The problem with a genealogy based television show is that if you watch week in and week out, eventually you get a sense of déjà vu. On its own, the Valerie Bertinelli edition of Who Do You Think You Are is quite good. But having seen every episode since Season 1 (and some episodes from series outside the US), I felt like I had seen it all before even if some of the details were different. A trip to Italy? Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, and Marissa Tomei. Meeting a long-lost relatives. Tomei and Rita Wilson. Nobility in the family stretching back through the centuries? Shields again and Cindy Crawford. (It was no accident that the repeat episode following tonight’s was Brooke Shields.) English and/or colonial American ancestry? That must be at least 75% of the guests.
Perhaps it is an unhappy accident within our celebrity culture that the people we elevate, or at least those with a traceable story, tend to have similar backgrounds. Personally, I would be interested to see a story that went to places we haven’t really been to: Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa (preferably with a traceable story that doesn’t rely on questionable DNA evidence), anywhere in Asia, Oceania, or a Northern European country that is neither a British Isle nor Germany. I am not faulting the show–it is not the fault of the researchers if the story is just not there–but I cannot deny having a wish list.
Like I said, tonight’s episode was good, aided by the fact that we have returned to a format in which more than one story is pursued. It was a nice bit of variety and it releases the claustrophobia that can potentially build up following just one ancestor. On the other hand, there were a lot of names thrown at us tonight and the spellings were not entirely reviewer friendly. Please be kind if I misspell a name, and feel confident in the knowledge I am losing potential Google search hits as a result of my errors.
Valerie Bertinelli, star of One Day at a Time, Cafe Americain, and Hot in Cleveland, and the former Mrs. Eddie Van Halen, is the daughter of Andrew and Nancy (Carvin) Bertinelli. She was very close to her father’s family, but her mother’s side was a mystery as her mother left home at a very early age and immersed herself in the Bertinelli family. Nancy’s parents were Lester Carvin and Elizabeth Adams Chambers Carvin, leading Valerie to believe that her mother’s family was originally English. As such, Valerie’s son Wolfie wanted to know if there was a family crest (spoiler: of course there was).
Before that inevitable reveal though we learned a bit about Andrew Bertinelli’s family. Valerie was very close to Andrew’s mother, her grandmother Angelina (Croso). Beyond her, Valerie knew almost nothing. Here, you will have to forgive me, dear reader. I had a very rough commute home, and then my computer froze so until the first commercial break I had to write my notes rather than type them, so I cannot remember how the following events occurred. (1.) Valerie received a picture of Angelina’s mother, Maria standing behind an gelato stand that she ran. There were other women in the picture and a little girl who might have been Angelina. (2.) Maria remarried a man whose last name was Mancia, and lived on a farm in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania.
Using Ancestry (plug 5 minutes in), Valerie found Maria and her husband Gregrorio Mancia (spelled Mancha) in the 1920 Census. They lived in Jefferson in Lackawanna with Maria’s two children Angelina and Giorgio, both were listed as “Manchas” on the Census but were actually Crosos. Valerie traveled to the Lackawanna Historical Society in Scranton, and bonus points if the theme song from The Office was stuck in your head.
At the Historical Society, Valerie learned that a widowed Maria deeded her farm to her daughter and son-in-law Angelina and Nazzareno Bertinelli, doing so only a week after her husband died in 1931. How did he die? By using the Ancestry-owned Newspapers.com (plug 9 minutes in), we get the whole horrible story: Gregorio shot himself in the head after attempting to kill Maria. She was in bed, and lay still as if dead, pretended that he killed her. Then he killed himself. That was traumatic just to listen to.
Valerie was given one last document, an obituary for her great-grandmother (called Mary) dated July 6, 1961. Her survivors included her two children and a brother Joseph Possio. The discovery of this maiden name, led Valerie back to Ancestry (15 minutes) to find an immigration record from 1915 for Maria Possio, age 36, and her two children “Maddalena” (Angelina) and Giorgio Croso. The show never really answered why Maria reverted to her maiden name on the passenger list (although perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she was joining her brother already in the US), as she was a widow when she set sail, but Valerie did learn that Maria came from Lanzo in the Province of Turin (Torino), Valerie’s next stop.
Valerie went to the Lanzo Library where she discovered that Maria Possio married Francesco Croso in 1910 when she was 31. There had already been a daughter (Maddalena/Angelina) born from “their natural union” which is a very ecclesiastical/political/polite way of saying that the daughter was born out-of-wedlock. The historian assured Valerie that the marriage was a way to legitimize Angelina, and that the reason they had not married was because church weddings were very expensive and dowry expectations were unrealistically high. Giorgio was born about a year later and three or four years later, Maria left town.
Francesco Croso died of a heart attack about a year into the marriage, and that was when Maria ran the gelato cart in Valerie’s picture. Apparently, Maria’s story was uncommon. The historian helping Valerie said she asked around Lanzo about the Possios and found someone who knew them but would not say anything more, which (of course) meant that the person she found was a relative. Valerie then gave a little speech about how brave her great-grandmother was, and I would have loved to listen, but I swear I have heard this same speech every single episode this season, and I was desperately trying to figure out how to spell some of these Italian names.
