Stage and screen star Christina Applegate’s father, Robert, has lived with a troubling mystery his entire life — just who was his mother? Raised by his paternal grandparents, Robert has only fleeting memories of his mother. Christina sets out to find her story.
She starts with one valuable piece of information: Robert’s birth certificate. She learns that his mother’s name was Lavina Shaw and she lived in Trenton, New Jersey.
A visit to the Trenton Public library yields a remarkable discovery: a picture of Lavina and her sister, Delilah, in the society pages when Lavina was about 13. But a search of the 1940 census on Ancestry.com shows the family’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse just a few years later.
As Christina digs further she finds a 1941 marriage record for Lavina Shaw and her grandfather, Paul Applegate. But the marriage was troubled almost from the start. Court documents reveal the couple agreed to a separation in 1942, as each party made serious accusations against the other.
Ultimately, Lavina retained custody of Robert in a 1945 divorce. So how did Robert end up with his paternal grandmother?
The answer may lie in a death record. Court documents identified Lavina’s mother as another caretaker for Robert. But she died in 1946, shortly after her daughter’s divorce.
Then Christina finds a surprising clue — Lavina’s own 1955 death certificate, which states that she died from tuberculosis and cirrhosis due to chronic alcoholism. Is that the answer? After her mother died, did Lavina’s alcoholism leave her unable to care for Robert on her own?
It’s a painful past for Christina to offer her father, but a visit to Lavina’s grave provides an unexpected chance for a mother and son to exchange promises — and a gift.
Research Notes from our ProGenealogists team:
When you begin any family tree, you start with what you know and then work backwards in time. Christina Applegate didn’t want to go far, just back to her father, Bob’s, mother. Neither of them had known her, but Christina had her father’s birth certificate, which gave us information about his mother’s maiden name, date of birth, and where she was living when Bob was born. With this information, we were ready to check the 1940 and 1930 census records at Ancestry.com.
Here we found Lavina Shaw living with her parents in Trenton, New Jersey.
We learned that Lavina was named after her mother and that her father, Ovid, was working as a carpenter in 1930.
Looking at the family in 1940, they had fallen on hard times with both Ovid and 18-year-old Lavina out of work.
These census records provided the foundation we needed to start looking for birth, marriage and death records for all members of the family.