Episode PremiereMarch 23, 2012
Show Period2010 - Now
Production CompanyIs or Isn't Entertainment, Wall to Wall Production
Accomplished actor, writer and screenwriter Helen Hunt has worked on more than 80 films, TV shows and Broadway plays in a career that began in childhood. She rose to fame playing Jamie Buchman on the NBC hit show "Mad About You," a role that earned her four Emmy awards. For her performance in the feature "As Good As It Gets," Helen won an Academy Award for Best Actress. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her partner Matthew Carnahan, her stepson Emmitt and daughter Makena Lei. Helen does not know much about her ancestral past besides the fact that her family has lived in Los Angeles for several generations. Helen's father doesn't know much about his ancestors either, partially because a drunk driver killed his mother when he was just five years old.
Helen starts her journey by exploring her father's side of the family. She's heard they have European Jewish roots and ancestors from the East Coast, so she meets with her father to find out more information. Helen's father displays a photo of her grandmother and her great-grandmother Florence Roberts, "the power behind the throne," Helen's father jokes. He knows Florence and her husband were immigrants from Germany through New York and eventually moved out to Pasadena, California where they were able to live in a hotel. Helen wonders where the money came from that allowed her ancestors to live in a hotel and starts her journey to find the answers.
Helen arrives in Pasadena, California at the prestigious Hotel Green where her grandmother and great-grandmother lived to meet with Prof. Dollinger of Jewish American History. Helen would like to know how her family was able to afford such an opulent hotel and why they changed their name from Rothenberg to Roberts. Prof. Dollinger begins the search on Ancestry.com to find the answers. They look up Helen's great-grandmother Florence Rothenberg on the 1910 census and find her listed with her entire family, including four servants. "One for each child," Helen laughs. Prof. Dollinger concludes she was rich before they moved out to California and shows Helen a death record for Florence's husband in 1900 from New York City. It looks like Florence moved the family across country to Pasadena after her husband's death to be closer with her family that lived in San Francisco.
Helen looks up Florence in the 1920 census and discovers the Rothenberg name was changed to Roberts by that time. Prof. Dollinger tells Helen that Florence most likely changed the family name to escape the anti-Semitism that was running through the country. "It would be a lot more challenging to go through life as a Rothenberg than a Roberts," Prof. Dollinger tells her. She then looks at Florence's death certificate from 1949 and discovers Florence's father's name, Helen's great-great-grandfather, is William Scholle. "I didn't even know that name until right now," Helen admits. Through research, Prof. Dollinger is able to dig up an 1845 passenger ship manifest from Bavaria, Germany to New York City that has William "Wolf" Scholle listed. So her family's ties to America began with William, but the question remains, where did the family's money come from?
"Your great-great-grandfather arrived at an incredibly fortuitous time," Prof. Dollinger tells Helen. Gold was discovered in San Francisco during that time, and William was very well positioned to join the gold rush. Helen had no idea anyone in her family had any particular connection to San Francisco, so she flies up to the city by the bay. Helen meets Prof. Stephen Aron who found documentation that shows William came to San Francisco with his brother Jacob in the early 1850s. Beginning in 1848, the promise of gold lured people from around the world to San Francisco. The sleepy seaside town rocketed into a major seaport almost overnight. Merchants sought to take advantage of the opportunities the gold and the new population represented. Savoy businessmen like William opened up shops to clothe and supply the miners who were flocking to the city.
"Is there any way to know how well-off he was?" Helen asks Prof. Aron about her great-great-grandfather. He shows her a newspaper article from 1855 that lists the Scholle Bros. earning around 10,000 dollars a week, roughly a quarter-million dollars in today's money for importing, manufacturing and selling clothing. Prof. Aron shows family photos of William, his wife Rosa and their children. "Just incredible to see that," Helen says as she looks at family she never knew existed until that moment. Later, Helen reads a newspaper article from 1874 entitled "The Solid Men" about companies in San Francisco with wealth listed above one million dollars. Listed after famed jeans manufacture Levi Strauss, Helen finds William Scholle and his brother Jacob. "It literally seems like a rags to riches story," Helen exclaims at the extraordinary success of her ancestors.
