Ol' Man River's Stepchild
Irene Dunne is no water baby. Here's the reason - and a new slant on Irene!
by James M. Fidler
DOWN along the waterfronts of cities that perch on the banks of rivers, there is a breed of children known as river urchins. They are the young of shantyboat dwellers, born and reared on the shores of rivers; children who learn to bath in muddy river water before they hear of tubs and showers. Their parenst toss these urchins into the water early and they learn to swim even before they can walk. Wise parents, they know the youngsters will tumble into the river, and they teach them how to fight their way to safety in the event of such accidents.
One must have lived on the watefront to be able to interpret the early life of others who spent their childhoods there. One must understand the language of the river and one must appreciate that the swirling, eddying rivers are like things to be loved or hated or feared. I lived on the waterfront and I love the river. But I understand why Irene Dunne fears the same river I love - the grandest of all rivers, the Mississippi, Father of Waters. Although Irene did not live on the river, nor near it, her grandfather was a builder of boats and during her childhood, whenever Irene visited him, she spent carefree weeks playing on the banks of the mighty Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Miss Dunne is a strange anomaly. Although she made her debut in society at the old Chicasaw Club in Memphis, one of the most exclusive social centers of the Southland, and her childhood friends numbered some of the wealthiest and oldest families, she was likewise the chum of many river urchins. Even before she reached her teens, Irene was democratic and wise enough to be equally at home with both classes.
As a girl, she knew the chill of flood times, of bursting levees. She had heard the piteous whimpering of helpless animals, floating down the eddying, dangerous current when the rivers were at their highest and when they washed away houses and barns and people and beasts. And today, the woman reflects in her character much of the simplicity and strength of character and mystery of that great Father of Waters, the Mississippi.
Despite a childhood spent on the river banks, Miss Dunne can not swim. She fears water. "The tragedies of the floods and the great Slocum disaster are the reasons," she explains. The Slocum disaster was a water tragedy that occured in the East River, New York. An excursion steamer, loaded with children, turned on its side and scores were drowned. Irene's father was among the city officials who previously condemned the boat and in the subsequent investigation, honors were heaped on his head. But her mother could not think of the honors; she could think only of the scores of tots who were drowned. And she hated the rivers and feared more and more the visits of her own two babies to the grandfather who built boats. It was with trembling in her heart that the mother would caution her two children, when the time came for that annual visits with Granddad, not to go too near to the river.
Like most children, the dare of defying parental wishes dwelt in Irene's heart until one day she and her brother joined a group of their children urchin friends and went swimming in the Ohio. A treacherous undertow swept her beyond her depth and she fought a silent struggle for breath and life, too frightened to scream and to weak to wage a successful battle. A passing fisherman saw her plight and rescued her, a shaking, tearful little girl who vowed never again to disobey her parents and who stared with distended eyes on the water that nearly ended her stay on earth.
She has never overcome the fear that overtook that day. The occurrence was fifteen years ago but today, when Miss Dunne determines to fight off the phobia and visits the ocean or a pool, her arms and legs become powerless and she is overwhelmed with a desire to get out of the water.
Whe she is about ten years old, Irene visited friends of her grandfather, a family living near Memphis. It was at this time that several river kidnappings had taken place and parents had been warned to keep their children away from the waterfront. The family Irene was visiting owned a motorboat and one day the children slipped aboard to play. In a game of hide-and-seek, Irene left the boat and boarded a craft alongside. While she hid beneath a tarpaulin, the boat was mysteriously freed from of its moorings and drifted away from the dock. When she finally peered from her hiding place, Irene had floated several hundred yards down the river.
Her screams attracted the attention of the other children and they, frightened, ran home and confessed to their parents, that Irene had been taken away on a strange boat. Pandemonium followed. The police were informed and the river patrol started in search of the kidnapped child. Within a few minutes most of the city was aware that another girl had been stolen.
The police overhauled the runaway boat a few miles below the city and returned craft and girl safely. Of course, the kidnapping theory was laughed at but once again little Irene discovered a reason to stand in mortal fear of the water.
"Despite my fears, rivers and oceans have a strange fascination for me," Miss Dunne says, "I get a tremendous thrill when I go yachting. When I crossed the ocean, I experienced a great kick. But whenever I went to the ship's side and looked down into the water, I almost ran back to the safety of my stateroom."
Miss Dunne loves to recall the days of her childhood - the part of her childhood spent on the waterfront.
"I can remember some of the river kids I played with," she says. "My two particular chums were Mickey O'Brien and his sister Molly. Mickey had more freckles than any kid I ever saw and his proudest boast was that he could swim the Ohio, which at that point was half a mile wide. Molly was about seven and she could swim like a fish. She had a swimming suit made from a flour sack from which the four corners had been cut as well as a hole in the top. Through these five openings portruded Molly's arms, legs and head. When she plunged into the water, the improvised suit held air and she looked for all the world like a balloon with arms and legs!
"One day I took a beautiful new doll to the shanty-boat on which Mickey and Molly lived. Some way, it fell overboard and Molly dived after it without pausing to remove her dress. Her mother was terrible angry and gave her a spanking. I was so sorry that I insisted Molly should keep the doll. 'Because,' I explained, 'it would have drowned if you hadn't rescued it, so now it belongs to you.' Molly's tears dried up immediately and she took motherly possession of the doll. At home, I had to explain I had lost my toy because I dared not confess I had been to the river front."
Whatever fear she may have of water, Irene does not lack grit. A recent picture contained a scene in which she was called upon to fall from a yacht into the ocean. The director, who understood her fear, offered to secure a double.
"Will a double make the scene look realistic?" Miss Dunne asked.
"Well, no, not quite," the director admitted. "With a double, it will have to be taken in along shot, which will not be as effective a a closeup."
"Then I'll do it," Irene said. And despite the fact that fear nearly paralyzed her heart, she stood on the yacht's deck and fell backwards into the ocean. The sudden expression of fright that twisted her face was not acting. Irene Dunne was scared!
Expert swimmers may scoff at her fear, but let it be here explained that many humans are possessed of phobias of on sort or another. Some fear high places; other can not bear to be locked in a small room or underground tunnel. Miss Dunne's fear of water is as uncounquerable as the next woman's hatred of snakes or spiders.
But some day, when she has tired of her screen and stage career, she intends to return to the shores of the Mississippi, or else she will live beside the broad Pacific. She will build a home that will face a great body of water and from the safety of her living room, she will gaze and satisfy the haunting fascination that centers in her heart.
She will have children of her own, she says, and one of the first things they will learn will be the art of swimming. She will see that a competent instructor attends to this phase of their childhood.
"I am not going to have my children afraid of water," she says quietly, "They will love the rivers and oceans."
(Screenland, February 1932)