Aretha Sang It Best: R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
Respect. It's a small word, but one that I think each of us should understand and practice toward one another as much as possible.
As I continue to explore my vast family history, there seems to be no shortage of notable family members that I have discovered, and that I continue to discover almost daily. Many of these distant family members are well known historical, or even living people. Nobility, political figures, business giants, inventors, musicians, writers, singers and actors; my extended family fills almost every box of what we now refer to as a "celebrity:.
Celebrity can be simply described as a famous person; a person who has broad public recognition. When we talk about celebrities, we often refer to people who are famous actors, musicians or singers, but it is so much more than just those who work in those positions. Although they would not like to be referred to as celebrities, even the British Royal Family are now considered "celebrities".
Having so many family members that are, or were, celebrities, makes my job as family historian both easier and more difficult at the same time. Adding photos, facts and details about the lives of my famous relatives can be easier because there is significant documentation available, information that other less notable people (including yours truly) lack. However, digging through the information about the lives of such individuals can also prove to be exhausting, not only because of the sheer amount of information that is available, but because of the stories and often less-than-objective stories about them.
My first discovery of a "celebrity" family member was several years ago, when I discovered that Frank WInfield Woolworth was my paternal 7th cousin. Everyone from my generation knew about the Woolworth stores, now long gone here in Canada, but I don't think that I was in the minority in not knowing much about the man, or his family. As I began to pour through material written about Frank and his family, I found a lot of criticism of the Woolworths and their descendants. It took weeks of reviewing as much material as I could find before I could make up my own mind about this branch of my family, and I endeavored to be as objective as possible when writing about them.
Frank and his brother Charles were a true rags-to-riches story, creating a global retail giant from nothing but an idea. It is a great example of the American Dream. They had wealth that allowed them to live life to its fullest, but at a cost. Like every family, rich or poor, the Woolworth's had their share of tragedy - maybe more than their share!
As I poured through details about their lives, one life in particular stood out: the life of my 9th cousin, Barbara Hutton. Barbara was the daughter of Edna Woolworth and Franklin Laws Hutton (brother of Edward Francis "EF" Hutton). Barbara Hutton may better be known to older people such as myself as the "Poor Little Rich Girl,", immortalized in the TV movie of the same name starring the late great Farah Fawcett.
As I read story after story about Barbara, I came to the conclusion that a lot of the stories were most likely embellished in order to sell newspapers and magazines. However, I will never know for sure as I didn't know Barbara Hutton personally, nor did anyone in my immediate family, so the best that I could do was try to separate fact from fiction, and write Barbara's mini-bio on my webpage in an objective manner.
Finding the Woolworth family seemed to open a floodgate as I soon started to discover relative after relative who was, or still is, famous. Unfortunately I also found the same pattern of sensational "reporting" about their lives. It was a pattern that would repeat itself over and over again. From Hollywood stars to political leaders, to my most famous cousins Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her family, it seems that every newspaper, social media platform, TV and movie production loves to focus on the faux-pas that these family people have made. Even more disturbing is the fact that many people in the wider public like to jump on the same bandwagon.
While there are still plenty of "good news" stories about these cousins, it seems that almost everyone is keen to watch when one of them slips up. I liken this to traffic slowing to a crawl at the site of a car accident - people seem drawn to other people's misfortune.
Imagine for a moment how you would feel if, not wanting to get dressed as you normally do to go out and grab something from the store in your sweatpants, an old t-shirt and your hair looking less than perfect - a photographer snapped a photo of you and put it all over the internet. How would you feel? What if you went out one night and had too much to drink (as we all have), and photos of you stumbling around, falling down or vomiting suddenly showed up on your friend's FaceBook newsfeed? Even more alarming, how would you feel if your private life was dragged into the public eye and put on display for all to see and comment on? It wouldn't feel good, would it?
I mention this as I continue to perform a deep-dive into the life of Judy Garland, her sisters and her children, Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft and Joey Luft. Prior to discovering that Judy was a very distant cousin (26th paternal cousin), I had only known a little about her. She will, of course, always be "Dorothy" from the Wizard of Oz, or Mickey Rooney's love interest, but I really had not paid much attention to her story beyond that. Of course I knew that Judy had been a talented singer, and that her daughter was the equally talented Liza Minnelli (no offense to Lorna or Joey - I have been familiar with your names, but not your work, but soon will be!), and that she had died very young, but that was pretty much it.
When I discover a famous relative, living or dead, I like to research that person as much as I can. Often this research has made me realize that I have held some preconceived ideas about that person that had been planted long ago by misinformation or sensationalized stories. To be honest, as a person who likes to make informed decisions, I feel foolish and ashamed when I realize that my beliefs about one of these people are wrong. A lot of these "seeds" of misinformation were planted many years ago, and it feels good to be able to weed out the wrong facts and replace them with the truth. To me that is more important than being able to say that someone famous is, or was, my distant cousin.
I admire the talents and determination that these famous cousins have; I'm thankful that they have entertained us with their talents, guided us through trying times and for the wonderful inventions that they have brought to the world to improve our lives. It is these things that we should remember, not the mistakes that they have made, as we all do. Let's respect those that have brought joy into our lives, and let's not take joy in their short-comings.
Respect. It's something that we all want, and something that we should all strive to give, and it begins with looking beyond the gossip and rumors, and seeing the real person behind the headlines.