Whatever happened to
By Donal Lynch
Sunday Independent, Sunday Jun 14 2009
Standing in the lobby
of London's Savoy hotel, pregnant and with a crying bundle in her
tattered shawl, Dublin woman Florrie Kavanagh must have attracted some
A combination of
desperate poverty and daring had brought her here. While she waited to
hear whether she would be seen, she would have cried a little herself
and tried to quieten the child. And, most of all, she would have
reasoned with herself: this was the Fifties and babies were abandoned
all the time. Better to be left in the plush suite of a Hollywood film
star than in some dire orphanage or at a railway station.
Florrie, like everyone
else in London, had heard the news. Jane Russell, the "moody, mean
and magnificent" Queen of Hollywood had swept into town and was
looking for a young addition to her family. On the front page of the
paper that morning there had been just two huge photos. One showed a
smiling Winston Churchill, who had just been re-elected Prime Minister.
The other showed the bejewelled screen goddess with the caption:
"Miss Russell in London to adopt baby boy."
Years before, Florrie
had moved to England in search of a better life, but things had not been
easy. She already had three small children and was living in a shabby,
tiny house in south London with no working toilet inside. She and her
husband Michael, also from Ireland, were struggling to make ends meet.
This latest baby, Tommy, left her young family on the brink, and with
one more on the way she had few other options. She had heard of rich
Americans adopting children back home and had read that Jane Russell was
devoutly religious. Florrie told herself she was securing her little boy
"a place in heaven".
circumstances, of course, an Irish church mouse with a crying baby would
have had no chance of getting in the orbit of an imperious film deity
such as Russell. The actress had starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and, together with Lana Turner and Rita
Hayworth, embodied the sensuously contoured "sweater girl"
look. With her topaz-coloured eyes and perfect figure, she represented
what one publicist described as "lust, desire and everything that
good boys are not supposed to think about". She was one of the
biggest stars in the world.
But lately, Russell had
been feeling vulnerable. A botched back-street abortion years earlier
had left her infertile and now she badly wanted a baby. The search had
taken her all across Europe. In France, she had visited orphanages and
watched nuns bring rows of two-year-olds to eat their lunches out of tin
cans on wooden benches. The children did not laugh or cry and she
realised it was because they had never had families "and nobody had
ever loved them." In Italy, she was told that her Protestantism and
her age would disqualify her. In Germany, she learned that a special act
of congress would be needed to spirit a child back to the States.
England did not hold much possibility either -- during that period only
a British subject could adopt another British subject.
At that time, Ireland
had much more informal and unregulated adoption laws than any of those
countries and Russell was already in the process of looking for an Irish
child to take back to America. In 1951 she wrote: "My husband (the
American football star Robert Waterfield) is of Irish extraction and I
would very much like to adopt an Irish baby. If it is possible I would
like to fly to Dublin this week to pick out a child and make all of the
arrangements for him to fly back to America with me."
The Church of Ireland
Moral Welfare Organisation, which handled adoptions of Protestant
children, had written to Russell advising her that she wouldn't be able
to simply come to Dublin and pick a child. There would have to be home
studies and background investigations to ensure that the child's welfare
would be protected. The star, who was very much used to red tape being
summarily sliced through in her honour, felt that this would be rather
too much hassle. A Catholic child with dual English-Irish citizenship
could represent something of a loophole. She sent word: she would grant
Florrie Kavanagh an audience.
The meeting between the
film star, Russell's mother, Geraldine Jacobi, and the young Irishwoman
was tense. Florrie was tearful and Russell was full of trepidation: she
found the Irish accent hard to understand and she didn't want to know
the parents of the child she would adopt. However, when 15-month-old
Tommy was laid out on the bed, he brought up a welter of memories for
"He had blue eyes
that looked straight through you and a mass of golden curls," she
recounted in her 1985 autobiography, My Path & My Detours. "He
looked exactly like the pictures of my brother, Billie, who had died at
16 months. The mother explained that they had other children and that
they could never provide him with an education. She wanted him to go to
America with a Christian family. I think she thought she was sending him
to heaven. Mother did all of the talking. I was numb. Now it was my turn
to be afraid. I said I'd let her know."
