Rosemont's late 'queen of soaps,' Agnes Nixon, tells her own story in 'My Life to Live'

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  • My Life to Live
  • By Agnes Nixon
  • Crown Archetype. 266 pp. $26

Bob Nixon knew his mother was writing a page-turner when an eavesdropping boat captain couldn't wait to hear more about the life and loves of the pioneer behind two long-running television shows.

Rosemont's Agnes Nixon, a writer from the earliest days of TV and creator of the groundbreaking daytime dramas All My Children and One Life to Live, died Sept. 28 at 93, just two days after finishing her memoir. My Life to Live: How I Became the Queen of Soaps When Men Ruled the Airwaves will be published Tuesday, with a foreword by All My Children fan (and occasional guest star) Carol Burnett.

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After a stroke several years ago, Nixon, unwilling to turn to a ghostwriter, had enlisted her family's help as transcribers and translators of her "chicken scratch" to complete work on the book. "It was all-hands-on-deck," her son, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, said Wednesday.

Bob Nixon had been working on his own films, Blue Serengeti -- which premiered last summer during Discovery Channel's Shark Week -- and another oceangoing project, the National Geographic Channel's Sea of Hope. He'd offered his mother two hours a day, six days a week ("She'd wanted to work 24/7") to help her work through her editor's notes, most of which were aimed at "trying to pry more detail of what her world was like,” he said.

"It's kind of been like nonstop filming," mostly at sea, and their long-distance work was at least once interrupted by the appearance, on his end, of a great white shark. Ag, as he called his mother, liked to get to work early. "But who knows what time it is in Hawaii when it's 8 a.m. in Philly? We would be out on these boats, and I would try to find a place out of the wind where I could hear her," putting her on speakerphone while he typed.

At one point, "we were on a boat off Hawaii, diving to the bottom of the ocean ... and the only quiet place was at the bridge. I didn't realize that the captain was listening to this all the time," he said. "As we left that shoot, [the captain told him], 'You've got to send me the end of Chapter Nine!' I kind of knew it was a good book about then."

Yet, despite having written thousands of hours of television, his mother, he said, at first found it "super-difficult" to write the book. "She wrote like everything in dialogue with no detail. ... So many times we'd hear, 'People don't care about that,' [or] 'Nothing happened.' "

He'd remind her: " 'You remember every conversation you've ever heard. So don't tell me nothing happened.' " She had, he said, "the most incredible memory that I've ever come across."

As it turns out, plenty happened to Agnes Nixon. A child of divorce who defied her father to become a writer, she rubbed shoulders with Chicago writer Studs Terkel in her early days in radio, and learned to write for television on assignments for shows like Playhouse 90 and Hallmark Studio One. In later years, she became friends with people like billionaire Warren Buffett (who also appeared on All My Children) and Seinfeld cocreator Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm). David delighted her, said her son, by realizing she was funny, and, along with All My Children star Susan Lucci, wrote a cover blurb for the book:

"Aggie Nixon is the only person I've ever known whom I didn't say awful things about. And much to my dismay, her memoir did nothing to change that. Unforgivable."

Nixon mined a sometimes painful past for characters and situations while writing a happier ending for herself with her late husband, Bob, with whom she had four children and whose unwavering support for his wife's career made him, as she put it, "a women's-lib hero."

Not that life on the Main Line, where she also set her shows, was always perfect. "As a working mom with children to raise, I was a curiosity to most of these mothers," she writes, recounting the ending of a friendship with one who'd told her that her working was "just not fair to your children."

Inspired by the loss of a friend to cancer, she introduced a cancer story line while writing for The Guiding Light, and though she wasn't allowed to mention the words cancer, uterus, or hysterectomy, many viewers were moved to schedule their own screenings. It was the first of many real-life issues that found their way into Nixon's work. "She wanted to tell real stories," her son said. "Ag was brave."

Plots involving interracial romance, drug addiction, AIDS, and the introduction of gay and lesbian characters helped make daytime TV a more realistic place. Nixon, her son said, never tired of hearing from fans who'd tell her she'd helped them understand that they weren't alone. "She got so much joy out of that."

Nixon's book reports, but doesn't dwell too much, on less joyful aspects of her professional story, including ABC's decision, in 2011, to cancel both her shows, and some of the earlier, network-instituted changes that she believes led to it.

And though it might seem like a good story that a woman who worked under  tough deadlines all her working life died so soon after answering the last question on her book, and being told, "That's a wrap, Ag, we're done," Bob Nixon doesn't think she'd have written it that way.

"We didn’t expect it at all. She’d had her hair done that day. She was like in training for the book tour," and had entered a rehabilitation facility because "she wanted to do more intensive physical therapy" to get ready, he said.

Not long after she finished by answering a question about why she called her show One Life to Live -- her answer, as she dictated it, is in the book -- “I read her the book jacket, the copy, and she had a few little comments," her son said. "She was so not full of herself. But the book jacket was sort of, How great is Agnes Nixon? She was like, ‘Oh, you could read that to me again.’

“She called Monday and she said, 'Read me that book jacket again. I might have some edits for it.' " He recorded it and emailed it to her," and she listened to that a couple of times the night she died,” he said.

“I know how much she was looking forward to going out and talking to people. But it definitely was a huge milestone for her to finish.”