes back,” I thought. You just go about your business. I was the optimist, convinced that everything was going to be all right. At the same time, my father was beginning to get terrible headaches, probably the precursor of his cancer, so I was frankly more focused on his well-being than my mother’s.
I would see my mother from time to time after she moved away, and I grew much closer to her late in her life. But she never came back to Rockport, not for my hospitalization for appendicitis nor for my high school graduation. In fact, she never set foot in our family home again.
No one outside the immediate family except my best friend Oscar came over regularly to visit. There wasn’t much to see. It was exactly how you would imagine Depression-era poverty to be. From the outside, it didn’t look that bad—a small, well-built wood-frame house. In fact, it still stands there today, albeit in much better shape than when we lived there. Downstairs, there was a small kitchen and a living room with a stove for warmth and a radio that my father often tuned in to listen to the boxing matches.
One bright spot in the sitting room was a sofa covered in a yellow plastic-like fabric. To the best of our abilities, Babby and I tried to fix the place up. We painted and put up curtains. Where there were holes in the walls, we stuffed old clothes and rags into them to protect against the cold. We then put paper over the hole and painted it. It didn’t look too bad.
Another downstairs room just by the staircase was full of some old storage trunks, mostly things that my mother had left behind and other assorted junk. Since we didn’t have a car, the adjacent garage was also used for storage, including the stockpile of emptied liquor bottles.
Upstairs, there were two small rooms, one more filled with junk, and the other a bedroom where my sister and I slept in one bed and my father in the other. The bedroom closet was also short on amenities. The few clothes we had hung from hooks on the wall instead of the customary bar with hangers. In the winter, the bedroom’s broken windows gave no protection against the cold air, overwhelming any warmth that might rise from the woodstove in the living room below.
To deal with the cold, my sister and I often slept like spoons, turning over systematically in intervals, switching when one side was warm to heat up the other side. On really cold nights, my father put a big old overcoat on top of our blanket.
Inside our Rockport house, Babby and I had more serious things to deal with than the cold. We always had to be on guard, hypervigilant around our father because we never knew what to expect around him when he was drinking. Since there was no one else there to protect us, we saw up close and took the full brunt of the daily reality of the destructive nature of alcoholism. We learned quickly how all semblances of human dignity, morality, and judgment of what’s simply right and wrong can evaporate into thin air.
“Pauline, I know he thinks that I’m Mother,” I told my oldest sister one day when she was visiting.
“You made that up,” she snapped back. “Dad wouldn’t do that.” But she saw that I wasn’t joking.
“I’m going to wait outside the door, and we’ll see,” she said.
I went back in the room. My father grabbed me, trying to hold me too close. Pauline came in yelling and broke it up. Had she not come in, who knows what would have happened. I probably would have spoken up and told him to stop. I was about fifteen and as tall as he was, so if that didn’t work I could have probably overpowered him. He felt terrible because he was caught in the act.
Another time, Pauline and her husband and children were staying with us. Again, my father was not behaving, and my brother-in-law Charlie, who was a terrible drunk himself, took great offense at what he was witnessing.
“Pauline, we’re going,” Charlie announced and abruptly signaled for my sister and their children to pack up their things and get to the car. Babby and I begged them, “Please don’t leave us.” Pauline was painfully torn as she did what her husband asked. “I have to go with Charlie,” she called out to us as she was hurrying to leave. She said that she regretted her action that night for the rest of her life.
The trauma of alcoholism was not limited to within the four walls of our home. One hot summer night, Babby and I were staying across the river in Owensboro with my cousin, who had a house across the cornfield from her parents, my uncle Jim and aunt Loretta. They were closer family than most: Loretta was my mother’s sister, and Jim was my father’s brother. My aunt and uncle’s daughter was married to another raging alcoholic. He came home that night horribly drunk. Anticipating this, my cousin had locked all the screen doors on the windows that were left open because of the heat. Once he discovered he was locked out, he went on a rampage.
We heard him rip the screen door off its hinges as we were huddled together on the kitchen floor waiting for the hurricane to pass. Then he turned over a table covered with glass jars filled with food my cousin had canned that afternoon. With the sound of the smashing glass, I crawled over and opened the lock on the bottom of the kitchen door. We bolted out of there running for our lives, tearing across the cornfield petrified that he would catch us. Once at the farmhouse, we woke up Uncle Jim. He got his shotgun and went back after him. I don’t know what else happened that night, but this was hardly the last of these incidents my sister and I had to endure.
Even though I was just a young girl, I had developed a fairly thick skin. I had no other choice. Maybe it helped that I had nothing else to compare it to, so I accepted it in that spirit.
