“The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven’s lieutenants.”
That quote is sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, but whoever said it may as well have been writing about Winnetka, Jessica Harper’s warmly engaging new podcast memoir. Harper, best known as a film and television actor, rose to prominence in the 1970s with starring roles in Phantom of the Paradise and Inserts. But it was the indelible image she carved into the minds of horror buffs as the protagonist in Dario Argento’s Suspiria that made her a star. Who can forget her eerily beautiful face frozen in fear, or her hand clutching a glass quill as she prepared to do battle with the leader of a witch’s coven? To her fans' delight, the actress most recently was glimpsed onscreen in a brief but lovely turn in Luca Guadagnino’s gloriously overwrought 2018 remake of Argento’s giallo landmark.
Harper also produced several children’s albums, which puts her in a strong position to author a memoir about growing up with five siblings in the 1950s. The digital-audio format proves the perfect vehicle for this engaging piece of family history, as the author narrates — and even sings — in her own voice. Winnetka takes its name from the Chicago suburb where Harper and her five siblings grew up, and the setting is evoked as a lyrical space of almost total freedom — a children’s paradise. The atmosphere is vividly summoned; you can almost smell the scent of sassafras trees and feel the warm sun on your shoulder. There are scenes redolent of idyllic summers, including a competitive Fourth of July race so lucidly recalled that it plays like a movie in the cinema of the mind. These are juxtaposed with amusing anecdotes that cover the range of normal adolescent activity.
As the cultural atmosphere gradually shifts from the baby boomer bliss of the ’50s to the turbulent counterculture of the ’60s, Harper documents a growing awareness of the social systems that would need reforming. Neither romanticizing nor vulgarizing her subject, Harper reminisces about drifting from her conservative, nominally religious roots as she hankers after the enticements of sex and drugs. Hints of sinister undercurrents are planted in vignettes involving a minister who ran off with a married parishioner, a brief but harrowing kidnapping attempt, a surprise pregnancy and various petty malfeasances perpetuated mainly by the Harper boys.
But if there was truly a dark side to the American postwar dream, it is most solidly embodied in the fearful figure of the father, Paul Church Harper, a WWII veteran who returned from the war with what is now understood as undiagnosed PTSD. A hard-drinking advertising exec, Mr. Harper is recollected as an able provider with a social conscience whose mood swings manifested themselves suddenly and sometimes violently against those whom he obviously loved. Harper navigates this precarious emotional territory with tenderness and clarity, mixing the recorded testimonies of her siblings into the presentation and emerging with a complex portrait of filial love.
Of equal importance to the Harper saga is the presence of the mother, Eleanor, who in her 90s proves to be a wonderfully alert and intelligent interviewee. Before she became Mrs. Harper and the mother of six (including two sets of twins), she was an actor and nightclub singer who studied with Marlon Brando at the New School. Like so many women of her era, she found satisfaction in being a wife and mother with limited personal and professional mobility. As she comments in the show, “The work of a stay-at-home mom wasn’t so hard, but it was so unvalued.” As we learn, there were precious few parenting resources available back then, and Eleanor’s resilience in the face of numerous emotional challenges, including but not limited to postpartum depression, provides Winnetka with a compelling narrative throughline. What eventually emerges is a nuanced portrait of the Greatest Generation as well as a paean to the maternal spirit. And it’s frequently funny, peppered with stories of juvenile shenanigans that seem foreign in today’s era of helicopter parenting.
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Crucially, the podcast also hinges on the discovery of a dark secret shortly after the death of the patriarch. Harper, whose family can be traced back to the Mayflower (on both sides), withholds this revelation until the denouement, like a seasoned suspense novelist. Those who wish to know the awful secret contained in the family tree must wait until the final chapter.
The project, which runs 10 episodes of roughly half-hour installments, took three years to produce, and one of its most charming features is the use of songs — all of them performed by the author — that act as a bridge between scenes. A mother, singer, and lyricist, Harper dove into her personal archives for material that would add emotional heft to the proceedings. It works, and the songs tend to linger long after each segment concludes.
Listeners expecting to hear about the vicissitudes of a life in showbiz will have to wait for a sequel. You will not hear juicy tidbits about what it was like to work with Brian De Palma, Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg. Instead, Harper offers something rich and unexpected: a picture of American life at a decisive historical moment, a portrait of a household coping with the challenges of growing up together and, perhaps most poignantly, a testament to the power of family inheritance, of corporate sin and of the possibility of atonement.
Winnetka can be accessed through a number of different platforms. For details, visit winnetkapodcast.com.