Phillips, Irna (1901–1973)

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Phillips, Irna (1901–1973)

American radio and television writer who is considered by many to have created the first soap opera. Born on July 1, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois; died on December 22, 1973, in Chicago; youngest of the ten children of William S. Phillips (a businessman) and Betty (Buxbaum) Phillips; attended public school in Chicago; graduated from Senn High School; University of Illinois, B.A., 1923; University of Wisconsin, M.A.; never married; children: (adopted) Thomas Dirk Phillips and Katherine Louise Phillips.

Once heralded as the Queen of the Soap Opera, and credited by some with creating the genre, Irna Phillips was born in 1901 and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, the youngest of ten children of German-Jewish immigrants. Her father William S. Phillips, the owner of a dry goods and grocery story over which the family lived, died when she was eight, leaving the children in the care of their mother Betty Buxbaum Phillips who managed to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Phillips later remembered herself in those days as "a plain, sickly, silent child, with hand-me-down clothes and no friends." Although she had always dreamed of becoming an actress, she was told by a college drama coach that she had "neither the looks nor the stature to achieve professional success," so she went into education instead. She taught speech and drama at a junior college in Fulton, Missouri, then at a normal school in Dayton, Ohio, and picked up a master's degree along the way. While employed as a teacher, Phillips spent vacations working without pay for Chicago radio station WGN. In 1930, she left teaching for good.

That year, responding to a station request, Phillips created the family drama "Painted Dreams," considered by some to have been the first soap opera. A ten-minute daily serial, the show was strongly autobiographical, revolving around a widowed mother from Chicago (played by Phillips), her grown daughter, and their friends. The show ran for two years, and Phillips began to feel as though she had finally found her niche. In 1932, when the station refused to sell the show to the network, Phillips quit WGN and went to work for NBC, collaborating with Walter Wicker on "Today's Children," a new serial that was a rework of the earlier script. It ran until 1938, when Phillips withdrew the show in response to her mother's death. In the meantime, she had also launched two additional soap operas, "The Road of Life," featuring a doctor as the main character, and "The Guiding Light" (created with Emmons Carlson), about a non-sectarian minister. In using professionals as her protagonists, instead of the humbler working "folks" of earlier radio shows, Phillips found a personal trademark that offered her endless possibilities for new stories. She made the most of this pool of new characters, spinning out a series of popular serials, including "Woman in White" (1938), "The Right to Happiness" (1939), "Lonely Women" (1942), and "The Brighter Day" (1948). As early as 1943, Phillips had five serials running concurrently, making it necessary for her to use a chart system to keep from confusing the plots. At the time, she was earning an unheard-of $250,000 a year, making her, according to Time, "America's highest-paid serial litterateuse."

Phillips' own life hardly kept pace with the lives of the colorful characters she created. She admitted to several unhappy love affairs, including one with a man who refused to marry her when he discovered that she was unable to have children. Phillips never married, living with her mother until she was 37. At age 42, however, she adopted a son, Thomas, and 18 months later she adopted a daughter, Katherine. Although she made more than enough money, she lived conservatively, socializing with a handful of close friends, and investing most of her capital in annuities.

With the advent of television, Phillips expanded her empire. In the course of 20 years, she created seven shows for the new medium: "The Brighter Day" (1954), "The Road of Life" (1954), "As The World Turns" (1956), "Another World" (1964), "Days of Our Lives" (1965), "Love Is a Many-Splendour'd Thing" (1967), and "The Guiding Light" (which transferred to television in 1952 and went on to become one of the longest-running soap operas in broadcast history).

In addition to introducing "professionals" as main characters, Phillips has also been credited with other innovations, including the "cliffhanger" ending, the use of organ music to enhance mood and bridge the breaks in narrative, and the "cross over," the migration of major characters from one serial to another. Phillips told Fortune magazine in 1938 that her shows were designed to appeal to basic human "instincts" and were intentionally kept at a slow, deliberate pace so that her audience could go on with their chores "without missing a word, tear, or heartbreak."

In her later years, Phillips decried sensationalism in the soaps, although she herself was a pioneer in using subjects like illegitimacy, sex, and murder in her plot lines. As Evelyn Shaker points out, "The heroine of 'Right to Happiness' fell in love four times (once with her widowed mother's fiancé), married twice, divorced one husband, accidentally shot the other, was tried for his murder, and bore a child in jail—all in the space of four years." Despite the often steamy entanglements of her plots, marriage and motherhood remained a central theme in Phillips' stories. "Though keenly aware of the ironic distance between this female domesticity she celebrated and her own eager pursuit of a career, Phillips was always an outspoken foe of feminism," writes Shaker, "warning it would weaken women's commitment to home and encourage sexual license."

Perhaps what Phillips really wanted was the life she wrote about, not the life she had. In 1943, about the time she had reached the top of her profession, she told a Time reporter that she would give it all up if the right man came along. The writer, who always credited her mother with her success, died of cancer on December 22, 1973.


Current Biography 1943. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1943.

Shaker, Evelyn. "Irna Phillips," in Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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