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Finding Roberta

Prestigious families, a whispered affair, a death, a second marriage, a mysterious daughter: A woman sets out to solve a puzzle - and face her own fears.

Published March 1, 2007



There has always been a family mystery. A phone call from my daughter Marguerite in Seattle prodded me once again.

"Mother, when are you going to try to find out what happened to your half-sister?"

She was referring to my genealogical searches and the completion of the family tree. As a retired newswoman, it had seemed logical for me to continue the investigations conducted by my cousin before her sudden death.

A cousin in England had been working with her. Now, whether I liked it or not, I was to continue in their work.

"I don't know where to look," I said, "and I've run into a dead end with the Social Security record I have for her mother, who apparently died in 1972. That was in Los Altos, Calif. It has to be her mother because she is the only Flora Joughin listed."

The mystery of this unknown sister, two years younger than I, according to the Bureau of Vital Statistics, had not been explained or discussed much by the family until I was in college. Her birth certificate listed her as Roberta Joughin, but the bureau would not reveal any more information. She had been born in 1924. That much I learned in the 1950s.

Years later I could understand why so much secrecy shrouded this addition to my family. Divorce was looked at disapprovingly in Tampa in the early 20th century.

And there had been gossip. According to a close younger friend of my mother, there was intimation of an affair between Flora and my father before my mother died a mere three weeks after I was born in 1922.

My mother, Lula, was 35 at the time, and my father, Robert T. Joughin, was 42. There had been miscarriages but no children born before.

My father was a commanding person, although rather short, with his expensive cigars and his free spending and numerous enterprises.

Dad's second wife

R.T. Joughin Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning Co., which included his three brothers, was a rousing success during World War II. It had contracts at several air bases, including MacDill Air Force Base.

Also listed in the 1923 Tampa directory was Joughin and Herold, Cigars, Fountain Drinks, Lunches, Smokers' Supplies, etc., at 200 Lafayette St.

Leila Brown and her three sisters, "the Brown girls," happily filled the void after my mother's miscarriages. My mother organized tea parties and shopping trips and gave lavish gifts to the girls. Although their father managed a furniture store, the family was struggling financially. Leila appeared to be her favorite.

After believing all my young life that my father had not married after my mother's death, I was shocked when a college classmate asked me: "What happened to your father's second wife?"

Immediately I questioned the aunt and uncle who had raised me from the time I was 4.

Yes, my Aunt Lillian Joughin said, there had been a brief marriage after my mother died.

She spoke vaguely about a daughter born to them but said the new family never occupied our home in Tampa Heights. Instead, my aunt said, Robert Joughin had kept his new family at his lake cottage near Lake Thonotosassa.

As far as she knew, there had been a divorce and the mother and infant had moved from Tampa. I was too timid to ask my father about anything because I never felt close to him.

Leila Brown gave me other bits of information that cast light on reasons for secrecy. She said "Miss Flora Herold," the second wife, had been in business with my father. And she was Jewish.

None of this might matter in 2007, but life was different in 1920s Tampa, and my family had a high profile.

My great-grandfather, John Jackson, was the U.S. government surveyor who laid out and named the streets of downtown Tampa. He served briefly as mayor. My maternal grandfather, Thomas E. Jackson, had been mayor for more than a decade. Kate Jackson, for whom a park in south Tampa is named, was my great-aunt. My family founded Sacred Heart Church. My father had been sheriff of Hillsborough County.

And so his liaison with Flora existed in the shadows.

Mum's the word

In 1954 I asked my father's sister, Pearl Riles, about this family secret. Aunt Pearl said she had come to Tampa with her husband and son to live with my father and me for two years when I was about 2. She confirmed what Aunt Lillian had told me, but said the new family had moved to New Orleans.

Yet another aunt, my mother's sister Mazie Carty, admitted to my father's second marriage but denied there was any child.

The conflicting stories and hesitancy about discussion led me to suspect there were twisted and unreconciled feelings. It seems family members on both my mother's and father's sides felt some shame or resentment about this new marriage. After I discovered the existence of a half-sister, I suppose the family wanted to spare my feelings and avoid unpleasant explanations.

I also felt a definite resentment toward an unknown sibling rival. Would she one day appear and lay claim to kinship? Would she threaten my secure feeling that I was my father's only daughter? I felt that family and friends had held a certain sympathy toward me because I had lost my mother at such a young age.

Mom, a mystery

Who was my mother?

I never had any snapshots to look at until later years, only the photograph in my father's bedroom - an enlarged picture of my mother in her high school graduation dress. There almost seemed to be a conspiracy to ignore recollections about her.

