Dionne Quintuplets (b. 1934)

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Dionne Quintuplets (b. 1934)

Canada's celebrated quints, who were put on display as a major tourist attraction in Ontario during the 1930s. Name variations: The Quints; the Dionnelles. Pronunciation: DEE-yon or DEE-yown. Born on May 28, 1934, in the small village of Corbeil, north of Toronto, in Northern Ontario, Canada; daughters of Oliva and Elzire (Legros) Dionne.

Annette (b. 1934). Born Marie Lilianne Annette; studied music at the Marguerite Bourgeois; married Germain Allard (branch manager of a finance company), in the 1950s; children: Jean-François (b. November 2, 1958); Charles; Eric (b. September 1962).

Cécile (b. 1934). Born Marie Emilda Cécile; graduated as a nurse from the Hôpital Notre Dame de l'Esperance, Montreal, around 1956; married Philippe Langlois (a television technician at the CBC), around 1957 (divorced); children: Claude (b. September 15, 1958); Bertrand; Elizabeth; Patrice.

Émilie (1934–1954). Born Marie Jeanne Émilie; died of suffocation in August 1954.

Marie (1934–1970). Born Reine Alma Marie; died in February 1970; married Florian Houle (an inspector on the staff of the Quebec government), in the 1950s (separated 1966); children: Émilie (b. December 24, 1960); Monique.

Yvonne (1934–2001). Born Marie Edwilda Yvonne; died of cancer in Montreal on June 23, 2001; graduated as a nurse from the Hôpital Notre Dame de l'Esperance, Montreal, around 1956; joined three different convents.

On May 28, 1934, quintuplets were born in the tiny village of Corbeil, Ontario, Canada. Two were delivered by midwives; three were attended by Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, a widower, who lived in nearby Callender, an abandoned lumber town. Two months premature, weighing a combined 13 pounds, 6 ounces, the five babies were put in a wicker basket and set by the warmth of the stove. The following day, headlines in Callender heralded the most publicized births of the century: QUINTS BORN TO FARM WIFE. They would be the first quintuplets on record to survive more than a few days. When asked how she was feeling, the 25-year-old mother Elzire Dionne , who had five other children, managed, "Oh, pretty good."

Corbeil and Callender were still staggering from the effects of the Depression, and the French-Canadian Dionnes were extremely poor. Oliva Dionne scrambled for a living, working the fields, renting out his farm equipment, trapping foxes in the winter woods and selling their furs in North Bay. Until the birth pangs became too intense, Elzire had hoped to avoid the $20 doctor fee. The family lived in a plank farmhouse, without benefit of electricity, gas, running water, and indoor plumbing. Elzire could barely speak English.

Before fertility pills increased the chance for multiple births, the likelihood of quints being born was 57,289,761 to 1. The odds for survival were worse. Only 34 quintuplet births had been documented by 1934. Quints had been born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1866 and in Kentucky in 1896. In 1914, Rose Salemi gave birth to quintuplets in Italy. In 1943, the Diligenti quints would be born in Argentina. September of 1963 would see quints born into the Prieto family of Venezuela and the Fischer family of Aberdeen, South Dakota.

The Dionne infants were initially put in the hands of Yvonne Leroux , a Callender resident and recent graduate of St. Joseph's Hospital in North Bay, who arrived with a hot-water bottle and kept her medical records on the back of old bills; it was her first outside case. Madame Louise de Kiriline , a strict disciplinarian, was brought in. In her zeal for cleanliness, de Kiriline issued edicts, demanding that gowns and masks be worn; she scrubbed, disinfected, and ordered the parental Dionnes to the household corners while the quints' five brothers and sisters were packed off to stay with relatives. Before long, reporters pulled up, hauling flashbulbs, diapers, and an incubator that could sleep three. Breast milk arrived from Toronto, Montreal, and Chicago provided by concerned mothers.

We were weighed, measured, tested, studied and examined to the heart's content of doctors and scientists, who apparently found us to be among the most fascinating females known to history.

—Dionne Quintuplets

Oliva Dionne and Dr. Dafoe resented the intrusion of the press in the first few days, although Dafoe soon came to believe that he had "no right to object to what had become a matter of continent-wide interest," and he grew increasingly grateful for the supplies and equipment generated from the publicity. Meanwhile, Oliva was frantic with concern over how to provide for his exploding family. He turned to fellow parishioners in Callender for money, but theirs was a poor parish. Mass was said in a basement. At a time when Oliva needed an angel, he got Ivan I. Spear. It was to be a catastrophic connection.

