Pop Culture

TV mom Meredith Baxter tells about life behind the lens

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.

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.

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.

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