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Video: Meredith Baxter: ‘I have no more secrets’

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    >>> we're back now with a look at the behind the scenes life of one of america's most beloved television moms. in a moment we'll talk to meredith baxter from the hit series " family ties ." under the cheerful facade at times was a woman struggling to hold on.

    >> reporter: as the down to earth actress on the long-running show " family ties ," meredith baxter was known for her sunny disposition and tv mom to the young michael j. fox .

    >> finding someone and having a true loving relationship is so rare.

    >> reporter: the daughter of show biz parents whitney blake and tom baxter , meredith appeared to have it all. she first became a household name in 1972 when she starred on the show " bridget loves bernie " where she met and married her second husband david. things weren't as appeared. she struggled with alcoholism, low self-esteem, breast cancer and physical and emotional abuse by her ex-husband. bernie has denied the allegations. after three previous relationships rumors appeared that she was gay and she announced on "today" that the rumors were true.

    >> i'm a lesbian. it was a later in life recognition of the fact.

    >> it's been a wild journey and she says at the age of 63 she's finally come to terms. meredith baxter has written

    "untied: a memoir of family, fame and floundering." welcome back.

    >> it all started here, it feels like.

    >> le well, it was announced here. what do you remember about that morning? you came. i remember it was nerve wracking. i think it was emotional. what do you remember about that interview?

    >> the intense feeling as i was leaving that i thought, i have just set myself on fire on national television.

    >> on fire or set myself free?

    >> well, freedom came later. i thought why should anyone have to do this. why should anyone have to make a big announcement about their personal life .

    >> let's remind people why you said you had to do it. we didn't force you. you were afraid that the story was going to come out, not of your own free will .

    >> right t. tabloids take a grain of truth and blow it up into something wildly fictitious. and not flattering usually.

    >> there aren't many times where i sit down across from someone and do an interview and i know that when we go to commercial their life will never be the same. that was one of those moments. how has your life changed?

    >> you know, it's been fabulous. what i experienced was a sense of emotional well-being that i had not known to long for. but the freedom of not hiding anything. my life had really been very open at home. but there was always that circumspect feeling of not wanting anyone to know. to not be too close to my partner nancy . to not have anyone talking about me. it made me feel hideous. so this is done. i walked out of here and, yes, i was afraid of what it was like politically for -- careerwise for myself, but it was like, everyone knows. i don't have any secrets anymore.

    >> was it a no-brainer to sit down and write a book about it or was that a decision that took time to come to?

    >> well, it took me a little time . i thought, i don't have anything to say really. if you googled me, the only thing i have done is to come out on national television.

    >> that's not true.

    >> but that's what's there.

    >> it dominates the google page .

    >> it does. it took me a while to understand, oh, i've got something to write. it was in the process of writing that it crystallized and i said, oh, i have something to say. i have lessons i have learned.

    >> you are a mother of five.

    >> yes, i am.

    >> and the process, i remember thinking that morning and asking you about the process of discussing this with them and how they have reacted, has anything changed in your relationship?

    >> reacted to the book, do you mean?

    >> to your announcement.

    >> no. they're fine. i have great, loving children. what can i say? they are wonderful.

    >> you write in the book a good deal about your most important relationships in your life -- your mom, step-father. as i read this, i don't know, i started to get emotional. your mom wouldn't allow you to call her mom. she wanted you to call her by --

    >> by whitney, her stage name .

    >> she didn't keep pictures of you around the house.

    >> there were none to keep. we had none.

    >> she never took pictures of you. that's a self-esteem bat rer for a child. how did you deal with it?

    >> it wasn't her intent but i didn't know it at the time. what came from my childhood which crystallized as i was writing the book was understanding that, you know, i had a deep sense of feeling -- in fact, i had no value, that i was unloved and unlovable. that was the belief system i developed which really became the engine that dictated everything. every job, every decision, every relationship.

    >> to explain to the viewers, the reason she didn't want you to call her mom and have pictures around is she thought it dated her, made her seem older.

    >> it made her seem older, not as attractive, not as available. it's the posture that actresses took on at the time.

    >> you rebelled as a teenager. i think you had a relationship with a 35-year-old man.

    >> i didn't have a relationship with him. i really can't say that here how that happened. it was a -- [ snaps fingers ] -- but not a relationship.

    >> it was a fling?

    >> no. it was an oops, how did that happen? it was something i had not expected to have happen. i think i was a surrogate for him to show my step-father/agent how angry he was.

    >> let's talk about your ex-husband david. on the outside -- and i remember watching that marriage and thinking it was pretty good. perfect. you guys looked very happy. yet you have said there was both emotional and physical abuse , something he's denied. what did you learn from that relationship? what did it teach you for better or worse?

