February 18, 2002 12:00 PM

At the age of 9, Quinn Cummings learned a new vocabulary word—precocious. That’s what people were calling her 1977 Oscar-nominated turn as Marsha Mason’s glib, brainy daughter in Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl. Never mind that Cummings was the same offscreen; she despised the word. “I asked my mother if it was Latin for brat,” says Cummings, now 34. Her movie mom had a more appropriate description. “Quinn knew all of her lines way before Richard [Dreyfuss] and I,” says Mason. “She was so incredibly enterprising.”

And still is. Cummings, who went on to play an endearing orphan on ABC’s Family from 1978 to 1980, has turned entrepreneur with the debut of a slinglike baby carrier. Called the Hip Hugger, it has found its way into the homes of showbiz moms like Faith Hill and Chynna Phillips. “You don’t want some big, padded, polyester thing with Peter Rabbit all over it,” says movie executive Shannon Gaulding, 37. “This lets me wear my baby everywhere.” Cummings got the idea while pregnant with her now-20-month-old daughter Anneke and suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, the painful compression of the nerves in the wrist and hand that had her despairing of ever being able to pick up her child. Other baby carriers were too, well, babyish, so Cummings and a partner created their $75 slings in fabrics like denim and pink faux python. The first 165 sold out of L.A. boutiques within weeks last December; soon they will also be available online (www.thehiphugger.com) and in East Coast shops.

Cummings had the same instant success with acting. In 1974 the L.A. native, then 7, so charmed a neighbor, Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe (Hud), that he put her in touch with an agent. That same day she landed a TV commercial and two years later was cast in Girl. Her role as a fatherless daughter proved sadly prescient when, on the last day of filming, her father, Sumner, president of a necktie company, died of a heart attack at 57. “It was very tough,” says Cummings’s mother, Jan, now 72 and a retired bookkeeper. “Quinn is an only child, and my husband and I were only children.”

“I remember him being a really lovely man,” says Cummings of her dad. She found a father figure in TV dad James Broderick (actor Matthew’s dad) when she joined Family as Annie Cooper. “She used to hang around Jimmy all the time,” recalls Sada Thompson, who played the show’s matriarch. Broderick, who died at 55 in 1982, “was very sweet with her.”

After Family ended in 1980 the self-described geek (“I didn’t want to date; I preferred my books”), who had been tutored on the set, enrolled in private school. In 1985 she had a three-month stint as Patty Duke’s daughter on the sitcom Hail to the Chief, then attended UCLA for two years before returning to acting. But by 1991 she had lost interest. “I loved everything between ‘action’ and ‘cut,'” she says, “but hated every other aspect of celebrity,” including interviews and talk show appearances.

After a brief stab at TV writing, she landed a job recruiting writers to publish short stories online. At a business meeting in 1996 Cummings met Anneke’s father, Donald DiPietro, 49, an Internet software executive. They moved into a modest Los Feliz, Calif., bungalow together two years ago when Cummings became pregnant—a “wonderful surprise,” she says.

Not so her carpal tunnel syndrome, which was caused by tissue swelling brought on by pregnancy. “The pain was so awful,” she says, “I would wake up crying.” Though the agony ended when Anneke was born, Cummings’s hands were weakened, and as the baby grew, Cummings found it harder to carry her. “Strollers weren’t giving Anneke the [eye-to-eye] contact she needed,” she says, “and the front carrier wasn’t working for me.” Cummings sought the advice of high school pal Amy Turner, 35, a fashion designer; before long they were in partnership. Now dreaming of a custom-made line, Cummings has rediscovered the excitement she once found onscreen. “My most passionate job is raising my daughter, but she’s going to need me less,” she says. “Here is something else I can finally feel passionate about.”

Susan Horsburgh

William Keck in Los Angeles

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