The maids who worked for my father said I resembled her, with my slender feet and build. Leila remembered her as beautiful, fond of elegant clothes, and generous with her and her sisters. She also remembered my mother crying about a miscarriage.

The Jackson relatives never said much about her.

In my hallway now is that picture of my mother. Her slightly sad, pensive gaze looks out serenely. A large pompadour enhances her slender neck. A beautiful dress with high lace collar boasts a row of smocking at the hip line, large puffed sleeves and waistline cinched with a sash.

That picture always seemed a shrine of sorts. I never saw any others around my father's house. The few times my father talked about her were fraught with his feelings about her prominent family and Catholic heritage. He always sought to have more money and prestige than her family. Great-aunt Kate had brought in a priest to give her last rites as she was dying. My father, an active Mason, took pride in ordering the priest away.

My childhood was privileged. I received lavish gifts from my father, who often sent a former deputy to drive my friends and me around in one of his two Lincolns. Aunt Kate and my grandmother, the mayor's wife, would take me shopping to Maas Brothers and O. Falk's for school clothes, each trying to outspend the other.

I took this treatment for granted when I was young. But things changed after college. My father and I clashed over my opinions, which he found too liberal. I broke a wartime engagement and then eloped with a fighter pilot, who died two months later in a training crash.

My father and I had very little contact. I remarried and moved to Milwaukee, then Jacksonville, and returned to Tampa in 1964. My father had died in 1961.

A faded photo

"Lovingly, Roberta."

I was cleaning out drawers at my father's house after his death when I found a faded snapshot with that inscription on the back. There she was, looking perky and self-confident, hair windblown in a riding habit, carrying a riding crop. Was she about 13? Was she on a low hill in a desert, mountains in the distance, in California or Arizona?

She could have been visiting my father when he was involved in a silver mine in Tombstone, Ariz., in the early 1930s. How many times had my father seen his other daughter? He had taken many trips out West. Hot Springs, Ark., was a favorite destination.

She looked like her father - square face. That pleased me. I didn't want her to look at all like me.

My father's will mysteriously mentioned that he had previously "taken care" of his daughter, who was "living somewhere in Mexico."

Roberta was filed away with many other snapshots in a box for years. I hoped I would never run into her. I resented her, and her mother, for what I imagined to be my mother's hurt.

A near-royal branch

One mystery ended but others deepened a few years ago when my English cousin, lawyer Philip Allen, sent me an e-mail.

I had met Philip in 1979 while taking a summer course at Oxford University. In our genealogical exploration, we had encountered many blank spaces on the family tree.

"Hello, Lula, I just had to tell you about this," Philip wrote in his e-mail. "Did you know that your half-sister married the younger son of an English duke?"

In an idle moment at work he had been on the Internet looking for Joughins in California, when he came across the name. He saw that Lord Edward Eugene Fernando Montagu, second son of the ninth duke of Manchester, had married Roberta Herold Joughin (his fifth wife) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on Sept. 28, 1953.

Roberta had died in 1964 in Los Angeles.

"When I got home I went up to my attic and looked up Manchester in Burke's Peerage (a compendium of British royalty and titled people). There she was again! I have transcribed a chunk for you, exactly as it appears in the book."

Roberta, it seems, had been 29 when she married Lord Edward. "It is possible that she married before and had one or more children," Philip wrote. "But in that case I would have expected to have seen a married name in one or other of the sources. Is this all new to you?"

Yes, it was.

"As you may know, and probably don't care, dukes are the highest of the five grades of peer, second only to royalty and followed by marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons."

Philip knew full well that I had no great regard for royalty, as so many of our American ancestors had fled their tyranny.

Still, all of this information raised yet more questions.

My sister, the duchess, had died at 40. But of what cause?

How had she met the much-married duke? Were they international jet-setters? Had our father been invited to their wedding?

The duke's short biography says he was born in July 1906 and served at one time with the U.S. armed forces. King Edward VII was listed as his sponsor. He was educated at Harrow, the famous British prep school. He died a year after their 1953 marriage.

And there the mystery ends, with a brief listing in Burke's Peerage. Now the family tree is extended. Roberta, no longer as shadowy as before, is placed on my branch.

But there are no branches beyond her name.

There she was, looking perky and self-confident, hair windblown in a riding habit, carrying a riding crop. Was she about 13? Was she on a low hill in a desert, mountains in the distance, in California or Arizona?

I never had any snapshots (of my mother) to look at until later years. There almost seemed to be a conspiracy to ignore recollections about her.

My father was a commanding person, although rather short, with his expensive cigars and his free spending and numerous enterprises.

[Last modified March 1, 2007, 00:11:46]

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