As predicted, the mystery guest was a relative: Pietro Possio who said he was Valerie’s third cousin as his grandfather was Maria’s first cousin. Actually, the relationship is third cousins once removed, but who’s counting. Pietro and Valerie are both overjoyed, and he gave her a postcard sent by Maria to her Lanzo family on the eve of her departure, although something confused me. The postcard appeared to be from Palermo, which is in Sicily, and Maria’s ship left from Genoa in northern Italy, not terribly far from Lanzo. Did my eyes deceive me? Pietro also had a letter that his father Francesco wrote to Angelina (although why he had a letter that was presumable mailed and received a continent away is a mystery that remained unaddressed) asking her to ask her children to write him–even in English–and to one day visit. Valerie said that her visit to Lanzo was the fulfillment of that dream.
After the happy reunion, Valerie went to London to research her mother’s side of the family. Her first stop was the Society for Antiquaries. Valerie talked about how she never thought much about her English ancestry because of her Italian last name, and I am reminded of the Jewish genealogist Arthur Kurzweil, who wrote in his book From Generation to Generation (one of the first important books on Jewish genealogy):
After seven years of research on one of the many branches in my family, I realized that I had made a mistake: I had neglected all of the other branches. In large part, it was the fact that my last name is Kurzweil which subconsciously made me think that I was more a Kurzweil than a Gottlieb, which is my mother’s maiden name. For that matter, I was equally an Ennis, which is father’s mother’s maiden name. I am also just as much a Klein, a Loventhal, a Rath, a Grünberger, and countless other names as well.
It is a lesson that every genealogist needs to learn, and bravo to Valerie for acknowledging it
At the Society for Antiquaries, Valerie received a massive family tree of her mother’s side (which was very New Jersey heavy). Her grandmother Elizabeth did not have much of a pedigree, but her grandfather Lester had a family tree that traced back many generation. His parents were Joseph and Ida (Gooden) Carvin. Ida’s parents were Joseph and Mary Emma (Bishop) Gooden. Mary’s parents were Benjamin and Mary (Claypoole) Bishop. And then the genealogist told Valerie that the Claypooles were “gateway ancestors,” ancestors who link seemingly ordinary lineages to nobility or royalty or both (and thus potentially go back dozens of generations). WDYTYA previously showed one such gateway ancestor in the Cindy Crawford episode, when she learned about Thomas Trowbridge.
The Claypooles in particular are an especially important family because Mary Claypoole Bishop’s 3rd great-grandfather (and Valerie’s 8th) was James Claypoole (b. 1634 in England) who was involved in the birth of the Quakers. The Quakers, with their beliefs in full equality of souls, men and women, highborn and low (which is why for a long time they adopted the informal “thou” rather than the formal “you.”) As a result of such heresy, they were imprisoned. James Claypoole was so significant that Valerie discovered a James Claypoole Letter Book, a compilation of letters he wrote, including one from 1683 to his friend William Penn. Being a native of Pennsylvania, I knew very well who William Penn was, and I was glad to see that Valerie did also. James Claypoole wrote to Penn that he wished also to go to Pennsylvania, which was settled as a haven for Quakers (who were not welcome in, among other places, Puritan Massachusetts). Valerie also got to see a copy of a document written in England, an early constitution written by William Penn to govern the Pennsylvania colony, making it one of the oldest constitutions in the world. Naturally, one of the signed witnesses was James Claypoole.
At the end of the book of his letters, James Claypoole’s life was summarized. He was elected to the Provisional Council in Philadelphia, but died shortly thereafter on August 6, 1687. His wife Helena survived him by only a year, but he left to her, among other things, his coat of arms, which made Valerie very happy to hear, because her son wanted it so badly, and because a coat of arms is apparently a big deal.
Valerie’s next stop was London’s College of Arms where she spoke to the Herald of Arms. There she saw the Claypoole coat of arms, which was a chevron with three circles around it. The Herald gave her a little more history of the Claypoole family. James’s great-grandfather (also James) was a yeoman but made money and became a gentleman, which is how he got his coat of arms. Although the Claypoole line did not extend much further back, the elder James’s son Adam married Dorothy Wingfield, whose bloodline was very long indeed. In fact, it is so long and confusing, I will just tell you the punchline–Dorothy Wingfield, and thus young James Claypoole and his descendants, including Valerie, are descended from Edward I “Longshanks” of England, one of the major Plantagenet kings. I looked up the genealogy (lots of Elizabeths and deBohuns), and it is rough to describe.
The problem that I had here was not the big reveal, but what was left out. If Valerie is a descendant of Edward I, then she is also a descendant of a host of Plantagenet and Norman monarchs including such famous names as William the Conqueror and Henry II, and infamous ones such as John (think Robin Hood). And while it is nice to focus on the king who subjugated Wales and grudgingly allowed the beginnings of Parliament, isn’t the Battle of Hastings more interesting? And then if we can trace back to William the Conqueror, we can almost definitely trace back to Charlemagne, and Valerie and Cousin Cindy Crawford can get together for a family reunion.
Valerie returned home for a family reunion to share her information, which is the first time in a while we’ve seen that. That is the nice part of this genealogy passion, when the people around us are as amazed as we are by the things we find.
Next week: Kelsey Grammar