Before technology went mainstream and websites like Ancestry.com were born, few people knew a lot about their long lost relatives. Sketchy details filled the fly pages of family bibles and long summer nights on the front porch with a 12-pack and Uncle Bud spinning yarns of colorful relatives was about all we had to go on to trace our roots.
But even online research has its limits; to get down to the nitty gritty requires travel and perusing handwritten historical records, a time-consuming and expensive journey. On the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? celebrities delve into their pasts, often traveling to far corners of the world to pore over census records and newspaper clippings to find out where they came from and how their ancestors lived and died.
Most recently known for his iconic performances in the diverse platforms of The Good Wife, X-Men and Cabaret, Alan Cumming came to the show with more information than most guests. The Scottish native had heard stories his whole life about how his maternal grandfather, Thomas Darling, had died from an accidental gunshot wound tragically self-inflicted while cleaning his gun, which, as a career soldier, was a regular task. However, historical accounts of grandpa’s death attribute his death to losing a game of Russian Roulette while serving as a police lieutenant in Malaysia. Even Cumming’s tremendous acting talents couldn’t hide his shock and dismay at learning the news. Hopefully his mother was privately told of the discovery before the show aired on BBC.
Best known for hosting the first show where guests willingly aired their dirtiest laundry in public for no more than a fleeting moment of notoriety, Jerry Springer is less famous for serving as mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio. Springer was born in 1944 in London, England to Jewish parents who fled Nazi Germany only three days prior to the eruption of World War II. He grew up never knowing the fate of either his paternal or maternal grandmothers. Tracing the roots of his parents’ mothers did not lead to a positive discovery. Both were Holocaust victims, one killed by the Nazis in a ghetto outside Prague and the other at an extermination camp.
Many parents don’t prattle on about their pasts, leaving their offspring reasonably curious about their pasts. Minnie Driver‘s dad was curiously silent about his past and when Driver found out the details on the BBC show, it was quite clear why Dad didn’t tell more. Seems Ronnie Driver, now deceased, was cheating on his first wife with Minnie’s mother, a model who he supported as his mistress in a Mayfair flat, along with Minnie and her older sister Kate. Wife Annie and daughter Susan knew nothing of the affair. Ronnie also had a second wife and son after Annie divorced him. All the family members met when he was hospitalized after a heart attack in 2007.On a more positive note, Minnie discovered her father, a member of the Royal Air Force, was a key player in the first great air battle of the war. He reportedly threw away a medal bestowed upon him for bravery in that war.
Before Paula Deen became the center of a scandal based on alleged acts of racism (later dropped), she learned a lot of disturbing facts about her four times great grandfather, John Batts. While she was always told that he was a very rich politician and plantation owner, unlike most of the family who were simple farmers and labourers, no one had revealed to her that most of his assets were slaves, 35 of them, according to census records. Deen also discovered Batts was a strong supporter of John Breckenridge, who ran against Abraham Lincoln for President on a pro-slavery platform. Deen was dismayed by the historical accounts since her parents and grandparents had always insisted their family was never part of the history of slavery.
Bertinelli always knew she had strong ties to Italy in her past but she discovered more details about those relatives through the TV show. One of her ancestors was a woman named Maria who bravely boarded a ship for America in 1915 just days after Italy became involved in World War I. With two small children in tow, she arrived in New York. Bertinelli has a picture of Maria manning her own gelato cart with other family members, including her mother. Bertinelli also discovered that her great grandmother was not married when she gave birth to Bertinelli’s grandmother, quite a shocking event for that era, explained by the historian as a marriage probably delayed by financial constraints.
Although her most famous role was as Miranda on HBO’s Sex and the City, Nixon remains a noteworthy star on the stage as well as in movies and on TV. But when she joined up with Who Do You Think You Are to find out more about her ancestry, she wasn’t prepared for the real life drama she discovered. In 1843, her three times great grandmother Martha Curnett killed her abusive spouse with a single blow of an ax after he told her to pray because he was going to kill her before sunset. His heinous treatment of his wife was taken into account by the court, and Martha served only five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary for first-degree manslaughter. She was also the only female inmate there at the time, with 800 male prisoners.
Parsons‘ beloved character Sheldon Cooper on TV’s Big Bang Theory typically comes across as thinking he’s better than all his friends and associates. He regularly professes to be smarter, more clever, more practical, better looking – Sheldon believes he’s the be-all to end all. When Parsons delved into his past on the TV show, he discovered a line of ancestors who actually shone in many areas of life. Traveling from New Orleans to Paris and Versailles, Parsons discovers relatives who practiced medicine, served as architects to French royalty, and one neoclassical designer who conceived a chapel for an elite client. Truth is truly stranger than fiction on occasion.
Behind her brash exterior and searing wit, Chelsea Handler is a woman just as curious about her family tree as most. Her mother is German and her father Jewish and Handler has always identified as a Jew. But she always had questions about her maternal grandfather, Karl Stoker. As is often the case, she knew he had served in the German army in World War II but no one talked about his political leanings, so she was always curious if he was actually a Nazi. Family research turned up mixed results with vague links to Nazi-owned businesses and sports teams. Who Do You Think You Are dug a little deeper and found that Stoker had been drafted into the army rather than volunteering. Handler was also happy to find out he ended up in a POW camp in Algona, Iowa where a picture was taken of him playing violin and looking healthy. After the show, Handler was satisfied with the information she learned about her grandfather, saying, “Whatever he saw ended up ultimately making him a good man.”