One of the perks of working in the collectibles industry is that I always get to meet such interesting people. Many times the folks are humble and a bit shy, preferring to remain behind the scenes but letting their handiwork speak for their hearts. Other times, I have had the opportunity to chat with some very well-known, extremely famous individuals. It’s always a delight to meet people who have grown up in the public’s eye and discover that they are sympathetic, sweet, and sincere private individuals. That was the case with Patty Duke, who passed away March 29, 2016.
Patty Duke was a child star, who hit plenty of bumps along the road to maturity. She had had brushes with drugs, drinking, and (as she called it) “general wild-child behavior.” When she eventually found sobriety and clarity, Patty became an advocate for helping other people claim and enjoy their own mental wellness and spiritual well-being. She articulated her battle with living as a bipolar survivor and was able to eloquently describe the highs and the lows that she often found herself swirling within and drowning as a result of.
I met Patty Duke about 10 years ago, when she was doing the interview circuit for her line of teddy bears. A collector of plush critters (she fell hard for the Beanie Baby craze, she admitted), she signed a deal with Boyds Bears to help design and oversee a collection of bears created by her friend Ann Inman. I had the great honor of getting to chat with her over the telephone twice and then meet her for lunch in New York City. It was definitely a thrill because Patty Duke was an American icon for film lovers of all ages! Her screen presence was always electrifying and mesmerizing.
One of the things that Patty spoke openly about was how her childhood was an oppressive one. Despite the fact that she had won an Oscar at age 16 for her performance as Helen Keller, re-creating the role that earned her awards and standing ovations on Broadway, Patty said she was a child who suffered from panic attacks, melancholy, loneliness, and lack of self-confidence. Raised by her managers, rather than by her mother, she often felt unloved and exploited. “I was lonely and was longing for acceptance,” she told me. “I think that is why I was so drawn to teddy bears. I grew up in the spotlight, but at night my teddy bear let me be me.”
To anyone who encountered her, Patty Duke was instantly recognizable from her years as a TV actress who starred in movies of the week, miniseries, and her own sitcom. Her fame was so intense during her teen years that her name and likeness were emblazoned on a huge variety of collectibles: her smiling face was found on record albums, books, board games, lunch boxes, cosmetics, and so much more. “I was the embodiment of the all-American teenage girl,” she told me, “but I had no idea how to be a teenager. When I was expected to dance on ‘The Patty Duke Show’ at the local malt shop, I had no idea what to do. Not a clue! They had to bring in a choreographer to show me how to behave and move like a real teenager. I didn’t know how to be a teenager. I didn’t know how to be real!”
Throughout her many marriages, Patty struggled to live with her bipolar diagnosis, which was also called “manic depression.” Her children, her husbands, and her family members became bedrocks that helped to ground her and keep her on track.
“That is one of the reasons why I love to collect teddy bears,” Patty told me. “I went through the memories of my life that made me happy, and I translated them into the bears. It was important to find those moments and to make them real. We all have sorrow, and that is a part of life. We have to remember our good times and cherish our good memories. We can hold on to our happiness with our bears.”
Patty’s life was a sprawling and epic one. She never did anything small. One of the roles that elevated her to cult status was her turn as out-of-control actress Neely O’Hara in “Valley of the Dolls.” When that part was brought up to her, Patty blushed and shook her head. “That movie could have been an embarrassment, a total horror, but it has gained such a huge following. I have attended film festivals where people know all the lines, and I’ve been invited to reunions for the cast members. It has a life of its own, and I never could have predicted that after the awful reviews. Hollywood can always surprise you!”
Talking about her role as Neely, Patty said that she often felt her own life story mirrored that character’s path. However, she was “saved” and befriended by a most unlikely rescuer. Her current husband, and the man she credited with helping her become whole, was an army sergeant that she met while filming “A Time to Triumph.” He had been hired as the movie’s technical expert. She and Michael Pearce married in 1986, and her turbulent, questioning life seemed to have become “normalized.” She found peace and pathos with the onetime drill sergeant who became a firefighter. The couple remained married until her sudden death at age 69 from sepsis caused by a ruptured intestine.
During my lunch with Patty, where she signed autographs for a few other diners who came to our table, she was engaging and joyful. “When the people tell me that they love me and that they have loved my work, I believe them. I feel that their love is true. That is so rewarding.”
Her Patty Duke Collection with Boyds Bears was all about finding love, friendship, and happiness. “When I met Helen Keller, it was a high point in my life. To meet a real American hero is a moment that I can never forget. It was an encounter that I was touched by. Helen Keller’s words have always stayed with me: ‘The best and most beautiful things cannot be seen or touched. They must be felt with the heart.’ That is what I want these bears to accomplish, and I think they will!”