Mother's Day Without Carol Brady: We Underestimated Florence Henderson
Loyal listeners, let me start out by saying thank you. Thank you for being you, a loyal listener. This podcast remains a labor of love in part because you’re listening to the topics you choose. You have many options of how to spend your time, so when you trust Advanced TV Herstory to accompany you on your walk, commute or work out, I am honored. Thank you.
Okay, the topic of motherhood on TV in celebration of Mother’s Day can be a very deep dive. And yes, every May, TV bloggers and people who think they’re pretty clever and knowledgeable about TV generate lists of Best TV Moms.
This is the part where you, loyal listener are free to roll your eyes. You could write that blog. You could create a list twice as long.
Last year’s Mother’s Day installment is one with true significance in American culture – Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen – one of the last episodes from the series to bear the strong fingerprint of creator Diane English – delivers baby Avery. Single mother. TV. Vice President Dan Quayle.
This year we get to know better the woman who sits atop every obvious list. Carol Brady. Of The Brady Bunch. But it’s not for a highlight reel of all her very Brady moments. It’s to better understand Florence Henderson, the woman who played her to a tee. Seriously, does anybody think Robert Reed as Mike Brady personified fatherhood? No. Americans have a certain soft spot for the show and interest in Florence Henderson – lo these 4 decades later.
Just so you know, I am not one of those with a soft spot for the show and until I started reading Florence Henderson’s 2012 memoir, Life is Not a Stage: From Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond, I didn’t pay much attention to the woman. Henderson passed away in 2016. Her memoir is in fact, a big reveal behind the smile.
As a tail end baby boomer, yes I watched the Brady Bunch. No, it in no way resembled my childhood. They had a big house. The dad was an architect – white collar. Their lives had a laugh track, their problems never too much to solve in 24 minutes and Carol Brady was nearly perfect.
So I wasn’t quite sure what I’d encounter with the memoir. Oh and loyal listener, I read lots of memoirs or biographies. Always on the hunt for context for some future installment… the occasional connection of dots. There are some really rich paragraph or passages buried in what otherwise is just one person’s ramblings. Take Candice Bergen’s Knock Wood – I mean seriously, she grew up as Hollywood royalty and as a toddler went to Liza Minelli’s birthday party
Okay, a moment of silence for you to grab that visual. Toddler Candice at toddler Liza’s birthday party.
Anyway, other than that tidbit is this great bit from pages 55 and 56 of 1984 mid-life memoir, Knock Wood. In 1957 or so, an 11-year old Bergen went to Europe with her parents sailing aboard the SS Gripsholm. They were waiting for their host at a villa.
“He was awaiting the arrival of a guest – a guest whose name seemed to cause some commotion among the grown-ups assembled. A guest name Greta Garbo – though they called her by her second name. Who is that?” I asked my mother, who laughed and said that she was a great actress, a great movie star, one of the greatest. And soon she arrived, by sea, in a sleek teak power boat, a white-clad sailor at the wheel. The host raced down the stone steps to greet her while the others watched from above. As she approached, the women murmured ‘How beautiful….’
I did not understand. This was not a movie star. Elizabeth Taylor was a movie star. Susan Hayward, Lana Turner…”
Bergen goes on to write,
“Not this tall, stork-like woman who caused a hush as she came and went, quietly padding on long, tanned legs and wearing baggy blue Bermudas, striped t-shirt and dark glasses under a floppy straw hat…”
Typing out a few more descriptive thoughts from memory, Bergen concluded the paragraph,
“… she was not a real movie star, of that I was sure, and I felt frankly disappointed.”
Sorry for the digression, but here’s what the memoirs of Candice Bergen and Florence Henderson have in common – unfettered truth. Bergen’s first was published when she was 38, the second at 69. Henderson was 78 when she wrote hers. She wasn’t doing it for the attention. She just felt – these are her words – from page 13 of the introduction.
“This book is written as a natural consequence of forgiveness and compassion, not only for those whose actions may have caused harm, but most important, for myself. I say this because victims have to forgive themselves for what they did or didn’t do in response or for holding on to negative emotions like sadness, anger and hatred. I too have made my fair share of mistakes and gone through periods of personal turmoil…”
Wow! I thought. This woman, who I can only see smiling and appearing to have lived the charmed life – is talking about victims, forgiveness, sadness? Some might assign adjectives like sugar-sweet or saccharin sweet – which sort of gives saccharin a bad name – to someone with the over-the-top positive nature Florence Henderson projected over her 60 year career.
Here’s what she told Access Hollywood in January of 2012, when she was out promoting the book and also getting ready to be on Dancing With the Stars…
Think of it as the difference you notice when the elders in your family are in their 50s and when they age into their 70s or 80s. The stories take on a different depth. Time eases the pain to make storytelling – in order to pass important lessons learned – a judgment free or judgment neutral process.