When I look back at pictures of myself from those early years, I see a lot of sadness in the eyes of that little girl. But there was also a lot of pride. I want to go back and hug that child. Remarkably, portraits of me taken in recent years seem to look more youthful than those from my childhood. I think it was because my spirit got lighter as I got older. I came more to terms with what happened. That was the way it was. This is the way it is now. Now, get on with it. I never wanted anybody to feel sorry for me. No different than children caught in the middle of a war zone who find a way to play even in the smoldering rubble, I found a source of inner joy. It came from the simple act of singing.
To her credit, my mother recognized from early on that I came into this world with a gift—a musical voice. In fact, I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t singing. My mother loved music and played the guitar. She taught me lots of songs from age two, fifty songs, in fact, that I knew note perfect. It was mostly what they called hillbilly music back then, like “Down on the Levee” and spirituals such as “The Old Rugged Cross.” Years later, I found out in a rather unusual way that music was in the ancestry of my mother’s family. An aunt was touring the Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky when she saw etched on the wall of one of the caverns some graffiti from two Civil War soldiers who were hiding down there. They wrote, “Isaac and Henry Newton, musicians and composers.” They were on the family tree on my maternal grandmother’s side.
As a young child, singing was also an antidote for my shyness. I had the belief that if I closed my eyes the people around me would also not be able to see me. My mother made me get up and sing in public wherever there was a gathering of people (sometimes in the local grocery store). I was more afraid of her than of being shy. Quite often I’d pass the hat. So I guess it can be said that I’ve always been singing for my supper. Sometimes Babby would join in, and we’d fall easily into harmony. We even won a contest. Our prize was hot fudge sundaes at Wyndall’s Market.
I never had any musical instruction until the nuns put me in the church choir when I was eight. They taught me how to sight-read Gregorian chants. They had me sing two Latin masses on Sundays. If the tenor or bass didn’t show up that particular day, I’d sing their parts too. People started to recognize that I had talent. Had my mother stuck around, I’m sure she might have become a great stage mother.
Often when I sang, some people in the gathering would cry. It is unlikely at the time that I fully comprehended on a conscious level the reason why they did this. But Rockport was not a large town. The conditions Babby and I lived under were no secret. And we convincingly looked the part of two little ragamuffins fending for ourselves, living precariously close to the edge.
Babby was three years older, and that age difference gave her a certain authority in watching out for me. She had brown hair and eyes and was very pretty. Being older, she was a big step ahead of me in knowing the ways of the world and especially about boys. When puberty erupted and the hormones kicked in, she stepped in as a form of guardian angel because there was no mother or grandmother figure around to rein me in.
“When he comes into your mind, just think about things you hate about him,” she told me. That was her form of psychology to help rid me of puppy love. She thought my feelings had become a little too hot and heavy (nothing beyond kissing!) for Gene Springer, the boy who worked at the taffy counter at the carnival. She was also concerned about another boy named Doc Bush, and for good reason. He was five years older than I was! And I was crazy about him.
Temptation was all around, and had I been a little freer in spirit and not so Catholic, I might have gotten in some serious trouble. Case in point: Babby, Oscar, and I often went dancing at the Rendezvous Dance Hall in nearby Tell City. When I was out on the dance floor, I really felt the music and wasn’t shy about expressing it—which would later prove to be a good thing when I became a Broadway performer. “Don’t shake your behind like that,” Babby warned me. Guys were always asking me to dance, and I was only thirteen.
Along with Babby’s loving influence, religion also served to hold me in check. When I was a child, I had to go to mass nearly every day. And once a week, we all lined up to go into the little box for confession. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” was how I would begin. Our parish priest was on the other side of the perforated slot. When I was little, my sins were fairly predictable: “I disobeyed my parents”; “I fought with my brothers and sisters.” As I got older and when it was something I thought was really a bad sin, I tried to disguise my voice, because the priest knew us all. My voice would go into a higher register: “I lied”; “I had impure thoughts”; “I touched myself impurely.”
Confession is a fairly serious sacrament in the Catholic Church. It’s all tied to owning up to our shortcomings, expressing genuine sorrow, receiving penance of some sort, and finally, absolution. Also, one of the other big rules is that what is said in the box stays in the box. One day, this rule provoked a particularly severe case of soul-searching for the simple reason that our priest absentmindedly forgot to close the slot on my side before he had finished with the person in front of me. As I entered, he had already begun to hear the confession of an older girl named Maria—better known as “Maria with the big boobs” among us other less endowed girls. Maria launched into her confession, and it was much better than listening to the radio. “Oh my God,” I said to myself, realizing that I would probably be compelled to add this inadvertent eavesdropping to my already prepared list of sins. But this was juicy stuff. Maria said she was truly sorry how she let her boyfriend Simon have his way with her ample breasts. I decided to leave well enough alone.
A short time later, our priest revealed that he too fudged on the rules. At the end of one of my confessions, he asked, “By the way, Florence, how’s Carl?” He was referring to my brother, who was gravely ill at the time. So much for the pretense of anonymity!
