Cole Porter, Bing Crosby & Leonard Bernstein: News & Obituaries

During this October week in American history three musical geniuses died who had a big impact on music—both in America and around the world:

  • Cole (Albert) Porter, American composer, died at 73 on 15 October 1964
  • Bing Crosby (Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby, Jr.), American singer and actor, died at 74 on 14 October 1977
  • Leonard Bernstein, American composer, conductor, and pianist, died at 72 on 14 October 1990

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. You can use newspapers to research their public careers and trace their family trees. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Cole Porter (1891-1964)

Cole Porter, best known for his musical Kiss Me, Kate, had a long, prolific career in musical theater. A composer and songwriter, he had a string of hits on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Porter wrote both the music and the lyrics for his songs, and his many hit songs include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “You’re the Top.”

Porter’s career was interrupted in 1937 by a severe accident while horseback riding, leaving him disabled and in pain for the rest of his life.

Cole Porter Hurt in Riding Accident, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 25 October 1937

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 25 October 1937, page 14

He carried on, however, and his triumph Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 placed him at the top of his profession once again.

Cole Porter's 'Kiss Me, Kate' Wins Royal Salute, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 31 December 1948

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 31 December 1948, page 11

Along with his successful Broadway shows, Porter also wrote numerous film scores, to great acclaim. He wrote his last musical, Silk Stockings, in 1955, and his last songs for a film were for the Gene Kelly movie Les Girls in 1957.

The next year was a turning point in Porter’s life. His severely damaged right leg was finally amputated—and he never wrote another song again. He lived the last six years of his life quietly, primarily in seclusion, and died in Santa Monica, California, in 1964.

Cole Porter Dies; Leaves Legacy of World-Famed Music, Seattle Daily Times newspaper obituary 16 October 1964

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 16 October 1964, page 9

His obituary stated:

“Porter’s works revolutionized song writing in many ways. It was he who first broke away, successfully, from the restrictions of Tin-Pan Alley traditions that a popular song had to have a 16-bar verse and a 32-bar chorus. Some of his pieces almost doubled this.

“His lyrics were so good they were published as a book of poems. Their sophistication, wit and complex inner rhymes won him accolades as the foremost Indiana poet since James Whitcomb Riley.”

Bing Crosby (1903-1977)

Bing Crosby is a towering figure in American music, radio, and film history. From the 1930s to the 1950s Crosby had tremendous success, from multi-selling records, popular radio shows, and movie roles. As a recording artist alone, Crosby sold more than half a billion records! He is honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for his records, movies, and radio shows.

The extent of Bing Crosby’s fame and popularity can be glimpsed in this 1949 newspaper article.

'Raffles' Changed His Mind about Robbing Bing Crosby, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 22 February 1949

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 22 February 1949, page 1

Bing Crosby died doing something he loved. Late on the afternoon of 14 October 1977, he and a partner defeated two Spanish pros after 18 holes of golf in Madrid, Spain. Immediately after securing the victory, Crosby had a heart attack and died on one of the greens of the golf course.

Bing Crosby Dead, Boston Herald newspaper obituary 15 October 1977

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 15 October 1977, page 1

His obituary described Crosby as “the golden-voiced singer-actor who serenaded three generations of lovers” and reported:

“Crosby was ‘happy and singing’ during the 4½ hour round of golf that was to be his last, one of his golfing partners said.”

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most famous musicians in the world, renowned for his composing, conducting, and piano playing. He gained his fame as the long-time music director of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, but in his long career he conducted most of the world’s best orchestras. He was equally well-known for his tremendous talent at the piano, often playing at the keyboard while conducting piano concertos.

Bernstein was also a gifted composer, achieving lasting fame for his music for the musical West Side Story, which opened on Broadway on 26 September 1957. The next day, this review noted that “the first-night audience gave it a rousing reception.”

'West Side Story' Linked to Bard, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 27 September 1957

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 27 September 1957, page 17

Bernstein, suffering from lung disease, conducted for the last time on 19 August 1990 at a concert with the Boston Symphony—a performance unfortunately marred by his suffering a coughing attack during the playing of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. On 9 October 1990 he announced he would no longer conduct; five days later he died from a heart attack.

