' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Learning Your Origins -- or not

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Learning Your Origins -- or not


When adoptee Wendy Johnson researched her origins, she learned her biological grandmother was either a heroic World War II spy or an unknown Filipino woman. Johnson, now 53, of Albany, Oregon, was told she was adopted when, at the age of eight, she asked her father why she had yellowish brown skin when everyone else in the family had white skin.

Johnson, who was born in Portland, was able to access her original birth certificate thanks to Ballot Measure 58, passed by Oregon voters in 1998. She learned her birth mother’s name was Diane Phillips. Searching this name led her to the celebrated spy, Claire Phillips. According to reports, Diane was Claire Phillips’ adopted daughter. Further research, however, convinced Johnson that Diane was actually Claire’s biological daughter.

Claire Phillips grew up in Portland and went to the Philippines, touring with a musical stock company. She married and divorced a Filipino man and came back to Portland with a young girl, Diane, whom she said she had adopted. Phillips returned to the Philippines in 1941, and married an American soldier, John, who gave her the last name of Phillips. Three months later the Japanese invaded the Philippines; John Phillips was captured and killed.

Claire Phillips changed her name to Dorothy Clara Fuentes and claimed to be a Filipino-born Italian dancer. She and a friend, Fely Coruera, established a “gentleman’s club,” Club Tsubaki, which quickly became popular with Japanese officers. Using her considerable wiles, Phillips learned military secrets which she passed along via intermediaries to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Because she slipped tips into her bra, Phillips was nick-named “High Pockets.” She also smuggled food to captive American and Filipino soldiers. Eventually the Japanese caught on to Phillips and imprisoned and tortured her. American troops freed her in February, 1945. President Truman awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Her memoir, I was an American Spy, became a hit movie. (“Manila Mata Hari,” Portland Monthly, 2/11; Wikipedia).

Johnson, her probable granddaughter, told the Portland Oregonian (4/7/11) that “Phillips, her family and the U.S. military masked Diane’s identity to guard both mother and child against the stigma interracial relationships carried.” Phillips died in 1960, long before DNA testing became available.

Phillips was not the first woman to pass off her biological child as adopted to avoid society’s disapproval. Loretta Young, a well-known actress of the Forties and Fifties, gave birth to a daughter, Judy, in 1935 fathered by actor Clark Gable who frankly did not give a damn. Young went to England during her pregnancy, claiming that her absence was due to a condition she had had since childhood. She returned to California and gave birth at her mother’s home. Several months later she placed the baby in an orphanage. When Judy was 19 months old, Young retrieved her, announcing to Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she had adopted Judith. Adoption in the 1930’s was as popular in Hollywood as it is today. Judith eventually learned the truth about her parentage and wrote a memoir, Uncommon Knowledge.  

Passing a biological child off as an adopted child was the theme of a 1946 tear jerker To Each His Own.  Olivia De Havilland plays a single woman who leaves town to give birth in secret.  She arranges for a friend to leave the baby on the door step of her next door neighbor who already has many children. De Havilland offers to adopt him, expecting the neighbor will turn him over to her. Unfortunately another neighbor steps in and takes the baby.  De Havilland watches him longingly as he grows up, suffering in silence (as only de Havilland could do) never letting anyone know she is his birth mother.

While it would be unusual today for a mother to hide her shame in plain sight, adoptees in all but six states still do not have the absolute right to their original birth certificate. Many children conceived with “donated” eggs or sperm or both and children adopted from Nepal, India, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and China, have little chance of knowing whose DNA they carry. These children are destined to scan news articles and films, wondering if they owe their being to an adventurous spy or a dashing movie star.

“’Not knowing where you come from just consumes people who are adopted. People who are adopted deserve knowing who their forefathers are,  just like everyone else’” Johnson told the Albany Democrat Herald (9/2/09).  We couldn’t agree more.


  1. How romantic to find out that your grandmother might be somebody like a spy!

    And I read somewhere that Bob Hope's "adopted" children were actually his--his wife was infertile, he had an affair. So with his wife knowing the truth, they adopted his own child. And the others were somewhat "arranged" in a cross between a mistress and what we call a surrogate.

    Anybody know if this is true?

  2. Viktoria - I've never heard the story about Bob Hope's kids?? But I did know about Loretta Young's child... ya never know!

    Great post!! I really can't understand WHY states don't open this records; equal rights and all!!

