If ever a writer embodied Thornton Wilder’s observation that “art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time,” it was Irna Phillips.
In 1930, Phillips—a 29-year-old, unemployed Chicago schoolteacher and part-time radio actress—was asked to write and act in radio’s first serial drama, Painted Dreams. She jumped at the chance. In the next 43 years, she would create or co-create 18 radio and television serials; four were still on the air when she died, including Guiding Light and As the World Turns, the two longest-running daytime dramas on television. Acting out the parts, she dictated her stories to secretaries for six to eight hours a day, producing an estimated two million words a year and earning more than $250,000 annually in the 1940s, when she had five programs on the air. She knew the role soap played in “soap operas,” and had a decades-long relationship with Procter & Gamble, but she focused on content: her innovations included adding doctors, lawyers, and other professionals as characters and cliff-hanger endings for episodes.
Soap-opera historians have long acknowledged the impact on the genre of As the World Turns in particular. When it premiered in 1956, serial dramas were all 15 minutes long; ATWT doubled that. Phillips believed “better story and characterization could be developed in a half-hour format”; when Procter & Gamble initially resisted, she took action. Aided by her longtime colleagues Agnes Nixon and Ted Corday, she wrote and taped a pilot at her own expense, and changed the face of daytime drama forever. ATWT also departed radically from its predecessors in style: for the first year, there was virtually no plot. Critic Robert LaGuardia has noted that “story to Irna was simply a vehicle; it was from the moment-to-moment emotions of her characters, expressed to each other in quiet scenes, that viewers derived vicarious pleasure.” Phillips knew that viewers would need time to get used to this format, and nothing illustrates her industry clout more than the licensing-agreement clause requiring CBS to air the show for a full year regardless of ratings. Fans expressed their pleasure by keeping ATWT at the top of the daytime ratings for 20 years, making it the first soap opera to fully penetrate the cultural landscape: an episode of the current television hit Mad Men showed secretary Joan Holloway engrossed by an “unmissable” ATWT episode from 1962—the end of the genre’s first super couple, Penny Hughes and Jeff Baker.
Phillips shared viewers’ vicarious pleasure. In her unfinished memoir, she acknowledged that she “had generally fictionalized my own life,” but it was in ATWT that she “fantasized as well as fictionalized” her life. LaGuardia suggests, “It was quite as if for Irna, Oakdale [ATWT’s fictional Midwestern setting] was a real place—far more real than New York or Chicago, and far better.” One likely reason was the patriarch she created for Oakdale, attorney Chris Hughes: the loving husband she never found for herself, the devoted father she never found for the two children she adopted as a single mother.
Her need for Oakdale began in the mid 1920s when Phillips, who never had a date in high school or college, met an English doctor, “not handsome,” but “with charm and intelligence,” and decided he was the man she would marry. Things didn’t work out as she hoped. She became pregnant but the doctor abandoned her, and she then lost not only the baby but any chance for another. The resulting sterility led her to decide “to never become involved with an unmarried man,” thus sparing herself “the pain and embarrassment of telling a man I couldn’t have children.” That vow played out through characters like ATWT’s jilted Edith Hughes, who later fell in love with her brother’s unhappily married law partner. Phillips presented the story through characters neither all black nor all white, forcing viewers, writes La Guardia, “to grieve over the heartbreak of the human condition rather than hang on to a fixed value judgment.”
In 1964, Phillips created Another World, and the character through whom she would both tell and hide her own story: Pat Matthews, who would murder the man who impregnated her and then coerced her into an illegal, botched abortion that left her sterile. In her memoir, Phillips wrote that her own pregnancy ended with a stillbirth, followed by an infection. What really happened will likely remain a mystery, but her efforts to exorcise her demons through Pat’s story took its toll on Pat’s portrayer; after 18 exhausting months, the actress asked to be released from her contract.
Phillips herself was never able to provide a sense of warmth and family involvement for her children; in the end, she described feeling “as unhappy in adopting them as they were in being adopted by me.” Haunted by her lost pregnancy, in 1972 she created ATWT’s beautiful and independent Kim Reynolds, who was meant to have a baby of her own. Of course, to conceive that baby, Kim seduced her sister’s husband. Sponsor Procter & Gamble, unwilling to reward adultery, chose to veto that happy ending; when Phillips—increasingly difficult to work with and unwilling to sensationalize her plots to compete with rival shows—was fired, Kim’s pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. It’s hard to say what caused Phillips more pain—losing the show that was so real to her, or reliving the loss of her baby as Kim lost hers. A few months later, she died of a heart attack, or perhaps of a broken heart.