Last week was extra busy because of Christmas. We didn’t go anywhere, of course, because of the pandemic. There was a lot of baking and some last-minute decorating, though. I still fit in a fair amount of reading amidst the chaos. I also learned a new fact about J, courtesy of a nearly 101-year-old source. Yay!
RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 12
VICTORY: I feel as if this is something I frequently mention, but continuing my research, every day, no matter how busy I am is definitely a victory.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: A small newspaper blurb from January 1920, when J was 19, describes her as a “uke-banjoist.” This is the first indication I’ve had that she was also a musician. Another course of research to follow up on in the future.
FRUSTRATION: Sometimes I feel as if three-plus years is not enough time to research the life and career of J.
CURRENTLY READING: A Guide to Historic Downtown Memphis by William Patton
Anyone who has ever researched their family history knows that there are always branches missing from the tree. Looking into J’s husband’s past, I quickly found his first wife…or so I thought. They married in 1916. Easy peasy, right? After all, only two wives were listed on Archives.com AND Ancestry.com, J being the second. Weeks later, whilst reading a 1910 issue of Lyceumite & Talent (which is practically a pastime unto itself), I found mention of R’s wife. She was listed only as Mrs. R. Thanks a lot, early twentieth-century norms. Six full years before his marriage to supposed wife #1. Suddenly, wife #1 was wife #2, and J was moved to third position. Confusing, eh?
Who was the mystery first wife? I finally solved the puzzle last week. As I knew from that trade publication article, she was a performer. All of R’s wives, as it turns out, were actress-singers. He had a type: women of accomplishment and talent. I like that about him.
Wife #1 now has a name (and a stage name, too). Another long research road to walk down. Why is this important? As I’ve said before, J’s career was intertwined with that of her much-older husband. His performing and producing life pre-dated his relationship with her by 20 years. He worked with his first two wives, just as he did with J. I cannot talk about her professional endeavors without covering how they converged with those of R and his previous wives. Is it a mess or a blessing? Only time, and more research, will tell.
RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 11
VICTORY: I finished another book in my research process, even though the holidays are upon us.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: R’s first wife’s identity, of course!
FRUSTRATION: I’m still mending from my accident.
CURRENTLY READING: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
This week brought our first real snow of the season, more reading (lots of it), and a new tidbit about J’s husband that should open the floodgates to a considerable amount of fresh information. All in all, it’s been a relaxing and productive period.
RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 8:
VICTORY: Reading at a pace that actually satisfies me.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: I discovered not one, but two “new” musical groups that J’s husband, R, produced. Both pretty prominent in their day.
FRUSTRATION: Directly contradicting point one: not being able to read 24/7.
CURRENTLY READING: Babbits & Bohemians: The American 1920s by Elizabeth Stevenson (see here).
Researching J also means researching her husband, R, and his career. Being twenty-one years older, his advent as an entertainer and theatrical manager nearly coincided with his future wife’s birth. Later, their showbiz careers were inextricably connected for the two decades preceding his death.
Going down all of these necessary by-roads and highways is one of the reasons I expect my research to take around five years.
RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 6:
VICTORY: Once again carving out “enough” time for my research.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: A three-page spread about R and his various theatrical and musical companies, in a 1910 issue of Lyceumite & Talent.
FRUSTRATION: Not being able to read all the things all at once.
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”-Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young
How many lists can a person make about writing lists? I’m not sure, but I believe this project is going to test existing limits for me. And I say this as someone who is a lifelong list producer.
Of the many lists I worked on this past week, one is head and shoulders above the rest as the most epic and time-consuming. It’s still a work-in-progress and will require near-constant updating for, well, years. This list contains pages and pages of books I’d like to track down and read, in any format I can get my hands on. Books about Memphis and its history, books about the 1920s-1940s, books about the early 20th century, books about 100-year-old stage musicals…just for starters. I might have to transfer this list into a separate journal. Sigh.
Incidentally, this was also the week that I more or less gave up on the very idea of reading for pleasure. Fortunately, I honestly love all of the subjects I need to research whilst bringing J and her world to life. It’s not a problem, exactly; but, rather, a temporary pivot to a new and differently fulfilling mindset.
RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 4:
VICTORY: I’ve not missed a day of research in the first month of work.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: I found J’s high school diploma for sale on eBay. For real. From 1918!
FRUSTRATION: I have yet to purchase the above diploma due to weird COVID-era finances. Sob.
CURRENTLY READING: The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby