They’re places I feel like I already know as well as the back of my own hand, though I haven’t been to either of them yet.I began researching Rose Hovick in 2008. It took two and a half years of research, quite a bit of which could only be done on Saturdays, the only day when I could get to the Performing Arts Library to study the Gypsy Rose Lee Archive of personal papers, photos and documents, before my bok, MAMA ROSE’S TURN, could be written. During the rest of the week I would go through records on Ancestry.com, newspaperarchive.com, and read lots of books about Seattle, where Rose lived from early childhood on, and Copalis Beach, Washington, where her little sister Belle “Betty” Thornton had a souvenir shop and motel.
I came to adore the history of Seattle. I learned all about its founder, Arthur Denny, a staunch, religious man who was in favor (like my own family members) of prohibition and brought the first minister to the area to found a church – that almost nobody attended. I read about Henry Yesler, who constructed a mill, and the fabulously notorious Doc Maynard, who was, among other things, the town’s first official drunk. It would have been fun to see him interact with Arthur Denny.
I also came to love the stories of the North Beach area of Washington, where Betty lived. Betty’s letters to Rose and Gypsy Rose Lee that can be found in the archive can be divided into two distinct sets. She was caring for their mother, Anna, a shut-in, and had of necessity become something of a shut-in herself, living in a tiny house on Rutan Place in West Seattle. At first her letters were filled with descriptions of her own, and her mother’s, litany of ailments, often graphic, very sad, and sometimes extremely hard to wade through. Later, when she moved to Copalis Beach to set up her gift shop, they take a sparkling turn for the better. Suddenly she writes of clam digs and fun times.
It’s funny, but when you research people who are long gone, and are reading one letter of theirs after another, in fact, hundreds of them, you start to root for them. “Blast it,” I’d sit there and think as I read them, “won’t this poor Betty ever get a nice break?” She was so trapped by her circumstances. It seemed beyond unfair. When I found the letters where she first started mentioning her new and happier life in Copalis Beach, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Ah, now that would have certainly disrupted the quietude of the Special Collections Room at the Library!
I also learned of the community that inhabited the area known as the North Beach. Dorothy Anderson, one of the first residents of Ocean City, lived in a tiny cabin that still stands and has been restored. Another area resident, Norah Berg, moved to a cabin with her husband, whom she called “The Old Sarge.” She wrote a book about the experience called Lady on the Beach. It’s considered a classic and it’s a very fun read. She mentioned how a lot of exceedingly poor people would move to these little cabins at the beach because it was possible to “eat like kings” there, thanks to the area’s abundance of easily caught seafood. She wrote also of the same digs for clams that Betty enjoyed.
So it is with joyous anticipation that I say I am going to embark on a trip west on Sunday. I’ll be riding the Amtrak across the country on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago first, and then on the Empire Builder, which goes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the northern part of our country, including Glacier National Park. I can hardly wait. I have researched these two areas of Washington so thoroughly that I probably will know how to walk from one locale to another the minute I get there, and without benefit of having to look at a map. I’ll be met by Kelly Calhoun and Jane Bennett of the Museum of the North Beach, who are hosting me for a book signing – at Dorothy Anderson’s restored little cabin in Seabrook, WA on November 30th. We’ll be visiting Seattle too, seeing the Space Needle, taking the Underground Seattle tour of the town’s old days that, I’ve heard, features stories about Denny, Yesler, Maynard and more. Later in the trip I’ll be stopping by for a visit with Karen White who now owns one of the Thompson family’s homes, the one on Rutan Place. Another of their houses used to stand on ground that became the city’s most famous landmark: The Space Needle. There will also be a stop up in Vancouver, where June Havoc was born, and where I’ll meet up with Rob Brandreth-Gibbs, whose grandmother was in Rose’s Hollywood Blondes act. I’ll be met in each place by friends.
I may be going on vacation to places I’ve never been before, but after having looked all of these places up and studied them for so long, in a strange way, I feel like I’m “coming home.” Maybe you’d have to be a researcher to understand.