Florence Henderson: My life as Mrs Brady

New Idea

It seems that life on much-loved TV show The Brady Bunch wasn’t as straight laced as what appeared onscreen.

There was plenty of real-life drama and sadness in the lives of the cast, including Maureen ‘Marcia’ McCormick’s cocaine addiction and dad Robert Reed’s tragic passing from a HIV-related illness.

But Brady matriarch Florence Henderson is drawing the line at some of the claims her eldest TV daughter made in her autobiography Here’s the Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding my True Voice.

Ann B. Davis, Florence Henderson and Maureen McCormick in 2007. Source: Getty.

Sitting down with New Idea last week for a no-holds-barred chat Florence, still stunning and sprightly at 78, told of her surprise over parts of the book – which she says she hasn’t read.

"My daughter read it, and she said that Maureen said all the kids would come to my house in Beverly Hills and I would sunbathe topless, and that I was a closeted sexpot," says a surprised Florence.

"I said there are two red lights there – number one I would never sunbake topless in front of the children, and number two I was never a closeted sexpot. I’ve always been out there!"

The tell-all book has caused some chaos in the tight-knit Brady clan, driving a wedge between Maureen and TV sister Eve ‘Jan’ Plumb over what youngest castmate Susan Olsen, who played Cindy, calls Maureen’s ‘tiresome and false insinuations’ McCormick and Plumb had a lesbian affair during filming.

But dedicated foodie Florence – who was in Australia promoting Ardmona Duo tinned tomatoes and paste - says she still has a lot of love for Maureen. And unlike a furious Eve, she still catches up with her when she can.

The cast of The Brady Bunch in 2001. Source: Getty

In a heartening echo of their onscreen mother-daughter relationship, Florence has always been there for her sometimes-troubled TV child - even during the depths of her former cocaine addiction.

The drug problem was once so bad it threatened to destroy her life, and producers were forced to put her into treatment during the production of the 1981 series The Brady Brides.

"[At the time] I said: 'Maureen, tear up your address book,'" Florence recalls of those dark days. 'Get rid of all the people that have been dragging you down.'

"And she did to her credit, and now she’s doing very well."

Susan Olsen ,Florence Henderson and Ann B. Davis in 2003. Source: Getty

Florence remains on great terms with all her onscreen kids, but has particular affection for Barry Williams, who played eldest boy Greg.

Their long-time rapport even resulted in one of the more bizarre scandals attached to the show – his revelation that they once went out on a date.

Bluntly admitting he had a raging ‘case of the hots’ for his TV mum, Barry asked Florence to dinner during the show’s original run – and was stunned when she accepted.

Although they insist nothing untoward happened, both stars have confessed to enjoying their flirtatious relationship – with Florence once quoted as saying: "I think we’re lucky Carol never slept with Greg."

"I think people kind of wish we had – honestly," Florence tells New Idea, laughing.

Robert Reed and Florence Henderson in 1989. Source: Getty

"Maybe now I’ll start saying: 'Oh yeah we had a great affair, it was terrific.' But no - he just had a crush on me, and he’s still such a sweet guy. He’s very happy and has a new baby daughter."

Another of her beloved TV sons Chris Knight, who played Peter, has been less lucky in love with his reality TV marriage to model Adrianne Curry recently ending in tears after five years.

Florence got in trouble with Chris by publicly warning him of the union, and it seems she now regrets having any involvement in Chris and Adrianne’s show My Fair Brady.

When the subject of reality TV is raised, the usually good-humoured Florence visibly bristles.

"I did one reality show and it’s so manipulative," she says disdainfully. "They create the story and they can make you look as good or as bad as they wish the story to go.

"And also, when I watch television I want to see pros, I don’t want to see some drunk from New Jersey."

But despite the occasional bump in the road, Florence has retained deep affection for her TV family. And that made it hurt all the more when father figure Robert Reed was diagnosed with HIV, eventually succumbing to colon cancer in 1992.

"It’s so sad," recalls Florence of his struggle with being in the closet. "We all knew he was gay – we couldn’t care less. That was never ever an issue.

"In the ‘70s you really couldn’t [come out of the closet] and it had to create such tension for him. I always had a lot of compassion for him, because here he was playing the father of the world..."

By the time Robert became seriously ill in the early ‘90s, society had become more accepting about sexuality – but the stigma his illness carried at the time hung heavily upon him.

"When he got ill, he would call me and cancel our lunch or dinner dates at the last minute," recalls Florence. "I think he’d lost so much weight and just didn’t want me to see him like that, but we were in touch by phone all the time.

"I said: 'You’ll tell me the truth won’t you?' and he said 'yes'. So he called me one day, and he said: 'I’m not going to make it.' He said: 'Would you tell the kids?' because we were his family.

"So I had to call each one of them, and it was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. And they all cried, without exception."

Despite having plenty more sadness in her own life – she lost her husband John in 2002 - Florence isn’t one to give up on life, and she’s still looking for love.

Florence Henderson in 1999. Source: Getty

"I do date," she says, "but I haven’t found anyone who could keep up with me yet!

"I’m very open to life and experience, but I’m not going to go and hang out at bars. So it’s hard to meet people, especially at my age, who are going to be OK to travel and dance and have fun and all of that."

And it seems that Carol Brady’s can-do attitude still prevails – even in the quest for love.

"Hey, I’m out there, so there has got to be someone else out there," says Florence, before cheekily adding: "Age doesn’t matter... but I don't think a 20-year-old would work!"

By Matthew Denby

New Idea's Matthew Denby with the legendary Florence Henderson.

The Ardmona Book of Better Ways