By Greg Clark, May 4, 1935
Before the crack of dawn, and that’s four-fifteen in the morning, Marie wakes and starts singing.
She sings loud and clear. Like a robin. It is not cooing, or da-da-ing, or whining. It is straight, gay, and uncomplaining singing.
This wakes Annette first. And Annette, who is the trickiest of the quintuplets, generally manages to get one small bare foot out and stick it through the bars of her crib and push the bedside table. She knows a bedside table makes a grand bump. It does not fall. It just goes bump, bump.
The race for waking, Yvonne, Emilie and Cecile run neck and neck, though Cecile, “the pretty one”, is also the sleepiest one, who loves to open her eyes wide, suddenly, and then slowly close them again, the while finding her thumb and clamping on to it for a good comfortable smoke, a process involving much sudden wide opening of the big dark eyes, and much slow, lazy closing of them.
Thus morning comes to the Dionne hospital at Callander.
I spent a day with them to write this story in honor of their first birthday, which is fast approaching. I saw them sleeping and playing; being fed and being bathed. I saw them doing their first crawling, which at the moment consists of rolling over. Not a very precise mode of progression, but, when you see your sister – at least, one of them – whanging a large melodious pink rattle up against the play-pen bars, and you want to take it from her, certainly a slick trick that Clancy or Red Horner ought to know about is to roll over three times, roll right on top of your sister’s legs, pin her down, and then, amidst astonished protests from the victim, slowly, unsurely but inevitably, take the rattle from her.
The quints are at this moment flowering out of their first helpless Infancy. They have smiled, that shy crooked smile of babyhood, for a long time now. But now they laugh. They crow. In the big white bathtub, with its four inches of water in it, I saw them, two at a time, swimming magnificently, their fat little creased legs and arms flailing: and with those bright dark eyes, all aglitter with smiles, they watched each other. Then the nurses turned them over, and feet to feet, heads at opposite ends of the tub, they put on a splashing match, eyes screwed up, gasping at the splashes, and laughing – clear, crowing laughter.
And when they were lifted out, they complained in both French and English. They are bi-lingual, the quints.
So much has been written, in minute detail, about the famous Dionnes that it hard for a mere amateur daddy to know where to start a birthday party story about them. The thing that most arrested me was their color. The color of their eyes. Madame de Kiriline says they are hazel. But Nurse Yvonne Leroux says they are brown, gray and blue. They are remarkable eyes, very large and melting, and their expression veiled. As a matter of fact, when little mischievous and table-tipping Anette, lying on her stomach, rolls her head around to look up at you when you tap on the sight-seeing window of their nursery, there is an expression of almost amused condescension in her gaze. But they are certainly neither light eyes nor dark, because when you put them in a red-flowered dress, the eyes are quite dark. Yet when you put them in a blue dress, you see blue and gray in their eyes. They will be lucky when they are eighteen. They can wear both brown and blue.
The Big Drinker
They are dark babies, with a suffused flush in their color. There is nothing pearly and fragile about them, as in a blonde baby. They are very real indeed.
Another exciting thing is that they are off the bottle. Often you will see big chunky babies skilfully swizzling a nursing bottle. But at ten months precisely, all bottles went up to the hospital attic. For every one of them drinks from the glass. Cecile, “the pretty one”, is the big drinker. She drinks till she busts. She drinks until she has to come up for air with a great gasp, but with her wide eyes, she holds, she commands, the cup to remain. And then deep she dives into it again.
The race as to weight and size, the number of ounces, the number of inches, goes on week by week, but leaves me cold. For me it was exciting only for being the reason the two thirteen-pounders, Marie, and Emilie, were safeguarded in one play pen, while the three fifteen-pounders, Yvonne, Annette and Cecile, scrambled gaily about the other play pen. They are matched according to weight. It is a wrestling match, in those pens.
The routine of the babies starts at five o’clock in the morning. Fifteen minutes to three-quarters of an hour after little Marie, the robin, the alarm clock, has chanticleered the morning with her songs (and perhaps disturbed one of the big policemen sleeping in the very room with her – he’ll get used to it in time!), the whole place is alive and abustle. At that witching hour, eight ounces of whole milk and one ounce of tomato juice go down the five little red lanes. That is just an eye-opener, a hair off the dog that bit them and keeps on biting them all day long. They are changed and left to greet the swiftly rising sun.
“Daylight saving?” I asked Dr. Dafoe.
“We’ll stick to standard time hereabouts,” said he.
At 7 a.m., the day is away. Two small glasses of orange juice apiece – equal to one whole orange. And a teaspoonful of cod liver oil. I suspect those two glasses mean – one before and one after!
All this is done while the clock rushes around to 8 a.m., at which time they all, Annette usually leading, are shouting in plain bi-lingual baby talk: “Let’s eat! How about a little chow!”