Spear, who operated the Century of Progress Tour Bureau in Chicago, wanted to sign the quints for a sideshow attraction at the Chicago World's Fair. He offered Oliva Dionne trained nurses, a luxurious private ward (with viewing windows), and a great deal of money. Thus, when the quints were barely three days old, Oliva signed a contract with Spear, giving him "exclusive rights." Though the two would later learn that the contract was null and void (in their haste, they had not asked Elzire to sign), the story evoked nasty headlines and international outrage at a time when prejudice against French-Canadians in Canada was at its height. The Canadian Parliament in Ottawa decided to appoint a board of guardians.

From the proceeds of a Red Cross fund-raising drive, a home was built across the road from the farmhouse—a nine-room nursery with electricity, plumbing, and climate control. Next to that, another two-story building was erected to house the staff; the nursery opened at the end of September 1934. "We were weighed, measured, tested, studied and examined to the heart's content of doctors and scientists, who apparently found us to be among the most fascinating females known to history," wrote the quintuplets. "We were peered at, pricked and prodded for years. … Every mouthful of food was counted, as well as every diaper." Dr. Dafoe wanted to have the "opportunity for unrestricted medical control in the care of the babies," while de Kiriline felt babies should be handled as seldom as possible. There were rules against kissing on the face in case of germs.

A rift occurred. In protecting the quints, the staff became a wedge between the babies and their birth mother, slowly eroding the parental-bonding process. Instead, the quints bonded with the ones who held them most—their nurses. Though their father was a regular visitor, the infants did not see the rest of the family for months at a time. The separation caused a deep wound for Elzire, who needed prompting to come to the nursery. The babies' staff, reporters, and dignitaries began to take sides; there were those who were sympathetic with the hapless Dionnes and those who championed the doctors. Process servers from both sides of the camp went back and forth, ushering in lawsuits.

But the quints recalled those early days in the nursery with affection; they were treated like five princesses. Not only did they have each other, but they also had their own doll, their own tricycle. They each slept in their own yellow crib, their name engraved on each headboard—Annette, Cécile, Émilie, Marie, and Yvonne—along with the inscription Que le bon Jésus vous garde ("May the good Lord watch over you"). A nurse remained in their room through the night, while a guard sat outside. Eventually there was a white dining room with three enameled tables, five small chairs, and a buffet. Though their days were organized, a new timetable of activities was put into place each month. Trips to the bathroom were carefully noted on a chart under the category Elimination Routine; other categories included "Frequency of Emotional Episodes Per Child." When teeth arrived, so did a dentist's chair and all the requisite equipment.

The little girls became as famous as Shirley Temple (Black) . The dominant news stories of March 1935 were the passing of a major relief bill in the U.S. Senate and the emergence of Annette's first tooth. When the quints were three, an observatory was built. Until then, the thousands that had made a pilgrimage to Corbeil to see them peered from behind a fence. Now as the children played, spectators could watch through one-way, mesh-wire windows, but the quints were aware of their presence. As the nurses exhibited them, holding up each quint and a card with their name, the quints waved and threw kisses; if Émilie was sleeping, the nurses held up Marie twice. "Most of the time we yelled and shrieked with the joy of living, and we developed a shrewd idea of what would please the crowds most," wrote the quints. The audience was delighted when "we would venture into the wading pool with shoes and socks on." Cameras were not allowed. Taking photos was the exclusive right of a U.S. feature service and the Toronto Star which paid $25,000 a year into the quintuplet bank account for the privilege. When Oliva Dionne once attempted to take a snapshot through a window, he was reprimanded and reminded of the contracts.

In March 1935, over the tearful protest of Elzire Dionne, Ottawa passed "An Act for the Protection of the Dionne Quintuplets": the children were now the official wards of King George V of England. The act was supposed to be in force for the first two years of their lives; in actuality, it was in force until their 18th birthdays. When the board of guardians sought to bring in more money and provide the quints with a bank account, souvenir stands popped up outside the nursery, and the quints' career in advertising began: there were quintuplet dishes, dolls, cutouts, candy, purses, and spoons. Sponsors lined up for the privilege of using their image: Libby's, Carnation, Lever Brothers, and Palmolive. "This morning the Dionne Quints had Quaker Oats," boasted one sonorous radio announcer.

