Posted by Heather Erickson on April 23, 2010 in Who Do You Think You Are?

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 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

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.

Heather Erickson

Heather Erickson is Head of Global Communications for and has been with the company since 2009.


  1. Susan

    Great story! It was a bit sad but also a remarkable story of a woman who chose to overcome challenges. I really enjoyed Susan and her son working on this together. It was also fun to see her have the “Ah ha” moment when you solve a mystery. At first I didn’t think I would enjoy this one since I have no Italian family and I was afraid it would be a bit snobby but it rang true.

  2. Linda

    Where is the link to the origin surname map that Susan Sarandon used to find where they came from in Italy?

  3. Judy (Fialko)

    I would like to second Linda’s question. Many people on the discussion after the show were interested in getting to that map (myself included). We were directed to this blog which would give us the appropriate links. Is this something you can make available?

  4. Debbie

    An assumption or fact? The birth certificate indicated that there were 9 children born prior and 3 were still alive. During a census later there is one older child and one younger child – in the home. (I assumed that the assumption was that the other two had died. But did they?) There could have been 2 other older children who could have moved out already, especially since she married at 13. There may be relatives!

  5. I want to thank Susan for sharing her family’s story. It will definitely help other family history researchers to know that not all stories end in palaces and presidents. When I worked in a genealogical library, so many people didn’t know about their own grandparents, usually citing some long ago disagreement or a situation that had been kept quiet. It’s much more common that you’d think. So go digging! You, too, can have that “aha!” moment when you find what you’re looking for.

  6. Ingrid

    I posted a comment and it bounced saying that it was spam. It said you could look at it and decide?

  7. Jo

    I thought this was the most boring show so far. Very little on the research in Italy, hardly anything about that conscription record, and not even a mention of Anita’s maternal family even thought they came from the same area of Italy. I was disappointed.

  8. Linda P.

    WOW !!!! So many parallels to my and my husband’s families!!! For me, because I can relate to so many of the events in this episode, it’s so far the best episode.

    From the unmarked graves…my husband’s great-grandparents, my Dad’s siblings who died in infancy and my maternal 2nd & 3rd great-grandparents – all rest in unmarked graves!

    Records in Italy…I’ve exhausted the records filmed by the LDS for my paternal Grandparents’ hometown of Itri, Italy but I would so love to be able to find my great-grandparents beyond the records cutoff of 1865 and my family back before the start of the filmed records in 1809.

    So many questions….
    When did my great-grandparents die?

    Were there other children back in Italy besides my Grandfather & his brother who came to America?

    Do I still have family over there?

    Who came before my 3rd great-grandparents who are as far back as I can go in the filmed records?

    How far back could I trace my ancestry in Itri if I were able to travel to Italy as Susan did?

    I may never get answers to these questions.

    More parallels for me….

    My maternal grandmother’s oldest sister Gertrude disappeared much as Anita did. She married in NYC, gave birth, abandonded her infant son & divorced. She came back to Staten Island to visit only a few times after that then disappeared for good around 1930.

    He son, who was raised by my great-grandparents & was mostly in the care of my Grandmother during that time, spent the years leading up to his teens believing that he’d been a “youthful indiscretion” of my Grandmother’s until he met his natural mother at around age 15y. Then he only saw her a couple of times after that before she simply vanished. I’ve spent years trying to find her and find out what her life had been after she vanished from the family!!

    And the multiple marriages. I’ve never been able to find a marriage for my Grandparents in 1920 when it should have occurred…not in any of the 5 boroughs of NYC and not in Upstate NY where they moved in 1920.

    My Grandmother always claimed that her step-son, my Grandfather’s child from his first marriage, had destroyed the marriage certificate. And, he never seemed to get a long all that well with my Grandmother.

    None of my Grandparents’ children that are still living seems to know just what was their wedding anniversary date. But all think that they remarried for their 50th wedding anniversary in 1970 and got another certificate; a record of which, so far, has not turned up.

    As a matter of fact, both my Grandfather & my Grandmother were each enumerated in 1920 in the households of their parents at a time when my Grandmother would have been about 3 months pregnant with my mother who was born at the end of the year in Upstate NY.

