From New York to Italy and back again – all to find a single mystery relative in the family tree. For Susan Sarandon, whose quest to learn more about her grandmother on Who Do You Think You Are? took her to two separate continents and through dozens of records, the hard work and research paid off. And the journey, while extensive, gave Susan the facts she wanted to know about her grandmother, a better understanding of her grandmother’s actions, and how these may have shaped Susan into the person she is today. Here’s how it happened:
- Mother’s home, VA – Armed with a handful of questions about Susan’s maternal grandmother, Anita, and one small, wrinkled photo, Susan’s visits her mother with questions focused on where, who, why. She learns that the photo was likely taken in the Copacabana or another night club, where Anita was reported to have worked as a showgirl. But Susan’s mother knows little about Anita, who abandoned her and whom she last saw in 1939. After that, Anita disappeared from Susan’s family completely.
- New York City, NY – Susan reviews a copy of Anita’s birth record, which gives scant but important details including Anita’s birth date and parents’ names. A 1920 census record reveals Anita’s mother is deceased and Anita is living with her two surviving siblings and their father. Next door lives the Italian immigrant who would soon become Anita’s husband. Their marriage certificate shows that Anita was only 15 when she wed; a quick comparison of dates indicates Anita was actually only 13 at the time. Susan calculates that Anita was six months pregnant.
- Riccardini Library, Florence, Italy – Susan visits Italy to learn about Anita’s family, specifically who they were, where they were from, and why Anita’s father left for America. She finds a conscription record for Anita’s father, Mansueto, noting that at age 20, he owned land in Italy.
- Loppia Church, Coreglia, Italy – Susan visits the church where her great-grandfather was baptized and reviews church records that take her family back to 1640.
- Museum of Plaster Figurines and Emigration, Coreglia, Italy – But why did Mansueto leave for America? Susan gets details more about figurine makers like Mansueto and discovers he was part of the first wave of figurine makers to leave Italy.
- Family plot, New York City, NY – Back in New York, Susan focuses on what happened to Anita after 1939. She starts at the family’s cemetery plot. An inventory of the graves indicates that Anita isn’t buried there. She also sees a 1932 marriage license for Anita to a man named Ben Kahn. A second marriage? But no divorce record from the first marriage is located.
- New York City Public Library, New York City, NY – Susan and her son, Miles, search for Anita and Ben in city directories. They find both but living in separate residences just a year after they wed. Susan uses the only concrete information she has about Anita – her first name and birth date – to search the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) at Ancestry.com. She finds two possible Anitas, one of whom had a final residence only about an hour away.
- New City Library, Rockland, NY – Susan isn’t satisfied and wants proof that the Anita in New York is really her grandmother. She searches for an obituary, which she finds. It includes the names of this Anita’s parents – it is Susan’s grandmother. Susan takes the information from the obituary and visits Anita’s neighborhood, talking first to a neighbor who knew Anita. She also meets two of Anita’s final husband’s nieces, who show photos and give Susan more details about Anita’s later life.
One of the nice things about researching 20th-century relatives, like Susan did, is the wealth of available information. While 1930 may be the latest census you can consult (at least until 2012, when the 1940 census is released), city directories, the SSDI, obituaries, and vital records are available to help fill in the gaps – as oftentimes are living people who knew the person you’re interested in. Asking questions is one of the best strategies for a successful search. And in Susan’s case, it worked twice: at the start of her journey, when she spoke with her mother, and at the end, when she talked to people who could offer details about Anita’s later years.
You can catch this episode as well as any others you missed or want to watch again at NBC.com.
And be sure to watch next Friday night, when filmmaker Spike Lee comes face to face with a cousin who descends from the man who owned Spike’s slave ancestors.
About Heather Erickson
Heather Erickson is Head of Global Communications for Ancestry.com and has been with the company since 2009.