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10 March 2009

Harvesting the Family Tree

Inspired by Mary's brilliant post about her ancestor by marriage, Major General Lord Blayney, I decided to take two leaves out of her book and share a family story of my own in the form of a post I previously published on another blog. The difference is that while Mary's family story was meticulously backed by research, mine falls into the realm of pure legend, passed down from generation to generation via the ever reliable means of bedtime stories.

These weren’t your common garden variety “when I was your age I had to walk twenty miles to school while milking a herd of maddened cows” sorts of stories. My ancestors had a flair for drama and a notable dearth of common sense. They were constantly doing harebrained things like running off to America with nothing but a suit of dress clothes and a gold-headed cane. (That would be my great-grandfather, who got into a tiff with his father and decided to go off and sulk several thousand miles away, but neglected to pack or do any of those other things one generally does before transatlantic voyages. He just booked a first class cabin and hopped aboard in the clothes he was wearing at the time.) But my absolute favorite is my great-great-great-grandfather, Herman Karl Ludwig Maximilian von Willig. As my brother would say, lots of names, not a lot of smarts.

Picture it: 1848. The Austrian Empire seethes with incipient rebellion. Young Herman Karl Ludwig Maximilian, an incredibly unimportant officer in His Imperial Majesty’s army, is stationed just outside of Milan, happily eating his weight in pasta and admiring the pretty brass sheen on his buttons, when the Italian city explodes into anti-Austrian rebellion. A sensible man would have ridden hell for leather back to the Austrian border, which is what the rest of the regiment was doing. Not being the brightest bratwurst in the bunch, Herman decided to go the other way. He rode into Milan, right into the heart of the insurrection. With his Croatian batman trotting along behind him, he limped up and down the streets of Milan, knocking on doors, saying, “Hello. I’m an Austrian officer. Would you please take me in?” This did not make him popular. Unsurprisingly, someone shot him. Did this daunt Herman? Nein! Dripping blood, he kept on going door to door, only this time his line was, “Hello, I’m a wounded Austrian officer. Would you please take me in?” You have to give him points for perseverance.

Fortunately for Herman (and me), at the next house he tried, the door was opened by the daughter of the family, a Hungarian countess with a taste for romantic fiction and about as much common sense as Herman. Her father might be one of the instigators of the rebellion (he was a hard-boiled Hungarian nationalist, committed to the downfall of the Austrian imperial regime), but Sofia-Elisabeth took one look at the handsome Austrian officer drooping becomingly on her doorstep and thought, “Hmm, kind of cute.” Smuggling him up to her boudoir with the aid of a devoted servant (there’s always a devoted servant in these stories), she secreted him beneath a pile of petticoats. According to one of my great-aunts, that’s not all that happened beneath those petticoats. About nine months later, the happy couple (by then husband and wife, with the blessing of the Emperor, who cheerfully executed Sofia’s treasonous father and, in a nice touch, bestowed the Count’s estates upon her new husband. One can only hope that father and daughter had never been close) were delivered of a little bundle of joy. They named him Arturo, in honor of their Italian adventure. And they all lived happily ever after.

Well, sort of. Herman, being Herman, managed to run the estates into the ground, and wound up mortgaging anything that could be mortgaged. As for Arturo, he grew up to rival the magnificent foolishness of his father. But stories always sound much better with a happily ever after at the end— and I like to think that they were happy, at least for a while. Isn’t that as much as anyone can hope for?

Some of this has documentary evidence behind it, but the juicier bits are all pure legend and speculation. Since one of the traits that has reliably remained in the family is a marked lack of sense of direction, I can easily believe that Herman rode the wrong way. As for the rest of it... as bedtime stories go, it sure beat counting sheep.

What are your most improbable family stories?

22 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Hard to equal that one, Lauren. "Not being the brightest bratwurst in the bunch" -- very good!

Another day of "deadline looms" but I will give the improbable family stories some thought and come back later.

