The most fascinating stories in our family histories are often about how and where our ancestors met. These stories are often lost in just a couple generations. We, obviously, know where and when we met our spouses and often know when, how, and where our parents met. Knowing how our grandparents met is unusual, and knowing how our great grandparents met is rare — Our oral histories usually don’t go back that far. As such, it is really important to document how and where our ancestors met so their stories can pass down to future generations.
The story of my grandfather’s meeting of my grandmother and of his wives is elusive. I’ve put together what I have from oral history and some documents that I’ve found. I know something of two of the three stories and know nothing of the third.
As many of you know my grandmother, Donna, was in vaudeville. The story is that in 1929 and 1930 the vaudeville stage became increasingly difficult to find work. The depression was tough on live show business. My grandmother and her husband, Sammy Amsterdam decided to travel to Panama because the depression hadn’t really hit Panama yet and there was work there. We don’t know what work Sammy found while in Panama, but we know that Donna became a
|Donna on Right, c. 1930
“Cabaret Girl” at the Fort Amador Beach Club in Panama. (See: Donna Cabaret Girl in Panama.html.) My grandfather was in the Army, stationed in Panama, (See: Road Trip Clifford Dick Brown. and met my grandmother while she was working at a club there. We don’t know if he knew that Donna was married at the time, but according to oral history, he fell in love with her at first sight. He told his best friend that he was “going to marry that girl.” We also don’t know if his attentions broke up the marriage between Donna and Sammy or if they were already estranged when Dick first saw Donna. We do know that when Donna and Sammy returned to the States, in March of 1930, they were estranged. The two show up on separate pages of the passenger list, both indicating that they paid their passage themselves. Donna indicated her home as in Detroit, at her mother’s address; Sammy indicated his home as in New York, at his mother’s address.
It appears that, sometime in 1931, Dick got out of the service and went to see Donna. Donna got pregnant. Sammy knew that the child could not have been his, but, according to oral history, he remained married to Donna long enough to “give the child a name” then quietly divorced her.
Dick wanted to marry Donna and bring her and her children to Minnesota. Donna, however, had moved to Chicago and was very connected to the nightclub scene there. She wasn’t about to give up the glamor and excitement of 1930s Chicago for the rural life of northern Minnesota. Dick apparently saw the life that Donna was providing his daughter (probably neglectful) and decided that his daughter would be better off with him. He took their daughter, without Donna’s permission, and went to Minnesota with her. Donna sic’d the police on him and he was arrested for child-napping. Luckily, the Lindbergh Law, which made kidnapping a federal offence, had a provision that excepted parents for their own minor children or things could have been a lot worse.
In any event, after a big whoop-de-doo, between the governors of Minnesota and Illinois regarding extradition, (See: Article
) Dick went to prison (or jail) sometime after April 1935. He couldn’t have been there very long. (Note: Clifford Brown and Richard “Dick” Brown are the same person.)
Family oral history says that once Dick got out of prison, he went to see Donna one last time. He still loved her and wanted to marry her. She, once again, told him “NO.” After Donna’s rejection, Dick went to a bar/restaurant in Chicago. There, he met a young woman, Dorothy Louise Wilhelm. Her parents owned the place. They began to date, and in February 1936 Dick and Dorothy were married.
Dick and Dorothy divorced and Dick took care of his mother in the Pillager/Motley Minnesota area for many years. Dick married Cecelia Ann Squires in March of 1975 after his mother went into a nursing home. I have no knowledge of how or where he and Cecelia met. I would love to hear the story of their meeting if anyone knows it.
If you know anything of these stories that I have left out, please let me know and I’ll include it in an update.
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