Christina Applegate, Who Do You Think You Are ?

I admit it; I was very moved by this episode, and it left me with a tear in my eye.

Christina Applegate’s episode is a fascinating contrast to Kelly Clarkson’s.  If last week’s episode highlighted everything the show does wrong, this week showed how much it can do right.  I wrote in my last review that when the show focuses on one ancestor alone, it is a high-risk high-reward prospect.  These can be the most tedious episodes when the ancestor is too remote in time to have an actual connection to the celebrity.  It’s the equivalent of looking at someone else’s vacation photos.  When the relative is only a generation or two removed however, the story takes on an incredible urgency.  The emotions that the celebrity has are unquestionably genuine, and that makes for riveting television.  This episode in particular had the extreme potential for claustrophobia; not only did Christina Applegate pursue just one relative, she never left Trenton, New Jersey (her father’s birthplace). And yet, there was so much more power in this episode than had she hopped around the East Coast.

Christina Applegate’s search focused entirely around her paternal grandmother Lavina Victoreen Shaw Applegate Walton.  Christina explained that own father Robert William (Bob) Applegate divorced her mother when Christina was very young and moved away while her mother raised her.  Their relationship was therefore strained and distant for years but has become closer after Christina had a daughter of her own.

For his part, Bob was also raised in a broken home.  He never knew his mother; he was raised by his paternal grandmother until she became too old, and then he lived with his father, Paul Applegate.  It was not until Christina’s sister got her father’s birth certificate that he learned his mother’s name was Lavina.  All he heard about her was that she was beaten to death and found outside a bar, a story he learned from his grandmother.

I am quite familiar with genealogy in New Jersey, which is perhaps another reason I had an affinity for this episode.  While it is not as difficult as some places (Pennsylvania prior to last year, for example), it is also not as easy as New York City where several decades of vital records are already indexed and accessible(ish).  I am also very familiar with Trenton the city, which is not nearly as nice as the show made it out to be.  I think I most appreciated the appearance of the Lower Trenton Bridge with its ridiculous “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” motto.

In Trenton, Christina met with a genealogist at the Office of Vital Records.  There she got the marriage certificate of her grandparents (who were married in Trenton).  At this point I noticed a merciful lack of narration (which continued through the episode) and Ancestry.com and Apple plugs (which appeared soon enough).  With the discovery of the marriage certificate, Christina learned her grandparents full names: Paul Schaller Applegate and Lavina Victoreen Shaw.  Lavina was born October 9, 1921, which made her 19 or 20 at the time of the marriage.  Christina also learned the names of Lavina’s parents: Ovid Shaw and Lavina Weaver Shaw.

(Before I move on, I would like to say that the names in the Shaw family are fantastic.  We need more Classical and Biblical names in the modern era.)

From there, Christina headed to the Trenton Public Library to look up Lavina.  At first I thought that the researcher (the library’s director) would send her to the Census, which is usually the first place one would look.  But no, instead they looked for the “long shot” option, any mention in local newspapers (which was easily discoverable thanks to uncredited-in-the-show-but-identified-in-the-credits sponsor Genealogy Bank).  I do however, call foul on this being referred to as a long shot option.  First, while it is indeed rare, it is not so entirely unlikely that someone would appear in the newspaper.  More importantly, this long shot option would never have been brought up if such search would have come up empty.

And sure enough, there were articles about Lavina, and her family.  In fact, there are many more articles than what was shown on television, particularly about Lavina’s parents, which make for a very interesting read if you have an interest.  (I wonder how much Christina learned beyond what made the show.)

The articles that Christina found indicated that Lavina’s family was well-to-do, which,  from my research, is backed up by the fact that both she and her mother appeared every once in a while in the society pages of the Trenton Evening Times.   When Christina finally did look at the Census (the 1940 Census only), she discovered that the family fell on hard times.  Ovid had been out of work for about three months.  Lavina (Jr.) was also looking for work and left school after 8th grade, which was premature for a girl of her life situation.

Going back to the marriage license, Christina remarked that it appeared Paul and Lavina never lived together, which struck me as curious.  She said that in response to the fact that her father’s birth address is the same one where Lavina lived when she was married (and where Paul Applegate did not live).  This remark struck me as odd given that it was not unusual back then, and is not completely unheard of now, for a newly married couple to live with the parents of either the bride or the groom–at least until they could get settled.  My grandparents did that; so did my great-grandparents.  So did aunts, uncles, and cousins.  The fact that Christina asked that question was strange, and it foreshadowed what was to come.  I wonder if the editing process fit into that somehow.

