Legends: The Original Desperate Housewife

THINGS HAVE GOTTEN BITCHY among the denizens of the fictional Main Line town of Llanview, the setting of One Life to Live, but then again, after almost 40 years of such catfights, this should hardly come as a surprise. Four suitably blow-dried women find themselves trapped in a room at a snowed-in ski lodge on Lantano (read: Pocono) Mountain, and after two of them storm out with suitable door-slamming verve, drunk, bitter, blond Blair and sober, bitter, brunette Marty are having it out.

“Miles is too good to know what a conniving harpy you are,” Marty hisses. “So I think I need to enlighten him. And after your behavior tonight, that shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Go right ahead,” Blair slurs back. “Because I don’t think he’s going to settle for boring.”

Marty accuses Blair of using hunky Miles to make hunky Todd jealous; Blair will later seduce even more hunky Chris in an attempt to exact revenge on Todd for his infatuation with Evangeline. Meanwhile, Marty’s teenage son Cole is secretly stashed in the lodge with his girlfriend Starr, whom he has just professed his love for, except she’s the daughter of … Todd and Blair. And then —

Oh, you get the idea. It’s a mess. Which is pretty much standard operating procedure on One Life to Live, which next year will mark its 40th year of bubble, bubble, toil and trouble on ABC, where it follows the equally tortured All My Children, a soap two years its junior and one also focused on the foibles of the moneyed and not-so-moneyed classes of tony suburban Philadelphia. Both shows are the creations of Agnes Nixon, a lonely girl from Tennessee who grew up to become one of the most prolific and imaginative writers of her generation, and who — toiling in her tiny office at the top of her roomy 18th-century colonial in Rosemont — not only created two of the most enduring series on daytime, but changed the face of television in the process.

“She raised the bar,” says Susan Lucci, who for the past 37 years has played Nixon’s most famous character, All My Children’s 10-times-married diva Erica Kane. “She has dealt with such important issues in our culture, in our times, and never at the expense of the storytelling itself. Everything in Agnes’s hands is character-driven, is true to relationships. I think she really has set the standard.”

Quiet, wispy Agnes Nixon, 79, the widow of a Chrysler executive and mother of four, was an unlikely candidate for trailblazer in the hurly-burly early days of television. But more than half a century later, her tiny office is cluttered with Emmys (“I have a few more somewhere in the apartment in New York,” she remarks blithely), she has two serials on the air that have run for a combined total of more than 75 years, and she boasts a résumé that includes writing for some of the most distinguished series ever broadcast: Robert Montgomery Presents, Playhouse 90, The Hallmark Hall of Fame.

If there has been a key to all that sucess, it lies in her ability to mine a particular social ethos — that of the Main Line, a place where she has spent most of her adult life but where she has also never quite belonged. Where she is, in some ways, still that lonely girl from Tennessee.

“I’ve always felt that people can be educated and entertained,” she says when I ask why she’s been able to stay relevant in a medium where anything more than five years old is considered an antiquity. “Those were the stories I wrote.” She smiles conspiratorially over her piping cup of tea, and adds something that might make any Main Line resident a tad nervous: “I’m also a terrific eavesdropper.”

IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW THAT Agnes Nixon’s two most famous soap operas are set along the Main Line, you’re not alone. Their creator is downright cagey on the point, deflecting inquiries about whom certain characters are based on and where, exactly, the fictional towns of Llanview and Pine Valley (All My Children’s locale) are supposed to be located. “Pine Valley is the combination of Pine Cottage [the name of her home in Rosemont] and the Delaware Valley,” she says. “Llanview I just made up. Neither was particularly inspired. The truth is, I didn’t have time to think of anything else.”

“Llanview is Rosemont,” counters Erika Slezak, who for 35 years has played Victoria Lord, the stiff-upper-lipped matriarch of One Life’s most prominent family. (Alas, poor Victoria suffers from multiple personality disorder — seven at last count.) “It’s meant to be Main Line Philadelphia, and it had that kind of sensibility in the beginning, though I think it’s probably drifted a bit from it since. But it still does in the sense that Viki represents the very classy, very old-world money.”

Nixon gave up creative control of One Life only a few years into its run to concentrate on the show that has become her calling card, All My Children. Like One Life (where a recent episode featured a group of resident studs watching a Sixers game), All My Children also throws in the occasional reference to “Center City” and other geographical clues. Perhaps most famously, in 1992, then-super-couple Will and Hayley were in a limo when Will snidely remarked on the social caste system of “Pine Valley 19010” — the zip code for Bryn Mawr.

The Main Line has also inspired its share of over-the-top plot twists. Nixon recalls a story she heard about a fancy cocktail party at the home of a famed Main Line hostess; the doorbell rang, and the hostess — who had previously been the husband’s secretary — opened the door to find a young woman on the front steps. The woman whispered, “Mother.”

