‘Little Debbie doesn’t like to give interviews,” said her father, Ellsworth McKee, board chairman and chief administrative officer of McKee Foods Corporation. When I reached Mr. McKee at his Chattanooga home, he was evasive about his daughter, whose image has appeared for 40 years on thousands of boxes of cookies and snack cakes.
“That little picture of her is how she looked when she was four and a half,” he said. “Over the years we’ve changed the hair some, but not so much that anyone would notice.”
Studying Little Debbie’s image, I saw a smiling auburn-haired girl in a white hat and checkered blue blouse. “Is Little Debbie married? Does she have children? A profession?”
“No. No. And no.”
Did she ever work?
Mr. McKee paused. He cleared his throat.
“She managed the plant for a while.”
Mr. McKee, a Southern gentleman, was trying hard to be polite with me, a stranger who’d called to talk about Little Debbie. Whatever was behind his reticence, I’d never know. When you make a living by calling people out of the blue, you learn that innocent questions often lead to abrupt dead ends. (Which is why I spend large parts of my day sitting and staring at the phone, trying to make myself call people like Ellsworth McKee.) Little Debbie: The True Story would, I knew, remain hidden behind Tennessee politesse.
Little Debbie is America’s leading snack- cake brand, with a line of 20 products and annual sales in excess of $850 million. At the supermarket, I’d seen Little Debbie’s Swiss Cake Rolls, Devil Squares, Banana Twins. The packaging’s stark simplicity, the fact that almost everything had the same white, intensely sweet “creme” filling, made it all seem somehow redneck. Little Debbie’s products reminded me of Moon Pies, another Chattanooga innovation, two cookies, chocolate icing, marshmallow filling.
I knew that my downstairs neighbor, Melanie, was from Chattanooga. One day I asked if she was familiar with Little Debbie.
“Ooooh,” she said. “I just love Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies. I ate a whole box the last time I filed for divorce.”
I invited her up to my place for a glass of wine and to talk about Little Debbie. Melanie sat ramrod straight in her chair.
“I had to wear a back brace when I was a little girl,” she explained. “Because I had curvature of the spine. One metal rod up the front, two up the back, and a big plastic collar to hold up my chin. I was a plump little girl, and that back brace fit tight. I had to wear the goddamn thing 23 hours a day for four years. Much of that time I just craved the feeling of having that brace off my body. This was when all my girlfriends were starting to notice boys and have crushes. The back brace wasn’t very attractive.
“So, to keep my mind off things, I ate a lot of Oatmeal Creme Pies. They’re just two oatmeal cookies with a marshmallow filling, but they’re so good. I had a friend, Betsy Bare, who was two years younger than me. I’d go over to Betsy Bare’s house and she’d play the piano and we’d eat Oatmeal Creme Pies and sing Elton John songs. The piano keys got real sticky.
“Once a week my sister Jackie would have me over to her apartment to spend the night. She was 14 years older than me. Real tall. Straight brown hair. Beautiful. She’d have me over and first we’d stop at McCullum’s, this little convenience store there in Chattanooga, and she’d buy me whatever I wanted. I always wanted two boxes of those Oatmeal Creme Pies. We’d take ’em back to Jackie’s place and just sit around and giggle and eat all we wanted. The most wonderful thing was that Jackie let me take off my back brace. She let me keep it off the entire time I was with her. I remember how cool and light my body felt.
“This didn’t last forever. Jackie was having an affair with a much older man, Dr. Geddes, who was very prominent in Chattanooga society. I guess their relationship was rocky. I remember she’d call my mom and cry. Mama didn’t like to talk about it. She and my father were ashamed that their daughter was having an affair with a much older man. They lived in fear that people at our church would find out.
“I remember the evening my mother got the call from the hospital over in Douglas County. I was doing dishes with my mother when she answered the phone. They said Jackie had been shot. They said she was dead. I remember that all of a sudden it felt like my back brace got real tight, like it was going to crush me. I couldn’t breathe. I loved Jackie so much.
“It seems she and Dr. Geddes had gone to spend the weekend at some house he owned out in the country. Dr. Geddes told the police that there’d been an argument, that she’d gone up to his room and taken a shotgun and somehow shot herself under her left breast. He put her body in the back of his pickup and drove her to the hospital. There was no investigation. The autopsy was rushed. As far as everyone was concerned, Jackie killed herself. It destroyed my parents. They’d lost a daughter. They were humiliated that everyone in Chattanooga knew about Jackie and Dr. Geddes. They never pressured the police. They wanted it all to remain a secret. But Chattanooga back then was a small town, and in small towns people talk. A year later, my daddy sold his business and we packed up everything and came to California. I’ve always wanted to call Dr. Geddes. Call him late at night. I’ve wanted to call him and say, ‘You don’t know who I am. But tell me, Dr. Geddes, do you sleep well at night?’ ”