Oooh, wait, thought of a little one. My Dad, at age 1 1/2 stuck a rattle so far down his throat that he pulled out a tonsil

5:08 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Lauren, I LOVE that story. Too funny!

6:46 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lauren, this is marvelous! There's a little bit of Shaw's Arms and the Man/chocolate cream soldier in there. And I've got some context for your delicious adventure, having read about the 1848 uprising during my research on Franz Joseph and Sisi for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES.

My great aunt Debby ran away from home (as in Harlem), so we're talking a few subway stops, at the age of 15 to become a flapper; she became a Ziegfeld Follies girl. She had a small, but featured, role in "Diamond Lil" with Mae West. She married an Irish hoofer who was known as Murray "Sugar Boy" Evans, who headlined with his brother at the Palace and other A-list vaudeville venues in (it's embarrassing to admit it now but it was de rigeur back then -- blackface). I've got the clippings. He drank away everything he and Debby earned; when his stage career dried up and Vaudeville went the way of the dodo, the pair of them opened a tap dancing school up in the Bronx, but they were still always broke. My paternal grandparents were forever loaning them money and bailing them out. Murray died relatively young -- before I was born, I think -- but I remember Aunt Debby coming to dinner at our home and asking for a glass of "Boibun" as she pronounced in in her heavy Bronx accent. Unfortunately, at the age of 80-something, she died insane in her bathtub, trying to avoid the "purple people" who kept trying to get into her apartment.

But Aunt Debby (and my paternal grandmother, with whom I lived for a number of years) were the spark for the character of "Gram" in my roman a clef, TEMPORARY INSANITY.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Amanda, what a great story! She must have had the best stories about her Ziegfield Follies days. Doesn't it just make you think of long cigarette holders, pyramids of champagne glasses and shimmering beaded dresses?

By the way, I love "Arms and the Man". I'd never realized the parallel before, but you're so right. I imagine there must have been a lot of that going around....

10:20 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I have a faded newspaper clipping of Auntie Deb with the flapper bob and great satin shoes, wearing some 20s version of Joseph's dreamcoat. She's billed as "Debra Kaye Evans" (nee Goldfarb, by the way), "a descendant of Francis Scott Key" -- draped in some sort of Key family heirloom. It was all a p.r. stunt. We are NOT even remotely related to the lyricist of "The Star Spangled Banner." But none of the readers were any the wiser. I guess the photo was some producer's idea. In the 80s I performed in an original drama titled "The Last Danceman" down at the New Federal Theatre (an Off-Broadway venue at the time because of the size of the theatre). I played Addie Danzman, a former dancer and the long suffering wife of a famous vaudeville hoofer. He has problems with the bottle, among other things. And I think my husband's character was nicknamed "Pretty Boy" or something very similar to my great-uncle Murray's stage moniker. It was amazing to play a role that was so close to my relatives' lives and yet the dramatist (though he'd researched a lot of vaudeville families) hadn't based his play on any one family.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

You guys have GREAT stories!

My family stories run more along the lines fleeing the Rez back in the 20s, moving to Santa Barbara to open a trucking firm and lying about their race to everyone. They claimed to be Italian, cause anything was better than being "Indian" back then . . . my great-grandmother had some wonderful tales about stuff like trying to figure out just what the heck a canoli was, LOL! About the only really cool thing I know is that my great-great-grandmother’s wedding dress is in the Smithsonian collection (my great-g was very put out about family history being usurped and taken to a museum like we were some kind of zoo animal).

12:56 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Speaking of cool family stuff, did you all see the thing about Lincoln's watch? I love that an oral family history about something so cool turned out to be true!

1:45 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, I think the cannoli story is a hoot! If you ever choose to write contemporary fiction, you've got some great ore to mine there. And I think it's incredibly cool about your g-g-g's dress in the Smithsonian! Has it ever been in public display?

