Helen Hunt, Who Do You Think You Are?

After the Jerome Bettis disaster from two weeks ago,* I had nearly given up on this show.  I was prepared to watch only the bootlegged UK and Australian episodes on YouTube.  I’m glad I didn’t.  If the last episode was the worst in the show’s run, this week’s episode starring Helen Hunt is one of the best.  It was so good that even the commercial breaks and two (two!) Ancestry plugs did not feel like such a big deal.

When I first saw that Helen Hunt was going to be on Who Do You Think You Are, my first thought was, “What ever happened to her?”  After the end of Mad About You and her Oscar for As Good As It Gets, she kind of vanished from the public eye.  (Fun fact:  Executive Producer Lisa Kudrow’s hit show Friends was a quasi-spin-off of Mad About You.  On Friends, Kudrow’s ditzy Phoebe Buffay had a twin sister Ursula who was also played by Kudrow.  Ursula first appeared on Mad About You.)  Her episode however, knocked my socks off.

Before I delve into the content of the episode, it is important to explain why I liked this episode so much.  The reason this episode was so good is that it focused on the history rather than on Helen Hunt.  In most episodes this season, we got one, maybe two, historical interludes to give us a sense of time and place for the story.  In this episode we got six, which is more like a British episode than an American one.  It completely makes the difference, and the story becomes far more compelling.

The episode also avoided making facile associations between Hunt and her ancestors, which is a pleasant change from most of this season.  In previous episodes, the celebrity spoke about an aspect of his or her life and sure enough, the ancestor in question had that quality (although it was often a stretch.)  This week however we were not subjected to (for example) Helen Hunt talking about how important feminism was to her prior to her journey and then discovering that her ancestor was an early feminist.  Instead, the revelations happen organically, and we feel like we are learning about the stories of interesting people from the past rather than HELEN HUNT’S ANCESTORS.

Finally, everything was documented through pictures, censuses, vital records, directories, election rolls, and newspaper articles–all very important tools in the genealogist’s toolkit.  Mercifully there was absence of speculation about what their lives must have been like or what their personalities probably were by both Hunt and the historians.  No gimmicks, no DNA tests, not secondhand recollections from decades later.  Just the facts.  The facts really do speak for themselves.

The episode started in Los Angeles with Hunt and her father.  Hunt’s paternal grandmother, Helen Roberts Hunt, was killed by a drunk driver when Hunt’s father was a little boy, and so he knew very little.  Helen Roberts was of German-Jewish descent (Yekkes), and her mother was named Florence Roberts, although the family name was originally Rothenberg.  Hunt knew little beyond that.

From a personal point of view, learning about a German-Jewish family was a novel experience.  My family is entirely made up of Eastern European Jews who arrived during the migration wave that spanned from around 1880 through 1920.  In contrast, German Jews such as Hunt’s family immigrated significantly earlier (Hunt’s great-great-grandfather William Scholle immigrated from Bavaria to New York in 1845).  By the time the Eastern European Jews started arriving, the German Jews already had deep roots, and quite a few of them were very wealthy–perhaps most famously the Gratz family.

Having said that, the importance of the German Jews in the United States has been largely overlooked.  So much of modern American culture and the Jews who helped shape it was rooted in the Eastern Europe migration, it is easy to forget that Jews had a presence in the United States from the very beginnings of the colonial era (especially the Sephardic Jews).  It is therefore good to see stories about Jewish families from places other than Eastern Europe.  It gives a tiny bit more diversity to a show that use a bit more diversifying.

Hunt learned that her great-grandmother lived in a hotel in Pasadena, and that there was some money in the family.  By looking at the 1900 Census, she learned that  her great-grandmother Florence and her husband Gustav lived in the Upper West Side of New York City with their children, including Helen.  They also had four servants who lived with them (none with last names, apparently).  Gustave died in 1900, and Florence moved her children out to California, the state of her birth.  In the 1910 Census, the Rothenberg family is living in a hotel in Pasadena, although without servants.  By 1920, Florence changed her name to Roberts.

If I had one quibble with this episode, this is it.  The episode implies that Jews who changed their surnames did so because of anti-Semitism in the United States which predated but was inflamed by a quota system that limited the number of immigrants, particularly those from Southern and Eastern Europe.  Yes, many Jews did change their name in the attempt to avoid anti-Semitism.  But that was not the only reason.  A lot of Jews wanted to fit in with American society so they adopted less “ethnic” names for more English sounding ones.  Nor was this a specifically Jewish phenomenon (remember Martin Sheen?).  In my family I can think of quite a few instances where people changed their first or last names (or both) to fit in, not because they were afraid of anti-Semitism, but because they wanted to be more American.  I bet you a know of a few Jews who changed their names for reasons other than anti-Semitism too.  Maybe Nathan BirnbaumMelvin Kaminsky?  How about Issur Danielovitch?

Racial and religious persecution is a fall back option for Who Do You Think You Are to explain things when there is a lack of evidence.  It’s incredibly lazy and misleading.  Maybe Florence Rothenberg became Florence Roberts because of anti-Semitism, but it’s also likely that she (or one of her sons) changed her last name because she wanted to fit in with her peers in upper-class Pasadena.