Bernstein Dead at 72, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 15 October 1990

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 15 October 1990, page 1

Calling him “the impassioned American maestro,” Bernstein’s obituary noted some of his many achievements and the causes he supported:

“The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he led an orchestra performance at a liberated concentration camp, raised money for the Black Panthers and on Christmas 1989 celebrated the demise of the Berlin Wall by conducting [in East Berlin, Germany] Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!

Fun Family Folklore: Are These Superstitions Fact or Myth?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott decides to add some of his family’s superstitions to his family tree to make it more complete—and searches old newspapers to find more information about those superstitions.

I would not be surprised if every family that ever lived had one superstition or another that was “believed in.” Maybe not 100%, but at least to the point that the superstition cropped up each time the subject was broached. For instance, when my wife was well overdue with our first child, she was told: “Eat Chinese takeout food and your labor will start.” I also well remember my grandmother’s constant admonition to “Find a pin and pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck,” and her commandment “Sing at the dinner table and you’ll marry a drunkard.”

My family folklore included many superstitions and my wife’s family added a few more that I was not familiar with, so I thought to make my family tree even more interesting and complete, I’d look into a couple of the superstitions that were amongst the strongest in our families. So off I went to GenealogyBank.com to see what I could discover and add to our family tree.

Fact or Myth? Snakes Don’t Die until Sundown

First up was a superstition that still haunts me to this day. It is that a snake does not die until sundown. Actually, the way it was related to me by my father was this: “The only way to kill a snake is to cut off its head and then leave it be, since it will not die until sundown.” Well, let me tell you, that was more than enough to instill a fear of snakes that exists in me to this very day, which you can see in this photo.

photo of Scott Phillips holding a large snake in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil

Photo: Scott Phillips and his uncomfortable “close encounter” with a large snake in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: from the author’s collection.

My father’s “wisdom” about snakes was imparted to me frequently back in the 1950s. Imagine my surprise when I found this 1906 Pennsylvania newspaper article that addressed my dad’s snake superstition.

Killing Lies about Snakes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 25 November 1906

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 November 1906, page 13

In this old newspaper article a zoologist debunks many of the myths regarding snakes, and there in the list at #12 is this: “It isn’t true that when snakes are killed their tails do not die until the sun goes down or until it thunders.” Good grief! If I had ever heard that “thunder” part I might still be in my old backyard waiting!

Open the Doors & Windows before Midnight on New Year’s Eve

I then recalled the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated when I was dating my future wife. Just before the stroke of midnight she began going around my parents’ home opening the windows and doors—during a Minnesota winter! As we all stood there shivering, watching our breath indoors, she explained her superstition that in order to have a good New Year, you needed to let the old air, spirits, year, etc., out and the new year in.

I married her anyway and then, 38 years later, I found this 1954 Washington newspaper article that gives instructions for doing exactly this. It was interesting for me to learn that my Italian wife had evidently picked up a Danish superstition, which we still follow.

notice about midnight superstitions, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 19 December 1954

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 19 December 1954, page 95

No Hats on the Bed or Chair!

Next up, I took on another one of my wife’s oft-cited superstitions from her Italian family. I can still hear my wife’s grandparents saying “Don’t ever put your hat on a bed or a chair!” While there were some strong rules in my home about never, ever wearing a hat in the house, I was not aware of anything like this Italian hat superstition that it is bad luck to lay your hat on a bed or chair. Then I found this 1938 Nebraska newspaper article, in which the columnist not only discusses this mysterious hat superstition—he also explains how he and his family still don’t abide seeing any hats on a bed.

notice about superstitions, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 22 May 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 22 May 1938, page 39

Bury a Statue of Saint Joseph to Sell Your Home

Then I laughed out loud at myself as I came across an article in a 1991 Alabama newspaper. It verified that I am as “guilty” of following superstitions as anyone else!

notice about a superstition involving real estate and St. Joseph, Mobile Register newspaper article 7 April 1991

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 7 April 1991, page 18

You see, just as this newspaper article explains, my wife and I have always buried a statue of St. Joseph in our yard every time we were in the process of selling a home. I’ll just add here that with my wife being an architect/designer, this burial ritual happened fairly often! It did my heart good to see that this tradition started, according to this article, “hundreds of years ago in Europe.” I take issue with the company selling these St. Joseph statue kits, though! While they do get the part right about burying him on his head and facing the street, he must be buried in a piece of linen from your house!

