Top Families

The American nuclear family has gone critical. Roughly half of all marriages now end in divorce; one baby in five is born out of wedlock. Bewildered by this breakdown, Americans have made a national obsession out of such issues as relationships, single parenthood and aging, seeking a formula for stable family life. Despite this turbulence, the central core of U.S. life has not reached meltdown yet. As the family portraits in the following pages suggest, the institution, far from finished, just may be sturdier, more flexible and more resilient than ever.

Tracy Nelson and her twin brothers, Gunnar and Matthew, love to recall their favorite episode from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the pioneering TV family sitcom created by the Nelson grandparents 30 years ago. In one scene, Ozzie and Harriet are watching a movie, sharing popcorn. When a dramatic turn in the film startles Harriet, she unwittingly switches the popcorn with the ice cream she’s been holding. Ozzie, thinking he’s reaching for the popcorn, scoops up the ice cream instead and stuffs it into his mouth. “He’s trying to be sooo cool and his face has that pained look people get when they have a cold-headache,” Tracy says, laughing. Then the laugh turns to a wistful smile. “You know, Pop used to love that scene too.”

Since the death 10 months ago of their father—former child TV actor, teen idol and pop rock star Ricky Nelson—the legacy of “America’s favorite comedy” has seemed like an American tragedy. For the millions who grew up watching Ozzie and Harriet from its debut in 1952 to its final episode in 1966, the TV Nelsons represented the ideal, loving family. But like so many others in the two decades since the show went off the air, the real Nelsons have suffered nuclear family fission. In 1982 Ricky and his wife of 19 years, Kris Harmon Nelson, were divorced. Four years later, the death of Ricky and six others in a fiery crash aboard his chartered aircraft prompted allegations of drug use, which later proved unfounded. In too many ways, the Nelsons seemed to exemplify the problems of the contemporary American family.

Now Tracy and her brothers are out to prove that the new generation need not be hostages to the past. “He made us proud,” says Gunnar. “Now it’s time to make him proud.” Since scoring a hit in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Tracy, 23, has landed two TV pilots (Hearts of Steel and The Costigans) and three TV movies. Her 19-year-old brothers, following appearances at the American Music Awards and on Saturday Night Live with their band, the Nelsons, have revamped their personnel for a fresh assault on the music charts. And as they press forward on their own, the young Nelsons are rediscovering the values that have always sustained their family. “It’s all about integrity and personal honesty,” says Tracy. “We are a real show business family, and it all comes back to a sense of professionalism that goes back several generations.”

In Ozzie and Harriet, explains Tracy, the Nelson parents, along with sons David and Ricky, “were basically playing my grandfather’s childhood in New Jersey [during the early ’30s].” Ozzie’s parents, a banker and a housewife, starred in amateur theatricals. Harriet’s parents were actors in stock theater, and her grandfather was general manager of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which eventually was owned by Ringling Bros. But both were raised in conventional fashion, and Harriet says the values portrayed in Ozzie and Harriet were precisely those of the Nelson family. Ozzie “was very much a family man,” she says. “It was honestly a little like the family grocery store. You worked as a family. It was marvelous to have our kids around us and I think it was good for them to have their parents around.”

In the eight months prior to Ricky’s death, the twins moved in with their father on his Hollywood estate. “He was really happy about what we were doing,” says Tracy. When Ricky was on the road, he would call everyone on the tour into his hotel room to watch Tracy on TV. Yet he never tried to tell his children what to do professionally. Matthew recalls that when he played one of the twins’ new songs for his father, “Dad would just say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’ I’d say, ‘Do you have any suggestions?’ He said, ‘Just believe in what you’re doin’ and keep doin’ it.’ He thought that as long as you satisfy your own integrity, that’s all that matters.” While encouraging their independence, he was also glad when they came home. “At one point,” says Tracy, “after Gunnar and Matthew moved in, he said, ‘I feel like I have a home. I feel I have a family again.’ ”

