Soap Opera Pioneer Irna Phillips Channeled Her Pain to Create an Entire Broadcasting Genre


The woman who started it all for daytime dramas, the late Irna Phillips, was recently remembered in a moving piece by Lynn Liccardo for Harvard Magazine. In the article, Liccardo details how the creator of Guiding Light, As The World Turns, Another World and countless other soaps, exorcised her real-life demons—brought on by a fruitless affair, and the loss of her child— via her soap operas.

Wrote Liccardo:

Her need for Oakdale began in the mid 1920s when Phillips, who never had a date in high school or college, met an English doctor, “not handsome,” but “with charm and intelligence,” and decided he was the man she would marry. Things didn’t work out as she hoped. She became pregnant but the doctor abandoned her, and she then lost not only the baby but any chance for another. The resulting sterility led her to decide “to never become involved with an unmarried man,” thus sparing herself “the pain and embarrassment of telling a man I couldn’t have children.” That vow played out through characters like ATWT’s jilted Edith Hughes, who later fell in love with her brother’s unhappily married law partner. Phillips presented the story through characters neither all black nor all white, forcing viewers, writes La Guardia, “to grieve over the heartbreak of the human condition rather than hang on to a fixed value judgment.”