After Florrie had been
shown out of the suite, Russell went into her bedroom and prayed. As
apparently often happened when she looked for answers from God, she
began to pray in tongues. The cries came out loud and clear: "Take
him. Take my babies. I hear their cries. I will break down every
barrier. They do not give him, I give him."
At first, the plan to
bring Tommy to America seemed to go smoothly and the Irish embassy
quickly issued a passport. He was handed over to the actress and
although Florrie Kavanagh claimed to be sure of her decision, she
appeared at the airport weeping when Russell was leaving to go back to
the US. She wanted one more chance to say goodbye to her little boy.
More drama was to
follow, for if Russell was sure that God was on her side, others were
not so certain. News of the adoption had got out in England and there
was uproar. Crowds gathered outside Florrie Kavanagh's tiny house
screaming "how could you give up your baby?" and it wasn't
long before an MP had stood up in the British parliament demanding that
American movie stars stop "stealing" British and Irish
children. Meanwhile, even though no money had changed hands, the
Kavanaghs were being charged with breaking British law. Russell arranged
for a top-class barrister to represent them.
surrounding the case resulted in immense pressure on Irish authorities
-- who insisted they thought Tommy was merely leaving temporarily -- to
shore up their then rather informal adoption laws. Ireland was being
embarrassed internationally and made to look like a third-world
backwater from which rich Americans could pluck children at will.
As with Madonna's
adoption in Malawi, the perception was that the more money and power the
adopting parents had, the more likely that the (admittedly hazy)
adoption laws would be swept aside.
This impression had
been forming for years. In March 1950, a New York Times story had shown
a picture of six Irish children at Shannon where they were departing to
live with American families and there were further press reports of
wealthy American businessmen flying into Dublin to tour orphanages and
Officially, in 1952
alone 330 passports were issued for Irish children to be adopted in
America, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual number
may have been even higher than that. With both abortion and
contraception illegal in Ireland and illegitimate children still facing
a huge stigma, it seems likely that far more babies made their way out
of the country. All of this had happened below the radar but the Russell
case, it seemed, was going to be the tipping point that would force
Hollywood, too, was
forced to sit up and take notice of the scandal in London. Already, the
actress's studio bosses feared that the adoption would prove bad for box
office takings and her manager suggested she return the boy to his Irish
parents. At this point her husband Robert sided with them, telling Jane:
"My God, send him back!"
Russell held firm,
however, and vowed that even if she had to take a case to the House of
Lords or the Supreme Court in Ireland, she would keep Tommy. Since he
already had a passport and Irish officials were now persisting in the
fiction that Tommy was merely "going on holidays", Russell
focused on the British authorities.
She travelled back to
England and met immigration officials. There was a hearing at which the
Kavanaghs were reprimanded by the judge, who also accepted that they had
been trying to do the best for their son. At length it was clarified
that the adoption could go ahead and baby Tommy would be granted
American citizenship. He was headed for Hollywood.
Although the Kavanaghs
had not been paid, Jane did arrange for their house to be lavishly
refurbished and redecorated and for a toilet to be installed. The moment
the decorators left, however, Florrie sold all of the furniture.
In the years that
followed, Russell established her own adoption foundation -- The World
Adoption International Fund -- and spoke out about the chain of events
that had forced her to adopt children in the first place. She revealed
that she had slept with Robert Waterfield on her 18th birthday and
become pregnant. "In those days, no nice girl got pregnant,"
she remembered. "Robert was in school and marriage was out of the
question. The only solution was to find a quack and get an
abortion." Afterwards, her internal injuries were so severe that
her doctor asked her, "what butcher did this to you?"
She had been taken to
hospital and was bleeding so profusely on arrival that she nearly died.
"I've never known pain like it," she remembered. "People
should never, ever have an abortion."
She eventually married
Waterfield and, tragically, as a result of the abortion could not have
children. "The saddest part was that I think I was born to be a
wife and mother," she later recounted. "I just assumed that
children grew on trees and that every woman would be able to have a baby
at some point."