From Florence’s 1949 death certificate, Hunt discovered that Florence’s father was named William Scholle (formerly Wolf Scholy of Bavaria).  Scholle immigrated to New York City and worked with his brother Abraham, but during the California Gold Rush, he moved out west to San Francisco.  Still in business with Abraham and their younger brother Jacob, William Scholle became very wealthy (apparently his personal wealth was somewhere between 3 and 10 million dollars); by 1870 he and his family had three live-in servants.  Scholle rubbed elbows with Levi Strauss (another quibble, given the significance of Levi Strauss, and given that his name appeared multiple times in Scholle’s story, one would think that at least one historian would have explained who Strauss was), and they were both a part of a consortium that bought the Nevada National Bank which then merged with Wells Fargo.  Given the financial crisis of 2008 and how much I hate Wells Fargo for unrelated reasons, I wonder if I should be impressed or carry a grudge against Scholle and company.  Therefore, before she became the Little Old Lady from Pasadena, Florence was a part of the San Francisco elite.


Closing the book on the Scholle/Rothenberg/Roberts family, Hunt turned her attention to her father’s paternal great-grandfather George Hunt who was from Portland, Maine.  George was a businessman who imported sugar from the Caribbean in exchange for wood from Maine forests.  Like Scholle, George Hunt too was very successful, but the real story came from his 1896 obituary which introduced Helen Hunt to her great-great-grandmother, George’s wife Augusta Merrill Barstow Hunt.

Augusta was a leader of her community, and deeply involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  Hearing that Augusta was in the WCTU made Hunt uneasy but immediately I thought, “Augusta was an early feminist and probably a suffragette.”  Prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which ensured women the right to vote, women were nevertheless very active in social and civil rights causes, including abolitionism, temperance, the settlement house movement, and pacifism.  In their minds, and for good reason, temperance was a women’s rights movement as alcohol often led to the brutal treatment of women and children and the decay of the family.  (There was a dark side to temperance; the movement was bound up in anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly those from Ireland and Germany.  The WCTU itself was very much a club for Protestant women, and no doubt some of its most prominent members had lineages that the Daughters of the American Revolution would envy.)

Hunt, not knowing anything about temperance except for the circus act that was Carrie Nation and the failed experiment of Prohibition was a little embarrassed, although a WCTU historian explained the truth to her, and introduced her to exactly how important Augusta was to both temperance and to the suffrage movement in Maine.  (Helen Hunt noted the bitter irony that Augusta’s granddaughter-in-law would eventually be killed by a drunk driver.)

As it turned out, Augusta was instrumental in getting a suffrage law on the Maine ballot for a referendum in 1917, which failed miserably before an all-male voting populace.  (I was reminded about how Maine voters also rejected same-sex marriage in a referendum.)  Despite that failure, Augusta was behind every pro-woman reform of her day, including day care and female prison matrons.

In the end Augusta’s work was not in vain.  She lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment, and according to a profile of her in a newspaper from Portland, she was given the honor of being the first woman to cast a ballot in a Maine election.  It was both a stunning and moving find, and Helen Hunt seemed overwhelmed by it.

At the end of the episode, Hunt visited the grave of George and Augusta Hunt and took a charcoal rubbing of their monument for her daughter.  Charcoal rubbing is somewhat controversial and there are people who claim it damages the headstone/monument, although I confess that I made one for an ancestor whose grave was otherwise impossible to read.  It was however, an extremely poignant moment, and wisely, that was where the show ended.

Next week, Rita Wilson.


As bad as this episode was, I have to shamefacedly offer a correction.  A few days after the episode aired, I found a newspaper article that indicated that Bettis’s ancestor lost his court case on appeal, and I blasted the show in a separate blog post for dishonesty.  It turns out, I was wrong in the chronology, and Bettis’s ancestor did win his court case with as far as I can tell no appeal from the railroad defendant.  I took down the blog post, but I want to set the record straight.  Mea culpa.  I’m sorry.  It does excuse how bad the Bettis episode was, but if I demand honesty, I should be honest too.


5 responses to “Helen Hunt, Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. Uhm – Why would the name Rosenberg NOT “fit in” with upper-class Pasadena? Oh yeah. “Americans” have a tendency to ridicule and demean anything Not WASP. In other words – bigotry. In this case, anti-semitism. Why is it so hard for people to identify and accept it.

  2. Rothenberg not Rosenberg.

    You’re deliberately misconstruing what I said, which is that anti-Semitism is one of many plausible explanations, but not necessarily THE explanation. Unless a descendant of one of Helen Hunt’s grandmother’s brothers has an answer, in my mind it’s still an open question.

    And for the record, I did some research too. The family was Rothenberg for many a year in Pasadena before it was Roberts.

  3. Dear SM, excellent, balanced piece or reporting. Thanks for taking the time to write it up. I shall try to see the episode.

  4. Pingback: Kelly Clarkson, Who Do You Think You Are? | tracingthetree

  5. Pingback: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Who Do You Think You Are | tracingthetree

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