Patty Duke, who died at the age of 69, will be remembered for her numerous triumphs in Hollywood, from her Oscar-winning performance in “The Miracle Worker” at the age of 16 to her ABC sitcom “The Patty Duke Show.” Duke, on the other hand, is known as the “first dysfunctional child-star survivor,” since she endured a terrible upbringing and went on to become one of the first public celebrities to open out about her mental illness.
Patty Duke was always destined for Hollywood. Duke, best known for her mesmerizing performance as Helen Keller, the deaf and blind woman in 1962’s The Miracle Worker, exhibited a wide variety of skill — but her personal life was filled with difficulties, grief, and frustration.
“Though I’ve been a professional actress since I was seven or eight, acting was never a dream of mine.” Shockingly enough, the talented Duke begins her memoir, Call Me Anna, with these exact words, adding, “Yet when I think back to my earliest memory, it was of performing.”
Patty Duke and her siblings didn’t have a happy upbringing. They were born in Manhattan and raised in Queens. Their house was a complete disaster. Their father, John, was an alcoholic, while their mother, Frances, suffered from severe depression and was abusive. When Patty was six years old, Frances ejected John from the family home, if their bedbug-infested four-room flat qualifies as a home.
Little Patty needed a way out, and one was on the way.
Patty met the people who placed her on the road to stardom when she was eight years old: talent managers John and Ethel Ross. They seemed to be the saviors she’d been hoping for at first. Her brother’s career was handled by the Rosses, who were looking for a girl to join their squad of child performers. To their credit, Patty’s spectacular success as a child performer was mainly due to the husband-and-wife duo.
Patty rose to heights of prominence that most people can only dream of under their rigorous supervision. But the Rosses had a sinister side…
While tales of brutal child-star guardians aren’t uncommon, Duke had a particularly terrible encounter that she kept concealed for years. Her name isn’t Patty at all. Duke’s real first name is Anna Marie, as she revealed in her 1987 biography “Call Me Anna” (co-authored with Kenneth Turan). Ethel and John Ross changed her name to Patty, telling her “Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.”
Duke wrote in her memoir, Call Me Anna, “It was as if she really did die. When people take away your name, they are taking away your identity.”
“They erased her New York accent; dressed her like a miniature Grace Kelly; taught her to lie about her height, weight, age and experience. Her audition interviews were programmed and rehearsed,” wrote Faiga Levine in a Washington Post review of the book. “They fed her booze and prescription drugs; at least once they made drunken sexual overtures to her; and they ripped off the bulk of her earnings. Her life revolved around auditions, rehearsals, performances and the hypercritical, browbeating Rosses, who dissected, analyzed and disparaged everything about her.”
Patty Duke’s colorful career lasted seven decades, earning her 13 honors and an Oscar for The Miracle Worker, which made her “the youngest person to garner the full-size Oscar” at the time, according to Britannica. Her mental health activism took center stage in the later part of her career, and the actress found herself influencing many people. “She was so loved by so many people,” said Duke’s Miracle Worker costar, Melissa Gilbert (via Variety), adding, “She had a mind-boggling depth of talent […] and survived being a child actor in the worst of circumstances […] she was an extraordinary human being.”
Patty Duke didn’t have the most opulent childhood. According to her autobiography, Call Me Anna, the future actress lived in a bedbug-infested apartment in a four-story walk-up in New York until she was 12 years old. “The five of us […] all lived in four rooms,” she recalls, pointing out that none of the rooms had doors.
Duke’s father was also an alcoholic, as if living in poverty wasn’t bad enough. Duke noted in her biography, “From what I know and what I hear, he started out a happy drunk who loved his family and enjoyed a lot of dancing and good old times when he was younger.” The starlet’s father “drank up his salary” somewhere along the way, and by the time Duke was six, her mother had ordered him to leave. “I almost never saw him again,” the Me, Natalie actress recalls.