And with 8 a.m. comes chow, to wit, one coddled egg, one glass of milk, and a kind of sticky-wicky made of arrowroot biscuit softened, mud-pied with water.
“How much of that there?” I asked Madame Kiriline.
“As much as they want,” said she. “They usually consume a couple of bikkies each.”
“The Pretty One”
This is an end to eating until 1 o’clock. For now at 9 a.m. they are all dressed in their little dresses and coats and out they go in their prams, rain or shine, to mumble awhile and listen to the first robins and the first song sparrows that have come, proudly, to lay their quintuplet eggs in nests nearby the hospital. Listening and crowing, there are curious small calls exchanged for maybe twenty minutes, until the last of them has rolled her eyes for the last time. And if you tiptoe across that veranda and look in each pram, you will see only five little heads, five little snubby noses, five sets of round red cheeks and, strangely, beautifully stirring, five little down-flung sets of eyelashes, the soft silken bars of sleep.
This is the hour of quiet, and the great big blue-clad police step softly on the hardwood floors, and the nurses whisk about, and the housekeeper hums to herself; Laurence, the housekeeper who is to be married the sixth of May – the Dionne hospital’s first romance, because Laurence, Madame Clusieux, is to marry the electrician she met when he came from “the Bay” to wire the new hospital.
In this time of quiet, Madame de Kiriline and Nurse Leroux showed me the works. The clothes closet where hang the rows of coats, dresses, dressing gowns, ad infinitum; where on the shelves lie the fives of bootees, and the fives of stockings and fives of this and that. Most of the gifts are from the makers of things, but there are a great many private gifts from individuals, mostly women. The things I liked best are bright red corduroy overalls, with braces and all. And on each bib of the overalls is worked the name of the wearer. It will be a big help when, in another four months or so, by the end of summer, the quints are staggering to their feet and making their first steps around the resounding nursery. We who peep through the wide observation window into that spectacular nursery will be able to know which is which.
“Do most of the gifts come from the United States?” I asked.
“It is about fifty-fifty between Canada and the States,” Madame de Kiriline thought. “There are none from overseas.”
The most curious gift was a set of five tiny white leather cases each containing a miniature set of false teeth, about the size of your thumb nail, the whole thing. Somebody in California thought of this whimsy for a toothless babe. Another odd gift was a stork made of a great southern pine cone, with pipe-cleaner neck and legs. They sent this stork across the road to the Dionne house.
Knowing which is which is problem. The nurses say they know them apart, not quite unerringly, by their expressions. Cecile, “the pretty one”, though they all looked pretty to my eyes, is rather reserved and quiet. Yvonne has a great crooked smile. Annette is, as I said before, slightly amused and tolerant in her gaze. Marie is the little one, the singer. And Emilie is the one with the rather still, slightly sly and mischievous expression.
Who are the favorites?
Annette is Madame de Kiriline’s favorite. Yvonne is Nurse Yvonne Leroux’s. Nurse Pat Mullen favors Marie. Mrs. Clusieux, the housekeeper, goes for Emilie, and Father McNally, “chaplain of the hospital,” sees something in Cecile that cannot be denied. Maybe it is a certain piety in Cecile.
Hard to Pick a Favorite
I tried to pick a favorite. I first and impulsively chose Annette, because Annette, on seeing my bulbous brow above the window sill of the observation tower, burst into a mighty toothless grin and quite accidentally succeeded in making a certain gesture up at me that was both disconcerting and extraordinarily diverting. I tried to hold her in my memory, so that I could tell her apart. But within five minutes another perfectly charming Annette gave me that same grin.
“Ah, Annette,” I cried. “Hello, there!”
“That’s Yvonne,” said Miss Leroux.
An hour later, I was again quite certain that it was Yvonne who was my favorite because there she was clapping two tiny hands together and looking at the miracle with her eyes slightly crossed – you know the way. So I praised her as Yvonne.
“That,” said Madame de Kiriline, “is Cecile.”
So I gave up. They are all my favorites.
“I would like to have them all on my knee,” I exclaimed. “The whole seventy-five pounds of them!”
“Unless,” remarked one of the policemen, leaning interminably on the window sill with me, watching them, “unless they all got the same idea at the same time!”
At one o’clock, noon, Marie sings a song about eating. It sounded about eating to me. Maybe it was only that she was cawing back at a crow, or warbling at a meadow lark. But by one o’clock, all the little prams were waggling and jiggling and there was a certain hollowness, like out of a tiny empty barrel, to the music.
The 1 p.m. meal is vegetables galore. Sometimes it is a kind of soup or puree of vegetables, carrots, green beans, spinach, beets. Sometimes it is mashed or strained. They are getting their vegetables a little more solid lately. After the feed of vegetables, they get either a baked apple, or bananas, prunes, apricots or apple sauce. Then a glass of milk.