No, I missed the thing about Lincoln's watch. What is it?

1:56 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

I love the cannoli story, too! And how did the wedding dress come to make its way to the Smithsonian?

2:22 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

According to my GG, the wedding dress was donated to the museum by the Rez Agent, who had no rights to it, but what did he care . . . I've never looked into it cause I really don't want to know any more about it (it's a sore spot for most of the family).

Here's a link to the story about Lincoln's watch:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/11/lincolns-pocket-watch-eng_n_173871.html

Basically, there’s been a story passed down for 150 years that a watchmaker had Lincoln’s watch when the Civil War broke out and he engraved some comments inside it, including stuff like "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a president who at least will try."

The watchmaker's great-great grandson passed this story on to the curators at the Smithsonian. They just opened the watch and confirmed the family story!

3:18 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I saw the Lincoln's watch story! Fascinating stuff.

Great story about the cannoli, Kalen!

My Mom is half Cherokee and half Creek. We did not know this until our MawMaw (Mom's mother) passed away. At her funeral we kept being introduced to great aunts and great uncles we'd never even heard of. But that wasn't the strangest part. At one point my brother leaned over and said "Is it just me or does this look like a reunion of the winning team at Custer's Last Stand?"

There were all of these gorgeous elderly men and women in the braids, beads and colorful clothes of the Poarch Creek Indians.

Once we got home we asked my Mom to explain. She told us their mother had sworn all of them to secrecy. When they worked as share croppers they were treated as second class citizens. I will not tell you the names they were called. Suffice it to say that is why in spite of growing up in Alabama in the 60's my brothers and I never heard nor were we allowed to say the N word.

My grandmother moved the family to a small town in South Alabama and got a job as a cafeteria worker. She told the kids to claim themselves as white - their dark skin from working in the fields. They kept their word not to mention their heritage until after she died.

We were thrilled to meet all of these new relatives. My MawMaw had 20 brothers and sisters. My Creek great grandfather had 11 with his first wife, a Creek woman (my MawMaw's mother.) Then he married a white woman and had 10 more.

One of our cousins has worked hard to put all of the family history together. She searched a long time to find my great grandfather's first wife's grave. Eventually someone suggested she look in the records of the black cemetery in the town where she died. That is where she is buried. At one point some in the family wanted to move her. The majority of us said no. She probably rests far more comfortably where she is.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great story, Louisa. Isn't it amazing how something that's considered cool now was a burnden then?

7:24 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What great stories -- and how wonderful, Lauren, to have such ditzy humor in your family tree. While history was happening as tragedy, your ancestors were literally making it into farce.

I don't have any funny ones that I know of, but my same grandpa who left his ice skates in Russia did keep in touch with his large family -- the sister who became a doctor and did amputations during the siege of Leningrad, the brother who became a Bolshevik and sent back the $25 my grandpa sent him from the US. The $25 was no doubt painfully saved from grandpa's wages delivering milk, but the Bolshevik brother would have nothing of money earned by a "capitalist."

That same brother was later killed in one of Stalin's purges; I can't find much humor in the story, but there's plenty of historical irony: Stalin always went after the true believers first.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Pam, how ironic and terribly, terribly sad. Isn't there that line about the revolution eating its own children? What happened to your doctor great-aunt? Did she manage to make it through?

Your comment about turning tragedy into farce hits the nail right on the head. There are so many dark and grim moments that it's easier to just focus on the funny ones.

My great-grandfather worked as a milkman, too-- and that's another funny story. This was the same one who barged off to America with nothing but a gold-headed cane, intending to remain only a few months. He was quite confident that his father would send a groveling letter apologizing to him and off home he would go. It's a good thing he didn't, since his father (the Arturo of the Herman story) and siblings all got wiped out when the Russians advanced across Galicia in World War I. So there he was, stranded in America, without funds, stubbornly refusing to learn to speak English (you can imagine that this made him very popular in New York through World Wars I and II), having acquired a wife along the way, with no assets to his name but a gold-headed cane that went in and out of pawn. He had never worked a day in his life and had never expected to have to-- but he loved horses. The only way his wife and children could get him to bring in any money was to find something horse-related for him to do. Hence the milk truck. I gather he also drove a bakery truck for a while. As long as there was a horse involved, it was all okay.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Who could imagine that 2 hoydens had their very own "Tevyes" in the family?!