Our priest had no doubt a fair good bit of material for his own confession. It was clear that he thought that all of us blossoming young girls were pretty cute. As a group of us were graduating from the eighth grade, he called us to his rectory upstairs. He had us all line up. He was seated in a chair with his legs spread wide. When it was each girl’s turn, he would rub us against his crotch. At least he kept his clothes on. I remember thinking, “That’s Father So-and-So. Oh my God! What about confession? Is this his sin or ours?”
One of the girls must have told her parents about the incident. My mother got wind of it and asked me about it. “Yes,” I admitted to her, “but I don’t think he meant anything bad with it.” I was always trying to make everything right, which was not always a good thing. The priest had been at the parish for many years, but was transferred somewhere else soon thereafter. Many years later, he came to see me performing on Broadway in Fanny.
In general, when those kinds of things happened, whether it was going on in the home, at church, or anywhere, kids didn’t speak up as promptly as they should have. In high school, I was living with another family, and their friend came to visit one afternoon in quite a drunken state. “Now, you’ll be very sorry,” I said to him, trying to talk him down while circling the table in order to get close enough to escape through the door. Even though that self-preservation instinct luckily worked in our favor, we always had a blurry line of what was appropriate and what was not. Someone touching your private parts or hitting you was not called sexual abuse or domestic violence back then. You didn’t tattle on anybody. Even though Babby certainly went through the same things with our father, our attitude was to try to work things out internally, silently. Be forgiving. See the good in everyone. That’s life on the farm.
That farm life in a large family with older brothers did not give you a free pass from their sexual curiosity. My mother had one solution for it all. “If your brother tries to touch you, you tell him the devil will take him straight to hell.” That devil must have worked overtime in our house, ready to spring into action whenever anybody did anything wrong. If I didn’t get to sleep right away, my mother had that same devil standing by. Maybe that’s why I still don’t sleep so well. I’m not joking—it took me years before I had the courage to watch Rosemary’s Baby.
“Come on, Florency, run faster, run faster.” I can still remember how Babby cried out. We were walking home one night, and a stranger was following us all too close. Terrified, I cried back, “I can’t run any faster.” Thankfully nothing happened. It is scary how much free rein we had to come and go as we pleased. On another night out past dark, when we were too tired to make it home, we crawled into the outhouse of a family we knew in town, the Berrys. We got up early the next morning and went home. Nowadays, a child protective agency would have probably intervened.
To my knowledge, no such entity of that kind existed in Rockport in the 1940s, with one notable exception, the truant officer. Babby and I would skip school sometimes, usually because we had no proper clothes to wear. So we’d take the day off and stay in bed. We’d hear the truant officers coming to the porch of our house on Eureka Road where we lived prior to moving to the two-story home. We’d hear them talking outside, followed seconds later by a knock on the door. With no answer, they’d walk around the house and look in the windows. We pulled the blankets over us and stayed very quiet until they left.
One silver lining of that house on Eureka was that it was located next door to an African American church. Their services were quite different from what I was used to in the Catholic Church. Instead of long liturgies, a young woman would sit down and play the organ, and the music seemed to take over from there. It was contagious. From the moment I would go into that church, I could not stop dancing. I learned there at a young age a valuable lesson on how to “get down” musically and otherwise.
Behind the church was a house where a black family lived, the Rowans. Mr. Rowan and Daddy would sometimes get drunk together. It was quite a sight to see them walking on the street, stumbling home together. His daughter would sometimes sit and kiss her boyfriend on the front steps of the church. I remember thinking, “Hmm, that doesn’t look like such a bad thing.” And the memory of Mrs. Rowan is still quite vivid. One night, I was supposed to take the garbage out. For whatever reason, I was afraid to go back where the garbage cans were, so I came up with the excellent idea of dumping it conveniently over behind the Rowans’ house. Well, Mrs. Rowan came over the next day. My mother didn’t bother to count to ten after the screen door closed behind Mrs. Rowan. With no hesitation, she beat the tar out of me.
Whether I was singing and dancing at the African American church or performing in the grocery store, people must have sensed a positive life force in me in spite of my circumstances. I was, as far back as I can remember, a “glass-half-full” personality type. I was optimistic even in the worst of times when nothing around gave cause to be so. Any kind of inner strength and confidence that were communicated through my singing voice perhaps stemmed from that optimism and the protective faith I felt. Despite my listeners’ tears, they were hopeful, as I was, that somehow I would persevere.