Duke found constant employment in commercials and minor roles at the start of her career. That’s when the Rosses realized they had a chance to profit. Patty was accepted as a full-time client on the condition that she reside with them. Frances regarded it as an offer she couldn’t refuse as a single mother trying to raise three children on a cashier’s salary.
So, despite her first negative feelings about her new guardians, little Patty set out with them. Her spidey instincts were correct.
Patty recalls her upbringing as a type of solitary confinement. “We lived insulated lives,” she says. “I saw no one but the Rosses except on the set. They obsessively controlled my life so that I never had an opinion about anything, including my own personal bathing habits, what I wore or even closing the door to my room. I became a perfect Stepford child.”
Worse, the Oscar winner was effectively indoctrinated into compliance, to the point that she ended herself in legal problems. She “perjured herself before a New York grand jury investigating TV quiz shows” in 1959, according to People. Duke had been on a game show the year before and had been tutored into remembering the answers by the Rosses, who urged her the following year to “lie to the grand jury.” As she said to the publication, “At the very end of my testimony, a Congressman looked at me very sternly and asked me if I was sure I had told the truth […] I said, ‘No, sir. Everything I just told you was a lie.'”
If Duke’s public persona wasn’t convincing enough, his private life with the Rosses wasn’t any better. In 1999, People magazine noted, “There were limits to Patty’s submissiveness. On two occasions, says Duke, John and Ethel each tried to fondle her in bed. ” Thankfully, the actress’s response “was to vomit,” which ultimately led to an end in the abuse.
Patty eventually ended her relationship with the Rosses in 1965, when she married Harry Falk Jr., a 32-year-old assistant director on The Patty Duke Show, when she was 18 years old. She played the pill-popping, boozing neurotic Neely O’Hara in the film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls two years later. Many people began to assume that it was an example of typecasting. Duke’s meandering and incomprehensible speech on the nationally broadcast Emmy Awards event in 1970 fueled rumors tying her to drugs, drinking, and unpredictable conduct. “The truth of the matter is that my condition had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. I was having a serious emotional breakdown,” she says. “Unlike most people in trouble who fall apart in the privacy of their bedrooms, I fell apart on network television.”
Patty Duke has found a way out after so many difficult years with the Rosses. According to People, the actress fell in love with Harry Falk Jr., an associate director on The Patty Duke Show, when she was only 17 years old. The Rosses tried to undermine the couple’s future by moving the series from New York to Los Angeles, but Duke was outraged even more. Duke maintained her blooming relationship after moving into her own apartment and “[barring] them from the set.” The couple married in 1965, “just short of her 19th birthday.”
“I didn’t know how to be an adult. I had no preparation,” mused Patty Duke to People, explaining her “increasingly manic mood swings.” Despite the fact that she was a bona fide A-lister at this time, Duke’s relationship with Falk fell even deeper, with Duke developing an eating problem and plummeting to a terrifying 76 pounds. Not only that, but she also “began drinking heavily and taking Valium,” which she claims she overdosed on eight times.
The marriage was short-lived, and the couple divorced the following year, in 1967. In 1977, the actress told People magazine, “After the divorce, I was 23 and I felt the need to explore the whys and wherefores of my behavior and the kind of person I wanted to be. That’s when I stopped trying to be 15 or 90 and tried 23 on for size.”
With her career at its pinnacle, she went on to star in her own comedy, “The Patty Duke Show,” from 1963 to 1966, in which she portrayed twin cousins. She gained headlines in 1967 when she starred in “Valley of the Dolls,” a film that became an instant cult classic. At the same time, she was living with her violent guardians, who Duke claims provided her narcotics and medications when she was a teenager. She also had bipolar illness, which she didn’t get diagnosed with until 1982.
“I knew at a very young age that something was not right, or even more intensely, there was something wrong with me. Again I thought it was just that I was not a good person, that I didn’t try hard enough,” Duke told Barbara Walters in 1992. “It didn’t become apparent — again, as with many people, the illness itself doesn’t — the symptoms, the very overt symptoms didn’t start until my late teens.”