That feeling had been missing since the end of his marriage to Kris Harmon, which had linked the Nelsons with another celebrated family. Kris’s sister is the top model Kelly Harmon and the former wife of John De Lorean. Actor Mark Harmon is her brother. “Both the Harmons and the Nelsons are artistic people, smart people,” says Tracy. “To me the Harmon side is more like a kind of California family. The Nelsons have a more East Coast feeling.” Tracy’s grandmother Elyse Knox Harmon, who married Heisman Trophy-winning football player Tom Harmon, feels that the Harmons passed on some of their competitive spirit to the Nelsons. “Tom and I believe in raising our kids, and our grandchildren, with the idea that they should do whatever they do to the best of their ability,” she says. Even after the divorce, Tracy and her grandmother have remained close. Both fondly recall how Elyse, a professional artist, taught Tracy to paint when she was a toddler. At age 11, Tracy spent three days painting mermaids on a’ wall of the Harmons’ Laguna Beach house as a birthday present for her Uncle Mark.

Today, Tracy’s mother, Kris, is a successful painter whose canvases sell for up to $10,000. Kris and Ricky’s fourth and youngest child, Sam, 11, currently lives with his mother. After going to Space Camp in Alabama last summer, Sam asked his sister, “Tracy, do you think Pop would mind if I wasn’t a singer, if I was an astronaut instead?” Tracy says she answered, “No, I think Pop would really like that.”

The memory of their father still stays with them. Matthew recalls first hearing of Ricky’s death over the radio. “They played one of his songs and then the deejay announced that it was a tribute to Ricky Nelson who had gone down in a plane and was killed earlier today,” he says. “Just remembering the horror of that minute has sent me into 10 months of truly thinking what life’s all about.” Adds Gunnar: “It’s brought us incredibly close together. That was the last gift Pop ever gave us—realizing how much love there really is in our family.”

The Houstons: Keeping close to home

“I don’t think Nippy was hot on being a star,” says her dad. “But,” adds her mom, “once she got started there was no stopping her.” Indeed, the Nippy they’re talking about is now America’s top female vocalist, whose debut LP has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide in less than a year. At 23, Nippy still answers to her nickname at home. The world, however, knows her as Whitney Houston.

She was never pressured by her parents into singing professionally. But there were powerful precedents in the family. Her mother, Cissy, now 52, was recruited at age 6 into the family gospel ensemble, the Drinkard Singers, in Newark, N.J. In time Cissy Houston founded the Sweet Inspirations, the pop-gospel quartet that did backup vocals for Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. During school vacations Whitney often tagged along on road tours. For added inspiration, she recalls propping herself up on telephone books at the Copacabana to watch the performances of the sultry-voiced Dionne Warwick, who is her cousin.

“Everybody in my family sings—it’s just part of our lives,” says Whitney. “I got pretty vigorous gospel training from my mother at church, because that was a big part of our lives too. By the time I was 12 or 13, I just knew I wanted to sing.” At 15 she joined the musicians’ union and was doing studio and club dates with her mother.

Music and faith (Baptist) don’t quite tell it all. The Houstons are also strong on family solidarity and parental discipline. When Whitney and her two older brothers were kids, they could expect the whoppin’ of their lives if they were to step out of line. “I am an old-fashioned kind of parent,” says Cissy without apology. “Some people think that loving children means letting them have their way. But that’s not it. You show your love by making them do what you think is best for them.”

The Houston household was not, however, a tyranny of the parents. “We called family meetings as often as necessary,” explains Whitney’s dad, John, 66, a former executive secretary of Newark’s planning board. “Anybody could call a meeting—even Nippy when she was just knee-high to a duck. If they wanted something from us, and it was something we could deal with, we went along. If not, it was time for a little over-the-table negotiations.”

“I expect my children to be the best because they’re mine,” says Cissy. “We taught them never to keep what they’re feeling about each other inside. They’ll yell and scream and then fall into each other’s arms crying.” Even with Whitney’s singular success, there appears to be little in the way of sibling rivalry. Her 28-year-old half-brother, Gary Garland (by Cissy’s earlier marriage), an ex-Denver Nugget basketballer, now sings with Whitney’s group. Brother Michael, 25, is her traveling companion. “The boys want her to be successful, but they’re not awestruck,” says their father. “She’s still just their sister. We taught them that they eventually would have to look out for each other. We insisted on it. We banged it into their heads.”

