ISSUE THREE-[R]evolving Research: The 98-Year-Old Notice

This last week was extremely busy for non-research reasons. After years of hard work, my mom’s little tea/coffee shop/bookstore/art gallery/bar finally opened. It has been all hands on deck since last Wednesday. I couldn’t dedicate as much time as normal to my bio subject, J, managing about 30 minutes each day. That is the absolute minimum time that I’m happy with, preferring to dedicate at least 10 hours per week to this project. As busy as I’ve been, though, I’ll consider this a victory.

I’m still doing tons of reading. Books and periodicals. Once I get through this week, it’ll be back to regular morning “office hours” up in my studio. I’ve found that’s the best way to plow through big information searches/dumps. It’s tiring, at first, for this night owl but, hey, that is what a big cuppa is for.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 5:

  • VICTORY: Not falling asleep whilst reading late at night, haha.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: Finding a brief notice of J in a 1922 issue of The Music News.
  • FRUSTRATION: So tired. Overworked. Not doing all the things.
  • CURRENTLY READING: The August 1910 issue of Lyceumite & Talent
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 3 1/2

Until next time!

ISSUE TWO-[R]evolving Research: The 102-Year-Old Diploma

“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
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 7

School photo. From my collection.

**

Until next time!

ISSUE ONE-[R]evolving Research: The 98-Year-Old Dog

“The difference between doing something and not doing something is doing something.”-James Corden, May I Have Your Attention, Please?

As some of you know, I am in the early (and I do mean early) stages of researching material for a biography. The best-case scenario has me completing said research in about three years. Say, the end of 2023. It is the biggest, grandest, scariest, and most exhilarating project I’ve ever contemplated. A few weeks in, and I am having a helluva good time. Let me explain.

Since learning to read–way back when at age three–I’ve adored reference materials and all related paraphernalia. Dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias. Dates, facts, figures. All marvelous. Sigh. Good thing, that. Why?

Because I could not imagine trying to tackle the life of an obscure musical theater performer (whose career started 100 years ago) without this weird native penchant for unearthing mundane or evasive details. This project is hard, y’all. Daunting. Elephantine. 

And all the more rewarding when I discover a tiny puzzle piece, such as her purebred dog’s birth date and parentage, 98 years after the fact. He was an Airedale, in case you were wondering. Black and tan. I imagine he looked like this:

Not really her doggo. This is a 21st-century good boy. Public Domain.

Maybe I will eventually find a photo of her actual good boy. I’m already in possession of some of her archives (an origin story for another post). Anything is possible in the world of biography, right?

Speaking of those puzzle pieces, dozens are already in place. Those mostly belong to the outer edge. Inside? One here, a couple there. Largely unconnected but waiting to be joined to the rest. An exciting concept. Can’t wait. Only approximately 9,957 pieces to fit in place. Or more. Who knows? I certainly don’t.

I spent the first couple of weeks poring over dry historical records: census, birth, death, marriage. Obituaries, burial info. All helpful in forging connections, resulting in several spontaneous aha moments! I know I’ve not seen the back end of those. Not yet. Not for a while. Weeks? Months? Years? Who knows? I certainly don’t. 

Going forward? Archives are about to be this girl’s best friend. My subject, J, performed in 45 states, lived in a couple. Traveled for pleasure. There’s so much to learn.

I plan on sharing a tightly curated version of my research journey here. What does that mean? A weekly post will go up every Tuesday, with the periodic stand-alone piece appearing as needed. Should be fun.

**

RESEARCH NOTES WEEKS 1-3:

  • VICTORIES: I plotted out her family tree and know (almost) everyone’s vital statistics.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERIES: J’s dog’s pedigree; her son’s college yearbook; a ship’s manifest from 1931; a newspaper blurb from 1930 about her recovery from a “serious” surgery.
  • FRUSTRATIONS: Her children are largely enigmas.
  • CURRENTLY READING: The Lyceumite & Talent issues from 1910.

“I get intrigued by a puzzle, and writing a book is the best way to solve it.”–Anthony Storr

**

Until next time!

Off Topic Post: Happy 100th Birthday, Vivien Leigh!

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on 5 November 1913.

Young Viv

Young Viv

She was a very, very fine actress of stage and screen. If you’ve only seen Gone with the Wind or A Streetcar Named Desire, you have missed some wonderful film performances. Her theatrical work has, of course, been lost to time. It’s a shame, because she was a serious and brilliant stage actress obsessively dedicated to her craft. Her film stardom was largely beside the point.-“I’m not a film star, I am an actress. Being a film star is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity.”-Vivien Leigh

She was married to this chap for two decades.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, June 1948

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, June 1948

She died on 8 July 1967.

Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh

If I ever find a time machine, I will make dozens of stops just to see the magnetic and fiercely talented Vivien Leigh weave her magic across the world’s stages.

A Year in Books/Day 185: The Mistinguett Legend

  • Title: The Mistinguett Legend
  • Author: David Bret
  • Year Published: 1990 (St. Martin’s Press)
  • Year Purchased: 1990s
  • Source: My mother
  • About: Mistinguett was a widely, and wildly, famous French chanteuse. I’m not sure how well her appeal translates from French to American culture, but she was a first-class oddity. Continue reading