Helen meets with author Frances Dinkelspiel and finds a New York Times article from 1890 entitled "The Nevada Bank to Be Sold" about wealthy capitalists Levi Strauss, the Lehman brothers, and her ancestors the Scholle brothers buying shares of the Nevada Bank. "Do you ever hear today about the Nevada bank?" Frances asks Helen. It turns out the Nevada Bank that her ancestors were investors in later merged with Wells Fargo Bank and created the powerhouse institution we know today. "I'm going to strut around here now when I walk down the streets of San Francisco," Helen jokes.
Helen starts to dig into her father's father's side of the family, the Hunts, by looking at her great-great-grandfather George Hunt. Helen travels to Portland, Maine where her ancestors lived to meet with local historian Herb Adams. Herb has discovered that George Hunt owned a supply store and was a major sugar importer and exporter of wood, which led him to become a very successful businessman since he was able to sell his sugar to create rum; up until 1850, Portland drank more rum than any seaport in the United States. Helen then discovers George's wife's name was Augusta, who was the youngest daughter of another prominent resident of Portland, George Barstow.
Helen dives into the history of her great-great-grandmother Augusta Hunt and discovers she was a prominent citizen of Portland and president of the prominent Women's Christian Temperance Union. Herb tells Helen that the anti-alcohol crusade in the 1900s was started by the very same Women's Christian Temperance Union in Portland that her ancestor played a prominent role in. "I hear the word temperance and I have an uneducated idea of what that is," Helen says as she currently believes the WCTU is a judgmental group, but she continues on her search to understand Augusta's motivations.
Helen talks to Professor Carol Mattingly about the WCTU and learns that although the union is known today to be the cause of the failed movement of prohibition, the group originally formed because alcohol abuse was rampant during the 19th century and women were being sexually and physically abused by alcohol's aftereffects. There was a dark side to the 19th century love of liquor. Alcoholism spiked and domestic violence took a deep toll on families. Married women like Augusta had few legal rights at the time; they couldn't vote or sign contracts, and divorce was difficult. But women became a powerful force for change when they banded together against alcohol abuse and other social ills. "They were all about giving voice for women," Prof. Mattingly says, and Helen's great-great-grandmother was a prominent force of that voice.
Prof. Mattingly shows Helen photos of Augusta and her family, including what they think might be Helen's grandfather. Helen tells Prof. Mattingly that it is sadly ironic that Augusta sought so feverishly to ban alcohol and then many years later a drunk driver killed her grandson's wife, Helen's grandmother. "It is just interesting to hear your own snap judgments to rise up then fade away," Helen says as she now understands the reasoning of why Augusta joined such clubs as the WCTU."It's impressive that even as a widow with children, my great-great-grandmother Augusta still made it a priority to be involved in social change," Helen says as she visits with Dr. Shannon Risk to find out what else Augusta might have been involved with in her fight for women's rights. Dr. Rish shows Helen a biography written about Augusta that states she was the president of the WCTU for 15 years and instrumental is starting day care, bringing female guards to co-ed prisons and getting women elected to school boards. Helen then reads a passage of the biography that is monumental in her eyes; Augusta was instrumental in having a law passed that gives the mother equal rights with the father in the care of children.
As the temperance movement gained strength, the women's rights movement was born. By 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote across the country. Helen happily finds that Augusta was able to achieve her dream and cast her first vote after a lifetime of fighting. "Her name will live long and her work will live always," Helen reads from a page long newspaper biography of Augusta, glorifying her vast achievements and impact on Maine society. "I say to my daughter all the time that she's a strong woman, and she will now know that her great-great-grandmother was part of this group of women that paved the way for everything."