The Buckleys: Adding luster to the right

Author Gore Vidal once called them “the sick Kennedys,” but these days the Buckley family seems in the pink of health. Camelot is long gone from the White House, and after two decades in opposition, America’s foremost conservative clan has seen the body politic swing its way. The formula of Catholicism, conservatism, brains and hard work has proved both durable and successful. “The family ethos seems to stay alive,” says Bill, 60. “This doesn’t mean it’s absolutely shatterproof, but so far it’s worked.”

Indeed it has. Bill, who made his mark just out of college with his 1951 diatribe, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom, is founding editor of the conservative weekly The National Review, creator and moderator of public TV’s Firing Line, and a nationally syndicated columnist. He and his only son, Christopher, 34, a former speech writer for Vice-President George Bush, last spring made a joint appearance on the New York Times best-seller list with their respective novels, Bill’s High Jinx and Chris’s The White House Mess. Bill’s younger brother Reid Buckley, 56, is a novelist living in South Carolina. Brother Jim, 63, a former U.S. senator, was appointed last year to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Sister Priscilla, 64, is senior editor of The National Review, for which Jane, 62, also works. Patricia, 58, is a free-lance editor, and Carol, 47, is a substance-abuse counselor. Two sisters and the eldest brother, John, have died. John’s son, John Jr., 29, is a press secretary to presidential aspirant Rep. Jack Kemp.

The seeds of this ramified success were planted by William F. Buckley Sr., who bequeathed his 10 children a love of learning, conservative politics, a solid Catholic faith and a family fortune in the millions. The grandson of emigrants from Ireland to Canada and the son of a sheep farmer and sheriff in Texas, Buckley Sr. was a lawyer who went into the oil business in Mexico and Venezuela, then made and lost several fortunes in oil drilling. “He was always extremely concerned with education, loyalty, closeness of the family,” says Bill. “He was terribly exacting as regards behavior and the mind. When he felt his children merited special commendation, he would address a memo on the subject to all the family members.” Although the Buckley children grew up in financial comfort, says Bill, “it simply did not let us off the obligation to work.” Adds Jim, “We are American Roman Catholic with a Protestant work ethic.”

Family members agree it was Bill who put the Buckley name on the map. “Bill was a hell of a role model,” says nephew John. For a time Chris rebelled against his father’s example, reading only comic books and, later, experimenting with drugs. The breach was healed when father and son took two trips to Mexico, where they read Catholic author G.K. Chesterton to each other. “It kept me religious at a time when most people decide to go the other way,” says Chris. The two remain close. “We read drafts of each other’s books and mark them up,” he says.

As Chris Buckley has found, there is no escaping the consequences of fame. Recently a New York cabbie asked him, “Are you related to the Buckleys?” Recalls Chris, “I went into my reflexive celebrity flinch, whereupon he immediately said, ‘Oh! You must know the Kennedys!’ ” Sick comparisons, it seems, linger on.

The Sutters: From the north the icemen cometh

No matter what the calendar claims, winters have a way of starting in November and lingering on into May in Viking, Alberta (pop: 1,238). Still, on a 1,000-acre farm nine miles east of town, Louis and Grace Sutter managed to raise a lot of hay, some dairy cows—and seven awfully sturdy boys. The bumper crop of Sutter sons began with Gary, born 31 years ago, and Brian, 21 months his junior. Darryl came along a couple of years after that, then Duane 19 months later, followed at similar intervals by Brent and twins Richard and Ronald.

The spare, rural environment of Western Canada is stamped deeply on all the Sutters. Each brother took up farm chores as soon as he was old enough. “That always came first, before any playtime, we all knew that,” Duane recalls. Says Louis, “Our kids grew up with a lot of work and responsibility. What to do with idle time wasn’t a choice for them.” They all endured the ordeal of the schoolhouse as an unfortunate diversion from their favorite activity: hockey. They first put on skates at age 3 or 4 and, with each brother a spur for the next, graduated from frozen ponds to Tiny Mite league into Canada’s highly rated junior hockey program. Today six of the seven Sutter brothers are simultaneously on the rosters of National Hockey League teams, a family phenomenon unique in big-time sports.