After reading the “error” in this newspaper’s account of a superstition that I personally follow, I became all the more resolved to add our folklore and superstitions to my family tree. Someone has to be sure everyone gets it “right” in the future!

What kinds of superstitions have been handed down in your family? Post a comment and let me know about your traditions and rituals rooted in superstition. I’d love to learn more about your family’s folklore!

Extreme Weather in History: Stories That Affected Our Ancestors

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to show how severe weather deeply affected our ancestors’ lives.

Last week I went to pick up my son from a pool party and the outside temperature was 100 degrees at 9:00 p.m. While I expect it to be hot in the summer during the daytime, when it’s 100 degrees at night I know we’re in store for a heat wave.

There can be no doubt that the weather significantly affected our ancestors’ lives, even that of more recent generations. In my own family, my grandparents moved from the Los Angeles area to Indio, California, a desert community near Palm Springs, in the 1950s. The average daily high in the summer months is well over 100 degrees. Because my grandfather worked for the railroad, when he wasn’t sitting in a train in the heat he was working outside. Having traveled to that area many times I can’t imagine living there without air conditioning.

How did the weather affect your ancestors? Did they or a family member suffer an injury or die due to extreme cold or heat? Do you ever consider how the weather affected your ancestors’ everyday lives?

collage of scenes from the Blizzard of 1888 in Keene, New Hampshire

Collage: scenes of the Blizzard of 1888 in Keene, New Hampshire. Credit: Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County.

The Children’s Blizzard of 1888

Stories of the deadly consequences of severe weather filled our ancestors’ hometown newspapers. For those with Great Plains ancestors, the 12 January 1888 blizzard known as “The Children’s Blizzard” has great historical significance. This tremendously strong storm, which spread all the way to New England, caught everyone by surprise—including children at school, some of whom died because they couldn’t get home and the schools lacked provisions. This blizzard is chronicled in the book The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. Those who have read the “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder are familiar with this extreme blizzard because it’s depicted in the book The Long Winter.

This 1888 Missouri newspaper article reported the “awful list” of victims from the severe blizzard.

An Awful List: Victims of the Deadly Blizzard, Kansas City Times newspaper article 17 January 1888

Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri), 17 January 1888, page 1

Newspapers are filled with articles reporting severe blizzards in history.

Extreme Heat Wave Hit New England

Sudden weather anomalies like blizzards weren’t the only type of weather that had dire consequences for our ancestors. Extreme heat—especially the inability to escape it—was also something that took its toll on our ancestors. This article from a 1911 Massachusetts newspaper reports on those who died from a heat wave blasting New England, including a man who was run over by his horse-drawn cart when the horses went crazy from the heat.

Second Heat Wave Calls Toll of Ten, Boston Journal newspaper article 11 July 1911

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 July 1911, page 1

Newspapers provide information on the day-to-day weather in your ancestors’ communities. Explore them to find stories of extreme storms and severe weather throughout history. Newspapers also printed old daily almanac weather reports and bulletins that can give you insight into the weather conditions that affected your ancestors’ lives.

Once you’ve researched these articles to identify extreme weather stories and weather records, consider searching a manuscript collection for a diary or journal in which someone describes how the weather on a particular day affected the city or town.

Another good source of historical weather information is Google Books. Titles such as The Weather and Climate of Chicago by Henry Joseph Cox and John Howard Armington, and Maryland Weather Service by Maryland Weather Service, Forrest Shreve and Oliver Lanard Fassig, provide weather data back to the beginning of the 19th century.

