Arborvitae: The Tangled Saga of Bill

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At least a decade ago, a long-time friend of mine who was adopted (we’ll call her Elena; note that names of all living people and some dead people are changed for privacy) and I were talking over some wine, and I offered to hook her up with some online adoption registries in case she was interested in finding her bio-parents. She had her bio-mom’s name, name of the lawyer who handled the adoption, her date of birth, and the hospital she was born in. So that was the info I plunked into the internet.

And that was where this story just started to get interesting.

Elena’s adoption was handled by Helen Tanos Hope. In brief: the adoptions handled by Hope are characterized by some writers as “grey market” — a little sketchy, entirely legal. For instance, Elena’s adoptive father spent a week in Juarez, Mexico, to finalize the paperwork for the adoption. Not the usual procedure, really. When Hope died, her records went into the trash — also not usual procedure. Another lawyer managed to salvage a large proportion of the records, but there are whole registries dedicated to people adopted through Hope’s services because of the lack of records.

After that bit of exciting news, though, everything went quiescent. Elena added herself to some other adoption registries; I got one hit on a registry that I poked, but the email address for the birth mother who was listed was no longer functioning.

Then 4 years ago, everything picked up: Elena’s birth mother, Claire, found her on one of the registries and wrote her a birthday card. Elena called me not long after she read the card and gave me both Claire’s name and her bio-father’s name — I’ll call him Bill throughout — asking me to poke at Ancestry and see what turned up.

And then we started a wild ride over the next couple of days.

His full name was surprisingly findable and turned up a lot of hits that were specific for him and his father (Bill was named for his father).

I shook the family tree pretty hard, and a bunch of stuff fell out.

Bill was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1928. I had to doublecheck this date in multiple records, because that made him 10 years older than he’d told Claire he was when he met her in the mid-1960s. But I found multiple sources for the birthdate, and those sources also corresponded with his later move to Florida. I was pretty certain I was looking at the correct Bill.

In 1931, Bill was in a head-on car crash that nearly killed his mother, the driver — another driver had swerved out of the line of cars and hit her car head-on. Apparently the car following theirs also hit them, then sped off without checking on anyone or giving information. Her mother and sister-in-law were also in the car and, like Bill, received severe cuts and bruises. Fortunately, despite the hopeless tone of the newspaper article, Bill’s mother survived (and lived to be 91).

By 1940, his family had moved to Staten Island, New York, where his father worked as a ferry/marine engineer. Bill attended Ralph R. McKee Career & Technical High School in Staten Island, graduating in 1946. In 1953, I found a record of him living in Miami, Florida, with his parents, working as a mechanic for American Airmotive Corporation (which apparently was founded earlier than 1954).

For New Year’s 1954, he traveled to Key West. And then in 1955, the first hint of things to come: a divorce from a woman named Carmella.

Now, Florida’s marriage and divorce records are pretty complete on Ancestry. The fact that I couldn’t find a record for his marriage to Carmella suggests that perhaps that marriage happened elsewhere — Staten Island, perhaps, or New Jersey. Unfortunately, her maiden name was nowhere to be found, so I still haven’t managed to locate her.

But no worries! There’s plenty more where she came from, as evidenced by the 1955 Florida marriage record of Bill and Jan.

Followed by the 1959 Florida divorce from Jan.

And the July 1959 Florida marriage to Phyllis.

And the March 1966 Florida divorce from Phyllis.

And the May 1975 Nevada marriage to Gayle.

And the 1979 divorce from Gayle.

And the July 1979 Nevada marriage to Myrtle.

And the September 1982 California divorce from Myrtle.

And the October 1982 California marriage to Ladonna.

I kept expecting more to turn up, so I kept shaking the tree.

When Bill died in 2007 in Washington state, he was apparently still married to Ladonna, which surprised me. So I went back and started digging into the ex-wives a bit more.

Jan was born on Long Island in 1935. She married Bill in 1955 and divorced him in 1959. In 1961, she married Charlie. She divorced Charlie in 1965. In 1967, she married Les. She appears to still be alive and married to Les.

Phyllis was born in New York in 1930. She married Harry sometime in the early 1950s in New York. She divorced Harry in June 1959 and married Bill in July 1959. She divorced Bill in March 1966 and married Charlie (yes, same Charlie as above) in October 1966. She divorced Charlie in May 1968, and married Greg in February 1969. She divorced Greg in July 1970. When she died in 2013, she was living in California.

We know from Claire ‘s letter and subsequent discussions that the time between 1967 and ~1974 was when Claire was with Bill. She met him in 1967, a charming musician who had recently survived a major car accident. He was working at a local music shop as a music teacher and instrument repairman, and spending a lot of time on his steel-hulled, twin-engine, teak-decked, mahogany-trimmed 36-foot Chriscraft motor boat. Claire had Elena in 1968 — we later found that Phyllis apparently helped arrange the adoption via Helen Hope. Bill and Claire stayed together, and he apparently abandoned his Chriscraft and bought a steam-fired tugboat called the NYC Central #3, which Claire described as “roughly 100 feet of derelict steel which he had the delusion of restoring to its former glory.” They lived there for a couple of years and had a lot of parties. They moved to a house for a year, and then Bill decided on a move to Colorado. They never married, thus no marriage record, or divorce record when she left him.

