The tragic childhood of the Dionne quintuplets

Ilana Quinn

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Since the dawn of mass media, the public has been obsessed with making celebrities out of children. Consumers enjoy finding young people to fawn over, with producers generating mass amounts of merchandise and stories to profit from their images.

Sometimes, the public’s fixation with child celebrities is fairly innocuous. The public adopts celebrity children like Shirley Temple and Lindsay Lohan, gushing over their life milestones and endearing antics like real parents would.

The public obsession with young celebrities becomes malicious when failures and struggles are sold for profit and entertainment, like when the internet gloated over nineteen-year-old Justin Bieber’s substance abuse issues and subsequent arrest. Soaring to obscene popularity at just thirteen, Bieber’s life in the spotlight undoubtedly contributed to his later mental health issues, which have often been glossed over and even mocked by the media.

Often, an even more sinister tone darkens public interest.

Girls and boys are objectified from young ages. Children wear provocative outfits meant to titillate adult predators. “Countdown to eighteen” websites are common, like the ones for famous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in 2004. More recently, Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown’s eighteenth birthday was celebrated by hordes of creepy Reddit users.

It should come as no surprise the wildly famous Dionne quintuplets, or the “Dionne quints,” felt the same public pressures. They were the first quintuplets known to have survived infancy, catapulting them into instant fame.

Sadly, their lives began when the exploitation of children for mass entertainment was hardly criticized, plunging them into a shattered childhood.

Separated from their mother

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The Dionne sisters were born on May 28th, 1934. They were christened Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie, and would become welcome distractions from the financial crisis of the Great Depression.

They arrived undersized to poor parents Elzire and Oliva Dionne who already had five children. Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe and local midwives assisted in the monumental birth of the quints.

The Dionne family was French-Canadian, a community descended from French settlers who inhabited modern-day Québec and Ontario during the seventeenth century.

At a time when medical innovation had only recently begun, the survival of five babies from a single mother was miraculous. The Canadian government could not look away.

In a country dwarfed by its southern neighbour in both political and cultural relevance, Canada jumped at the opportunity to use the infant quintuplets for international stardom.

Days after the birth of the babies, the Toronto Star swiftly found Dr. Dafoe’s younger brother to ask what kinds of supplies the family might need. With the precarious nature of quint births, the sisters’ survival still hung in the balance.

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Reporters from The Star gathered a bounty of blankets, safety pins, candy and other foodstuffs for Elzire Dionne and the babies then traveled from Toronto to the small Ontario town.

When the reporters first saw the sleeping babies, they were enthralled:

There was something terribly exciting about those babies that made thrills run up and down my spine. I can’t explain it.

A heartfelt story about the babies was printed for The Star, complete with the first of many photographs. But the survival of the babies was still in question, with hordes of onlookers and reporters gathering outside the Dionne farmhouse.

While some spectators were well-meaning, with women from across North America even sending their breast milk to ensure their survival, others were domineering. Some demanded to kiss and hold the babies, without even knowing the family.

Despite the Canadian media’s push to keep the Dionne quints a Canadian commodity, American spectators swarmed around the farmhouse day and night, making it nearly impossible for any of the family members to leave.

American entrepreneurs constantly approached Oliva to profit from the miraculous birth. After a while, so many cars drove down the winding path to the family’s home that it would have to be rebuilt.

A seventeen-year-old local girl expressed the town’s sentiment and her disbelief at the media frenzy to the Pittsburgh Press:

I don’t know what this town did before babies were born. We must have been completely dead, because no one for miles around is talking, thinking or wondering about anything but the Dionne babies and whether or not they’ll live.

A few days later, enticed by a lucrative business deal, Oliva Dionne signed over the babies to fair exhibitors, who intended to show off the quints in Chicago. His wife was not consulted, nor did she sign the contract.

Without the protection of their family, the Dionne sisters were completely vulnerable to the demands of the government and the desires of the increasingly insatiable public.

