The date November 22, 1963 is remembered by many as a somber day, since it was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. But, as we shall see, for Julie Mannix von Zerneck, the memory of that particular Friday was inextricably linked to her own personal tragedy at the age of just 19.
Julie Mannix – the addition of von Zerneck was to come later in her life – was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to Daniel P. Mannix and his wife Jule. Her father was a man of many talents including stage magic, animal training, sword swallowing and fire eating. But it was as an author that he became well known.
Daniel wrote many books, some co-authored by his wife. His work about the Roman circus and gladiators, Those About to Die, was his most successful. Indeed, it remained in print for some 30 years and is said to have inspired the 2000 movie Gladiator. Success had also come in 1981 when Disney adapted his The Fox and the Hound for the big screen.
As a child, Julie and her brother lived in a variety of places including Paris and the Mediterranean island of Capri. When she was nine, the family moved into Sunny Hill Farm, a historic property on the fringes of Philadelphia. It was an unorthodox household in terms of the family pets, which included a 15-foot python, a spider monkey and a cheetah.
In many ways, Julie led a gilded life as a child. As one of the men behind the Pennsylvania Railroad, her grandfather had been wealthy, and this gave the young girl an entrée to the highest levels of Philadelphia society.
Julie was a debutante, in fact, and had a glamorous coming out party that was breathlessly reported in the local press. Champagne flowed freely, and the event was graced by the presence of 12 dancing llamas, a small elephant and a troupe of clowns.
Having now graduated from high school, Julie left Philadelphia to study in New York. She enrolled on an acting course at the Neighborhood Playhouse on Manhattan’s E. 54th Street. That led to a summer internship at a theater in Westbury, a town in Long Island.
It was during this spell at the theater in Westbury that Julie met a 23-year-old Bronx native, Frank von Zerneck. His Jewish parents were theater people, so he had already worked in most of New York’s Broadway theaters both backstage and as a performer.
The young couple quickly fell in love and enjoyed a passionate and romantic summer affair. On the Redbook website, Julie later wrote, “He had an infectious enthusiasm for life. I loved him madly.” But at the end of the season, she made a troubling discovery.
To her dismay, Julie found out that Frank was already married. And on top of that, she was pregnant with his child. Julie returned to her parents in Philadelphia, and her life now took a frightening turn.
Julie’s parents were absolutely determined that their daughter should have an abortion. They believed that this was a way of protecting her at a time when having children out of wedlock was still regarded as a grievous social handicap.
Despite the fact that Julie’s mother was a devout Catholic, she believed that a termination was the only possible option for her daughter. But there were two complications. Firstly, abortion was illegal in the U.S. in 1963. And secondly, Julie was absolutely determined that she wanted to have the baby.
There was a loophole in the abortion laws, however, and Julie’s parents were determined to exploit it. If the mental or physical wellbeing of a woman was jeopardized by her pregnancy, an abortion was permitted. And so, on November 22, 1963, Julie was admitted to a state mental hospital when she was three months pregnant.
“In our circles of Philadelphia society, you were considered charmingly eccentric if you were given to extreme mood swings, romantic depressions, even the odd suicide attempt,” Julie later wrote. “Giving birth to a bastard child, however, was unforgivable.”
The Mannix family gynecologist obligingly diagnosed Julie as suffering from acute depression. But despite all the pressure that was now being brought to bear upon her, Julie steadfastly refused to sign the papers that would allow an abortion. “I just desperately wanted my child – a baby conceived in love, with a man I loved – to live,” she recalled.
So the baby, a girl, was born on April 19, 1964. Julie named her Aimee Veronica. Shortly afterwards, Aimee was taken for adoption. Frank von Zerneck divorced his wife and married Julie in 1965. When she told her parents, they promptly disinherited her. Julie and Frank went on to have two children. But Julie never forgot about Aimee, falling into periodic bouts of depression because of the painful memories of her first child.
In May 1964 a baby girl had been handed over to her adoptive parents and, after starting life as Aimee Veronica Mannix, she now became Kathleen Marie Wisler. With two brothers, one younger and one older, Kathy was happy with her new family. But, tragically, her adoptive mother died when she was only six. Her father remarried a few years later, but sadly it was not a happy union.
Kathy’s new mother brought along two children of her own from an earlier relationship. And one day one of them blurted out that Kathy was adopted. When she confronted her father, it turned out that her two brothers were also adoptees. Later, Kathy went on to marry her college sweetheart in 1988. And it was when she had her own children that her mind turned increasingly to the question of her birth mother. As a result, she contacted Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services.
The social services gave Kathy anonymized information about her birth parents – details such as height, age at Kathy’s birth, religion and so on, but no actual names. Nonetheless, Kathy did have her birth name of Aimee Mannix. For many years, though, she couldn’t bring herself to investigate further, but around a decade later Kathy finally set to work on Google. Entering “Mannix” brought up some seemingly promising results. Among them was Julie Mannix, an actress. So Kathy decided to write to Julie and her husband Frank in November 2008.
And just two days after she’d sent the letter, Kathy received a call. It was Julie Mannix, who told Kathy that she was indeed her mother. Julie and Frank were now able to speak to their 45-year-old daughter for the very first time. The following year, they met. We can hardly begin to imagine the strength of emotion that the three must have felt after a separation of more than four decades. And after all that time, hopefully Julie could now be at peace with the memories of her lost child.