  3. I had heard the story about Loretta Young's daughter but never the one about Bob Hope. There was also a story that Sammy Davis, Jr.'s "adopted" child was really his bio-kid with a mistress. It is certainly plausible since the boy had incredible talent just like his father.

    And yes, every adoptee in the country should have accesss to his or her OBC not just those lucky enough to be born in one of a small number of states.

  4. Hi,

    In the April 18th, 2011 People magazine (the one with Reese on the cover) there are two stories of pregnant women/adoption interest.

    On page 82 there is a story titled “A Second Chance for Moms in Need” about a women named Martha, who’s mission in life is to help homeless women and women in need with children get medical care, job training, substance-abuse, and mental-health counseling. Martha sees “pregnancy as an amazing opportunity to help a woman turn her life around”- and keep her children.

    The other story is on page 133 of the same magazine called “A Father’s Web of Lies.” It tells of four adopted children and four biological children who’s afather/father:
    • killed their amother/mother,
    • had falsified undergrad transcripts to help him get into medical school
    • had been discharged from the military for schizophrenia
    • had a prior felony on his record for check fraud
    • sends the eldest adopted “daughter” back to her country of origin to “fend for herself”,
    • steals this same young women’s identity/social security number to hide his own debt-heavy credit history
    • the other children have to go in hiding for months due to his threats to destroy them,
    • their brother commits suicide,
    • and ultimately the oldest sister has to assume guardianship of the four youngest girls

    This just proves adoption doesn’t mean a better life.

    I love your blog.

  5. Anon 7:46 wrote:"This just proves adoption doesn’t mean a better life."

    Even with stories like this adoption will still be touted as the beautiful, perfect solution to the problem of unplanned pregnancy.

  6. Thank you Jane for acknowledging my story. You should also know that an adoptee with a story like that is vulnerable to the exploits of others because adoptee's have no real voice to prevent exploitation. I went to the Herald to share the story of a forgotten hero with joy and celebration but there are those who view it as sharing something that is forbidden and has nothing to do with me. For the last 5 years I've let the world decide if it is someone's dirty laundry or an Adoptee's true story. You decide, is it an adoptee's true story?

  7. Sarah Polley's documentary "The stories we tell" in 2012, was compelling also when you look at the difference in publicizing or not an adoption story. It seems to amplify the emotional qualities of everyone involved. It becomes everyone's story and each opinion is difficult to understand. Very intriguing example of how the emotions play into adoption reform issues.

  8. I also told the Oregonian that in 2011 they perhaps are still "appeasing the audience" or is my birth mother still adopted?

  9. I thought the world would be ready for my book, but I am afraid it is not. there is always going to be conflictive opinions when it comes to adoption. I wrote down my adoption search and presented it to the world. i hope someday they will see it is a book of gratitude not revenge. I hope one day I will truely be able to thank the veterans of World War ll for my life. It is what it is and thats what there is. so many were exploiting my story and making money I decided to publish "camelliastortch" and continue to keep the torch lit, no matter the condemnation, the mixed views. this is my life.

  10. In the autumn of 1918 my grandmother was attending her 2nd year of nursing school. The Spanish Flu arived and the nursing school was transformed into a makeshift hospital, the grounds covered by tents. My great grandfather, concerned for her safety, ordered her back home. A month later she and her younger sister who had just graduated high school went off to the big city together to find work. My aunt got a job working for an attorney, my grandmother got a job working as a lab tech at a university. My aunt had an affair with the attorney and got pregnant. the attorney was married. So my aunt had to quit her job and remained in that apartment with my grandmother who took care of her. The baby was born and it was aranged for her to be placed in an orphanage. My grandmother and aunt paid the expenses for the child for two years. Meanwhile the attorney's wife died of cancer. My aunt and the attorney rekindled their romance and got married. After the wedding my aunt told her new husband that she had a baby and it was his and she had placed the baby in an orphanage. My aunt and uncle then adopted the baby and never told the family about the truth about my cousin until my cousin and I started doing research. She and I did a dna test and that is when we confirmed the truth. The test said she and I are close cousins. We also compared DNA with her father's nephew who was delighted to help solve the riddle. I am glad my cousin learned the truth before she passed away. She had always felt that her connection to our family was more than just adopted. Several of us suspected the truth due to the fact that she looks so much like other members of the family at the same age. I have since learned that this was a common way to deal with children born out of wedlock back in the day.



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