“I told you never to come here!” the hostess hissed. Nixon flipped the exchange into Phillip Brent’s discovery that his aunt was actually his mother on All My Children.

Agnes Nixon’s home, either once part of or adjacent to Mary Cassatt’s family estate (no one knows for sure because the land records burned in a fire), sits not far from the border of Bryn Mawr. And like its mistress, it is understated, elegant, and divided into distinct parts. Sprawling and gorgeous in that Old Money way, it oozes refinement but isn’t ostentatious. The country kitchen is old and white, the kind that carries decades of memories of ­Saturday-morning pancakes and fresh-baked pies. An oil painting of 19th-century congressman Christopher Rankin, painted by the legendary portraitist Bass Otis, hangs in a gilt frame in the stately dining room. Overstuffed chairs and sofas in pale pastels and chintz dot various sitting rooms. Looking around as we sit by a crackling fireplace (one of seven in the house), I feel a strange sense of déjà vu, as if I’ve seen this living room before. Then it hits me that I have: It’s almost an exact replica of the drawing room of All My Children’s Cortland Manor.

Perched in a wingback chair and daintily breaking off tiny pieces of an oatmeal cookie, Agnes Nixon is reminiscing, not always fondly, about the road that led her here. She is impossibly petite, clad in a pale blue top, slim-fitting gray cigarette pants, and low-heeled brown suede shoes with black patent-leather toes. Her sparkling eyes, partially hidden behind tiny blue oval-shaped glasses, well up with tears often as she recalls the loneliness of her childhood in the South, the tyrannical Irish grandmother with the silver-tipped cane who dominated the household (“I’ll rule ye till the day I die,” she was fond of saying), and the distant father she later tried to understand by turning him into the character of Victor Lord, the reserved patriarch of One Life to Live.

Nixon’s father was an entrepreneur who made a fortune during the Depression manufacturing cheap burial garments. Her parents split when Agnes was an infant, and she and her mother moved from Chicago to Nashville to live with her grandmother. “I always felt a little different,” she says. “And I didn’t have anyone to play with. So from the age of three, I began making up stories.” She eventually attended Northwestern, majoring in theater and speech re-education — studies her father dismissed as biding time until she would take over his business. Convinced his starry-eyed daughter needed a reality check, Harry Eckhardt sought counsel from a friend. “I know a woman here in Chicago who’s a writer,” the man said. “Why don’t you have your daughter go talk to her? She’ll straighten her out.”

The woman was Irna Phillips, who by the late 1940s had already cemented a legacy as the queen of the modern serial. She’d created the radio soap The Guiding Light in 1937, and was now developing and writing 15-minute dramas for television. In 1949, young Agnes Eckhardt walked into Phillips’s glamorous Windy City apartment for the meeting that would change her life. After reading the writing sample the girl provided, Phillips hired her on the spot.

Agnes became Phillips’s star protégé, creating Search for Tomorrow and later serving as a head writer for Phillips’s Another World and Guiding Light. In 1951 she married auto executive Robert Nixon, but continued to write for television as her husband was transferred to Philadelphia, then to Syracuse, then back to Philadelphia. The couple settled for good in the Rosemont house, where they would raise a family, in the late ’50s.

Though she worked from home, Nixon was an oddity in the A-line-skirted world of suburban privilege that was 1950s Bryn Mawr and Villanova. “I had to give up a lot of bridge games and the Orchestra and the other things other women did. But I didn’t care, because I loved what I was doing,” she says. “It wasn’t that difficult, because I could do things with my children, and I needed that, too. I was home, after all. It was with my peer women on the Main Line that I ran into trouble. They’d say, ‘I don’t know how you could be a good wife or a good mother working all the time.’ They just didn’t believe it could be done.”

NOT ONLY WAS IT DONE, it changed the course of daytime television. After rescuing the faltering Another World in the mid-1960s, Nixon set out to develop a story of two girls — good girl Tara Martin and bad girl Erica Kane — as the centerpiece of what would become All My Children. The show was a direct product of her own life. “Tara was born into the family I wished I’d had; Erica was born into the situation I had,” she says.

But ABC executives weren’t feeling the plot, and passed. Nixon crafted a new idea, this one also based on the Main Line, but focusing on its social caste system through the interweaving stories of four families: the aptly named, affluent Lords; the middle-class Irish Rileys; the working-class Polish Woleks; and the Siegels, a Catholic-Jewish mixed family. One working title for her creation was Between Heaven and Hell. “That didn’t really fly with the executives,” she laughs. “So it became One Life to Live.”

One Life bowed in perhaps the most fractious sociopolitical year of the 20th­century — 1968 — and rather than ignore the tumult, Nixon embraced it. She roared out of the gates with the story line she is most proud of in her career: the saga of Carla Gray, a light-skinned black girl passing as white to get work as an actress. ABC execs green-lighted the plot — but were unable to find the right black actress, so suggested going with a white one. “I was adamant,” Nixon recalls. “I said we’d scrap the story if we had to do that.” A few months later, when Carla, whom the audience still thought was white, kissed black doctor Price Trainor, at least one affiliate dropped the show. Nixon persevered, shaped by memories of her childhood in the segregated South. “I think I suffered atavistic guilt every day I watched wonderful black people walk past me to go to the back of the bus,” she says. “It was horrible.”

