This week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featured Valerie Bertinelli, the Hot in Cleveland star. Unlike some of the past episodes with other celebrities, Valerie traced two different branches of her family tree: one on her father’s Italian ancestry and another on her mother’s Colonial American ancestry that was then traced back into England and ended with an ancestor most people have heard of: Edward the First, King of England from 1239 to 1307.
I do have to think the show’s producers ran out of time to provide further generations. Edward the First’s ancestry is well documented: his parents were King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence and their ancestry has been documented further back for several more generations. However, nothing prior to Edward the First was mentioned in the program.
Valerie Bertinelli’s Italian ancestry was perhaps more interesting, where she learned more about her beloved grandmother’s whose early years were not known to the rest of the family. Perhaps even more interesting was the story of her grandmother’s mother, Maria, an incredibly strong woman who overcame great odds. A young widow, she left Italy with her two small children at beginning of Word War I and settled in Pennsylvania. She then married for a second time. The woman escaped being murdered by her second husband, Gregorio, by pretending to be dead after being shot. Her husband then stepped into a second bedroom and committed suicide.
Valerie Bertinelli traveled to Italy where she met Pietro, her third cousin once removed. Pietro knew much more about the family than Valerie’s own father. Pietro also had a letter sent from his father – Valerie’s great uncle – to her grandmother in 1972. In the letter, Valerie’s great uncle expresses the wish that the family in America will come and visit. Valerie was moved that forty-two years late she is fulfilling this wish! Pietro also gave Valerie a postcard written by her great grandmother Maria, which he has held onto all these years because he knew it was of great importance to the family.
Valerie then traveled to London, England, to meet with a British genealogist, Else Churchill. Else is the Genealogist at the Society of Genealogists in London and is well-known to British and American genealogists alike. She has traveled to the United States several times and made presentations at a number of genealogy conferences in the U.S. I have been fortunate enough to know Else casually for many years and am always impressed at her expertise. However, her appearance on Who Do You Think You Are? was brief so we only got a glimpse at her talents.
Else Churchill presented a family tree to Valerie showing her ancestral line back to James Claypoole, a well-known Quaker in 17th century England. Else said that the Claypooles are extremely well documented and that James was a Quaker in London during a pivotal time of English history.
Valerie next visited Friend’s House in London where she learned about the persecution that James faced for being a Quaker in 17th century England. Further documents reveal that James emigrated to Pennsylvania for religious freedom and worked with William Penn in creating one of the first democratic constitutions.
Her next stop was at the College Of Arms in London where she learned that James Claypoole had a coat of arms. It was not a “family coat of arms” as claimed by the American narrator of the program but was a personal coat of arms given only to James Claypoole, not to his descendants. It was interesting to note that the expert at the College Of Arms never said it was a family coat of arms but simply stated it was James Claypoole’s coat of arms. The program’s off-screen narrator, however, did say “family” coat of arms.
The experts at the College of Arms did show that Valerie’s 19-times great grandfather was King Edward the First.
I did again enjoy the format of this week’s show. In the beginning, it looked like Valerie was doing the research herself and was researching online and also visiting locations where her ancestors lived to look at original records. Of course, any experienced genealogist knows that “the path was paved ahead of time” by professional genealogists who had previously done all the research and had submitted the results to the show’s producers. We can assume the pros researched all possible branches of Valerie Bertinelli’s ancestry and then the producers selected the bits that would be most interesting to a television audience.
As the show unfolded, however, Valerie started walking into major repositories in the U.S., Italy, and England where photocopies and even ancestral charts on long rolls of paper had been prepared in advance of her visit. I don’t think that was intended to fool anyone. Even the casual non-genealogist who knows little of research probably realized this was prepared in advance for a celebrity visitor and was not the norm for a private citizen researching a family tree. Indeed, by skipping the research steps required, the producers were able to squeeze more generations into a one-hour program.
I thought the program was well presented.
One question: did anyone else think it was strange that Valerie’s great grandmother Maria supposedly saved her own life by playing dead before her husband turned the gun on himself? If we are to believe the story in the newspapers, as portrayed in the program, the second husband shot twice at his wife who was lying in bed. Apparently he missed both shots. His wife rolled over, fell onto the floor, and pretended to be dead. This was at 5 A.M., a time when he would have been getting up to do chores on his Pennsylvania farm. He then reportedly walked into another bedroom, got into bed, and shot himself.
(1.) Who gets into bed at 5 A.M. to commit suicide?
(2.) As an experienced farmer who probably is experienced at slaughtering livestock to feed his family, isn’t it a bit strange that he fired shots, saw his wife fall out of bed, and then walked out of the room without checking the body? He didn’t even look to see if there was blood! We can assume there was no blood as the woman reportedly was uninjured.
Let me play Devil’s Advocate: Isn’t it possible that Maria walked into the second bedroom where Gregorio was sleeping and shot him as he slept? Then she could have made up the story about him firing shots first.
I think that is an interesting speculation but, of course, there is no way we will ever know. The investigating officers and other officials obviously thought that Maria was the victim, not the perpetrator. Perhaps they had additional evidence that was not mentioned in the program. In any case, it doesn’t change the facts of Valerie Bertinelli’s family tree.
Next week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will feature Kelsey Grammer, an American actor, voice actor, comedian, producer, director, writer and singer. Grammer is known for his two-decade portrayal of psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane on the NBC sitcoms Cheers and Frasier.
Kelsey Grammer’s episode will be on TLC on Wednesday, August 20 at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Check your local listings for the time and channel near you.