    AND, I’ve finally found my Grandfather’s first wife in 1920. She was living with her twin sister & brother-in-law, still using her married surname and claiming her marital status as “M” married!

    I’m wondering now if my Grandfather actually ever got divorced from her & if my Grandparents were ever legally married. Perhaps these are all reasons why my Grandparents moved to Upstate NY sometime after the 1920 census!

    I hope someday as records get old enough to come out from the veil of privacy laws, that I may find some answers to some of these mysteries as Susan Sarandon did!

  9. I love watching this series, and I have been anxiously awaiting Spike Lee’s. As I watched Susan’s last evening, as an African American, I was reminded again, just how sad it is that I will never be able to trace my family back that far.

  10. Pat

    Although I have enjoyed the entire series, obviously some episodes were far better than others. This one topped the list. Susan not only went backwards to Italy, she came forward again to discover what ultimately happened. I felt this was the most fulfilling episode todate. I was glad to see that the reason Anita’s parents came to America was explored, which was not done in Brook Shield’s episode, and many viewers felt the research ball was dropped.

  11. Kim

    I guess I’m dense, but I haven’t been able to locate the surname map that Ed Dietz said is on the link he posted. Can someone please post a link to the map itself? I’d really like to see this… I’d especially like to see the one Susan Sarandon used. Last night, Ancestry ppl said links would be posted but I haven’t seen anything official yet.

  12. Kathleen Lukas

    Wow, what a powerful story! This story actually connects somewhat to something shocking that I’ve been learning more about lately.

    When I think of what poor Anita went through – losing her mother at such a vulnerable age, followed by a neighbor taking advantage of that vulnerability. Then he ends up with the honor of marrying her and fathering another child with her! [Times have changed.] Today, the he would go to prison for sexual assault on a minor and rightly so! [I don’t like to beat people up for their wrongs, but I have to say how wrong this is to stop others from thinking it’s okay to sexually exploit a child. It’s NOT okay! Even back then!]

    Children will always need protection; today, even more so. The sexual “entertainment” industry creates greater and greater appetites for selfish sex. Consequently, more men want to sexually exploit children. It’s just not right, not fair, not just, not cool and we can’t be passive about preventing this from continuing to happen to our girls.

    There is a well established system in place right now to kidnap, exploit and destroy the lives of American girls (usually taken from age 12 – 14 yrs. old, sometimes much younger) for the greedy and lascivious purpose of the U.S. sex trade.

    When these girls are arrested for prostitution, they are treated like criminals and are too afraid of their brutal pimps to tell the truth. Some girls are even brain-washed to think their pimps, who give them a quota of 15+ men a day, care about them. They don’t even know what love is! Worst of all, despite the laws in place, the police let the men who buy these girls go completely free!

    The underage sex market is like any other in that it’s a matter of supply and demand. If you make the penalties strong enough to greatly inhibit demand, you’ll greatly reduce the number of minors forced into the sex trade. [I remind you, I’m talking about this happening in the USA, not just other countries, though my heart goes out to any child forced into this evil trade.] When a man gets caught with a minor, he should lose all he has to fund safe houses for the girls’ recovery. In this way, reducing the trafficking of minors and providing for the girl’s recovery would be self-funding.

    No man has the right to do this to a little girl or boy (yes, boys get kidnapped, too), and I believe that if there were a greater risk to the buyer, those willing to take that risk would diminish. [There’d certainly be much fewer second-time solicitors for sex with a minor.]

    I hope you will take a minute to find out how you can help these children. Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves. Make sure children are educated in common kidnapping tactics. Make sure men are educated in the true consequences of their participation in the sex trade, especially with minors. [The videos are shocking, but tell the true story much better than I can.] Please visit SharedHope.Org Educate yourself with their information. Click on “Take Action” and see what appeals to you to lend a hand against this brutal, degrading industry.

    100,000 – 300,000 innocent girls in the United States need our voice to speak up for them and shut down this filthy market. Thank you for your time and your compassion for innocent children.


