Diva Beverly Sills Deals with Her Retarded Offspring, Encourages Other Mothers Between Engagements

“Ask the guy that owns one,” she says, taking off on a current ad line, as she helps others make the best of many lives

The Washington Daily News, February 10, 1972: Nobody had told opera singer Beverly Sills that arrangements had been made for her to be interviewed an hour before her performance at the Kennedy Center last week. But when she swept through the stage door at 20 minutes to curtain time and found out, she said, expansively, “Come on, we’ve still got time, let’s talk.” And she leads the way down the hall, gaudily dressed in a yellow sequined gown, warming up her voice as she goes. Beverly Sills really does sweep. She is big, majestic and bosomy, a presence -– the true personification of the prima donna stereotype.

She’s also a warm, friendly woman of 42 who’s deeply involved as chairman of the 1972 National Foundation March of Dimes’ Mothers’ March on Birth Defects. She and her husband, Peter Greenough, have a severely retarded son, Peter Jr. (Bucky) and a deaf daughter, Muffy (Meredith), 12 1/2. Mr. Greenough’s daughter by a previous marriage, Diana, 20, has the mental age of a 12 year old.

“You know, ask the guy who owns one,” says Miss Sills. “There’s nothing phony’’ about her chairmanship, she says. “The most valuable thing I’m able to do is talk to the other mamas. They have a despairing, desperate look on their faces. I used to too.” Miss Sills says she can talk “nose to nose to the mothers about what will happen to their babies.” They don’t talk about themselves. “We know what happens to the mothers. They get old prematurely,” she laughs.

She has an effervescent personality — her friends call her Bubbles — and a cheerful outlook. “You have to accept it,” she shrugs. “What else can you do?” But as she continues to talk, her smiles grow fewer and her voice becomes more emotional. Until Bucky was 7, Miss Sills and her housekeeper “spelled each other” taking care of him. He is also an acute epileptic and needs “24-hour-a-day servicing. He’s such a sick little boy,” she says, sadly.

Diana is in classes for the educable. “But I don’t know what will become of her,” Miss Sills says with a big sigh. She plans to write Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York about the feasibility of establishing hostels for mentally retarded who don’t need too much physical care. Muffy, who attends a school for the deaf, usually accompanies Miss Sills on her tours. So does Mr. Greenough, a former newspaperman who retired recently when The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, founded by his grandfather, was sold. Now he’s “an economist” and runs the farm the couple has in Concord.

The Greenoughs were married in 1956 and the birth of their children almost cost Miss Sills her career. At first, all the children lived at home in their Manhattan apartment: Bucky, Muffy, Mr. Greenough’s two older daughters, and Diana. “It was terrible, it was chaos.” Miss Sills “went into a total decline.” But in 1963, she resumed the opera stage and began to work with Muffy, taking her to pre-school every day and helping her to function normally. She has not let her learn sign language yet because, “I want her to communicate through verbal language as long as possible.” Muffy has minimal hearing and wears a hearing aid through which she can hear distorted noises. She is an expert lipreader. Miss Sills has already learned sign language — “II only took me an hour” — and will teach it to Buffy some day. Buffy, seeing sign language used on TV recently, described it as “beautiful, like a ballet.”

“We feel we’ve triumphed with her,” Miss Sills says. Doctors have made a “hook-up” between the retardation of Diana and Bucky, however, so the Greenoughs do not trust themselves to have more children.

“There’s no point in going on if we can’t produce perfectly healthy children,” Miss Sills bursts out. “The rate of babies born with birth defects is going up — it’s one in seven — especially among malnourished teen-age mothers. That’s horrendous. Everyone you talk to has someone in the family with a birth defect.”

“The other day I was in Bloomingdales’ and a lady came up to tell me about their son. I had lunch with Barbara Walters last week and she told me she’s got a retarded sister. She told me her early life had been ruined.”

Miss Sills travels 200,000 miles a year as an opera singer and everywhere she goes now she visits hospitals to find out what discoveries have been made about birth defects, and she gives talks to women’s groups. She uses every opportunity to tell mothers to have their children vaccinated against rubella which when contracted by a pregnant mother can cause a defective child.

Even the people who come backstage to congratulate her after a performance offer her an opportunity. Instead of accepting homage, she looks for the young mothers she can warn against rubella.

Original Title: Diva Beverly Sills’ Role in a Real-life Drama: ‘Ask the Guy Who Owns One’

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