“Who is fed first?” I asked jealously, because at this time I had my eye on Yvonne.
“Whoever is shouting the loudest,” said Madame de Kiriline. “There is no regular order.
So while Cecile was stretching out her little chin and eagerly gulping the spoonfuls, the other four yelled murder. Annette even had tears. But one by one they were fed their big meal of the day, and one by one they were dumped into the play pens, and there they rolled and kicked and humped themselves up like weight-lifters on their heels and the crowns of their heads.
And so came the rest hour, which is until three o’clock, and consists of about as much rest as you’ll see about beehive on a July noon when the clover is blooming. For this was the period of wrestling and of banging rattles, of Cecile lying serenely on her tummy, all uninterested in Yvonne and Annette who staged rolling match to see who could get on top and have the big pink rattle.
“Do they pull each other’s hair?” I asked anxiously.
“Not intentionally,” said Miss Leroux.
“H’m,” said I. For only that moment, one of them had deliberately pulled the hair of my then reigning favorite, Cecile.
“That one,” I accused, “pulled Cecile’s hair.”
“That one,” said Miss Leroux, “IS Cecile, and the one whose hair was pulled was Yvonne.”
“H’m,” said I.
At 3 p.m. they get a glass of pineapple juice to cover up another teaspoonful of cod liver oil.
Then Comes the Bath Hour
Thus they kick and sing and roll and sometimes snooze drowsy-eyed until five, when comes the bath. The bath is magnificent. They go two at a time. One odd one coming last. No order is kept. Sometimes it is Marie’s turn to be left. But they give them all an even break at playing the splashing game. They know about the splashing game. It is no accident. They lie feet to feet and slam their little legs as hard as they can, heaving up and gasping every time the adversary slashes theme good one.
Finally comes the last meal of the day, 5 p.m. Cereal, fine wheat cereal. And a glass of milk. And a big sigh. And a nightie. And no more people peering through the window. And quiet comes creeping. And away they go all five, like a flight of doves, into the Never Never Land. The nurses change. The policemen hitch up their belts and go out into the dusk.
But one policeman must modestly unveil and take off his belts and harnesses, his pistol and ammunition pouch, and when all is still, creep into the room to sleep on a couch set strategically amidst these tiny room-mates of a policeman … At his hand, in this sweet white chamber where five wee princesses, wards of the King, lie softly sleeping, stands a loaded rifle.
“Do you snore?” I asked Constable McCord, as he prepared himself for his incongruous vigil.
“I don’t know,” he confessed in a hushed and shocked voice.
So ends the day in this house of miracle. Far and lonely amidst a rocky land where patches of little fields lie sparsely scattered, this pretty bungalow is the centre of the eye of the world. And the heart. About a year ago, all science on earth would have gambled a thousand to one against this incomparable consummation. A million to one. Premature, like little raw nestlings in wild bird’s nest, all flung into the world within three quarters of an hour. Down this new highway that was then a rocky back road of the north came a motor car swaying through the bird-filled dawn of May 28. Between 4.30 and 5 o’clock in the morning, when the mosquitoes were just taking wing, these five were born before the astonished eyes of a country doctor and a huddle of neighbors.
“Not a chance,” said science in Chicago and Bombay and Vienna
But here is a fresh road. And here are telegraph wires and a special telephone line. And here, in this remote country is a hospital staffed with nurses and every aid to science, standing as a new monument to the ever-widening beam of heavenly light that shines on the babyhood of the world.
They live. Lovely and alive and gay, Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie, they live.
And for the heart as well as the mind of the world, they are guarded and watched and tended, the King has made them his wards, the fences are of steel, policemen armed with high-power rifles and wearing bedroom slippers slumber in a nursery, and the medical science of the whole world is at their command.
So strangely sleeping, we leave them.
Editor’s Notes: I debating including this story, since to modern readers, the sugary-sweet tone is appalling to anyone who knows the history of the Dionne Quintuplets. Aspects of the story treated matter-of-factly, like the armed policeman who stays in their room while they sleep, and no mention of their parents like they don’t exist.
They were the first known quintuplets to survive birth, and became a news sensation during the Great Depression. They were taken away from their parents by the government “to prevent exploitation”, but were in turn, put in a human zoo, and exploited by the government charged with protecting them. Admission was charged to see “Quintland”. Quintland constituted Canada’s highest grossing tourist attraction between 1934 and 1943, earning $1 million in its first year and as much as $500 million for the province of Ontario in total. In those nine years, approximately three million tourists paid admission to catch a glimpse of the Dionne sisters.
How could this have happened? For more information on this tragic story, I would strongly recommend Pierre Berton’s The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama. Another highly recommended source is the episode The Infantorium by the podcast 99% Invisible, which explains the history of premature babies, incubators, and their ties to side-show carnivals. This really provides some context around babies on display, and specifically speaks of the Dionne Quintuplets at the end.