Growing up in a zoo

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Crowd gathering outside the Dionne homeGetty Images

If you were a child during the 1930s and 40s, you would have dreamed of visiting “Quintland,” the sprawling tourist attraction visited by three million people in less than ten years.

If you were one of the Dionne sisters, you may have dreamed of escaping.

Quintland was the residence of the quintuplets for nine years. The children were ultimately separated from their parents and siblings, being cared for by nurses and Dr. Dafoe — who called them his “dears” and “darlings.” Inside the compound, the sisters followed a strict routine and underwent medical inspections and tests.

The quint parents were allowed to visit the hospital where they lived, but these occasions were often marked by explosive arguments between the Dionne adults and the nurses over what kind of foods the children should eat.

The sisters were observed by tourists from their playground surrounded by glass, where they were expected to play at least three times a day. Thousands of people arrived to gawk at the young girls every day, with the Montreal Gazettereporting in 1935:

Today 4,000 persons came in more than 1,000 motor cars to see the famous youngsters perform … All five are good show girls. They know they are appearing before admirers and react like real troopers.

Visitors purchased merchandise, with many women hoping to cure their infertility by buying a miracle potion or even brushing against Oliva Dionne.

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Meanwhile, the Ontario government and big businesses made millions of dollars from using the quints for advertisements. Colgate dental cream, cough syrup, paper dolls and postcards were branded by images of the undeniably cute Dionne toddlers. Several Hollywood movies and newsreels were promoted using the girls’ universally renowned images.

On May 22nd, 1939, during their imperial tour to rally support for Great Britain at the dawn of the Second World War, the King and Queen became besotted with the quints:

Cecile walked across the room and kissed the Queen, and as soon as they saw what she was doing, her sisters scrambled around the Queen to see who could kiss her first. The Queen loved it, and leaned over and put her arms around each and returned the kisses. Meanwhile, the King was forgotten amidst the feminine affection until Yvonne decided to remedy the situation, and ran up and took the King’s hand. The King grinned, stooped over and whispered to her while both laughed at their private joke.

Soon, the Dionne quints were the most photographed children in the world, gracing the covers of LIFE and TIME magazines and appearing alongside Shirley Temple.

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Like other child stars of their time, the Dionne quints were also sexualized by the media.

A newspaper article in The Globe and Mail described the likely staged moment when the “flirtatious” quints blew kisses to a group of boy scouts. Another story covered six-year-old Emilie’s supposed crush on an adult photographer.

While these stories may have been completely innocuous, the public’s obsession with the young sisters’ romantic lives was premature and bizarre.

A psychologist frantically wrote to The Globe on the importance of the quints playing with boys to improve their future romantic involvements. They were two-years-old at the time.

A happy family?

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The Dionne quints with their younger sisterGetty Images

When the Dionne quintuplets were finally returned to their birth family, they felt disconnected.

They had not been raised by their parents, and the latter harbored resentment towards their daughters — including the belief the famous siblings were the source of the family’s woes. The sisters described subsequent emotional and verbal abuse from their mother.

The attention from the public didn’t fade either, with Oliva often alerting the press and authorities of family outings.

Years later, the surviving Dionne sisters would allege their father sexually abused them as teenagers. When asking advice from a school priest, they were told to “continue to love our parents and wear a thick coat when we went for car rides.”

As a result of their tumultuous relationships with their family, they moved away from home immediately following their eighteenth birthdays, each of them leading extremely different lives.

For the sake of other children

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Three surviving Dionne sisters in adulthoodGetty Images

As adults, the Dionne sisters did not shy away from speaking out about the exploitation they suffered at the hands of their doctors, the Canadian government and the media.

Their mistreatment led to reparations from the government, but the emotional scars of a lost childhood can never be erased. The quintuplets fought for other children at risk of becoming spectacles, realizing how traumatic a life on display can be.

When speaking to the CBC about how their young lives were made into a freak show, Cecile lamented on behalf of all the sisters:

It was not the human thing that happened to us. We don’t want it to happen again with other children… It was exploitation. We are not animals.

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