9:39 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I hadn't thought about the Tevye connection, Amanda.

While as for my grandpa's doctor sister -- she survived, Lauren, and lived to be about a hundred. But not in Russia: after capitalism arrived there she could no longer afford to live in Moscow, even on her red star war heroine pension. So she moved to Germany -- where she could afford to live, given subsidies the German government was giving to Jews who wanted to relocate there. Ironies upon ironies.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I know, Kalen! I think my Mom still hasn't quite grasped that is okay to be Native American. However, I think my nephew's sincere interest and respect for our heritage is slowly bringing that realization to her. It was at a pow wow several years ago that the full realization came to me. A woman at a booth selling Cherokee chili and fry bread kept staring at me. Finally, she asked "What nation are you?" It took me a moment to realize what she was asking. When I did I proudly said "Cherokee and Creek." She said "I knew it. You have Creek eyes. Only the Creeks have gray eyes like yours." It was one of those bell ringing inside you moments.


Pam and Lauren what amazing stories! Men had lots of pride in those days, but as my father often said "you can't eat it." These stories are the real "family jewels" and should be written and recorded for the ages. I have some of our family stories told by my grandmothers on both sides on tape and I am working on transcribing them into the computer so I can make disks for the family. At every reunion I leave a notebook for family members to record their favorite stories and recipes, etc so we don't miss a thing.

7:20 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Louisa, I love the idea of your tape and notebook projects. When I was little I took for granted that these stories-- and their tellers!-- would just survive, but I find I'm forgetting so much of what I was told. One grandfather had amazing stories of his adventures as an American pilot shot down and on the run in Nazi-occupied Holland (more dark humor sort of stories, with all sorts of farcical near misses), but I find that I've already forgotten some of the details of them. As for recipes, what a great idea!

8:53 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I immediately thought of Arms & the Man too!

What a wonderful story, Lauren! There has to be a way you can work an earlier version of it into the Carnation books.

My great-aunt left home in Tacoma Washington in the teens and went to New York to study voice at a school run by Walter Damrosch that was a precursor of Juilliard. She later sang in Vaudeville. A young Vincente Minnelli designed some of her costumes. Her sister followed her to New York and ended up involved with a much older (and married) painter (who was a friend of Gaughuin's). They eventually got married, after traveling around together for years.

12:32 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Louisa, I got chills reading your "gray eyes" comment about the Creeks. Oh, the irony of being told by people that you're an outsider, or made to feel shame as "the other" and then, when you're amid the people who get it -- your "tribe" for lack of a better word -- the shame turns to fierce pride.

Tracy, wouldn't it be wild if your Vaudevillian ancestors knew (or performed on the same bills!) with mine?!

8:08 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wild but perhaps not that unlikely, Amanda!

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Rene S said...

Kalen, I have a similar story to your canoli one about my husband's grandparents. His 2nd (or is it 3rd?) gen Irish grandmother was a new wife to her 1st gen Italian husband, and she really wanted to cook him some Italian food. She'd heard of pizza pie but never eaten one, so she did her best. She made him a pie crust and filled it with tomato sauce and cheese, and baked it for a while. She proudly served it to him... and he ate it. :)

On my mother's side of the family, we have a Jacobite who fled Glasgow in the 1700s with only his pocket watch, after being warned by his mother that officers of the king had searched his house and had a warrant for his arrest. He made it to North Carolina, changed his name, and moved in with some cousins.

6:41 PM  

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