Christina’s next stop was the New Jersey State Library, where a Family Law Professor walked her through the divorce proceedings of Lavina and Paul Applegate.  It’s not a pretty story.  They married in June 1941, Lavina first left him in August 1941, she came back in January 1942, he kicked her out in May 1942, and they lived apart after that.  They divorced in 1945.  In the proceedings, she alleged abuse, both physical and emotional, and he alleged adultery and neglect of their child Bob.  Both allege that the other was an alcoholic, and both wanted custody of the child.  Lavina was awarded custody, which is what usually happened in the absence of overwhelming evidence that the mother was unfit.

It turned out that Bob lived with Lavina until he was two-and-a-half.  No record exists as to why he left her custody, but it was not hard to figure out.  Shortly after the divorce, Lavina’s mother, who had helped raise Bob, died.  Lavina, for reasons soon to become apparent, could not take care of the child.

Another newspaper search showed that Lavina, who was now Mrs. Charles Walton, died in 1955 at the age of 33.  But in 1955, Bob was 13-years-old.  By this time, he thought his mother was dead.  It is a heartbreaking tragedy, both for mother and child, that neither knew each other, although unlike Bob, Lavina knew he existed.

At the New Jersey State Archives, Christina learned from Lavina’s death certificate that she died of pulmonary tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver due to chronic alcoholism.  That was why she could not keep Bob.  She was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, not far from the Archives.  Bob was mentioned as a survivor in his mother’s obituary, and he never knew it.

Christina then had the dubious obligation of telling her father the whole story.  The one bright spot was that at least his mother’s death was unlike the one he was told.  Bob arrived in Trenton, and Christina, after warning him of the unpleasantness, showed him what she found.  There was no way to put a gloss on it.  At times, he looked sick.

Finally, they went to the cemetery where Lavina was buried, alongside her parents, only to discover there was no monument.  [Update:  Lavina is buried beside her father and sister.  Her mother was not buried in that plot, but rather at another location in the cemetery.  I apologize for the error, and thank you to those readers who pointed it out.]  At the cemetery office, when Bob and Christina looked at the index cards containing plot information, they discovered that Lavina had bought a burial plot for Bob next to her, so that he would be reunited with her in death in a way that he could not in life.

At the cemetery, Bob nearly broke down laying flowers on the empty earth where his mother and grandparents were buried.  He promised to buy a monument for her.  It’s a heartbreaking moment.

And then came the final scene where I shed that tear.  Three months after that the scene in the cemetery, the cameras returned and shot footage of a monument for Lavina and her parents [Update: father and sister].  It has the names and dates of all three.  Underneath is a single, beautiful line, “Mom, I found you.”

Next week: Chelsea Handler.  This one does not look happy.

Kelly Clarkson, Who Do You Think You Are?

It’s back!  The faux-Americana, the not-so-widely beloved most-beloved celebrities who know almost nothing about history, the unnecessary narrative recaps, the unsurprising cliffhangers, the overt manipulation, the mistakes, the copious Ancestry and Apple plugs.  Admit it, you too missed the show genealogists claim to love but should secretly hate.

Like Lazarus, Who Do You Think You Are returns from the dead, resurrected by the desperate people at Ancestry.com and the ironically-titled Learning Channel (TLC to the rest of us; any channel that showcases Sister Wives has given up any right to the word “learning.”)  In my recaps of the last iteration of the show, I wrote at length about the disadvantage the American version has by being at the mercy of network television and commercial sponsors as opposed to the BBC version which is broadcast by state television.  But I also wonder if the quality of celebrity the British version gets is better.  For example, while Americans all know Jerry Springer and everyone everywhere knows who J.K. Rowling is, are Dave Suchet and Ainsley Harriott the equivalent of what the American show has dredged up in recent seasons or are they actually well-regarded?   This season’s list though is easily the worst given the show’s fallen reputation (and lacking NBC forcing its biggest names to participate).  Chelsea Handler?  Chris O’Donnell?  These are some of America’s most beloved celebrities?  (It could be worse though; last season Paula Deen was on the show.)

