Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Nun of the Above

Back in the 1960s, there was a double-bill of Tennessee Williams plays on Broadway called SLAPSTICK TRAGEDY. I've always loved that title because it seems to sum up so much of life. Sad events sometimes contain a touch of dark or irreverent humor -- and there is often an element of pathos in comedy. Today's blog started with a silly topic -- airborne nuns. I was going to talk about how a children's book that nobody knows became a TV sitcom that everyone knows...but the more I researched the topic, the sadder I became.

The sitcom is THE FLYING NUN, which premiered in the fall of 1967 starring future Oscar-winner Sally Field. Our gal Sal played a novice nun assigned to a convent in Puerto Rico where the combination of her huge headgear (which kind of looked like a paper airplane on steroids) and the prevailing local winds frequently sent the sister soaring. It was a mixed blessing for Sister Bertrille. The opening credits did, after all, show her crash-landing through a stained glass window, though it certainly sounded like she was having fun when she sang the show's theme song :

Who needs wings to fly?
Certainly not I.
I prefer to take up on the breeze,
Follow any swallow that may please my fancy!

I just close my eyes,
Tiptoe through the skies.
'Long as there's a heaven standing by,
Who needs things like wings to fly?

Okay, I'll admit it: I once actually owned a copy of the Flying Nun album.

Something else I'll admit: for many years I didn't know the series was based on a book. I just figured the idea was dreamed up by some wacky scriptwriter. Remember, it was the sixties -- a time when a lot of Hollywood types didn't need wings to fly either. But it turns out that Sister Bertrille was actually created by a writer named Marie Teresa Rios Versace, an American of Puerto Rican descent. The wife of a U.S. Army colonel and mother of five, Ms. Versace wrote under the name "Tere Rios." The author, who had written two previous novels (AN ANGEL GROWS UP, 1957; BROTHER ANGEL, 1963), got the idea for this character when a friend spoke of seeing a nun with a large headpiece almost fly off her feet on a Paris street. Ms. Versace, who knew something about aerodynamics after spending the war with the Civil Air Patrol, soon invented the "flying nun." However, it took ten years before she could figure out the plot. She explained: "To write a good story, you have to get your character in trouble, and in those days, there wasn't much trouble you could get a nun in. Landing her in a nudist colony would have changed the tone I wanted and it wasn't until 1962...that it came to me to land her in an Army Security Area. That put her under the Espionage Act, which put her really in trouble, so I had my book. I thought."

See, just after the book was accepted for publication, the religious order featured in the story, the Daughters of Charity, announced that they were changing from big bonnets to little veils. The publishers felt that this dated the book and changed their mind about releasing the novel. Ms. Versace then submitted the book to Doubleday with a clever cover letter suggesting that the real reason the Daughters of Charity were no longer wearing the large headpieces could be because the high-flying events depicted in her book really happened! THE FIFTEENTH PELICAN : THE ADVENTURES OF A FLYING NUN was published in 1965. I am still trying to figure out if this book was published by Doubleday's adult or juvenile division. I've never seen this title in any children's library, yet it's commonly referred to as a "children's book" and the New York Times Book Review recommended it for ages eight to eleven. I do know that years later the paperback edition was published under Avon's children's imprint, Camelot. But that was after the TV show had become a big hit with kids. How did such an obscure book get made into a television series anyway? Part of it had to do with the times. It was the era of THE SOUND OF MUSIC and THE SINGING NUN, so there was already a built-in audience for a show about nuns. Besides, the United States was confronting many difficult issues during the sixties: civil rights, intergenerational conflicts, drugs, and, particularly, the war in Vietnam. There was a need for silly, escapist entertainment -- and what could be more absurd than a nun zooming around overhead like an airplane?

But here's where the story gets sad.

Marie Versace herself was likely unable to truly enjoy the success of her Flying Nun character. When THE FIFTEENTH PELICAN was published in 1965, she dedicated the book ""FOR THE ROCK and the children and sugar people of NamCan." "The Rock" was a nickname for her oldest son, Humbert Roque, a West Point-educated Army Captain, then serving in Vietnam as a military advisor. After the war he planned to attend seminary, become a priest, and return to Vietnam to help that country's orphaned children. But that was not to be. During a military mission, he and two other soldiers were captured and spent the next two years being tortured in a Viet Cong prison camp. He was executed on September 26, 1965. The last time his fellow prisoners heard his voice, he was loudly singing "God Bless America."

In the late sixties, while American audiences were still laughing at the antics of the Flying Nun on TV, its author traveled to Paris hoping to meet with a delegation from North Vietnam that had arrived in France for peace talks. Marie Versace wanted them to personally tell her what had happened to her son. She was not allowed to meet with them. Another of her sons, former Indiana Pacers coach Steven Versace would later say, "My mother, she never gave up. <...> Until she died, she thought he'd come walking out of those jungles any day."

Marie Versace died in 1999. Three years later, Humbert Roque Versace -- the Rock -- was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House Ceremony. Because his remains were never found, his headstone marks an empty grave at Arlington National Cemetery, where both his parents are also buried.

This statue of the Captain and two Vietnamese children is on display at the Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia.

THE FIFTEENTH PELICAN by "Tere Rios" is a fun, silly book and the TV show it inspired is even sillier. It was the kind of escapist fare the country needed at the time.

But the book's single-line dedication -- from a mother to her son -- tells another, more somber, story about what our country was really going through during that time.


Penni Russon said...

I love this post. It is one of the best blog posts I have ever read in my life.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Fabulous post by the way too... I can't believe it is only Friday morning and I'm already crying.

Anonymous said...

This is a very moving story. I appreciate it all the time you took for this. I feel just like the others that have commented.

In a related vein, the Wall Street Journal has a story about the parents and siblings of Raoul Wallenberg and their lifelong efforts to secure the release of their son and brother.

Think of the love these families had for their lost sons. We see that love reflected in the honorable lives their sons lived, and I'm sure we'd see it in the lives of their brothers and sisters, as well.

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