    >> what i got out of it eventually was i had to change my thinking. because i had to look -- if i didn't want to be a victim and i have been committed to being a victim for a long time because it felt warm, comfortable and familiar. but it was a disastrous position to be in. i had to change my thinking. i had to look at what was my part. i had to look at what was in my thinking that told me it was okay to be in this relationship.

    >> how long were you married?

    >> 15 years. together two before that.

    >> and the question is if there was abuse, why stay in the marriage?

    >> that's what everyone would want to know. i didn't know i had a choice. i didn't know i could go. he didn't say that. it wasn't an accident that we were together. he's not going to pick someone on top of themselves, confident and aggressive. no. he needs -- you know, for him to be who he needed to be, had to be someone mousey, quiet and retiring. that's who i was.

    >> if i had been interviewing you at the time i probably would have asked you one of the weird television questions. how did you find comfort in your work and the cast mates of " family ties ." yet as i read the book i realized that wouldn't have been ridiculous because you did find comfort in the people you worked with and the relationships you developed on the show.

    >> you learn to compartmentalize. as soon as i got to the studio, my home life was just not happening. i never talked about it. no one knew anything.

    >> didn't socialize with the people on the show?

    >> how do you have a social life ? i didn't have a social life . i did my work. i went home. i had all these kids. i wanted to be there with the kids.

    >> come to terms with everything now? has the book been a way for you to say, okay, that's now the past? it's all about the future.

    >> only except i have to be informed by the past all the time. i have to remember lessons learned . i have to say, am i telling myself a story about what's going on, making something up? because that's what i would do. i was so unself-examined as a child. in my relationship with my marriages it was always trying to keep my head above water. i had no sense of who i was. you know, i was trying to save my life on a daily basis. people have said, you had to have known you were gay. i was so unself-examined i could have been a republican, but, no, thank goodness, i'm just gay. that's better, don't you think?

    >> still in a relationship with nancy ?

    >> absolutely. nancy 's the best.

    >> you seem like you are in a good place.

TODAY books
updated 3/1/2011 6:43:25 AM ET 2011-03-01T11:43:25

As the down-to-earth actress on the long-running show “Family Ties,” Meredith Baxter was best known for her sunny disposition and role as TV mom to the young Michael J. Fox. Behind the lens, however, things were not always as they appeared. She struggled with alcoholism, low self-esteem, breast cancer and, as she writes in her new memoir, physical and emotional abuse by her ex-husband, who has previously denied these allegations. Here's an excerpt from “Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame and Floundering.”

To know me, you must first know my mother, Nancy Ann Whitney. More than anything else, my  mother wanted to be an actress — a famous actress — which in the 1950s was all about being young, sexy, and available. She was all that, and more. She had big blue eyes, alabaster skin, a heart-shaped face, a beautiful figure. She was just a knockout.

But my mother seemed to feel there was an obstacle to her making it in show business in Hollywood. Children. And she had three of them by the time she was twenty-three — my two older brothers, Dick and Brian, and me. The fact that we existed made her seem older than she was. Her solution was to have us call her by her new stage name, Whitney Blake. We were not to call her “Mommy” anymore. We were to call her Whitney. I think she was hoping if we called her that, people might assume she was our aunt or maybe an older sister.

I can remember coming home from first grade, walking through the front door of our little white Craftsman-style house on Indiana Avenue in South Pasadena, and calling out, “Mommy, I’m home!”

No answer. I was confused; her car was out front. I stood very still.

“Mommy, I’m home!”

Still nothing. Then I remembered.

“Whitney?”

“Yes, dear?” her musical voice rang out from the middle bedroom, where she kept a vanity table at which she’d do her makeup.

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Although I believe she had no idea about the psychological impact this might have on her children, now that I’m older I realize that Whitney was probably just giving us what she got. Whitney’s mother was born Martha Mae Wilkerson — my brothers and I called her Memaw. She was a scrappy, tough, smart, and wily survivor. She wasn’t the soft, fuzzy type; she didn’t coddle Whitney and she didn’t coddle me. Whenever I would complain about my clothes, as girls do, Memaw would tell me in her dry, crackly voice, “When I was little I had a red dress and a blue dress. When I was wearin’ the red dress, I washed and ironed the blue dress. When I was wearin’ the blue dress, I washed and ironed the red one. I didn’t have choices.”

Memaw was from Arkansas and married five times over the course of her life. She kept burying husbands (and sometimes I think there should be some exhumations to find out why).

Whitney was only six when her real dad, Harry C. Whitney, a Secret Service man who guarded President Woodrow Wilson, died from alcoholism. Memaw’s replacement husbands came at such a clip that Whitney never formed much of an attachment to any of them.