  13. Janet

    My husband’s grandmother was Polish American, her mother died when she was twelve leaving 5 children, her father almost immediately married a widow with 5 children and within two years they had 2 more children together, at that point they started marrying the girls off, Grandma was forced into an arranged marriage when she was 14 with a much older man she barely knew and her younger sister followed the next year and so on down the line. Even though she was never happy in her arranged marriage they were married 58 years when Grandpa died. My point is that it was a different time and customs were different.

  14. John

    A notable difference in this episode was that Susan wasn’t shown returning to her mother to report her findings. I can imagine it being difficult news to receive. The reality that not all results of family history research may be welcomed by all family members should not go unremarked.

  15. Monika

    #15, George, A very good website for that is (I just “google” it like that). If you type the surname you are interested in, into the space before the word “Suche”, and then you press on “Suche” (which means “search”) it will give you the total distribution of that surname all over Germany, itemizing which cities they are in, percentage wise where most of them are located, what the most common given name for this surname is, etc. etc. I found eight living cousins through that map. If you need further guidance let me know. While I am at it, for those of you who think that you have ancestors buried in Vienna, Austria, a super terrific site is While they have a “disclaimer” saying that not all of the graves are included yet, I would say that it is, at least 98% done. Have found all of my Viennese ancestors in there, and have helped others on the Austrian rootsweb site find theirs. Years ago, there was someone on rootsweb desperately trying to find her ancestors in the Austrian Province of Tirol. I found them on that website in graves in Vienna, and through their death records we found living relatives for her in Vienna as well. Don’t forget that, in difficult times, people moved to the big cities in the hope to find work there. So, just because they were born in a certain locale does not mean that they died there too.

  16. Dawn

    I think Ancestry should have their own television station with continuous shows like this. History channel has lost sight of retelling history and I think there is no better way to retell history than researching family trees. There are so many avenues in genealogy that could be featured…War Veterans, African Americans, Jewish, featured nationalities, Presidents, historical events, immigration, the list goes on forever. If Ancestry had its own TV station I would be a couch potato!

  17. J. Prunty

    The Show is great! However, for any of us doing Family Research, it is a little misleading. Taking any episode, in one hour, these people are finding lost ancestors all over the world. The reality is that this could take years. The celebs also have genealogical experts out ahead of them pulling records – very time consuming and expensive. I would like to see an episode devoted to the “behind the scenes work” done by experts, and volunteers and how they search for records. Maybe an episode on one of the millions of us searching for our ancestors.


  18. Toni Mason

    Thank you again for a great presentation. I like Ms Sarandon have a mystery in my family but it is my great grandmother, who left England in 1904 with her 4 children and came to America. She did not divorce her English husband but as far as I can tell she did marry 2 other men after dropping her children off not long after arriving in Idaho, went to Montana and there are about 10 years where I can not find any information. Am going to Montana this summer to do more searching myself. Hope the show continues and agree I would like to see more details on how to do the research. Not all of us can afford to have someone do the work for us. Again, thank you for a very good show.

  19. Lydia Sadler

    I think it is fascinating what you can find out when you begin to seek out your family history. Unfortunately, I am neither rich nor famous and for me the search is not as simple. I would like to see do a special with some regular folks like me who have experienced some success tracing their roots. I would also like to see initiate a chat room so that live help would be available. I have so many questions and I would love to have someone to talk to online.

  20. Love the TV show.

    I think I would be a wonderful candidate for a show, simply because I have proven my lineage on paper to 1680 and more recently (with yDNA testing) I have established a connection with the present Duke of Richmond and Gordon, the Duke of St. Albans and the family of Beauclerk (Duke of Monmouth). They are all (as you know) illegitimate lines of King Charles II (who was also a Stuart). My lineage is documented and proven, so a team of experts like your own, would without question find the missing link!

    Keep up the good work!

    British, and now an American citizen

  21. Hi, genealogy is wonderful, and fun. Adoptees are searching and finding their roots too. If birthparents would want to find their lost child, they can get assistance in doing so. Some states allow Medical updates, and have reunion registry for adoptees and parents, and siblings to sign up on to be reunited. There are independant Mutual consent registry too.
    Family history is very important.


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