Previous season openers have not been particularly strong, and this season is no different.  There are two good reasons for that: (1) Kelly Clarkson and her music are not particularly interesting; and (2) there was no authentic connection to her story.  With regard to the first reason, I am not a Kelly Clarkson fan.  I never watched American Idol, her songs annoy me at the gym, and I was one of the many, many people who left the Presidential Inauguration the moment she started to sing.  (Nothing against her per se, but the President already gave his speech, the sound system was terrible, and I had no connection to her that would make me want to stay on the National Mall in the cold.)  This is the grain of salt you need to take to continue on with the review.  If you are a Kelly Clarkson fan, I would suggest that you find another review.

As to the second reason the episode was not interesting, well this is a consistent problem that this show has a few times every season.  Episodes that focus solely on one ancestor are high-risk/high-reward.  Following one ancestor can work beautifully when the ancestor in question has a real, tangible, connection to the week’s celebrity such Rita Wilson’s father or Susan Sarandon’s missing grandmother.  But when the lone ancestor is someone from the very distant past, the story is claustrophobic.  The celebrity (and audience) connection is academic rather than emotional and thus feels akin to a something in a Howard Zinn book, only sanitized for television.  This was the problem of this episode.  Who was Isaiah R. Rose?  Kelly Clarkson’s 3rd great-grandfather, coal miner, soldier, sheriff, and one-term state Senator.  It’s nice, but it feels more like an attempt to tell an heroic American story rather than Kelly Clarkson’s.

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This episode had perhaps the oddest opening of any I’ve seen.  (Not in structure though, there was a parent who starts the celebrity on a journey, and the contractual Ancestry and Apple plugs about 3 minutes in.)  It was odd because Kelly Clarkson’s mother, who has an interest in genealogy, already did the research and basically told her daughter, “This is my great-great-grandfather Isaiah Rose.  He is the only person with an interesting story, so research him.”  The fact that Clarkson’s mother knew the information already makes the episode redundant and unnecessary.  It also reminded me of my law school classes where the professor had an answer in mind but tortured some poor pathetic student with a Socratic inquisition rather than just tell everyone what he was actually thinking.  So when Kelly’s mom told her that she would just have to go to Isaiah Rose’s home state of Ohio, I wondered if it were possible for this show’s ticks to get even more annoying.

Isaiah Rose, who had been a coal miner, enlisted in the Union Army right after hte attack on Fort Sumter.  Kelly, now in Columbus, Ohio, wanted to know if he enlisted because he was a patriot.  The poor historian, who knew better than to try and get into the head of an unknown figure who left no writings about the topic demurred, but then broadly hinted that, yes, it was because, like most Ohioans at the time, he was a patriot.  (Ohio was also where some of the most prominent anti-war Copperheads lived, but why spoil a good story?)  Patriotic Isaiah not only enlisted, he reenlisted.  He fought at a battle in Decatur, Georgia and was captured.  I immediately wondered if he was sent to Andersonville, but Kelly Clarkson, who judging from this episode, knows absolutely nothing about history beyond North=freedom=Woooo!, South=slavery=Boooo!, did not ask any such questions.  The historian in Columbus told her to go to Decatur and then she and Kelly hugged.

Kelly actually goes to Atlanta where Professor Timothy Orr (and the narrator) describe the Civil War and Sherman’s March to the Sea, to which the battle in Decatur was a precursor.  Orr then goes on to slightly exaggerate the importance of the battle in which Isaiah Rose fought.  The long and short of it, as Kelly understood it, is that if it were not for Isaiah Rose’s sacrifice, the South would have won the Civil War.  Who knew?  After a little research on Ancestry.com, it turns out that Isaiah Rose was indeed in Andersonville, and Kelly had never heard of it.

Every story needs a little suspension of disbelief, but if Kelly and Orr used Ancestry, then couldn’t Kelly’s mother, who is supposedly an Ancestry subscriber, also have found that out?  In fact, much of the information about Isaiah Rose used on the show was on Ancestry already, and I learned that from about 5 minutes of independent research.  This laziness makes the episode meaningless.  On the other hand, it makes me feel simultaneously both good and depressed about about my own research; a team of genealogists and historians working for months will be unable to find anything more out than I have already on my own.

Kelly sets out to Andersonville.  Professor Timothy Orr stays behind “to see what he could find” as though it weren’t already found.  Kelly describes her hesitation about going to Andersonville because it would be so sad to go to a place where people suffered for “our freedom”.  I wonder if she realizes that Andersonville is no longer a POW camp, and hasn’t been for almost 150 years.  Also, I take exception to “our freedom.”  The Confederates fought to keep African-Americans enslaved; they were not looking to chain up dyed-blond singers whose ancestors came from Northern states.  Also, Union soldiers generally did not join the Army to end slavery; they enlisted to forcibly keep the Confederacy within the United States.  The point is that while, at its core, the Civil War was about slavery, ending slavery was not generally why soldiers enlisted.

