Category Archives: Famous Figures

James Dean: Of Winslows and Wishful Thinking

Photo of James DeanFew cinematic icons have endured in our collective consciousness as well as James Dean. Nearly seventy years after his death, his short and quixotic life has caused many to study not only his life and legacy, but also the possibilities of his ancestry. Indeed, with over fourteen hundred James Dean family trees on Ancestry.com, it seems that interest in this proverbial 1950s bad boy isn’t going away anytime soon.1

For me, there’s still an unabated curiosity revolving around the possibility of Dean having Mayflower ancestry. A quick look at several biographies and a myriad of trees reveals all the “old names” (Dean included) that might lead back to our cousins at Plymouth Rock. Yet nowhere among them could I find anything definitive, beyond the most tepid of answers or the vaguest research. I kept expecting someone to say that Dean had descended from the irascible Doty or the pious Brewster, or perhaps simply confirm that all possible Mayflower connections had been unequivocally disproved. Thus far, I’ve only found one researcher who was willing to make a definitive statement: “no such descent has been found.” That conclusion was drawn in a mid-1990s article by author Richard E. Brenneman.2

Continue reading James Dean: Of Winslows and Wishful Thinking

That Woman

Wallis Simpson in 1936, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The recent death of Queen Elizabeth brought many things to mind, including “That Woman”—the epithet chosen by Elizabeth’s mother for Bessie Wallis (Warfield) (Spencer) Simpson, whose marriage to King Edward VIII was the catalyst for Elizabeth’s eventual reign. Remembering the story of Wallis Simpson led me to investigate my own family’s version of “That Woman”: Lucille Forden, whose multiple divorces made her infamous and even thwarted her run for a seat in Congress.

“Those Women” shared some things in common. Wallis Warfield and Lucille Forden each had three husbands. Although neither was born in Baltimore, it was the city that both called home for most of their formative years and early adulthood. Continue reading That Woman

Tracing the Ancestry of Donald Duck

Donald Duck character stamps from Albania, 2000. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Have you ever wondered exactly how Scrooge McDuck is related to Donald Duck? Or where Huey, Dewey, and Louie fit into the equation? And what of Donald’s second cousin, the little-known Gus Goose?

Donald Duck may be a fictional character, but his ancestry can be traced back several generations through hints and clues provided in comic books, television shows, and a wide array of other media. The main source of our knowledge of Donald’s kin is A Duck Family Tree by comic book author Don Rosa. Since the book’s publication in 1993, additional details have come to light, allowing us to expand upon our understanding even further.

Based on an analysis of the available resources, we can confidently place thirty-five of Donald’s relatives.

Visualized family tree of Donald Duck Continue reading Tracing the Ancestry of Donald Duck

The True Story of Young Willie McBride

Photo of the grave of Willie McBrideHave you ever wondered if a favorite song of yours had a basis in fact?

In the song “The Green Fields of France,” the narrator reflects upon the grave of Willie McBride, a young man who died as a soldier in World War I. In one verse, he asks Willie:

Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?

As family historians, we hate to leave photos of relatives unidentified. The more that I have played the song, the more I have wondered if there was a real Willie McBride—and I finally decided to do something about it. Continue reading The True Story of Young Willie McBride

California Dreamin’: Looking for Connections to Cass Elliot

Promotional photo of Cass Elliot from 1972Even the smallest bit of nostalgia can set me off down a new genealogical rabbit hole. The other day, when I heard Cass Elliot singing Make Your Own Kind of Music1 in a car commercial on television, I knew right away that I was in trouble. Wouldn’t it be incredible to discover a genealogical connection with that legendary 1960s chanteuse? Okay—maybe it wouldn’t be for you, but for this aging flower-child, the thought of it was uber-cool. Curiosity piqued, I decided it was time to dig deeper.

Almost immediately, I saw that Cass Elliot, born Ellen Naomi Cohen in 1941, was Jewish by way of both her parents.2 Let’s face it—unless I’m ever able to find a 14th-century synagogue on the Orkney Islands , I have little chance of finding any similar lines here. This was disappointing, but I figured there had to be more to the story. I began to wonder who Cass had married, and if she had any children to whom I could establish a connection. Continue reading California Dreamin’: Looking for Connections to Cass Elliot