Gayle was born in Nebraska in 1942. In 1958, she married George in Colorado. She divorced him in February 1970, then married Rick in March 1970. Presumably, there was a divorce, since she married Bill in 1975. She divorced Bill in 1979, and I haven’t found any further marriages. I do note that when she died in 2003, she had retained Rick’s last name, not Bill’s.

Myrtle was born in 1924 in Detroit, Michigan, notably the only one of Bill’s wives to be older than him. She married Gene in 1949 in Detroit. Sometime near and about 1975, she married another guy because that’s when her last name changed again. Then she divorced him and married Bill in Nevada in 1979. She divorced Bill in California in 1982, and then in 1983 married another William. As far as I can tell, she remained married to him until she died in 2001.

Ladonna was born in 1933 in Texas. At some point, perhaps in the early 60s, she married Roy, and then divorced him in 1966 in California. On Hallowe’en 1967, she married Robert. That lasted until March 1971, when she divorced him. At some point after that, she married James, and then divorced him in 1978. In 1982, she married Bill, and stayed married to him until he died in 2007. She died in 2008.

Subsequent searching turned up a Fredrica [Bill’s last name] in Miami, which blew us out of the water, because Claire knew who she was — she was the woman (well, girl, really, because she was 16-17, as Claire had been) Bill had been in a relationship before her. I did some more digging: Fredrica was born in 1948 in California, and I found her actual last name. I found her as a cheerleader in a high school in Louisiana in 1965 or so, found a marriage record to a guy named Lazaro in 1967 in Miami, followed by a divorce in 1973. Then I found that she’d died in Texas in 1993. A local historical society provided me with her obituary — she’d died in a car accident. With the information in the obituary, I managed to connect with her younger brother on Facebook, and he told me the following tale: while their family had been gone for a vacation, Fredrica had gone to New Orleans for a jazz festival, where she met Bill in the French Quarter. After, apparently, a wild weekend, Bill brought her back to the family house, where she packed a bag and left them a note that she’d “split” with Bill to Miami. After some consideration, their father moved the family to Miami to be close to her. She’d changed to attending high school there, and had taken Bill to her prom. Eventually, though, she broke up with Bill, and we know he almost immediately got involved with Claire.

So then I started hunting — were there any other kids? I couldn’t find Carmella, Jan didn’t seem to have any, and neither did Gayle — Myrtle was in her 50s when she married Bill, likewise Ladonna. So then I looked at Phyllis. Her obituary listed 4 children! I started poking them for ages. Three of them were born during her years with Harry, but I couldn’t dig up a birth year immediately on the fourth — April. It took me a lot of hunting, but I narrowed her age down and it seemed very likely that she was born during Phyllis’ first year of marriage to Bill. I started Googling her.

That was when I tripped over the news story about April and her art. In the course of the interview, she mentioned that she was adopted and that she’d tracked down her bio-parents, Phyllis and Bill.

Suddenly, I knew I’d found a half-sister for Elena.

Elena reached out to April, and that contact brought a wealth of information. Like, for instance, that in addition to her and her 3 half-siblings, Phyllis had also had a baby with Bill in high school. Who had, naturally, been put up for adoption. April had been hunting for her for years.

That fall, there was quite a get-together at Elena’s house, with both Claire and April converging, and all of them insisting I come along. It was an exhausting but delightful and thoroughly enlightening weekend. We got a much better feel for how charismatic Bill had been (despite the somewhat appalling prom photo I had acquired from Fredrica’s brother), some more history about Claire’s life with him, and, moreover, from April, an idea of the lifelong passion Phyllis had had for him.

For the most part, the family tree stopped providing a wild ride after that. Bill’s family history was unremarkable except for the odd coincidence that they were from the state that Elena had been taken home to after her adoption. The family consisted of marine engineers who mostly worked on shipping on the local rivers. Bill’s father came from an extremely large family with some German antecedents while his mother descended from an originally Quaker lineage that shared ancestors with Richard Nixon.

April did AncestryDNA in the hope of locating her lost full sister, and finally, in early 2018, she succeeded! Florence lived in the state next to Elena’s, and in the spring, the 3 sisters met at Elena’s house. Happy endings all around!

I’m still frustrated by being unable to track down Bill’s first wife, Carmella — I would bet that there was at least one child involved in that marriage. But neither New York nor New Jersey are very forthcoming with marriage records at this time, so I have to be satisfied with having made some human connections with what I had in hand… as well as having documented at least the legally recorded side of the startling web of relationships twined around Bill.

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