Agnes Nixon, the creator of One Life to Live and All My Children, died yesterday at the age of 93. She was a master of a critically reviled but commercially titanic genre, the soap opera (so named for the industry that sponsored the shows in the early years), which nonetheless quietly and progressively shaped entertainment in the 20th century.
And it began in Chicago, invented by women shaped by their own dramatic family stories.
Nixon was born in Chicago, but her parents separated when she was three months old, and her mother took her to Nashville to live with a big, extended, Catholic family: her mother, grandmother, and “four maiden aunts,” as she described them in an interview for the Archive of American Television. All four worked, her mother as a bookkeeper until she was laid off in the Depression, when Nixon described her life as like Little Orphan Annie, one of her favorite serials.
She was a prodigy of narrative. Before she could read, she clipped and filed panels from newspaper comics, rearranging them into stories. As a child, she wanted to be an actress; as a student at Northwestern she ended up in an acting class with Charlton Heston, Jean Hagen (Singin’ in the Rain), and Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Face in the Crowd), and the shy Nixon turned to writing—writing the play that would get her a writing job in a radio-play workshop at the school.
Her father had remained in Chicago, and had done well during the Depression by making burial clothing, a cheap alternative—"very flattering, but very inexpensive,” Nixon said—to entombing a good suit. He paid for her college education, but just as important for her future career, he shared a doctor with Irna Phillips, the reigning queen of radio drama. He set up a job interview for Nixon with her—with the expectation that his daughter would be rejected, give up on her dream of writing, come to work with him, and take over the family business. Phillips read her student play and hired her to write dialogue at $100 a week, or about $1,000 in current dollars.
Nixon’s mentor was shaped by her own tragedies. Her father died when she was eight years old; like Nixon, she lost herself in creating narratives, in her case with dolls. Despite poverty that was compounded by the loss of her father, she made it to college, graduating from the University of Illinois, but around that time she was impregnated, abandoned, lost her child, and was left sterile in the process. (She would never marry, though she did later adopt.)
Despite her college education, Phillips, by profession a schoolteacher, began her ascent in radio from the lowest possible station: she “read inspirational verse on WGN’s amateur hour.” From there she got bit acting parts, which she leveraged into a role writing and acting in the 15-minute, six-day-a-week, woman-targeted serial Painted Dreams—the world’s first soap opera. When it started in 1930, she made $50 a week, around $720 in today’s dollars. A decade later, Phillips “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.” In 1949, Phillips produced the first television soap opera, the live, 15-minute These Are My Children, broadcast on Chicago’s WNBQ, the Chicago School of Television pioneer responsible for Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and Studs’ Place.
Phillips would take her already dramatic real-life tragedies and exaggerate them for artistic (and commercial) effect, and Nixon learned at her side. “Irna taught me that real life is more hilarious, more tragic and more incredible than anything we could think up,” she told People; as with Phillips, her personal life was grist for her drama:
“I grew up in an extended family—there were three generations—and I like the feeling,” says Nixon. The characters of All My Children, the only soap with which she is currently associated, are like part of her family, and some share the traits of Agnes’ own relatives. The model for kindly Grandma Kate Martin (Kay Campbell) ought to be obvious. As for frosty autocrat Palmer Cortlandt (James Mitchell), he reminds Nixon of her late father, she says, because he “doesn’t know how to love.” Adds Agnes, “When I was 3 months old, my parents separated and I didn’t have a good relationship with my father. I learned much later that he had never had a good relationship with his parents. He was very unhappy, but he wasn’t a bad man.”
Much the same, she believes, can be said of All My Children’s bitchy, beautiful Erica Kane—so convincingly played by Susan Lucci that once, when the actress left the confessional at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a woman approached and muttered, “I hope you told him everything you’ve done.” Surprisingly, Nixon can empathize with the shallow, misguided Erica. “I understand her because she grew up in a broken home without a father,” Agnes explains. “She doesn’t have a great sense of personal worth—and if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love someone else. Sometimes I think, there but for the grace of God go I.”
Phillips and Nixon parted ways shortly thereafter, following the television industry to the coasts, Phillips to Los Angeles and Nixon to New York. Phillips made the right choice, and she soon hired Nixon for Guiding Light. The show was a TV adaptation of one of her radio hits, one deeply rooted in her personal tragedies. After being abandoned by the father of her stillborn baby, Phillips took comfort in the sermons of Preston Bradley, the leader of the Unitarian Peoples Church in Uptown and a popular radio figure (and the namesake of Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center). Guiding Light was centered around a preacher in the fictional Chicago suburb of Five Points; when its production moved to Los Angeles, so did its fictional locale. It premiered as a television show in 1952 and ran for fifty-seven years. Nixon was its lead writer from 1958 to 1966. In 1968 she got her own show and first hit, One Life to Live; that and All My Children would define her career.
Her career arc put her at the heart of popular entertainment during a period of immense social change; One Life to Live debuted in the year most associated with the culture shocks of the 1960s, and Nixon adapted to them. Her obituaries have focused on how deftly Nixon wove controversy and social conscience (not that it was bad for business). For instance, the very first line of her New York Times obituary is this: “Agnes Nixon, a celebrated creator and writer of television soap operas, who introduced uterine cancer, venereal diseases, child abuse, AIDS and other societal terrors into the weekday fantasy worlds of millions of daytime viewers, died on Wednesday in Rosemont, Pa.”
Nixon was deliberate and passionate about this; the year One Life to Live debuted, she wrote a heated op-ed in the New York Times about the soaps’ reputation as fluff, the inspiration she drew from Dickens, and her explicitly political motivations for casting black actors and devoting storylines to alcoholism, cancer, and adoption. “We don’t get the Emmys or trade kudos,” she wrote, “but, frankly, we think the thousands of letters we received from our viewers are a much better measure of the success for which we strive.” Cancer (if not diversity) may not seem like a trailblazing subject, but as her Washington Post obit notes, she wasn’t allowed to use the word “cancer” in her 1962 Guiding Light storyline about it, much less “uterine” or “Pap smear.”
That pioneering spirit goes way back. Guiding Light, when it was still a Chicago radio serial, had an out-of-wedlock child and a single-parent adoption, just like its creator. Like Nixon’s shows, it was intentionally diverse, an intentional “melting pot” reflecting what Phillips would have seen growing up in a poor family in Chicago. Nixon’s pathbreaking reputation was earned, but the path had been broken before her, allowing her to see what surrounded her, and write it.