The weather affected all aspects of our ancestors’ lives from their work to their everyday living circumstances. Take a look at their area’s newspapers for the story behind the weather—one more way historical newspapers help you flesh out the names and dates on your family tree to get to know your ancestors better, the lives they led, and the times they lived in.

Jeff Corey & Me: Filling In the Blanks in My Own Life Story

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches the history of an old acting professor of his—Jeff Corey—and discovers that filling in the blanks of Jeff’s life story in turn fills in some blanks in his own life history.

If you follow my posts here on the blog for GenealogyBank.com, you read toward the end of my latest article “Finding the Historical Articles That Tell My Ancestor’s Story” that I had discovered a one-line death notice for Jeff Corey. He was one of my favorite professors when I was a student in the “World Campus Afloat” program. While I remember him as my instructor, you might best recall him as Sherriff Ray Bledsoe in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Finding Jeff’s death notice led me to think back on many of the stories that this friendly, approachable, and talented professor shared with me when I was a student, and reminded me how important he once had been in my life. Sadly, I realized that although he once mentored me, he actually was a blank in my life history—I really didn’t know very much about Jeff Corey.

These memories prompted me to undertake another search in GenealogyBank.com and see what else I might discover about Jeff. As usual, I wasn’t disappointed and I was able to more fully document and add this person from my own life to my family’s extensive family history and genealogy—filling in the blanks about Jeff’s story in turn filled in a blank in my own life history.

The first thing I did, as any good genealogist does, is look for multiple copies of an individual’s obituary. I was very happy to discover that, while my earlier find had been only that one-sentence death notice, more than a dozen other newspapers provided more extensive obituaries for Jeff Corey. As you might expect for an American actor, one of the best I found was in a Los Angeles newspaper.

Obituaries: Jeff Corey, 88, Los Angeles Times newspaper article 19 August 2002

Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), 19 August 2002

Not only did this extensive obituary list some of Jeff’s best known roles in movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, In Cold Blood, and Little Big Man, it also listed some of his television credits in successful sitcoms such as One Day at a Time and Night Court. Then his life story got really interesting.

I found more information on a time in Jeff’s life that he had only briefly touched on when we talked those many years ago as student and instructor. This was the period when Jeff Corey was blacklisted in Hollywood for more than ten years! His mistreatment was a result of Jeff’s appearance before the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s. Once again, GenealogyBank.com and its database of historical documents proved invaluable.

In GenealogyBank’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set collection, I found the Annual Report for the Committee on Un-American Activities for the year 1952. It included Jeff Corey with the notation: “(Appeared Sept. 21, 1951, and refused to affirm or deny Communist Party membership.)” On the same page you can see many others who also refused to comply with the committee’s demands.

U.S. Congressional Serial Set: Annual report of the Committee on Un-American Activities for the year 1952

U.S. Congressional Serial Set: Annual report of the Committee on Un-American Activities for the year 1952. December 28, 1952. (Original release date.) January 3, 1953.

This action was enough to get Jeff Corey blacklisted and banned from any work in Hollywood for more than ten years. I found Jeff’s comment, related in his obituary, to be most interesting. He said “The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not?” He chose not to name any others in Hollywood.

I think you could say that Jeff got the last laugh, though. While I am sure he missed out on a multitude of roles in those ten years—and he did tell me they were some very lean years—he became one of the most sought-after acting coaches in all of Hollywood!

This 1975 California newspaper article reported that some of Jeff’s more notable students were such Hollywood superstars as Jack Nicholson, Anthony Quinn, Jane Fonda, and Kirk Douglas. Needless to say, I was truly impressed by this talented group.

Jeff Corey Sees Simplicity as 'The Logic to Acting,' San Diego Union newspaper article 2 January 1975

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 2 January 1975, page 47

Jeff’s return to the “big screen” was noted in this 1961 Louisiana newspaper article.

