It all started for me when I received this letter:
I hope you can help me...I came across your book while I was searching the web looking for my famous Great Grandfather's death details. I was wondering if you could help me or might have come across some records while you were writing your book.
His stage name is Jolly John Larkin Smith, his real name is John Smith.....hence why looking under his stage name is easier.
He was a famous Broadway playwright, actor, composer in the Vaudeville days and later starred in MGM and Paramount films. He was American Negro and Larkin we believe is his slave masters name from his fathers days. He was born in Virginia and died in LA.
We have recently acquired a scrap book on him from the Emory Library in Atlanta dated 1914 to 1930. We believed he died in 1936.
We are Australian and live in Sydney. My Grandmother is 83 years old and is searching for her father. Her father travelled the world extensively with theatre companies: to China, London, Sth Africa, NZ, Europe and Australia. While here he had a relationship with Rae Anderson (my grandmother's mother) and he had two little girls, one of which is my Grandmother.
My Grandmother was fostered out in the Depression and she never met her Father. They never came back for her and she lived her life up until the last 5 years not knowing who her family was. We of course were raised in Australia and some of us are white (me) and some dark. It has been strange not knowing where we came from only to find out we have an amazing family history and an incredible Great Grandfather who lived a rich and fabulous life and in his own right was famous in his time.
He is known as the best minstrel ever to live and at times had movie houses fighting over him for roles. He has starred in approx 50 films and even worked with Clark Gable. He has composed many musical scores and has written many plays. We have an LA address and a Harlem address for him. We have his movie contracts and agents details but they have lead nowhere considering how old they are we are not surprised.
To read all the newspaper clippings on him has inspired me to help my Grandmother find more information on her Father. I am very close to her and would like to carry on the search fiercely for her so I can give her a some peace before she passes on in this lifetime. She is well and happy but reads his scrapbook daily since we have received it in the last couple of weeks."
There was more to the letter, which I shared with my friends at Hollywood Underground. Amazingly, one member, Jim Lacy of Ohio, knew who this was and even more amazingly, had a copy of his death certificate in his vast collection. One thing led to another, and here is the resulting photo. This has been one of the most personally rewarding grave finds I have had the honor to be a part of.
When you care enough to wear the very best.