Ive missed my little Friday night get-togethers with WDYTYA?, so I was excited about watching actress Susan Sarandons search for her roots.
She was already into family history, but faces a mystery: What happened to her grandmother Anita, who disappeared when Sarandons mom Lenora was 2? Family rumors paint Anita as a bad mother who spent time running numbers and hanging out in jazz clubs. Susanthe self-identified black sheep of the familyfeels a connection to this colorful character.
Sarandon visits her mom, whos been hesitant to try to find Anita. Lenora says her mother was a showgirl at a nightclub, and produces a fuzzy newspaper photo. Lenora found out when she was 9 or 10 that her mom was alive and eventually met her; both are in a photo taken in a funhouse mirror. But that was the extent of their relationship.
We go to New York City, where Sarandon knows Anita lived around 1929, to meet with genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak. We see Anitas birth certificate naming her mother Angelina and her father Mansueto Rigali, whose occupation was statues. The couple was from Italy, and they had nine children before Anitabut only two of them were still living when Anita was born.
Their mother had died by the time Anita was 12. Smolenyak presents a marriage certificate for Anita. The groom was 21 and the bride was 15no, wait, make that 13! She claimed to be older, but doing the math from Anitas birthday puts her at barely teenaged. Sarandon recalls that Anita must have been pregnant, because her uncle was born six months after the wedding.
Sarandon meets Italian immigration historian Mary Brown at St. Joseph church. The Rigalis lived at 35 Madison Street in a crowded Lower East Side tenement neighborhood Brown calls a death trap. I llike the interwoven history lessons.
Cut to Sarandon and her son Miles at the New York Public Library, where they search an Italian website for Anitas surname. I love that her sons getting involved! Theyre from Tuscany, so of course, this is Hollywood and thats where they go.
Ahhh, Florence. Genealogist Cinzia Rossello produces records of the family, including a military conscription document showing Mansueto was from a small town, Coreglia, and owned land.
Sarandon goes to Coreglia, where Rossello shows her the familys baptismal records. Mansuetos record has his fathers and grandfathers name. We can get back 10 generations, to 1640, just in this churchs baptismal register. Im from Tuscany, Sarandon says. Its gone from being something abstract to being very concrete.
Next she meets Gabriello Cabrese at Coreglias statue museumthe town was famous for its figuremaking. We learn that in 1888, at age 32, Mansueto was one of the first sculptors to go to the United States. That year, 98 figuremakers left.
Back in New York, Sarandon visits the cemetery where Mansueto is buried. He died at 72. He and his childrenexcept Anitaare on the burial register, but they have no markers.
Still in search of Anitas story, Sarandon meets Burton Pereti, an expert on New York nightclubs. He suggests she was active at speakeasies in New York, which were magnets for young women who worked as dancers and singers. Theres little documentation of Anita in nightclubs, he says, but he presents an October 1932 marriage license showing Anitas marriage at age 25 to a Ben Kahn. The document reports no previous marriages. Nothing seems to add up, Sarandon says.
Pereti tells her the shows researchers were unable to find a record of a divorce from Sarandons grandfather, the man Anita married at 13. After a commercial, Sarandon says her grandfather didnt divorce Anita until after that photo in the funhouse.
Sarandon and Miles visit the New York library to use city directories. They find Anita on West 78th Street and a possible Ben on 74th. Were they already separated the year after they married?
Next, they search Ancestry.com for Anita’s death record. Its not under Kahn, so Miles suggests not using a last name. Clever kid! They find an Anita Fiorentini who died in 1984wrong name, but everything else fits.
At the library in Rockland County, NY, where Anita Fiorentini died, Sarandon finds her obituary. The details fit, down to the parents names, except that Anitas birth date makes her younger. Anita had married a man named Dominick.
Sarandon goes knocking on doors in her grandmothers neighborhood, and learned a lot about what she was like from a neighbor who didnt want to talk on camera. Sarandon next visits Dominicks nieces. If you can tell me anything Sarandon says, and the nieces say We can! They tell her Anita and Dom were happy and show pictures of them.
This was the least tearful WDYTYA?, but still touching. As this journey unfolded, I became more and more compassionate to her and more forgiving and my heart went out to her, Sarandon says. Now my mom has some closure.