Their fraternal bonds remain intense. Growing up in a four-bedroom house, “You always slept with a brother,” Brian says, “and I don’t recall ever feeling like I wanted my own space. We wanted Xo be with each other. Probably our best friends to this day are our brothers.” Adds Gary, the eldest and the only brother not to become a pro hockey player, “We learned pretty young to respect each other.”

On the ice, however, the Sutters are all hard-checking puck chasers (the brothers all play on attacking lines). “We always fought as kids,” Brian admits. “Everybody wanted to win. There were fierce fights, but they were never anything personal.” In 1976 Brian became the first of the brothers to make it to the NHL (he is now captain of the St. Louis Blues), followed in orderly—and seemingly inevitable—sequence by Darryl (Chicago Black Hawks) and Duane and Brent (New York Islanders). Ronnie and his twin were teammates with the Philadelphia Flyers until Richie was traded this off-season to the Vancouver Canucks.

“When we play each other, we always want the brothers to do well,” Brian says. “But you want to beat the teams your brothers are on more than anybody. I suppose it’s so we don’t have to listen to one of them saying, ‘I won’ or ‘We beat you.’ ” Brent agrees: “If you have to run over a brother on a goal, you do it. That’s part of the game, and we all understand that.” Grace Sutter has a stock prayer for such brotherly combat: “Hope for a tie with nobody hurt.”

All the brothers except Ron, who is engaged, married local sweethearts, and all live during off-seasons within a 250-mile radius of Viking. Says Brent, “We meet a lot of arrogant, selfish people who have had the easy route, and they don’t know the value of what they have. We grew up where every day you worked for what you got. I know times have changed, but that’s the way I’d like to bring up my kids.”

Ferriday’s gift to gospel and rock

They are cousins by birth, but their kinship seems closer to brotherhood. As kids, they lived nearby, they fought regularly—and they were inseparable. “There was constant rivalry, but we loved each other very much,” says Jimmy Swaggart, 51, the oldest of the three.

Hometown for the cousins was Ferriday, La. “We used to compare towns by how many red traffic lights they had,” jokes the youngest cousin, country singer Mickey Gilley, 50. “Ferriday had one.” But one was not enough to stop Swaggart, Gilley or their renegade cousin, rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. The three don’t get together much anymore, but they recently converged on Swaggart’s headquarters outside Baton Rouge for their first reunion in five years. Gilley, now a thriving performer and owner of the most famous honky-tonk in Texas, and Lewis, the 51-year-old star of primal rock, flew in by private jet, and Swaggart proudly showed his guests around.

There is much to see at the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. The 250-acre complex includes an ultramodern 7,000-seat church, a 400-student Bible college and dorms, a television broadcast studio, a day school and more, all built with donations to Swaggart’s TV ministry, which now pulls in an estimated $150 million a year. Here in the realm of the righteous, cousin Jerry Lee seems like a shot glass at a communion service as he flashes a diamond ring shaped like a piano. “I guess this will go straight to the IRS,” he grimaces. “I told you to go into the ministry,” shoots back Swaggart, grinning. Gilley, meanwhile, pulls out a few trophies of his own, including a huge pendant with his initials in diamonds.

Family rivalries thus renewed, the cousins pass into Swaggart’s two-story recording studio, where Lewis starts warming up the Steinway. Swaggart, who has sold 15 million gospel albums of his own, makes no pretense about liking cousin Gilley’s country music (“a lot of slop”) or the rock ‘n’ roll Jerry Lee helped invent back in the 1950s. But when Lewis begins pounding out the old gospel tune I’ll Fly Away, the threesome join in the song they sang together back in Ferriday.

It was there that Swaggart’s father, a grocer, preached in the Assembly of God church. “I knew at the age of 8 that I would travel the world as an evangelist,” recalls Swaggart, who also credits his grandmother for much of his religious bent. “She studied the Bible incessantly. She influenced Mickey too, because she was his aunt.”

