For 81-year-old Helen Kirk of Galveston, collecting data and memorabilia on multiple births isn’t just child’s play.
SHE SIGNS HER LETTERS “TWINCERELY” OR “QUINCERELY.” Her favorite soap opera is Days of Our Lives because one of its stars is a twin in real life. She has met 13 sets of quintuplets, 68 sets of quadruplets, 3 sets of conjoined twins, and more triplets than she can count. She proudly displays a butterscotch-colored plaster model of quints scrunched together in utero. She knows that Asians have the fewest multiple births, that boys are more often born part of multiple sets but less likely to survive, and that in 1278 Countess Margaret of Henneberg gave birth to 182 males, 182 females, and 1 hermaphrodite.
Welcome to the oddly intriguing universe of Helen Kirk, an 81-year-old Galvestonian who has made her mark in the world as an expert on multiple births—not a scholar, but a kind of super hobbyist. Just as some people collect stamps or autographs, for nearly sixty years this former medical assistant has dedicated herself to compiling a formidable collection of memorabilia and data on twins, triplets, and the like. Along the way, she has earned a variety of monikers, everything from “the Smithsonian of multiple birth information” (the Galveston Daily News) to a “maven of multiples” (Smithsonian magazine itself). “She’s a real character,” says Janet Bleyl, the founder of the Triplet Connection in Stockton, California, the world’s largest support group for multiple birth families. “She has collected so much information that it has become her whole life.”
Interestingly, the obstetrical obsession is not fueled by any blood connection. Kirk—who wears her white hair in a pixie cut and, on the day I visited her, padded around her bungalow in a floral housedress with a name tag that read “Miss Helen, Supertwin Statistician”—was born one of three “singletons” (babies delivered one at a time) and had only one child of her own, a daughter who died in 1992. Instead, it grew out of her relationship with a set of quads born in Galveston in 1939—that and her inherent pack rat tendencies. “I’ve always been a scrapbook person,” she says. “I like to collect.” Her assemblage includes thousands of newspaper clippings meticulously filed by last name and number of siblings, letters from families of multiples, picture albums documenting her visits with various broods, and souvenirs, posters, and books featuring famous multiple births. All of them are on display in the two-bedroom house that Kirk and her ex-husband bought in 1942, though space, predictably, is a problem. Six years ago she built an air-conditioned, dehumidified 17- by 32-foot storage room—signs at the door remind visitors that no food or drink is allowed inside—but she quickly outgrew it. Today the only rooms in her house not piled high with boxes or strewn with clippings to be filed are the kitchen and bathroom. “It has grown so big that I can’t keep up with it,” she says.
Since she suffered a heart attack in 1985, Kirk’s pace has slowed. In the old days, she would travel to see new babies, write their families for information and photos, and send out birthday cards—about five hundred a year—to multiples across the country; she would even enclose $1 or $2 in each envelope, depending on how cooperative the families had been at passing along news. “One year in the late seventies, I sent out 9,002 pieces of mail. Postage has always been my biggest expense,” says Kirk, who finances her hobby with her monthly Social Security check and money from her retirement account. “My friends know if they want to give me a present, they should give me stamps.”
These days, however, Kirk spends most of her time at home, where she fields calls from the media and casting directors (she put an ad agency in touch with the Turnipseed triplets from Alabama for an early Texas lottery ad). She also wages a truth-in-multiples campaign: She is positively curmudgeonly if anyone unjustly makes a claim to fame for a set of siblings, who are often tagged with superlatives like “most” and “first.” For instance, the San Antonio Express-News reported that the Bellush quads—born on December 5, 1995—were San Antonio’s second foursome. But Kirk, sitting in her dimly lit living room, flashlight in one hand and magnifying glass in the other, quickly pages through a little black notebook and calls out the names of other quads from San Antonio. “There are the Grishams. The Hansons. The Tysons—they were born three identical girls and a brother. And let’s see, the Rioses, the Quimbayas, the Robersons.” She puts her book down on her lap and sighs in disgust. “I’ve talked to enough reporters that they know I have this information. I get aggravated when they’re so inaccurate.” Recently, Kirk placed several phone calls to Maury Povitch’s TV talk show to correct mistakes. She was miffed, for instance, when guests were billed as the second set of sextuplets born in the U.S. “They’re the second set to survive,” she says impatiently.
When Kirk does venture out, the highlights of her year are the various get-togethers: She has attended all 24 conventions of Texas Mothers of Multiples, 19 International Twins Association gatherings, 20 meetings of the National Organization of Mothers of Twins Clubs, and 3 Twins Days in Twinsburg, Ohio. “I love meeting these people,” she says. “It’s fascinating to be sitting across the table from two 80-year-old twins and see that all their movements are just alike—even if they haven’t been together all their lives. Or to sit and watch twins in a stroller in the same position: with thumbs in their mouths and sound asleep.”
Until her mid-twenties, Kirk led the life of a typical BOI (Galveston shorthand for Born on the Island). After graduating from Ball High School, she did everything from teach dance to sell war bonds, and in 1942 she married Jules Lauve, an advertising executive whose specialty was billboards (many people still know Kirk as Helen Lauve, though recently, more than forty years after she and Jules divorced, she returned to her maiden name). While working as an assistant to a group of doctors, she met a pregnant woman who needed x-rays because her obstetrician suspected she was carrying more than one baby. The woman, Esther Badgett, was in fact carrying four. “She was so big that she had to turn sideways and pull up her stomach to get out the door,” Kirk remembers. When they were born, the Badgett quadruplets—two were identical—created a sensation. The country was still enthralled by news of Canada’s Dionne quints, who were born five years earlier, so Galveston raced to promote its own illustrious infants.
