Patty Duke – Baby Boomer BFF and Girl Power Icon

The cute wardrobe. The honey-colored flip. The way-out slang. The cool parents. The goofy-but-adorable boyfriend.

And to top it off, the look-alike cousin in the adjacent twin bed sharing her confidences, her worries and all her wacky schemes and adventures.

What baby-boom girl didn’t want to be like Patty Lane?

At the time, we didn’t know about Patty Duke’s dysfunctional home life, dictatorial manager or heartache at having to forfeit her given name of Anna. We had no clue that she hated the clothes we envied and knew so little about mid-60s teen mores that she had to be taught those speech patterns and dance moves. In a way, her world had been nearly as limited as that of the blind and deaf Helen Keller she had played on stage and screen.

Even as stardom was suffocating Patty and eclipsing her identity, the youngster she portrayed on TV served as a symbol of freedom, empowerment and self-expression to those of us watching at home.

Lively and pretty in a relatable way, Patty Lane wasn’t content to bask in her popularity and active social life. She was smart, energetic and funny in a pre-feminism era when girls often remained more passive, laughing at the boys’ jokes and praising their achievements. Patty wanted to do things. And not just high-school things although she wrote for the newspaper, cheered for school teams and ran for class president.

Patty aspired to greatness and like a diminutive Lucy in denim jumper, conscripted the normally sensible Cathy, her own in-house Ethel, into one outlandish venture after another. With a fervor that outdid Sgt. Bilko’s, she catapulted them into money-making enterprises, from designing dresses to manufacturing “Mother Patty’s” jam, that went hilariously awry. So did her attempts to launch careers in modeling, singing, child care and acting. But somehow she bounced back from failure and learned her lesson, with help from Mommo or Poppo, and became less impulsive. Until the next project caught her fancy.

Fueled by New Frontier idealism, Patty Lane also wanted to change the world. Like many of her viewers, she hoped to join the Peace Corps someday but in the interim served her community on a smaller scale. She volunteered in the children’s ward of the local hospital, “adopted” an Asian orphan and even helped the police capture a crooked fortune teller.

Patty had the same moments of selfishness, envy and deceit as any adolescent, but her basic loyalty and generosity always prevailed. Perhaps her best trait was her commitment to looking out for those who were vulnerable—older people, lonely classmates and especially her motherless cousin Cathy, a shy bookworm trying to adapt to a strange country and a new family.

The Patty Duke Show lasted three years, and by the end the troubled ingénue had become a teenage bride and won the role of drug-addicted superstar Neely O’Hara in the blockbuster melodrama Valley of the Dolls. She went on to marry three more times and was diagnosed as bi-polar in the 1980s.

Ironically, though, many of the dreams Patty Lane played out on the small screen came true for Anna Marie Duke. She became president of the Screen Actors Guild, had several LPs and a Gold Record to her credit and continued acting for six decades. An acclaimed author, she bravely chronicled her traumatic youth and her struggles with mental illness in best-selling books. The Oscar she won at 16 for The Miracle Worker was followed by many more awards including a Golden Globe and three Emmys—one of them for portraying Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan.

Between acting, singing, writing and raising three sons—two of them highly successful actors—she was a committed advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, AIDS-related funding and nuclear disarmament. She also had several grandchildren and celebrated her 30th wedding anniversary two weeks before her death.

Through it all, the Brooklyn Heights girl who “loves to rock and roll” remained her signature role, our favorite 60s gal pal and a pop-culture icon. And nearly as much of an inspiration as Patty Duke, who changed the world more than even her TV doppelganger could have hoped to.

About famewalker

Loretta Wish is a novelist, essayist, playwright, musician and writer of print and online columns and feature stories. A former newspaper reporter and government communications writer, she is now a freelance writer/editor and plays guitar in a classic rock band. A devotee of old movies and TV, she hopes that in the next life Eve Arden will star in her biopic. Unless Thelma Ritter is already attached to the project.
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