At 9, both Swaggart and Lewis began studying piano. Swaggart would turn the skill into a tool of his gospel trade. Lewis would aim for less spiritual venues. “Jerry was playing in honky-tonks when he was 14,” says Swaggart. “If I had even thought about doing that, my father would have taken me to the woodshed. Jerry Lee’s parents did not discipline him at all. Perhaps that’s why we’re so different today.”

Lewis did give Bible college a try—when he was 18 and into his second marriage. Given the boot after he was caught playing My God Is Real with a boogie-woogie beat, he went back to the clubs and recording. Then in 1957 his hit singles, A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls of Fire, shot him into the vanguard of the rock revolution. Suddenly prosperous, he gave a hand—or rather a new Oldsmobile—to Swaggart, then touring the Bible Belt revival circuit with his wife, Frances. “I drove it over 100,000 miles,” says Swaggart, “and I appreciated it more than I can ever say.”

Cousin Mickey, meanwhile, had married, fathered a child and moved to Houston. “When Jerry Lee hit with A Whole Lotta Shakin’, I thought, ‘Well, I can do it too,’ ” he says. Now, almost three decades later, the former tavern owner’s son travels seven months a year performing. Clothing stores sell Gilley’s Western wear, and his giant Texas nightclub, which inspired the movie Urban Cowboy, is a landmark.

Lewis, shunned when his 1958 marriage to a 13-year-old cousin was disclosed, watched his career tailspin. His bouts with drugs and drink led to a family call for help. Swaggart, summoned by Lewis’ wife at the time, went to an Ohio auditorium and found his cousin onstage in a near stupor. Recalls Swaggart: “I walked up to him, took the microphone away, and said, ‘I’m Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Lee is my cousin. I love him, and I think you know that I love him, and I’ve come to take him home.’ ”

Lewis can still be a handful. At the local restaurant, he starts to balance one glass of iced tea—the strongest drink served in Swaggart’s presence—on top of another. “Jimmy, can you do this? Mickey, can y’all do it?” he shouts. Swaggart can, and now the race is on to put a third glass atop the pile. “I’ve done this a billion times,” Lewis brags, his hand shaking. “It can be done.” Then, suddenly, amid the crash, “Oh, noooo….”

The Bridgeses: Talent across the generations

Whenever the junior Bridgeses waxed ornery as children, their mother, Dorothy, would chide them: “What’s the matter? Did you drink the bathwater?” Ever since, the family slogan has been “Don’t drink the bathwater.” Salt water, on the other hand, seemed to be the family’s natural element: Sons Beau and Jeff first learned the acting trade when Lloyd put them on his long-running TV series, Sea Hunt, at age 8, “so they could get their feet wet in more ways than one.”

Tossing them into the deep seems to have worked. Beau, 43, has chalked up a long string of film and television credits. He directed and co-starred in the Disney Sunday TV Movie Thanksgiving Promise, to be aired in November with appearances by his mom, dad, son Jordan, 12, sister Cindy, 33, and brother. Jeff, 36, will be seen in The Morning After, due out at Christmas, with Jane Fonda. The brothers have also taken their dad’s cue in their personal lives. “My work had to be first,” says Lloyd, “but my hobby was my kids. I notice they have the same feeling. That kind of love spills over.”

Beau and his second wife, Wendy Peerce, have a boy and a girl, and Beau has two older sons, Jordan and Casey, from a previous marriage. Jeff and Susan Geston, married nine years, have three young daughters, Isabelle, Jessica and Hayley. Cindy and husband Eric Jany have a son, Marcel. Family gatherings can be crowded at the two-story stone house in Westwood, L.A., where Lloyd and Dorothy have lived for 30 years.

“We’ve been through some hard times,” says Jeff, who admits to experimenting with marijuana and LSD as a rebellious adolescent. But the family is blessedly free of religious and racial prejudice. Beau’s eldest adopted son, Casey, is black. “I’ve told them to keep their hearts and minds open to all spiritual sources,” says Dorothy. “It all begins with the family, if you want a country we can be proud of,” adds Lloyd. “Our most important job, whatever our profession, is to raise kids to be strong human beings.”

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