The city donated a house to the Badgetts with the stipulation that the girls stay in Galveston until the age of eighteen and that they spend an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon in the living room so the public could peer through two picture windows and look in on them. With the family getting press across the country, Kirk began collecting articles. “She was really organized,” recalls Joan Trochesset, one of the Badgett quads, who is now 58. “My mother would get pictures of us and give them to Helen, and she would arrange them in scrapbooks.” After becoming a family friend, Kirk also started speaking to the press. “I was sort of the voice,” she says. “If a newspaper came down, they would talk to me. Mrs. Badgett was shy and didn’t like talking to all those people.” As the girls got older and began making public appearances, Kirk often traveled with them. “I remember we had one room for me and Mrs. Badgett, one for the girls, and one for all their clothes,” she says, flipping through one of her photo albums to a forty-year-old black and white picture of the girls in poof-skirt evening dresses at San Antonio’s Fiesta.
Kirk’s interest in the Badgetts quickly expanded to other multiple births. She started with two scrapbooks for twins: one for out-of-town sets and one for locals—plus two scrapbooks for triplets and a scrapbook each for quads and quints. “First I was just collecting clippings; then I got into sending cards and visiting,” she says. (One of her favorite sets of triplets was Sweetwater’s Cardwells: Faith, Hope, and Charity; the last surviving sister, Hope, died in January at age 97.) For the next half-century, her fixation never flagged, not even when she bore a daughter, Jane, in 1945—the only child she ever wanted. “I’ve never seen a family that didn’t show partiality to one child or another,” she says, adding that Jane was never threatened by her interest in other children. “She knew all the kids, though she never learned how to tell the Badgett girls apart.”
In the seventies Kirk began to gain renown, becoming the topic of newspaper articles herself. She was included in editions of Personalities of America and the World Who’s Who of Women, and in 1974 she traveled to Rome to address the First International Congress on Twin Studies. Upon retiring in 1981 from her last job—she was working for a psychiatrist—she devoted herself to her hobby. “I wonder how I ever had time to take care of a house and a child,” she says now.
On a tour of her home, she shows me her archives room, one side of which is lined floor to ceiling with storage boxes labeled with small Post-it notes. Some pieces stored here are of genuine interest: various sizes of Dionne quintuplet dolls made by Madame Alexander, a Bobbsey Twins game dating back to the early 1900’s, and a charming metal stroller made for triplets. Other items fall into the I-didn’t-need-to-see-that category, such as a photo of the two placentas that accompanied the Badgett quads. Then there are completely frivolous pieces: pairs of stuffed animals that admirers have sent her, a fabric representation of three peas in a pod, and T-shirts and bumper stickers from all the conventions.
In the scrapbooks she made for the quad or quint families before there began to be too many to keep up with, yellowed articles show slack-jawed parents and neatly dressed nurses holding four or five small white bundles. She points to a scrapbook and says, “One of these quads had triplets, but they were in vitro, so it wasn’t exciting.” Indeed, Kirk admits that her enthusiasm for her subject has dimmed slightly now that there are so many multiple births as a result of fertility drugs and artificial insemination. “It’s just not as exciting as it was when they were so rare,” she says, complaining that man-made multiples are almost always fraternal and identical multiples are intrinsically more intriguing.
It isn’t just a matter of preference: Even though it took her three and a half years to get pregnant herself, Kirk has mixed feelings about parents who have sought medical help conceiving. “I don’t think it’s right, fooling with Mother Nature,” she says. “These parents are so thrilled to find out they’re pregnant that they don’t stop to think past it—about health problems, about college.” She is particularly vexed by parents who think press coverage may bring them financial help. “Public opinion now is, ‘You asked for it by having those treatments, so don’t expect us to help you.’ There was that lady in England with eight. She thought she was going to get millions for doing publicity.” She didn’t—and all of her babies ended up dying.
Many multiple pregnancies have such unhappy endings, Kirk contends, and even if all the babies are born healthy, the stress on the parents is enormous. “When I hear that one of the parents has left,” she says, “I’m not surprised.” In fact, her disillusionment over the artificial multiples boom led her at one point to consider quitting her hobby. “But there has been so much interest that I felt I had to keep doing it,” she says, so she continues to clip, file, send out notes, and correct reporters. Right now her attention is focused on raising money to start a museum and properly display her collection; she has sold her set of good china and will hawk her crystal and other valuables as part of an estate auction, and she is also considering charging reporters for interviews. And if the museum never comes to pass, she may give her collection on twins to the Twins restaurant in Manhattan, whose owners and waiters are all twins.
“I had no idea it would grow to this,” Kirk says. And she’s equally shocked by the effects her lifelong diversion has had on her personal growth. “I was so bashful in high school, but now I’ve traveled, I’ve met people, and I’ve learned to share things,” she says. “I think my life would have been dull without it.” She smiles contentedly as she opens a box and pulls out a clown head from a birthday cake for a set of triplets in Temple, aware that in the world of multiple births she stands alone.