While the rest of the world pays tribute to the greatest peacetime prime minister of the 20th century, Maggie Thatcher, Los Angeles is mourning the greatest Mouseketeer of them all, Annette Funicello, who died on the same day at the age of 70.
She was a beautiful girl who is remembered as a wholesome teen heartthrob in the 60s. Even if you are not old enough to have been a member of the Mouseketeers – Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse fan club on 1950s television – you may have seen her photos.
Often, the personal lives of Hollywood stars are quite different from their screen presence. This was true of Annette as well, but not in the way you might expect. In the early 60s she starred in slightly spicy films like Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Beach Blanket Bingo. But in real life she was a modest and simple girl who lived by the wholesome code of the Disney studios. Later in life she recalled Walt’s fatherly advice:
“Mr Disney said to me one day, ‘Annette, I have a favour to ask of you. I know all the girls are wearing bikinis, but you have an image to uphold. I would appreciate it if you would wear a one-piece suit.’ I did, and I never regretted it.”
In 1990 she told a newspaper interviewer:
“I’ve been offered roles as a hooker, as a druggie, all kinds of sleazy things,” “No, thank you. I always had Walt Disney in the back of my mind, whatever I did. I really considered him a second father.”
A career in Hollywood did not leave her unscarred, unfortunately. At 22, she married her agent, a man 12 years older than her. They had three children but the marriage ended in divorce 16 years later. She married again in 1986 – just a year before she started to have some medical problems. Her vision was blurred and she had trouble walking. The diagnosis, which she tried to keep secret for years, was multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease which progressively destroys the nervous system.
But illness seems to have brought out the best in Annette. She became an advocate for victims of multiple sclerosis until it became too difficult for her to make public appearances. She was sustained in her difficulties by a strong religious faith. In 1992, she told People magazine:
“When I was young, I never imagined something like this would happen. Now people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so strong. It’s just great the way you’re taking it.’ They don’t see my down side ever. I do have times, when I’m all alone and the house is very quiet, when I cry, and sure, I think, ‘Why me? Why me?’ But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I know now that my mission is to help others raise funds for MS.
“I’m a Catholic, and I’ve always been a religious person, and having MS reminds me that there’s a higher power up there who knows what HE’s doing. MS has brought my family closer together, if that’s possible. Glen [her second husband] and I will do our errands together—go to the bank, the cleaners, the supermarket—and he’ll help me cook dinner. But I don’t like it when people say, ‘Oh, I’ll get that for you.’ I need to walk, to do things for myself. I don’t want to be treated like an invalid.”
She handled the progress of the disease with grace and patience: “I don’t know how bad my symptoms will eventually become. I don’t know if, down the line, I’ll be able to handle it as well as I do now,” she said. “So I just take one day at a time.” By 2004 she could no longer walk; by 2009 she had lost the ability to speak. In her final years she needed round-the-clock care.
“Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside,” said Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, when he heard that she had passed away, “and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace.”
In the end, virtues like these are the stars that burn brightest, even in Hollywood. Annette Funicello was more than just a pretty face.