An Oscar-winning actress' mixed heritage includes cousin connections to playwright Tennessee Williams, actor Richard Gere and other famous figures.
Movie star Halle Berry—recently visible on big screens and small as Catwoman, a Bond girl and a makeup model—delivered that tearful "this moment is so much bigger than me" speech in 2002, after winning the first Oscar awarded to an African-American actress. Berry's mixed heritage is well-known: She's said, "I don't see a white woman. I see a black woman, even though my mother is white."
Although Berry sees herself as African-American, knowing her mother's European heritage was a genealogical advantage for me. I reached back 12 generations and found lots of links to a variety of famous folk. Through John Perkins, an early-1600s settler of Ipswich, Mass., Berry can count actors Richard Gere and Montgomery Clift among her 10th cousins once removed (for the juicy details on Gere's ancestry, see the December 2004 Family Tree Magazine.) The same colonial ancestor makes her a ninth cousin twice removed to playwright Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams and a sixth cousin four times removed to 13th US President Millard Fillmore.
Unlike in modern times, though, people tended to hide mixed heritage during our ancestors' era—which could make your research more difficult. If everything else about a suspected ancestor looks right, but the ethnicity is "wrong," dig deeper. You might make a brick-wall breakthrough—and feel as though you've won a genealogical Oscar. Better start writing that acceptance speech.