In her up-and-down career as a stage, screen and TV actress, Brooklyn-born Ina Balin has played everything from Sophia Loren’s neurotic rival (The Black Orchid) to Elvis Presley’s girlfriend (Charro). Now, at 38, Ina has been cast in the most unlikely role of her life: instant mother.
Ina is the adoptive parent of three Vietnamese girls, Ba-Nhi Mai, 1 year, Kim Thuy, 14 months, and Nguyet, 18 years. She acquired her family last April in the final, anguished days of the Vietnamese war, when she helped shepherd 330 Vietnamese and Cambodian children to the U.S.
Motherhood was no spur-of-the-moment decision for Ina, who has had her share of romances (“I always made such bad choices”) but has never been married. In 1970 she decided to move from New York to California and soon after began thinking about a family. “I had been involved with someone I loved very much for five years,” she recalls, “but that had broken up, and I wasn’t getting any younger. I was not going to have an illegitimate baby for the sake of having a child. That would have been unfair to the child and selfish on my part. We only borrow children anyway, so it didn’t matter where mine came from. They didn’t have to look like me—my ego doesn’t require a biological child. And since I felt so close to Vietnam, I thought of Anlac.”
Anlac (“Happy Place”) was an orphanage in South Vietnam. Ina had visited it in 1969 on her second trip to Vietnam in two years to entertain the troops. She went to the orphanage at the instigation of a friend, Mrs. Betty Tisdale, now the wife of an Army colonel and mother of five adopted Vietnamese daughters. Ina was haunted by the sight of the children amidst the primitive facilities at Anlac. Long a joiner—she has worked on causes ranging from the congressional campaign of Gore Vidal to Boys Town of Italy—Ina began to raise money for the orphanage in the U.S. and soon became vice-president of its board of directors.
She went through months of red tape in her effort to adopt a Vietnamese infant. California law permits single persons to adopt babies, but the process is complex and exasperating. At long last, in April 1975, the Vietnamese papers were ready. Ina Balin got a cut-rate airline ticket—a reward of her part-time work in a Beverly Hills travel agency—and flew to embattled Saigon, “where you could cut the tension with a knife.” The palace was bombed her third day there. At Anlac, she looked at 100 babies in the five-room nursery and decided she wanted Kim Thuy, then 10 weeks old. But in the last crib she found “a tiny little creature three weeks old with a red-splotched face,” she says, “and my heart went b-o-i-i-n-n-g!” She was in a dilemma, trying to choose between the two baby girls. She took both.
At that point, the Vietcong were closing in on Saigon. All 217 children in the orphanage under the age of 10 were readied for evacuation to the U.S. Betty Tisdale and an Army doctor flew into the besieged city to help, while Ina shuttled between the Vietnamese Social Welfare Agency and the American Embassy to obtain the necessary papers. Nineteen days before the city fell, the two women and their young charges flew to the Philippines, where they were joined by 10 pediatricians, 30 medical technicians and 113 other Southeast Asian war waifs for the flight to Los Angeles. Also spirited out with the group was teenaged Nguyet, Ina Balin’s third daughter-to-be, a part black, part Vietnamese-Chinese girl who grew up in Anlac.
In the past year, the girls have settled into Ina Balin’s sunny apartment in Westwood. Nguyet studies English in high school and helps out with the babies. Ina’s fitful acting career has taken an upturn, with roles in half a dozen TV shows and a new film, fittingly titled The Comeback Trail. “I go home from a rotten day at the studio or from a dinner where people talk as if there were no outside world, and find those smiling faces and outstretched arms,” she says. “Now every day there is a reason to get up and be joyous.”