At Andersonville, Kelly got a history lesson from primary sources that the park ranger just happened to have on hand.  She learns that Isaiah Rose escaped from Andersonville in September 1864.  Nevertheless, we have to go back to Professor Timothy Orr in Atlanta to find out how Isaiah Rose escaped.  Orr gave Kelly what he stayed around to find (or, you know, found months ago but did not disclose for the sake of story), which was Isaiah Rose’s Civil War pension file.  For anyone who has a Civil War soldier ancestor, this is one of the first things you would look for.  My ancestors started arriving well after the Civil War ended, and I know that.

According to the pension file, Isaiah Rose suffered a permanent disability (completely with diagram of injury and surgeon’s certificate) after being shot by a fellow Union soldier who mistook him for a Confederate.  This reminded Kelly of a Patty Griffin song.  Because Kelly Clarkson is a singer.  Anyway, the file moved Kelly to tears because, at least according to her own inner logic, her great-great-great-grandfather’s injury led to Obama getting elected (and then reelected complete with an Inauguration where she sang).  Professor Timothy Orr said that Isaiah Rose would be proud of her and Kelly humbly demurred.  I’m with her on that.

Kelly decided that she wants to know what happened to Isaiah Rose after the war, probably because there’s still twenty minutes left to the show and presumably no one else in her family is interesting.  So she went to Marietta, Ohio and meets with genealogist D. Josh Taylor who showed her that Isaiah Rose was elected (and reelected) sheriff.  This was very exciting to Kelly, so much so that she screamed out (in a library) “Like Tombstone?!?”   I was deeply disappointed when Taylor did not scream, “No, not like Tombstone, you ignoramus!”  A sheriff in 19th Ohio was not like a sheriff in 19th century Arizona.  More politicking and much less mythos.

It turns out that Isaiah Rose was subsequently elected as a Republican state Senator which, to the strains of swelling background music, makes Kelly visibly proud (because like him, and everyone else in this family whom she didn’t bother to research, she’s driven and hardcore).  And then she went back to Columbus as her journey’s full circle starts to close where she entered the Ohio Senate Chamber (“his office”) where Isaiah Rose once sat for a brief one term.  She asked what legislation he wrote, which apparently is something legislators used to do in the long-forgotten past.  And it turned out he did do something; he was a temperance advocate and passed a law that aided in the closing of saloons.  At the mention of temperance, you could practically see Kelly Clarkson’s face fall, which is something I knew would happen.  I also knew that the temperance movement was both: (1) a way of bashing of immigrants; and (2) an early form of feminism predicated on the idea that limiting alcohol was a way to make lives better for women, particularly poor women.  Which is also why the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a hotbed of first wave feminists.  (We’ve seen this before in this show in a much better episode.)  The historian in the Chamber tried to explain this to Kelly Clarkson, who took this as proof positive that Isaiah Rose cared deeply about women’s issues (no one ever mentions the immigrants).  That made her happy to hear that the bill passed–after a not-so-dramatic commercial cliffhanger–and the Governor signed it into law.

Practically telegraphing what happened next, Kelly went on and on about how amazing it was that her ancestor passed such a major bill as a freshman Senator, and he must have made many enemies.  Oh, by the way, did he get reelected?  Nope.  The liquor industry targeted him and he lost by just over 30 votes.  (Unmentioned by the historian, but in the article he showed Kelly, is that Isaiah Rose contested the result.)  About eight years later he died and was buried in a nearby cemetery.  Kelly visits his grave at the cemetery where it turns out the entire family is buried.  She talks to Isaiah, completely ignoring his poor ignored wife who is buried with him.

Then Kelly went back to her mother and told her everything about the journey. To her credit, Kelly’s mother sort of pretends she doesn’t already know any of this.  Even more to her credit, she knew what Andersonville was.  She even cried a little for some reason, although I refuse to believe that any of this was new to her.  All that is left is for Kelly Clarkson to spout the mandatory platitudes about how great it was to learn about her family even though, as far as I can tell, she learned about one family member and no one else.

Next week: From Kelly Clarkson to Kelly Bundy.  Christina Applegate is the next celebrity detective.