Cheaper By The Dozen, Belles On Their Toes: Mother Knows Best

Illustration for article titled iCheaper By The Dozen/i, iBelles On Their Toes/i: Mother Knows Best

Welcome back to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, guest writer and novelist Laura Lippman takes on two books, 'Cheaper by the Dozen' and 'Belles on their Toes', and - Sweetheart, get her rewrite! — unearths a major scoop.


We made quite a sight rolling along in the car, with the top down. As we passed through cities and villages, we caused a stir equaled only by a circus parade . . . Whenever the crowds gathered at some intersection where we were stopped by traffic, the inevitable question came sooner or later. "How do you feed all those kids, Mister?" Dad would ponder for a minute. Then, rearing back so those on the outskirts could hear, he'd say as if had just thought it up: "Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know."I was a reporter for twenty years, but I was never an "investigative" reporter. Although that modifier might seem redundant to civilians, it is a precise job description within a newsroom, one of the top positions, reserved for the cream. An investigative reporter needs to be dogged, capable of following extremely complicated paper trails, but also personable enough to woo sources. And in my particular workplace – The (Baltimore) Sun, 1989-2001 - it helped to have a penis. Oh, my female colleagues did some impressive work in that timeframe, yet I can't recall one who was allowed to be a fulltime investigative reporter. But then, as our editors often helpfully explained, our newsroom was a meritocracy. It was so meretricious – um, I mean, meritorious — that it had one of the whitest newspaper staffs among metropolitan dailies, and this was in a city that was two-thirds African-American. But, as ever, I digress. To be candid, even if I lived in a world where someone might get a job based solely on the fact that she has a uterus - just speaking hypothetically here, of course - I would never had made it as an investigative reporter. I'm not thick-skinned enough. I don't enjoy making people mad at me. I left the city desk for features, then fled the newspaper for the freedom to make stuff up fulltime. So it is with some nervousness and trepidation that I take a stab at investigative journalism and announce my stunning discovery: There were never a dozen Gilbreth children. Or, to recast my lede in the self-important newspaper style beloved by my former employer: There were never a dozen Gilbreth children, Jezebel has learned. To be sure, twelve children were born to Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, two industrial engineers involved the field of motion study. But Mary, the second oldest, died from diptheria in 1912. The last of the Gilbreths, Jane, was born in 1922. Frank Gilbreth died in 1924. So there were, for precisely two years in Frank Gilbreth's life, eleven children, max. Consequently, every story in Cheaper that turns on a "dozen" – and there are many — is patently false. In fact, Cheaper by the Dozen never even mentions Mary's death, an omission made possible by the fact that it barely mentions Mary at all. Instead, her death is revealed in a footnote at the beginning of the sequel, Belles on Their Toes. I feel rotten, telling you this, because I really love these books. Although, in re-reading them, I realized I prefer the sequel, and not just because it drops the dozen charade. Belles is a better book than its predecessor, in part, because it loses the problematic Frank Gilbreth, who may make some readers wonder where motion study ends and child abuse begins. As depicted by two of his children - Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey - Frank Sr. is a benevolent dictator. Actually, he's not that benevolent, although his kids appear to be crazy about him. He moves dinner discussion along by declaring that most topics are "not of general interest." He teaches touch-typing while banging a pencil on the child-typist's head hard enough to hurt. ("It's meant to hurt," he growls at the protesting daughter.) He doesn't believe in illness and his good-sport progeny almost never see doctors except when another Gilbreth is arriving. In one of the book's most memorable scenes, Gilbreth decides to use his children's tonsillectomies as the basis for a motion-study film. I confess, I find this as funny as it is appalling.

As it turned out, Ernestine's tonsils were recessed and bigger than the doctor expected. It was a little messy to get at them, and Mr. Coggin, the movie cameraman, was sick in the waste basket. ‘Don't stop cranking,' Dad shouted at him, ‘or your tonsils will be next. I'll pull them out by the roots, myself. Crank, by jingo, crank.'"

So, to be fair, he's kind of a dick to everyone! Frank Gilbreth learned that he had a bad heart before his last two children were born and discussed with his wife the very real possibility that she would be widowed long before their brood had reached maturity.

"But I don't think the doctors know what they're talking about," Dad said. [Of course not! The stupid doctors didn't even know how inefficiently they were performing surgery until Frank Gilbreth showed them his home movies of tonsillectomies.] Mother knew the answer Dad wanted. ‘I don't see how twelve children would be much more trouble than ten," she told him.


"Mother knew the answer Dad wanted." Am I the only one whose heart plunges a little at that sentence? At any rate, this telepathic empathy seems to have been the signature gift of Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who had a psychology degree. ("Although a graduate of the University of California, the bride is nonetheless an extremely attractive young woman," as her own wedding announcement explained.) Frank Sr. had first floated the dozen idea on their honeymoon, but she agreed readily. The single regret she voices is not insisting on hospital births until the deliver y of her last child. She stays ten days. Can you blame her? The chapters about Frank Gilbreth's death are truly moving, but Cheaper is ultimately more a series of set pieces than a cohesive story. There's just no larger narrative arc, which is why Belles is a more satisfying read. The Gilbreths were in real financial straits when their father died. Okay, they still had a fulltime handyman and a place in Nantucket, but the younger children were on the verge of being dispersed to various relatives. Although she had been her husband's business partner and co-author, Lillian Gilbreth had to work hard to persuade their clients to stay with her. In turn, her oldest children – Anne, Ernestine, Martha and Frank – took on enormous responsibilities within the household. Belles, like Godfather Part II, is that rare sequel that fulfills the original's promise. You can't understand the whole story unless you read both.

There was a change in Mother after Dad died. A change in looks and a change in manners. Before her marriage, all Mother's decisions had been made by her parents. After the marriage, the decisions were made by Dad. . . . While Dad lived, Mother was afraid of fast driving, of airplanes, of walking alone at night. When there was lighting, she went in a dark closet and held her ears. When things went wrong at dinner, she sometimes burst into tears and had to leave the table. She made public speeches, but she dreaded them. Now, suddenly, she wasn't afraid any more, because there was nothing to be afraid of. Now nothing could ever upset her because the thing that mattered most had been upset. None of us ever saw her weep again.


Well, I can't speak for Lillian Moller Gilbreth, but I am bawling my eyes out right now. Maybe it's hormones, which, come to think of it, are another reason women just can't do certain things. Laura Lippman [Official Site] Cheaper By The Dozen Belles On Their Toes Related Link: Laura Lippman In The Funny Pages [NY Times] Earlier: The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase: Life's A Bitch And So Is The Governess All Fine Lines Posts [Jezebel]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter



Just want to say, Laura, I love you! (I actually met you at a book signing for "Butcher's Hill" years ago, and I still brag about!)

Not only have a read all of your books (Tess is my hero), but I have read all of them a second and third time as well. Every Secret Thing, What the Dead Know, and To the Power of Three are books I routinely buy and give to my book-loving friends as presents so they will discover what a badass writer you are!

(I apologize for gushing, but you rock! Everyone read her books now!)