It has been more than 30 years since a 19-year-old Dorothy Hamill captured America’s heart — and an Olympic gold medal — as the queen of figure skating. Now, she’s finally ready to tell the story of the darkness and depression that few saw or suspected was hiding behind her famous smile.
“You see the fairy tale — four minutes of glory at the Olympics,” Hamill told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira during a live interview Wednesday. “I thought my life would be cake after that.”
That’s what it looked like from the outside. But inside, she said, it was anything but.
“[I] battled with depression a long time, it’s been in my family,” she said.
At the age of 51 and still skating professionally, she’s decided to share her story in a new memoir, “Dorothy Hamill: A Skating Life.”
“I just wanted to be able to share it with people, so if anyone has those feelings they can seek help, and they don’t have to live with it because it’s really …”
She paused for a moment while searching for the right word.
“…. difficult,” Hamill finally said.
This is her second autobiography, the first a happy-happy, joy-joy tale published in 1983. The first was the story the public wanted to hear — the story of the little girl from Connecticut who fell in love with skating at the age of 8, worked very, very hard, and won the Olympic gold.
That was the girl who inspired a Dorothy Hamill doll, who invented and popularized a skating spin — the Hamill Camel — and who inspired countless little girls to get wedge haircuts just like hers.
This second autobiography is the story she wanted to tell — the real story that she didn’t even realize herself until a decade after her triumph. And her depression plays a large role in it.
Behind the smile
Growing up, she had a difficult relationship with her mother, a perfectionist who pushed her in her skating and who could seem distant and cold. Her father drank, but, Hamill said, was very supportive.
From her mother, she told Vieira, “I always had the sense that nothing was never good enough — striving for perfection. My mother and I had a sort of typical mother-daughter relationship. We’ve come to terms with it.”
She’s also learned that her mother, too, battled depression, as did her father. But in their day, it wasn’t something that people discussed or admitted to — even to themselves. “There was such a stigma in those days,” she said.
Her father, she said, “was very proud of us — all three of us, my brother, my sister and I. At least we had a good balance.”
The book discusses two major traumas in her life. The first was when she took the ice to win the gold medal in Innsbruck without her mother coming to the arena to watch the greatest moment of her young life.
“I was a little disappointed,” she said with understatement. “She’d driven me to every practice, she sat there hours on end in these freezing-cold rinks, and she cooked me meals and drove hours and hours, and this was it for both of us. I was disappointed when she wasn’t there because it seemed as though we won the medal together.”
Hamill said her mother never fully explained why she didn’t come to the arena; her father was there and actually did the math in those pre-computer days after her final free skate and told her she’d won.
“A few years ago she said, ‘At that point there wasn’t anything else I could do for you,’” Hamill said. “And my coach, Carlo Fassi, always made her feel as though she made me nervous. In practice, she did make me nervous. But in competitions, I was not focused on whether my mother was there or whether she was happy or not.”
The other episode involved her first husband, Dean Paul Martin, son of movie star Dean Martin.
She still refers to Dean Paul as “the love of my life.” They were married in 1982, and were passionately in love.
“We were a passionate love affair when we were together, but we both had so much growing up to do, and unfortunately, we had to do it while traveling to different destinations,” she wrote in her book. “We were more concerned with being professional in our working relationships than in our relationship with each other.”
They eventually went to a psychiatrist together, who told Hamill that Martin, who didn’t have a career other than being the talented and personable son of a celebrity, needed to feel he was the provider.
Martin ultimately told her he wanted to leave the marriage. It was then, at the age of 29, that she could no longer ignore her depression.
“He walked out in the summertime,” she told Vieira, adding that her depression tended to show up in the summer, when she couldn’t be on the ice and skating.
“That’s when I really noticed. I was devastated, depressed, sobbing for weeks because I’d lost my best friend as well as my husband. It was tragic. He was the most incredibly funny, easygoing, talented man.”
Martin, who loved flying, enlisted in the Air National Guard as a jet pilot. Two years after they separated, Hamill remarried after a whirlwind romance with Dr. Kenneth Forsythe. It happened so quickly, she hadn’t had a chance to tell Martin, who heard the news from a friend.
Right after getting the news, Martin was killed when he flew his jet into a mountain while on a training flight. His death still haunts her.
But, she told Vieira, she comforts herself by thinking about his passion for flying. “He was doing something he really loved,” she said.
Hamill and Forsythe would go on to buy the Ice Capades and lay the groundwork for the modern ice shows that Disney has since perfected. She and Forsythe had to sell the show after declaring bankruptcy in 1994. They would divorce in 1995 after tabloids showed him out with a younger woman.
Hamill won custody of their daughter, Alex, who is now 19 and attending college.
“I’m certainly not a perfect mother, but I’m trying to be what my mother wasn’t for me,” she told Vieira. “My mother’s battled depression, so I understand it now as a parent, some of the things that she must have been going through.”
She wasn’t looking for pity and said she knows that overall, life has been good to her.
“I have had a charmed life,” she said, “and I feel I’m at a place in my life where I’ve learned to accept the difficulties I’ve had — [that] everyone has.”