Whitney was only six when her real dad, Harry C. Whitney, a Secret Service man who guarded President Woodrow Wilson, died from alcoholism. Memaw's replacement husbands came at such a clip that Whitney never formed much of an attachment to any of them.
One of her stepfathers, Al, patented a fitting for oil rigs—his last name was Wells, ironically. He and Memaw would drift from oil field to oil field around the country. Sometimes they'd drag Whitney and her younger brother, Buddy, along. Just as often, Memaw would leave her kids behind, once with a couple of former missionaries and another time with her elementary school teacher.
It wasn't until the fifth grade that Whitney discovered drama class, when the boy who was supposed to play Oberon in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream came down with a case of stage fright and she took over the role. From that day forward, Whitney realized that no matter what school she was in, the drama department would become home until Memaw announced it was time to pull up stakes and move again. Whitney said that the nearest thing she had to a real family when she was growing up were the casts of the plays that she appeared in.
Whitney was instead devoted to her brothers and sisters of the theater. One story she delighted in telling was about the time she was appearing in a Pasadena City College production that had a furniture dilemma: one scene needed a table, chairs, and a couch for the set, and none could be located. On opening night, Memaw shows up to watch her daughter perform, and when the curtain rises, she sees her entire living room set onstage. How Whitney managed to get the furniture out of her mother's house without anyone noticing is one thing. To reveal it in such a fashion required real chutzpah, which Whitney had in spades.
So in a way, Whitney's maternal model was someone who put her ambition ahead of her maternal responsibilities, and that's how she was with us. Dick, Brian, and I didn't talk about it much; we just lived it. It's what was. My brother Dick, the eldest, is very philosophical about her. He says, "Well, she did the best she could." But I think Brian and I took her actions more personally. They really shaped me; I had a strong sense of having been abandoned by her, that she didn't want me, that she didn't want to be my mother.