Where Are They Now? The Dionne Quintuples First Quintuplets

About the Dionne Quintuples, the first quintuplets born in the world on record, history and biography of the family.

Headline--1934: THE DIONNE QUINTUPLES

At the Peak: The birth of 5 identical daughters to Elzire Dionne on a small farm in the backwoods of northern Ontario on the bleak morning of May 28, 1934, made instant headlines throughout the world and was universally hailed as a miracle of human fertility.

Nonetheless, Elzire and her husband Oliva were more depressed than exhilarated. They already were supporting 4 children on a monthly income of barely $100 and were not sure how they would manage to pay the delivery fees for the Quints, much less feed them.

Trading on the fame of their new offspring was one solution. Within 48 hours of the birth, representatives of the Chicago World's Fair had telephoned Oliva Dionne, inviting him to place the infants on exhibit at the fair in return for 23% of the gate receipts. Confused, depressed, and in desperate need of cash, Dionne agreed at once.

But the contract was quickly aborted when Dr. Allan Dafoe, the Quints' physician, stepped in, insisting that the girls were still much too small and frail to be moved. The Canadian Prime Minister, ostensibly outraged by the prospect of vaudeville tours and film contracts for infants barely old enough to open their eyes, also interceded and made the quintuplets wards of the state, establishing a trust fund of $1 million for them. In the meantime, they were to be raised not by their parents, but by Dafoe and a round-the-clock staff of nurses and nuns in a specially built, 9-room nursery on the Dionne farm. The parents and their 4 older children were to remain in the old farmhouse, segregated from the Quints.

For 7 years the girls lived a goldfish-bowl existence. Five million tourists came to gawk at them through one-way windows, and a miniature empire of souvenir shops, motels, gas stations, quick-food stands, and bus lines sprouted up in the fertile soil surrounding the Dionne farm. Dafoe grew rich on product endorsements and book royalties, and the Canadian Government took in some $4 million in gasoline taxes. In 1941, after years of legal struggles, Elzire and Oliva Dionne regained from Dafoe the custody of their daughters and North America's "Number one peep show" drew to a close. But the Quints remained in enforced isolation behind a barbed-wire fence surrounding a new, heavily guarded residence that had been built on the Dionne farm. Their privacy abused and their freedom denied them, the girls were treated harshly by their parents and deprived of the $30,000 a year due them from movie appearances and endorsements. Later, the girls were to write retrospectively that they had had "a painfully unhappy childhood."

And Today: The years since they faded from the public eye have not been kind to the Dionne quintuplets. Emilie, who had been living at a nuns' rest home in the Laurentians, suffocated in 1954 during an epileptic seizure. Marie died 16 years later in squalid obscurity in a Montreal apartment. The most troubled of the quintuplets, she had sought happiness as a nun but had failed to find it. On the road to emotional security, she had married a civil servant, Florian Houle, in 1959. But Marie, who bore 2 children, was haunted by several miscarriages, and the frequent work-related absences of her husband strained their marriage. She had been separated from Houle and living alone for several years when she died of malnutrition on February 27, 1970.

The 3 surviving sisters--Yvonne, Cecile, and Annette--live today in St. Bruno, a suburb of Montreal. Yvonne, who is unmarried, teaches in a kindergarten there. With Cecile, she came to Montreal in the early 1950s to attend nursing school, and it was during that time that Cecile met Philippe Langlois. A courtship ensued that was, for the oversheltered Cecile, eye-opening and breathlessly romantic. The 2 were married in 1957. Financial problems subsequently beset the Langlois family, and their only child, a daughter, died in infancy. In 1974, on the eve of her 40th birthday, a chastened Cecile, separated from her husband, moved to St. Bruno to join her 2 sisters. Annette, who also had married in 1957, was already divorced.

The Dionne sisters are intensely private women who live inconspicuously but comfortably on the income from a $250,000 trust fund. Still troubled by memories of their childhood, they rarely see their parents, who continue to live on the farm at Callander and have yet to see all their grandchildren. Says one friend, the women "are not on good terms with their parents, and I don't believe the relationship will get warmer. But they are closer and happier now than ever before. They have their own lives now."

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