One of her stepfathers, Al, patented a fitting for oil rigs — his last name was Wells, ironically. He and Memaw would drift from oil field to oil field around the country. Sometimes they’d drag Whitney and her younger brother, Buddy, along. Just as often, Memaw would leave her kids behind, once with a couple of former missionaries and another time with her elementary school teacher.

It wasn’t until the fifth grade that Whitney discovered drama class, when the boy who was supposed to play Oberon in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream came down with a case of stage fright and she took over the role. From that day forward, Whitney realized that no matter what school she was in, the drama department would become home until Memaw announced it was time to pull up stakes and move again. Whitney said that the nearest thing she had to a real family when she was growing up were the casts of the plays that she appeared in.

Whitney was instead devoted to her brothers and sisters of the theater. One story she delighted in telling was about the time she was appearing in a Pasadena City College production that had a furniture dilemma: one scene needed a table, chairs, and a couch for the set, and none could be located. On opening night, Memaw shows up to watch her daughter perform, and when the curtain rises, she sees her entire living room set onstage. How Whitney managed to get the furniture out of her mother’s house without anyone noticing is one thing. To reveal it in such a fashion required real chutzpah, which Whitney had in spades.

So in a way, Whitney’s maternal model was someone who put her ambition ahead of her maternal responsibilities, and that’s how she was with us. Dick, Brian, and I didn’t talk about it much; we just lived it. It’s what was. My brother Dick, the eldest, is very philosophical about her. He says, “Well, she did the best she could.” But I think Brian and I took her actions more personally.

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They really shaped me; I had a strong sense of having been abandoned by her, that she didn’t want me, that she didn’t want to be my mother.

My mother was so intent on becoming an actress that eventually even Memaw got on board and told her that after she graduated from high school, she’d support her financially for one year. After that she would be on her own. Whitney attended the lower division of Pasadena City College, a sort of accelerated high school program for students interested in the performing arts, and she helped out at the college radio station, which was where she met my father, Tom Baxter. Just after Whitney turned eighteen, she got her high school diploma, she and Tom got married, and Whitney was finally able to move away from her mother. My father supported his rapidly growing family as an engineer with the Southern Pacific Railroad and later as a sound engineer specializing in live radio and television.

A couple of times, when I was very young, I visited my dad’s studio at the ABC Radio Center on Vine Street in Hollywood. He would sit in his booth with a bank of electronic equipment in front of him, monitoring whatever show was on the air. He sat in front of a large window, through which he could watch the actors read from their scripts in the sound booth. He loved to tell about the pranks he pulled that invariably involved compromising the actors while they were recording. This was my favorite story: Because the rustle of papers is to be avoided in radio, anyone reading from a script typically holds the script pages in the left hand, separates the page to be read with the right, and holds that page next to the microphone, speaking directly into the mike. When that page is finished, it is allowed to waft silently to the floor and the reader continues with the next page. So, midrecording, my father would quietly enter the actor’s sound booth and set fire to the top of the single page being read, which would initiate a kind of race for the actor to calmly read his lines before the paper burned up the text, while not betraying any tension to the listening audience.

My father said that he quit the business in the fifties when radio and television went to tape because it ceased to be fun. I think there was nothing for him to set fire to.

By 1953, after about ten years, my parent’s marriage was on its last legs and Whitney filed for divorce. I was only five. The last day my father lived with us, my mother was away from the house, and he was in a state of turmoil and despair, just pacing, pacing, pacing. He sat my brothers and me down in the living room and said very seriously, “When I leave, you’re never going to see me again.” We all started crying like crazy.

My father was hurt, his life had fallen apart. I think his drama-filled master plan must have been to have Whitney return home to find her husband gone and her children sobbing inconsolably because she’d driven him away.

Before my father made his grand exit, without telling us he called my mother to tell her to come home, that we kids were alone. So when he drove away, we were scared and Dick called the only number we knew, which was our grandmother’s, our father’s mother. My grandparents arrived at the house followed closely by Whitney and Art, a guy she was having an affair with.

Bedlam ensued with lots of yelling, accusations, and hysteria, and that was the end of my nuclear family.

Being single with three kids didn’t mean that Whitney gave up on her hopes of becoming a star. She was dedicated and a hard worker. She worked as a bookkeeper and stenographer at the Lockheed Aircraft plant during the day, but at night she’d take acting classes and appear in plays at small local theaters like the Pasadena Playhouse, leaving us in the care of a string of housekeepers and friends. When she couldn’t find anyone to watch us, she’d take us kids with her and we’d entertain ourselves in the dusty prop room, wardrobe room, and the cavernous wings and bowels of the theater until she was ready to go home. I remember those times fondly because not only were all of us siblings playing together but I also knew exactly where my mother was.

Excerpted from "Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame and Floundering." Copyright © 2011 by Meredith Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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