When reading it and hearing her familiar voice in your head, you’re at a kitchen table and she’s telling stories. Hard stories, like the ones you might hear from an aunt. Vivid recall about poverty – its smell, its look, its feel. The vivid detail of not having what other kids had. The reasons why. The shame and pain. The conviction to leave that poverty and past and follow your heart.
She grew up in a few small towns in Kentucky and Indiana, youngest of 10 kids. Her father was an old dad, whose alcoholism caused her mother to leave him while Florence was still in grade school.
She had only a few close friends growing up, though it seems like all of them lived with the reality of alcoholism in the family, somewhere. It was through connections of one her wealthier friends that she was mentored by a professional singer who had recently left Broadway to start a family.
The mentoring and support proved enough for Florence to cobble together the confidence and money to get out of Dodge. Her goal: The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
Here is a clip from Larry King’s extensive interview with Henderson in February 1997 – a good 10 years before she even started writing the book. She was getting more familiar with telling her story – not for the sake of crushing her family’s pride or revealing secrets, but rather, to remind anyone watching that anything is possible.
As you just heard her riffing with Larry King, yup, Florence Henderson had the pipes. She was the real deal and proved it to gain entrance to the prestigious school. And to early on get a bit part in the musical Wish You Were Here, which led to her landing the part of Laurey, the female lead in the last touring show of “Oklahoma!”
By the book’s page 61, Henderson noted she’d had professional encounters with Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Ed Sullivan and Charlotte Rae, who was a classmate at the Academy. Rae, who is perhaps best known as Mrs. Garrett from TV’s Facts of Life, is no Greta Garbo, but it’s fascinating to learn how small a world it was back then. Henderson drops a few more names – was it really that small a world in the 50s and 60s?
Name dropping is kind of an essential feature to Hollywood memoirs.
Johnny Carson and Jack Paar – big and early icons of talk shows. Florence appeared on their shows with enough frequency that she mastered small talk and the quick come back. That would serve her well after the birth of her second child, when, upon guest hosting alongside regular Dave Galloway on The Today Show, she was offered the seat permanently. She declined for a few good reasons and lo and behold, Barbara Walters’ door opened and really hasn’t shut 50 years later.
Now remember, up until the late 60s, Florence and her husband and kids were New Yorkers. Bright lines separated Film from TV and both from Broadway. Talk and variety show formats provided neutral territory of these communities. Kim Novak, Julie Andrews, Shirley Jones were rising stars on Broadway in the 50s and 60s.
Tell me something I don’t know. Here’s one. During one of her pregnancies – which Henderson tended to work through as many months as she could, Florence took a pregnancy exercise class in Manhattan? She wrote of attending class with First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who would go on to lose that baby, Patrick, shortly upon his birth in August.
Florence continued by recounting that when the world and Broadway came to a standstill for days in November following President Kennedy’s assassination, Florence wrote a heartfelt letter to Mrs. Kennedy. There was no mention of them ever crossing paths again. In 1969, the Brady Bunch started its five year run. Imagine a 9-year old John-John and 12-year old Caroline watching America’s new favorite family. Laugh track and all.
Do you suppose Jackie O. remembered Florence Henderson from that class? Or was it the well-worded and we hope authentic expression of sympathy in Florence’s note that cemented the impression?
Okay, does it matter? Don’t answer that.
Rubbing elbows with Julie Andrews and others, Florence Henderson was an emerging star in 1954 when she landed a spread in Life Magazine as part of her being the lead in the Broadway production of Fanny. She was married to theatrical producer and manager Ira Bernstein from 1956 to 1985, raising 2 daughters and 2 sons with him first in New York and then California.
Florence wrote at length about what she would later learn was post-partum depression she suffered following the birth of her first.
During the late 60s, she knew her brand had been set – perhaps by the stable marriage and kids. Perhaps by her reputation on Broadway for being a hard working professional. Florence wrote on page 125 –
"As this period began, I was the poster child for mid-twentieth century, good old-fashioned American values, with the major exception that I rebelled in marrying outside of my faith. I was Litle Miss Perfect in my own mind and in the public’s perception. My handsome and utterly charming husband and I seemed the perfect couple, with perfect children. Much of this came from the motivation that I so desperately wanted a life with the harmony, stability and affection that I didn’t have as a child."
New York was becoming a more dangerous city, not quite on its way to rebirth. Movie musicals – and leading lady parts written from someone in her 30s or 40s – were few and far between. So when the call came to audition for Carol Brady, she answered it.