This moral tenacity came to define Nixon’s work. Two years after One Life began, in 1970, the network circled back to her and asked for another show. At the suggestion of her husband, she reached into a drawer and extracted the outline for All My Children, quickly creating a maelstrom when Erica Kane had the first legal abortion on television. (A few years ago, in a plot twist that set fans seething on Internet message boards, it was revealed that the aborted fetus had been implanted in another woman and carried to term — something that’s pretty much medically impossible.)

Nixon’s fearlessness in breaking daytime taboos continued through the ’70s and ’80s, as she deftly crafted topical story lines about cancer, homosexuality, drug abuse, rape and even Vietnam, all mixed in with the standard sudsy menu of infidelity, forbidden romance and deadly diseases. “I wanted to take soaps out of the Wasp family, to tell stories of real people who were dealing with real problems,” she says. “And, of course, I was slammed in the media for being preachy, for presenting a soapbox instead of a soap opera.”

“She realized before anyone else that you could really not just educate people, but change the way they think about something by having story lines that involve characters these people see every day,” says Lynn Leahey, who has been at the helm of industry bible Soap Opera Digest for more than two decades. “You may think a certain way about the Vietnam War or lesbians, but if you suddenly see it from the perspective of someone who’s in your home every day, it’s an incredibly unique and powerful tool to show people a different point of view.”

In 1978, eight years after first hitting the airwaves, All My Children dethroned 20-year ratings champ As the World Turns to claim the number one spot in the Nielsens. “She understands this medium better than any other human being on earth,” Slezak says. “She knows what makes an audience watch. She knows what makes an interesting character.”

That meant digging up some of the Main Line’s secrets — including several in her own family. “I did recognize a few things,” says Nixon’s daughter Mary Hiltbrand, today an artist in Gladwyne. “I got sober, and when I got sober, a lot of the characters started getting sober. Erica went to rehab after I did.” “My brother had an illness that she gave to one of her characters,” adds Cathy Chicos, Nixon’s eldest daughter, who also lives in Gladwyne. “I’m sure there were others.”

Indeed there were. In perhaps her greatest wink-wink tour de force, Nixon created Juanita Ramsey, an off-screen best friend for Phoebe Tyler Wallingford, Pine Valley’s haughtiest matron. The real Juanita, it turns out, was a local black domestic Nixon knew. “I just love your stories,” Ramsey had told Nixon upon meeting her. “I know so many bitches like Phoebe Wallingford on the Main Line!”

“The irony was terrific,” Nixon says. “Here was Phoebe, this snob who was a member of the DAR, and she was always on the phone with Juanita or going on vacation with her.” She laughs. “The DAR wouldn’t have let Juanita Ramsey in the door.”

AGNES NIXON IS SHOWING ME HER DOLLHOUSE, tucked away in her home’s charming playroom. “I never had anyone to play with while I was little,” she says. “So now I play with my grandchildren.” In other words, she’s still moving characters around who live in nice suburban homes, creating stories and dramas that help them come alive.

As for the Main Line itself, Nixon says she’s seen almost as many changes there over the past 50 years as she has in Pine Valley or Llanview. “It’s just grown too large to walk down the street and say hello to everyone. If that happens today, people think they’re going to get shot.” She laughs. “But having grown up in Nashville, which is a smaller city, I still think there’s that same feeling of friendship here. The friends I’ve had here, I’ve had for many, many years. But one is on guard with strangers — on the Main Line as much as in the world. Because these are perilous times.”

Today she still serves as a consultant for All My Children, but as she nears 80, her life is increasingly about the real family she created, the one she spends Christmas with at her four-bedroom home on St. Croix. “She’s one of the few people who have never burned out in this business,” her daughter Cathy says. “I think that’s because everybody gets self-doubts, and she’s just never had that self-doubt.”

Her mother would (gingerly, of course) disagree. She knows that the daytime landscape has changed drastically — where there were once 19 daytime dramas on the air, today there are only nine left (and one of those, NBC’s Passions, has just been canceled). More women, the backbone audience of the genre, work outside the home and don’t have the time to watch a week’s worth of DVR-ed episodes. And the serialization of prime time, which began in the 1980s with shows like Dallas and Dynasty and has since crept into everything from Friends and Lost to Desperate Housewives, has also eroded the popularity of the daytime soap. “I think there will always be a few,” Nixon says of the art form she helped define. She shrugs. “But I don’t know. Nothing lasts forever.” In the end, Agnes Nixon knows that we all get just one chance to make our mark in this world — that we only get one life to live.

E-mail: mcallahan@phillymag.com