Life of children’s champion inspired ‘Blossoms in the Dust’

The producer of “Blossoms In The Dust” flew to Fort Worth on June 19, 1941 to keep MGM’s promise to a woman with a heart as big as Texas.

Ralph Wheelwright, a screenwriter and publicist for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and his wife traveled the country looking for just the right adoption agency and just the right baby. Their long search finally brought them to Edna Gladney and the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society in 1939.

Edna Gladney photo courtesy of Gladney Center for Adoption

The happy couple caught the train back to California with an infant they named Phinie Louise after her new mother and an idea for the perfect follow-up to Boys Town, the heartwarming biography that made a ton of money for the studio and earned Spencer Tracey the 1938 Oscar for Best Actor. As soon as he finished reading the newspaper clippings Edna had given him as a going-away present, Wheelwright knew he had exactly the kind of story his boss Louis B. Mayer wanted.

Edna Browning Jones was 18 years old when she left her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to live with better-off relatives in Fort Worth. Her aunt was active in the local women’s clubs and impressed upon her the importance of helping the less fortunate.

In 1906 Edna eloped with traveling salesman Sam Gladney after a love-at-first-sight courtship. The newlyweds settled in Sherman, where the groom bought a flour company and the bride joined the Civic League.

A routine inspection of the Grayson County Poor Farm opened Edna’s eyes to the plight of abandoned children and mistreated cast-offs like the mentally ill and handicapped. She overcame a host of bureaucratic obstacles that made it possible to transfer most of the children to the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society in Fort Worth operated by Rev. I.Z.T. Morris. In addition, she opened a nursery that provided free day care to poor working women in Sherman, the first of its kind in Texas.

When Sam’s business went under in 1924, they moved to Cow Town where he built a new mill that manufactured the popular Gladiola brand of flour. In the meantime, Edna immersed herself in every facet of Rev. Morris’ Home.

After shouldering more and more responsibility for the day-to-day operation, she was put in charge with the title of “superintendent.” Under her direction, the Home began to expand its services to include living quarters for late-term expectant mothers and pre-natal doctor’s care.

In spite of her heavy workload, Edna launched an uphill campaign for the removal of the stigmatizing word “illegitimate” from birth certificates issued in Texas. Since she was herself born “out of wedlock” by an unwed teenager, this issue had a deeply personal meaning.

Spending nearly as much time in Austin as Fort Worth, Edna lobbied the state legislature changing one mind – and vote – at a time. Her persistence paid off in 1936, a year after losing the love of her life, with the passage of a law that prohibited the branding at birth of any innocent baby brought into the world by an unmarried mother.

Ralph Wheelwright did not need to resort to the usual begging and pleading to sell Louis B. Mayer on Edna’s inspiring story. All it took was a single surprisingly short meeting for the studio boss to green light the project.

Wheelwright quickly shared the wonderful news in one of his many letters to the widow back in Texas. She was thrilled beyond words especially by the amount of money MGM was prepared to pay for the rights to put her life on the big screen. Five thousand dollars was a huge sum during the Depression, equivalent to $85,000 in today’s dollars.

The casting of the co-stars was a critical decision certain to have a major impact on ticket sales. Mayer picked Greer Garson, the redhaired beauty he personally discovered on the London stage, to play Edna. She had demonstrated her star potential by turning in an Academy Award nominated performance in her movie debut just two years earlier.

Canadian actor/dancer Walter Pidgeon was no one’s first choice for the role of Sam Gladney, but MGM could not have done better. The on-stage chemistry of Garson and Pidgeon made them such a favorite couple of moviegoers that the pairing would be repeated seven more times.

True to its word, MGM arranged a private preview of “Blossoms In The Dust” at the Majestic Theater in Dallas for Edna and a small party of close friends on the eve of the general release on July 25, 1941. Then, as at all subsequent showings around the country, there was not a dry eye in the house.

Blossoms was a hit with public and critics alike. MGM turned a handsome profit on its comparatively modest budget. Greer Garson was nominated a second time for Best Actress. And Edna Gladney, who never let all that attention go to her head, and her life’s work became known to millions.

(Interested in reading more about Edna Gladney? I recommend Texas Adoption Activist by Sherrie S. McLeRoy published in 2014.)

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