Do you know this Jew? She was ‘Queen of the Soaps’


Jordan Palmer, Director of Digital Communications

I first discovered soap operas during a bout with the flu, back in college in 1988. I spent my entire afternoon flipping channels and watching “my stories,” eventually getting hooked on Days Of Our Lives. Little did I know that the woman responsible for “hooking” millions of American’s on daytime TV, was a Jew from Chicago. Like me.

Meet Irna Phillips.

Phillips was one of ten children born to a German Jewish family in Chicago. She studied drama at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where she became a member of Phi Sigma Sigma sorority), receiving a Master of Arts degree before going on to earn a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

According to her “Guiding Light” bio, Phillips was a  Jewish schoolteacher living in Dayton, Ohio, doubling as a script-writer for a daytime radio talk show before creating and starring in the Chicago-based “Painted Dreams,” the first daytime serial specifically targeting women listeners. By 1932, “Painted Dreams” had become so successful that Phillips urged the local station, WGN, to sell the show to a national network. When they refused, Phillips took them to court claiming the show as her own property.

While the lawsuit was being settled (rights were eventually granted to CBS), Phillips went on to create several other soaps, including “Today’s Children,” “Woman in White,” “The Brighter Day” and “The Road to Happiness.”

By the time she created “The Guiding Light” in 1937, Phillips was writing two million words a year, dictating all the scripts in their entirety for up to eight hours a day.

Originally an inspiration tract, “The Guiding Light” followed the travails of Reverend Dr. John Ruthledge and his often-troubled flock. Phillips reportedly based Five Points, the town it was originally set in, on her own childhood neighborhood. She wrote, “In the region lived Italian, German, Irish, Jewish and Swedish families. It is often popular today for the younger generation to dismiss as myth the melting pot story of American history. Those of us who grew up in the early years of this century, when cities were populated largely by first and second-generation Americans, know the reality of the melting pot…. It certainly was real.”

Though she was never married, Phillips adopted two children, a son and a daughter, when she was in her forties. And though publicly she appeared to be a somewhat lonely figure, her unpublished memoir revealed that she actually had many love affairs, mostly with doctors and lawyers – not so coincidentally, the same professions that her shows glorified on screen.

Of marriage, Phillips is quoted as saying, “Why would I want to get married? If I want to pick a fight, I can always (fight about the shows)!”

And fight she did. Not just with her shows’ sponsors, but with the actors, as well.

Phillips demanded that her actors stay in character at all times and was furious when her “As The World Turns” ingénue, Rosemary Prinz, took a role as a streetwalker in a theatrical production. Phillips’ constant browbeating and haranguing of Prinz drove the young actress to a nervous breakdown and quitting the show. In 1971, after actress Jane House did a nude scene in the Broadway play, Lenny, Phillips tried to kill off her character and drove House to quit, as well.

By 1973, Procter & Gamble could no longer put up with Phillips’ tyranny and fired her from “As The World Turns.” She died on Dec. 22 of the same year.

One of her protégées, Agnes Nixon, creator of “All My Children,” didn’t learn that Phillips had died until she called to wish her a Merry Christmas.

Phillips had not wanted anyone to know of her passing.