Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (but don't have sex or take the car)
By Dick Moore, Harper & Row, 1984
A Patty-Dukian Tale
This poor kid.
Born in Boston to unwilling parents, Edith Fellows was abandoned by her mother a few months after she was born and moved to North Carolina to live with her father and his mother. Edith displayed an early talent for singing and dancing and was noticed by a "talent scout" who claimed he could get her a screen test in Hollywood for fifty bucks. She and her grandmother took a train to Los Angeles, only to find an empty lot at the address they were given.
Her iron-willed and apparently unpleasant grandmother worked as a housekeeper to make ends meet and settled Edith in with another family to live. The son in that family was a movie extra whom Edith accompanied to the studio, where she was noticed by a director. For real this time. Soon she began appearing in comedy shorts and small parts in larger pictures.
Her big break came in 1935 as Melvyn Douglas's bratty daughter in She Married Her Boss, the girl Claudette Colbert beats some goodness into. Edith's performance was so well-received, that Columbia Pictures signed her to a seven-year contract, the first time a child received such a contract. With roughly 20 pictures already under her belt, Edith began a solid career as a singing child star for Columbia. At home, however, things were pretty bleak. Her grandmother was something of a tyrant who isolated her from people and took complete control of her earnings. In 1936, when Edith was established as a sensation, her mother showed up out of the blue and demanded custody...and money. A long court battle ensued which resulted in Edith having to choose between the mother she'd never met and her grandmother, the devil she knew. She chose the grandmother.
As Edith grew into adulthood, her charm for Columbia began to fade. In 1941, they decided not to renew her contract, because at 18, Edith was too old for children's roles and too short (fully grown at 4' 10") to be a leading lady. When she reached her majority in 1944, Edith tried to recoup some of her earnings from her "guardian" and found that of the $100,000 dollars coming to her, there was only $900 left.
So Edith Fellows turned to the stage. She appeared on Broadway in musicals and comedies, and guest starred on a few television shows. One night in 1958, during a performance at a charity event, she was struck with paralyzing stage fright. A doctor prescribed Librium for the condition, a drug to which she became addicted. A long period of drug dependence and alcohol abuse followed, with Edith working a series of low-paying jobs to make ends meet. She did not perform again until 1979, when a friend of hers in community theater wrote a play based on her life called Dreams Deferred and encouraged her to star it in.
Edith overcame her stage fright by performing in that play and it changed her life. She went off the pills and booze and embarked on a solid career as a guest star on a number of popular television series and TV movies, including Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Cagney & Lacey, and ER. She retired from show business altogether in 1995.
Edith Fellows died at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, a retirement community for members of the film and television industry, on June 26, 2011 of natural causes. She was 88.