When the choice came to move the family from New York to California. The answer had to be yes.
No memoir from this woman would be complete if it didn’t contain gossip about the show and maybe insight she hadn’t shared in interviews through the years. She told stories of the various location shoots for Brady Bunch special episodes – Hawaii and the Grand Canyon for instance. She wrote of developing a relationship with Robert Reed, the closeted gay actor who played Mike Brady. Reed and Henderson, both seasoned stage pros, often found the dialogue or set ups to be unreal, inferior, not up to their standards. It was popular family TV and as the parents, Henderson and Reed were keen about what was being presented and represented in the storytelling vision of producer Sherwood Schwartz.
"Sherwood had the foresight to keep the show and its subject matter simple and quite universal to the shared experience of children and parents."
So naturally in her book Henderson bubbled with the 40+ year interest in the Brady Bunch and wrote that she had stayed in touch over the years with the kids. She also wrote about finding post-Brady Bunch work in the theater and in commercials – 22 years pitching Wesson Cooking Oil!
This is the part where your memory conjures up something about her and the actor who played Greg, the eldest son. What was all that about?
I’ll just say this, not much.
Henderson helped Barry Williams promoted his book Growing Up Brady in 1992. They did Sally Jessy Raphael (wow! Hadn’t thought of HER in a while…)
Henderson’s hair is great in this episode. In 1992, was the world that interested in the Brady Bunch? Competitive baby boom fans were always interested in what had happened to child stars – their peers. Schadenfreude – Marcia Marcia Marcia.
So you can’t fault Barry for being the first to share the behind the scenes stories and for calling upon Henderson to join him in storytelling. Remember, she could have been the Today Show. She’s got Wessonality!
They went out on a date. When he was 15. She’s a Catholic mother of 4 and nothing happened. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t play that bit for all it was worth. She wrote…
I’m paraphrasing… So from his book our playful but coy interviews and game of telephone – and urban legend was no more than a teenage crush.
Okay everyone. Time to go. There’s nothing much here to see.
Had I been working with her to make this the inspiring work I think she wanted it to be, I would have worked her harder to elaborate on a few key points. Maybe they were just harder to remember or voice than the rehashed stories of wardrobe malfunctions and stage accidents – the patter of the last 40 or 50 years.
She sort of hit on the point in her interview with Larry King. On page 189 she wrote about Carol Brady:
It is quite unfathomable to me how this character of Carol Brady could have had the kind of impact she did. To think that a sitcom mother could give comfort and support to children who were parent-less, abused, ignored or unloved. It was almost otherworldly how the latchkey child living in the housing project in some lower-income community or another who writes in a language I don’t understand from a place with a name that I cannot pronounce, feels a kinship. I’ve always felt tremendous compassion for children who are lonely and suffering.
This paragraph, buried among the chatter, helped me connect the dots of Florence Henderson’s hardscrabble childhood to her hardworking years on Broadway to her five years on The Brady Bunch. Carol Brady was aspirational motherhood no one could admit to, because that might be perceived as an affront to one’s own mother’s temperament, character or shortcomings.
Only Florence Henderson had the comprehensive, longitudinal data to measure the impact of which she spoke. That book would have helped us see Carol Brady and Florence Henderson in an altogether different light.
Advanced TV Herstory knows there are thousands of TV mother roles that have been played over these 60 years. Most are forgettable. But it’s okay if we apply context and value on the reasons that keep some memorable. They were written by folks who understood the importance of representation. These roles were performed by fine talent: Henderson, Phylicia Allen Rashad, Roseanne, Candice Bergen, Esther Rolle, Marion Ross…
Celebrate the mothers in your life by sharing this podcast with them. It can be streamed right on a tablet or desktop. I’m not predicting this will prompt an outpouring of memoir-writing, but you just. Never. Know.
It’s never too soon to be thinking about next year’s Mother’s Day installment, so please send your ideas and thoughts now to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Send them while their fresh. With or without a laugh track. Follow the podcast on Twitter at TVHerstory. Advanced TV Herstory is proud to be part of Core Temp Arts podcast network – a place where TV and pop culture podcasts churn and chew all sorts of interesting topics. Learn more at Core Temp Arts DOT com.
Interview audio clips from Access Hollywood, Sally Jesse Raphael and Larry King Show are all found on YouTube. Florence Henderson’s Life Is Not a Stage: From Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond was published by Center Street, a Division of Hachette Publishing in 2012. Candice Bergen’s Knock Wood was published by Simon and Shuster in 1984.
As always, I am grateful to David Brown for his audio mastery. Musical selections used in this installment is found at Free Music Archive – wonderful instrumental called Love Wins by Lee Rosevere.
Thanks for listening, I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.