To my great delight, some of the people from that period of my childhood have turned up sporadically. A short time ago, a letter arrived from Missy Mason, the town doctor’s granddaughter. Back in the old days, I held her in high regard, “the cat’s meow,” and the real height of sophistication in my mind. “It was just so semi!” was her favorite expression, and whatever that meant, it had to be good. She wrote in this letter some six decades later, “I’ve seen you so many times on TV and always feel so proud of all you’ve accomplished. Who would have thought it way back when we were so young. Maybe you did.” Another unforgettable encounter was with Bananas, or ’Nanas for short, a tough African American kid whom I would say hi to on the street when he wasn’t being a terrifying bully (or so he seemed to me). Sometime in the 1960s, I was performing a concert for Oldsmobile in Flint, Michigan, with a wonderful choir made up of their workers. At that event, a very handsome black man came up to me. “Florence, I’m ’Nanas from Rockport.” We hugged each other with such joy. He took a step back with one of those “just look at us” looks. He laughed. “Yeah, we both got out.”
No doubt I rode out of Rockport on my mother’s galloping horse. As I mentioned before, Elizabeth Henderson was a survivor and a fighter, and give her credit, it was advice that worked for her for her whole lifetime. I didn’t recognize until much later on just how courageous she was. She dealt with her difficulties with a lot of grit and sheer determination. I followed her example without totally being cognizant of it, and it’s been one hell of a ride! For the greater portion of my life, I barreled through problems and obstacles as if my very existence depended on it. And certainly, in the difficult years of my youth, it did. But logic dictates that there comes a time when all of that is no longer necessary, when you can relax and loosen your grip on the reins, slow the horse down, and enjoy the ride. Nice thought. Why not? But that’s easier said than done. Such behavior becomes an ingrained and stubborn pattern. It had a powerful presence lurking in all of my thoughts, actions, and choices. At the same time, it was seamless and nearly invisible, unnoticed like a painting hanging on a living room wall that fades into the background with time.
Heavy lifting would be required to deal with the emotions I held inside from early childhood, and, in my case, more than a few Kleenex boxes processing it all in therapy. As I’ve gotten older and somewhat wiser, I’ve come to better understand and deal with the past. But the scars are always there. We just deal with it the best we can. Even the very act of recounting these old stories has had a definite healing effect.
Growing Up Fast
One of the brighter spots of my early life came in the form of Oscar. She was my saving grace and my best friend from the time we were five years old until she died all too early from asthma at age fifty-three. I’m not sure exactly how my lucky break happened, but Oscar was going to attend St. Francis Academy, the Catholic high school on the other side of the Ohio River in Kentucky. She came from a well-to-do family, and I think her grandparents didn’t want her taking the Greyhound bus alone every day back and forth to school. I never found out how it was paid for, but regardless, it was all arranged. I got to go with her on the bus.
On those bus rides, we’d laugh and talk about girly things: school, making fun of teachers, boys, and movies—usually in that order. But beyond that, we usually didn’t dwell on our problems. Oscar had her share of misfortune with her home situation too, albeit markedly more benign than mine. Her mother gave birth to her at seventeen. Due to alcohol problems, her father was not in the picture, but she was raised by his parents.
Oscar would visit her mother, who rented a room in the home of a wealthy Rockport family. Sometimes I’d come too, and we’d spend the night together in that room, all three of us packed in the same bed. Often I would stay at Oscar’s house as well. During one sleepover, Oscar had an asthma attack. She couldn’t breathe and got very frightened. We were alone, and I didn’t know what to do and felt powerless to help. I tried to comfort her. It was terrifying, but it shocked me into a real state of compassion and gratitude when the calm was restored. It reduced things to basics. We supported each other the best we could. We were both trying to fit in and live as normal a life as we could imagine.
In that regard, going to St. Francis with Oscar was made to order, even down to the fact that we wore uniforms, since I didn’t have any decent clothes. Still, often I’d get off the bus in the morning with a soiled uniform or wearing something other than the clean white blouse required as part of it.
“Why aren’t you in your uniform?” Sister Mary Auxilium, the wonderful mother superior wearing the full nun’s habit, asked me when I was sent to her office.
“I spilled hot chocolate on it,” I replied, trying to mask the truth. Hot chocolate? I hadn’t even had breakfast.
“Oh, I see,” she said in a neutral tone. She offered me something to drink. Sitting there with the cup in my hand, I was completely clueless that she or any of the other teachers knew of my circumstances. How could I have been so naïve?
Thinking it might help, Sister Mary would send me to the school’s spiritual director, Father Saffer, for counseling. I don’t remember any particularly profound insights from our conversations, but there was something more powerful in the unspoken, in his gesture of caring kindness. As I sat in his presence, there was another thing about him that I couldn’t resist. Even back then, I guess I was preparing to be an actress and conducting my own character study. He had a nervous manner about him that I found fascinating. And I had the audacity to imitate him, to everyone’s delight, including his (I think!), when we had school assemblies.
Excerpted from Life Is Not a Stage by Henderson, Florence Copyright © 2011 by Henderson, Florence. Excerpted by permission.
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