Twentieth Century-Fox paid $50,000 for the right to shoot 30 minutes of footage for the 1936 film The Country Doctor. Before entering the nursery, the cast had their noses and throats sprayed with germicide and their clothes sterilized; those behind the cameras wore gowns and masks. The film, loosely based on the birth of the quints, was written by Sonya Levien and

starred Jean Hersholt as a fictionalized version of Dr. Dafoe. It was so successful that Fox shot two more with Hersholt: Reunion, starring Rochelle Hudson (1936), and Five of a Kind, starring Claire Trevor (1938); in the latter, the quints had 18 minutes of screen time.

The Dionne Quintuplets became one of the biggest tourist attractions in Canada, competing only with Niagara Falls. "Capitalized at four percent," bragged one would-be mogul, "these Quint-inspired revenues make the Dionne girls a $500,000,000 asset to Ontario." In "Quintland," restaurants, gas stations, and land rates went up; Callender boomed. Everyone was making a fortune, and everyone was bound and determined that Oliva Dionne, whose reputation was still reeling from the early negative publicity, would not make one cent off his children.

For seven years, Oliva Dionne was portrayed in the press in unredeeming strokes while Dafoe (aided and abetted by his white uniform and the performances of Jean Hersholt) was the kindly, all-knowing country doctor. By the time the quints turned seven, the tide turned against Dafoe and Oliva Dionne began to evoke sympathy. The truth, say the quints, resided somewhere in the middle.

With the backing of the Catholic Church, Oliva Dionne began to have his way more often. His other children joined the quints for school lessons, and the quints began to cross the road on Sundays for dinners with their family. (They would later admit that it was like visiting strangers; they hated Sundays.) With the media now on the side of the Dionnes, the doctor resigned, and the government agreed to use quintuplet funds to build a new house for the entire family. The Big House (ten bedrooms, five baths, a playroom and music room) was finished the winter of 1942–43, and the Dionnes were finally under one roof.

"It was the saddest home we ever knew," wrote the quints. "The fable was that we had always felt, up to this moment, like institutional children, separated by cruel law from the rest of the family." But the nursery had been a haven for them, not a prison. In the Big House, they were paired off, two to a bedroom. Marie was separated from the other four and put in with her older non-quint sister Pauline. The quints were devastated. They were too old for change, they said. Having lived so long in sterile conditions, they had little natural physical—much less emotional—immunity and came down with numerous ailments. Émilie showed the first signs of epilepsy; at that time, epilepsy was considered shameful, so it was kept secret and went untreated.

Their parents felt they had been spoiled and began a campaign to undo what they perceived as damage, turning the quints into scrubbing Cinderellas, while their siblings had less work. Along with guilt over the upheaval caused by their birth, the girls felt an expectation, that it was up to them to make up for all those years of loss for the family. The parents wanted their love, the quints could not manufacture it. The parents wanted the quints to mix with the family, the quints wanted to keep to themselves. Newspapers reported that the Dionne Quintuplets were becoming sullen and sad looking.

Then the nursery across the street was turned into a boarding school, the Villa Notre Dame, to be run by the Sisters of the Assumption; ten other girls were allowed in as fellow students. Since the quints only had to stay in the Big House on weekends, they loved the school. But by the end of the first year, Oliva was convinced that the nuns were out to divide the family once more, so he brought his daughters back to the Big House. They could attend classes across the way, he said, but they would sleep at home. There was no longer an outside champion; Dafoe had died when they were ten.

At age 18, the Dionne Quintuplets were still being paraded out at the bequest of advertisers, or to greet royalty, and were heavily booked on Mother's Day. They graduated from the Villa Notre Dame with the ability to speak English as well as French, a great deal of religious education, and no career skills. "I think there was too much of what is superficial in religion around us," said Cécile. "Surely the love of God should not be taught in the way a soldier is drilled." But they were also thankful for the watchful presence of the nuns and priests.

Finally to their delight, they were enrolled in Institut Familial, a Catholic college for girls in Nicolet, in the Province of Quebec. On the whole, the sisters were happy. They were back rooming together and soon learned to travel only in pairs; the sight of more than two of them tipped off onlookers and attracted enormous attention. But unlike the other students who had a decent allowance, the quints were granted only two dollars a month. They had no idea of their monetary worth. Unaware of the quintuplet bank account, they thought the money was coming out of their father's pockets.

