Just recently I reread Quint Benedetti's treatise about Agnes Moorehead. It has prompted me to go through this process of reading the stacks of things I have and writing, again. The whole idea behind documenting the life of Agnes Moorehead was to gain a better understanding of who she really was. Paul Gregory described aspects of her personality "troubling." Quint Benedetti described her with a series of words and phrases. "The royalty, the naivete, the selfishness, the piercing intuition and astonishing lack of it (two marriages), the phoniness and the irrepressible humanity it contained, the coldness and the longing to be warm and sometimes the warmth, the insecurity and the yearning to be loved, the human simplicity touching greatness." Bernice Mason stated that "she lives within a created impenetrable fortress composed of layer on layer of self protective covering, perhaps to guarantee the safety of a hypersensitive spirit against the knife thrust of living."
Agnes herself described her behavior as containing "a certain amount of aloofness on my part."
It is well documented that she had a roller coaster existence from childhood to the day she died. We have already looked at the documentation regarding this. What I would like to do with this piece is an autopsy of sorts on her psyche. Analyze her, a comment she would have found highly agitating. The one thing she did not want to be was analyzed, ever. So I'm shooting myself in the foot here by doing this but I think that it will explain so much and help us to see her more as an extremely strong, gifted, individual, who despite overwhelming odds became an icon in the eyes of millions.
"A Too Knowing Surgeon's Probe"
Where to begin? Well, as with all autopsies you must begin with dissection and interpretation of the facts, in this case mental as opposed to physical. Like a profiler you must take apart the persons psyche and apply psychiatric diagnosis to it then interpret the whole as it relates to the individual. It is a somewhat sterile process as well as being a somewhat traumatic process. It is always easier to accept people for what we see on the outside and believe that nothing deep or troubling runs beneath the exterior. All too often that isn't the case and I believe that Agnes is going to fall into this category. Still waters run deep and deep water has wicked strong current to it.
I must begin with the early life of Agnes Moorehead. We know from my previous set of blogs that she worshipped her father. Reverend Moorehead appears to have been a well balanced man of firm conviction. Patient, kind, and loving, his involvement in the rearing of his child was one of discipline, encouragement, and support. He encouraged her to be educated. He supported her in her foray into performing with the Municipal Opera. He disciplined her by having her learn psalms while sitting in his study with him as he worked. He obviously loved his daughter very much. That is why this next bit troubles me. He is alleged to have asked his daughter "Agnes, why do you marry such weak men?" I find that hard to believe because Agnes did not divorce her first husband until nearly 13 years after her father's death so the plural "men" just doesn't make sense. He may have asked her why she had married such a weak man in Jack Lee and considering what Lee was putting her through by the time her father died I can understand that question. As a father Reverend Moorehead would have felt protective of his daughter and given his predisposition for speaking the truth as he saw it he would have felt compelled to say something to his child about a situation he saw as unfit. However, the demeaning nature of the statement does not fit John Moorehead's apparently gentle personality. As I ruminated on the statement, which comes from Quint Benedetti's book, I began to sense that it wasn't made by her father at all but by her mother. Agnes quite likely credited it to her father but it just wasn't the kind of comment he would make. Mollie was there for both of her marriages, though. John was not. Mollie was definitely the dominant personality. John was not. Mollie reveled in the limelight. John did not. John's joy was in watching his daughter "test her wings and learn to fly" not in demeaning her for her choices. I believe that, and the documentation supports this, John was a busy man. He spoke frequently at public events. He baptized, married and buried a large number of parishioners. He worked quite hard and he did travel abroad. I have found his application for a passport and subsequent documentation that he acted as a chaplain at one point during the first world war. He was loving but frequently absent for one reason or another. This left the child rearing to Mollie.
When Mary Mildred McCauley first met John H. Moorehead she was only fifteen going on sixteen years old.
He was pastor of the United Presbyterian Church in Scottdale, Pennsylvania from January of 1896 to November of 1898. We know from previous documentation that Mollie sang in the choir in her husband's church. It is likely that is how she met John to begin with. Mollie was musically inclined and played the cello as well as the piano. She is said to have been on stage but I have no documentation to back that up. In any case, Mollie was married to John on August 30th, 1899 at the age of eighteen. Mollie's mother Margaret appears to have been the dominant force in Mollie's family and Mollie learned at the feet of a master.
John Moorehead was twelve years his wife's senior but Mollie was hundreds of light years beyond John in worldly experience. John had spent his life in small town Ohio. Mollie grew up not all that far away from Pittsburgh. Her mother's family was quite prominent in Pittsburgh and its suburbs. She was streetwise. John came from a family of farmers. Mollie wanted to be prominent and being the wife of a minister was a more than acceptable way to do just that. To top it off he was posted to Boston which was quite a step up from the steel mills of Pittsburgh.
Mollie's involvement with the rearing of her child gives a whole new meaning to the word dominant. I should qualify this with the introduction of Margaret, Agnes' sister, to the picture. Agnes spent nearly six years being an only child. Margaret, who arrived in 1906, appears to have been the favorite of her mother. I hearken back to a mention in a previous blog that allegedly Mollie once said to Agnes that "The wrong daughter died." It is worth noting that pressure from her mother is more than likely what pushed Margaret down the road to suicide but we'll discuss that later.
Every comment I have found attributed to or made by Agnes about her mother shows a woman obsessed with control over her daughter's life. Have either of your parents every awakened you in the middle of the night to test your knowledge of the bible? Seems a little like a drill Sargent turning over the trashcans in the barracks at four in the morning to test your ability to react under pressure. Agnes made a point of saying she did not want her mother to live with her even in the face of Mollie's advancing years. Mollie treated her sixty plus year old daughter as though she were twelve by telling her to "Hush Agnes" during an argument and Agnes did. When someone told Mollie she must be very proud of her daughter Mollie responded with "I had two daughters." When Agnes died Mollie insisted she be the only one in the room and then proceeded to tell everyone that Agnes' last words were "Mama." Mollie was in charge in every way when she was in the presence of her child and the majority of the damage done to Agnes' psyche was at the hands of her mother.
The Dominant Mother Syndrome
I embarked on a search for information on the effect of a domineering mother on a child. I have read more psycho babble than you will ever know and this is what I have gleaned from such light reading as the "British Journal of Psychiatry" and so many others just as stuffy if not more so:
- The child will become performance oriented as it matures. Perfection becomes the means by which the child keeps the love and acceptance of the mother. The result is a child who is continually anxious about every performance oriented aspect of their life from school to after school activities.
- The child will require constant assurance from people in positions of authority such as teachers that their work is above average.
- All of the child's actions become calculated to please someone else, primarily the mother. The expectations and approval of the mother becomes the focal point of the child's life.
- If the child fails at something or does something that the mother would disapprove of the child will magnify the mistake or failure in their mind. This will lead to the development of an extreme sense of guilt or self loathing over the imperfection.
- If the mother increases the feelings of guilt through her reaction to the mistake or failure it may lead to the child developing an attitude of insecurity which will demonstrate itself through low self esteem.
- The adult child will be emotionally immature.
- They will not know how to express feelings, make decisions or assert their independence.
- They will not exercise their right to say no to authority figures such as employers.
- They will be driven to perform for their employer to gain their approval.
- The adult child may be more likely to cave in to peer pressure because they have been taught to obey their mother's rules without having been given the reasons for those rules.
- They may do things they know are wrong in order to avoid conflict with others or earn their acceptance, love and approval.
- They will have difficulty believing that anyone can love them unconditionally.
Coming in the next installment: A New Look At The Suicide of Margaret Moorehead