Jeff Corey Back before Cameras after 10 Years, State Times Advocate newspaper article 17 January 1961

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 17 January 1961, page 9

Jeff continued to coach actors even after he returned to his career in acting. I found a wonderful quote praising Jeff by one of my favorite actors, James Coburn, published in this 1979 Ohio newspaper article.

notice about actor Jeff Corey, Plain Dealer newspaper article 31 August 1979

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 31 August 1979, page 142

After I finished my genealogy research on Jeff, I was pleased with how much information I had found and how much more I knew of this cherished professor. I was also happy because I had filled in a delightful segment in my own family history story—one I hope my children and grandchildren will someday enjoy reading as much as I did researching and writing it.

My closing advice is this: Don’t overlook your own life stories while you are working on your genealogy. They can be great fun and lead to many surprising discoveries!

My Ancestor’s Menu: Researching Food History in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches through historical newspaper archives and finds old menus—and shows how these provide social history that helps us better understand our ancestors’ times.

When was the last time you ate out? How often did you eat out as a child? While for some of us eating in a restaurant was a rare treat growing up because of where we lived or finances, eating out in today’s world is a more common occurrence. For modern families whose time is overscheduled, sitting down to a meal that mom prepared (with love) can seem like something out of the 1950s. Increasingly we are relying on restaurants to help with our cooking chores. Although it can seem like going out to eat is more of a recent phenomenon, the truth is that our ancestors, depending on circumstance, may have enjoyed a meal out once in a while.

Probably not surprisingly, restaurants originated in France in the 18th century and catered to upper class patrons. Early Americans, typically men, had the opportunity to “eat out” as they traveled and stayed in taverns and inns. One restaurant that opened in the early 19th century and still exists today is the New York institution Delmonico’s, which originally opened in 1827 as a pastry shop. Early customers of Delmonico’s were treated to a vast selection of foods; its 1838 menu was 11 pages in length and included French dishes with their English translations.

Gossip from Gotham: Delmonico's--The Most Fashionable Restaurant of the Continent, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article, 19 January 1884

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 19 January 1884, page 4

One surprising aspect of researching ancestral food history in newspapers is that your assumptions may be proved wrong. A good example of this can be found in this 1898 newspaper article. It reports on Thanksgiving being served at local Cleveland (Ohio) hotels. Today, some families would never think of going to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, labeling it “untraditional”—and you might assume our ancestors felt that way, too. However, judging from this article it seems that eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant was something many of our ancestors did. This article states that “Hundreds of guests were entertained by the hostelries yesterday, for many Clevelanders preferred to dine down town rather than at their own homes.” The article goes on to provide names of those who dined at those hotels. What a great genealogical find to see the name of an ancestor and where they were eating on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving at the Hotels, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 November 1898, page 10

Restaurant menus found in newspapers show the types of food available to your ancestors. In this example of a 1909 Sunday dinner menu from South Dakota, 25 cents buys quite a meal!

Sunday Dinner at the Model Restaurant, Aberdeen American newspaper article 18 April 1909

Aberdeen American (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 18 April 1909, page 5

This 1903 Sunday dinner menu from Wichita, Kansas, costs 20 cents and includes dishes such as Irish Stew and Prime Beef.

Menu at the People's Restaurant, Colored Citizen newspaper article 31 October 1903

Colored Citizen (Wichita, Kansas), 31 October 1903, page 3

One great aspect of newspaper research is the reminder that fads can and do make comebacks. Case in point: calories printed on menus. Think that the printing of calories is a new idea to get all of us to make healthier food choices? Consider this article about the appearance of calories on menus—in 1918! Makes you wonder why the reporting of calories eventually fell out of favor. My guess is people want to enjoy their meal out without guilt.

Aha! A New One--Restaurants Put Calories Count on Menu, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 May 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 May 1918, page 9

Although today we are familiar with calories and how much is too much, the idea of watching your calories was a new one at the beginning of the 20th century. This article concludes with suggested total amounts of calories needed for different types of people, including laundresses who needed 3000 calories versus a secretary who needed just 2000.

Newspapers provide researchers with rich social history and help us better understand our ancestors’ times. Take an afternoon and peruse the food history printed in the newspaper of your ancestors’ hometown. You just might be surprised at what you find.