Marie was the first to assert a pinch of independence. On her 19th birthday, she announced to her parents her intention to enter a convent. As a postulant, she became Sister Marie-Rachel, but illness would force her to leave. Then in their second college year, Yvonne entered the College Marguerite Bourgeois in Montreal as an art student, and Émilie applied and was admitted to the convent at L'Accueil Gai, near the town of St. Agathe in the Laurentian Mountains. One month later, Émilie was dead. Because the epilepsy had continued in secrecy, she died alone of suffocation during a seizure; her face had inadvertently turned downward on her pillow.

Approaching the age of 21, the four surviving sisters moved to Montreal. Annette and Marie enrolled in the College Marguerite Bourgeois, while Yvonne and Cécile entered the Hôpital Notre Dame de l'Ésperance as student nurses. Their allowance was still meager. According to the Guardianship Act, the inheritance and the properties that had been held in their name were to be handed over to them on their 21st birthday. In May 1955, Oliva summoned them to Corbeil for their birthday week and apprised them of the money. In the same conversation, he handed them trust agreements, told them they'd be better off if he remained comptroller, and asked them to sign. There was a long silence. Cécile was the first to say no, pleading for time to think about it. But family pressure weakened their resolve; within a week, all four had signed documents that kept their father in charge of over one million dollars.

The quints seemed lost. Marie returned to the convent but in short order fell ill again. Annette arrived in Quebec City to retrieve her, and they shared an apartment in Côte St.-Luc. Then Marie decided she wanted to open a flower shop, but her request for capital was denied by the Trust. Once again, Marie rebelled. With charge card in hand, she furnished her business with the help of Eaton's Department Store and other outlets and had them bill the Trust. Salon Émilie was opened on Mother's Day. Though the flower shop did not succeed, Marie's determined break for freedom was considered by the sisters well worth the price.

Yvonne entered the Convent of the Little Franciscan Sisters at Baie St. Paul, near Quebec City, where she became Sister Marie Thierry, but her stay did not work out. She tried again, entering the Convent of the Sacred Heart near Moncton, New Brunswick, as a nursing sister. Eventually, she gave up trying and left the convent.

Over the next two to three years, Annette, Cécile, and Marie were married. When Cécile gave birth to a baby boy, Claude, on September 15, 1958, Yvonne was one of the nurses in attendance. Annette's first baby was also a boy, Jean-François, born on November 2, 1958. On Christmas Eve, 1960, Marie gave birth to a baby girl; she was named Émilie. But the sisters continued to flounder. All three marriages ended in divorce.

Three years after separating from her husband in 1966, Marie, who was under psychiatric care, placed her two daughters in a home operated by Catholic sisters; shortly after, in February 1970, she was found dead in her Montreal apartment, apparently the victim of a stroke. Considered painfully shy, the surviving sisters lived as virtual recluses in genteel poverty in a Montreal suburb. When their father died in 1979, they returned home briefly but left immediately after the funeral.

In April 1995, after years of appealing to Canada's premier for help, the quints sued the province of Ontario for $10 million as compensation for a lost childhood. "From our birth," said Cécile, "we were taken hostage, deprived of personal liberty without being allowed to go out in public and financially exploited until our majority." That September, in a bid to find, they said, "inner peace," 61-year-old Annette, Cécile, and Yvonne went on Canadian television and charged that they were sexually abused by their father. They also made their case in the 1995 book The Dionne Quintuplets: Family Secrets. The abuse, they claim, began after they were forced to rejoin the family in the 1940s. Among other incidents, Oliva would take them on car rides in his Cadillac, one at a time, and grope them under their clothes. Though they did not tell their mother until they were 18 for fear of aggravating the situation, they did tell their school chaplain. They were directed, said Annette, to "continue to love our parents and wear a thick coat when we went for car rides."


Brough, James, with Annette, Cécile, Marie and Yvonne Dionne. "We Were Five": The Dionne Quintuplets' Story. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1964.

Nihmey, John, and Stuart Foxman. Time of Their Lives: The Dionne Tragedy. NIVA, 1986.

suggested reading:

Berton, Pierre. The Dionne Years—A Thirties Melodrama.

Dionne, Annette, Cécile, and Yvonne, with Jean Yves-Soucy. The Dionne Quintuplets: Family Secrets. Canada, 1995.

related media:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, The Dionne Quintuplets.

"Million Dollar Babies," TV-miniseries loosely based on the Dionne story, starring Kate Nelligan , and Beau Bridges as Dr. Dafoe, first aired on CBS, November 20 and 22, 1994.

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