Anna Marie Duke, AKA Patty Duke, was one of my all time favorite people. It wasn’t so much her acting career that intrigued me as her passionate efforts for mental health. Patty as the world knew her was a highly successful child star from an incredibly dysfunctional home. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and her mother suffered from bouts of deep dark depression. When Patty was still quite young her mother turned over the full time care of her daughter to agents who literally told the child that Anna Marie was dead and that she would forevermore be known as Patty. The husband and wife team certainly helped the young girl to launch her career but life in their home was loveless and Patty was miserable and confused.
When Patty Duke was in her early teens she landed the role of Helen Keller opposite Anne Bancroft on Broadway. Her performance in The Miracle Worker was so breathtaking that the producers soon put her name in lights above the title of the play on the marquee. She reprised the role in a movie by the same name and at the age of sixteen became the youngest star ever to win an Academy Award. Her career appeared to be on its way to the top after she was named the Best Supporting Actress.
Many of us who grew up in the sixties remember watching Patty in The Patty Duke Show in which she played identical twins, Patty and Cathy, who had two very distinct personalities. The show was highly popular and earned Patty yet another award, an Emmy. Sadly at about the time that Patty’s career was reaching the apex she began showing signs of troubling behavior. When she brilliantly played a drunken pill-addicted woman in the blockbuster movie, Valley of the Dolls, her fans were appalled. They had seen her as a clean cut young girl and were unwilling to accept her in such an adult role. Slowly Patty Duke’s life began to careen off of the rails and she became a puzzle to her friends and coworkers.
What nobody knew, including Patty herself, was that she suffered from bipolar disorder. Instead of finding help for her those in her professional circle deemed her to be too quirky and erratic to be trusted with complex acting jobs. She rapidly went through two marriages and a pregnancy before she settled down with actor John Astin. He was sixteen years Patty’s senior and treated her with great kindness and patience, even adopting her infant son, Sean as his own. Sadly Patty was unravelling with abandon. When she appeared in public she often made rambling declarations and her fans became less and less enchanted with her. At home she would suddenly and without warning go off on her family, including one Christmas day when she became so enraged that she toppled the holiday tree and threw its ornaments at her husband and children.
Her spending habits grew so out of hand that Patty was almost broke. On one occasion she rented a private plane and ordered the pilot and crew to keep the engine running at the airport. She promptly forgot what she had done and went to a hotel where she lost track of time in a haze of drugs and alcohol. When her agent was notified that the plane was still waiting she had accumulated a huge bill that she was virtually unable to pay. Her husband, John, wishing only to protect their children left her in the hopes that she might be shocked into doing something about her unbearable behavior.
Patty Duke’s turn around did not occur until she was a guest on Johnny Carson’s late night show one evening. She appeared to be totally out of it as she bragged that she was going to build an ark and place it in the desert. Johnny played along with the strange conversation attempting to find humor where there really was none. After the program aired Patty received a phone call from Frank Sinatra whom she had never before met even thought the two of them were well known stars. He told her that he had seen her on Carson’s show and that he was very concerned. He insisted that she make an appointment with a doctor right away and even threatened to continue to harass her until he was certain that she had gone for help. The call both frightened and impressed her. It was to be the turning point in her life.
Patty Duke underwent a full physical evaluation and she learned from her doctor that she had bipolar disorder. He placed her on a regimen of lithium and she responded quickly. It was as though a fog that had followed her everywhere for years was lifted. For the first time in her life she felt whole and normal. She harbored a fear that without the illness her creative spark would not be as bright but soon learned that her talents were not dependent on either her episodes of depression or mania. She went on to not only enjoy a long career mostly in television but also to hold offices within the acting community and to win awards for her craft. Mostly though, she became an outspoken advocate for those who suffer with mental illness. She was a pioneer in outing herself and her disease at a time when such things were still most often hidden behind closed doors. For her work in that arena she became the recipient of two honorary doctorates.
Eventually Patty Duke wrote two books, an autobiography and a story of her struggle with bipolar disorder. A Brilliant Madness became a kind of bible for me. When my mother was so ill with her own version of bipolar disorder I searched for hope and for answers, sometimes without finding anything that helped. Suddenly in Patty’s words I discovered an incredibly honest account of what mental illness is like from the perspective of someone who had seen the highs and lows firsthand. Patty’s words were honest, compassionate, and well informed. They gave me hope and helped me to understand that my mother’s case was far from unique. Without ever knowing it, Patty Duke became a trusted friend. I often returned to passages in her book to reinforce my determination to stick with my mother even in the darkest times. Somehow finding her book became a watershed in the care of my mom.
Patty Duke was only two years older than I am. Her life was filled with both hardship and honor. She ultimately managed to find a lasting relationship with her fourth husband. By the time that she married him she understood the nature of her illness and had worked hard to keep her symptoms at bay. While she herself had not always been shown love and generosity she did her best to be a thoughtful and understanding individual to those who suffer from mental illness. She was a frequent spokesperson on the topic of how best to deal with chronic mental problems. She was unafraid to face criticism and misunderstanding in her quest to bring mental health concerns into an open forum.
I will always love Patty Duke. I still have her book. It is tattered from use. She not only inspired me to be a better person but also to write the story of our family and how we somehow managed to cope with our mother’s illness with compassion. Patty taught me to forgive myself when I was weak or during those times when I gave up hope. She kept me going even when I wanted to run away from my reality. She was a woman of great talent and great character. I pray that she is laughing with the angels and that the pain of her own mental illness is gone forever. Rest in peace, Patty Duke!