Despite the poignancy
of Russell's story, there were reports after the adoption that she and
Robert Waterfield were having second thoughts. They had really wanted a
girl all along, Jane admitted, and the whole process had been
Meanwhile, the scandal
had sent ripples across the water to Ireland. Initially, the task of
regulating the overseas adoption process fell to Archbishop McQuaid who,
predictably, felt that the primary concern be that the adopting parents
be of the Catholic faith and also that they sign an affidavit swearing
they were "not deliberately shirking natural parenthood".
recommendations were mostly implemented, The Department of Foreign
Affairs still displayed a marked reluctance to become involved in
overseas adoptions and issued a standard letter denying "any
function in connection with an overseas adoption".
The thinking behind
this was that the Department should not be seen to encourage any exodus
of babies from the country, especially at the time when birth rates were
extremely low and immigration at near-record highs. There was also much
public apathy about the fate of illegitimate children, so it was easier
for the government to simply allow foreign adoptions to happen more or
less under the table. The regulations that were finally put in place had
everything to do with religion and Ireland saving face internationally
and very little to do with the welfare of the children involved. It was
the Seventies before overseas adoptions petered out and it happened then
largely because of an acceptance of unmarried motherhood, rather than
any groundbreaking official action.
By then, Tommy was a
young man and very much an American. He grew up with an older sister,
Tracey, and a younger brother, Robert, whom Russell and Waterfield had
adopted in 1956. Like many teenagers, Tommy had clashed with his father
who called him "a spoiled rotten kid". The young man had not
been much good at American football, preferring playing drums in his
band, and this was a further source of tension with Robert Waterfield,
who was a legend of the game.
Robert, meanwhile, had
also soured on Jane and had an affair with his secretary. He would
eventually try to get custody of the kids, unsuccessfully arguing in
court that Jane was a drunk and an unfit mother. Tommy also had to deal
with coming home to find his sister Tracey (also adopted) after a
suicide attempt. Jane would eventually divorce Waterfield and in 1968
married actor Roger Barrett. They travelled back to London, taking
Tommy. He was to meet his biological family.
The day before the
reunion, Roger took him to buy a new tweed suit, a nod to his Irish
heritage. "He was all grown up, with long hair," Jane
remembered, "quite a change from the 15-month-old toddler she gave
to me." The reunion did not go as well as planned, however, and
Tommy said he missed the California sunshine and felt alien and maybe
somewhat ashamed in the pokey little house the Kavanaghs called home.
The trip to London did not last long.
Florrie Kavanagh died
in 1980 and her husband Michael was buried next to her in 1998. After
Roger Barrett's death Jane Russell married again, this time to real
estate broker John Calvin Peoples. Her career was flagging at this point
-- by the mid-Seventies she was starring in TV commercials. Her husband
jinx also continued and, after Peoples' death and the death of his son
in 1999, she began drinking heavily.
"I just went home
(after the funeral) and started drinking so that I didn't have to think.
I didn't care what happened to me." A year later, as she started
drinking even more seriously, her three children, including Tommy,
rallied around her. They found her unconscious, took her to hospital and
when she awoke they were standing around her bed. It was her 79th
birthday and they gave her an ultimatum: check into rehab. "They
said if I'd go the Lord would go with me," she said.
A staunch Republican
and born-again Christian, she apparently hasn't had a drink since.
Wanting to get away from what he called the "Hollywood scene",
Tommy moved to live on a quiet ranch in rural Arizona in the Seventies.
Now in his 50s and with a family of his own, he still lives there today
and plays in a pub band, Toucan Eddy. According to his mother, he also
"looks after flowers and plants for three garden centres".
When contacted by the Sunday Independent, he seemed uninterested in
discussing his Irish heritage or the strange circumstances that brought
him to America.
"In his own way,
Tommy probably had a pretty tough life," a friend of his commented.
"Which just goes to show you, you can plan these things and give a
kid every advantage, but you can't predict how things are going to turn
The little blonde Irish
boy had wanted for nothing materially, but Florrie Kavanagh had possibly
been wrong when she thought she was "sending him to heaven".
- Donal Lynch
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