Monday, August 5, 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Christina Applegate

This week's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was probably my favorite type — solving a specific mystery in the celebrity's family.  And the research that was shown on screen actually looked pretty good and seemed to hold together, even though they didn't follow up on some points that seemed as though they might have helped answer some questions.

Christina Applegate was our celebrity, and the introduction talked about her career as an Emmy-Award-winning actress and producer born into a show business family.  Her main claim to fame is still having portrayed Kelly Bundy on Married . . . with Children (which I have to admit was not a show I liked; the characters were just too nasty to each other). Applegate was born in Hollywood (which is really part of Los Angeles) and grew up in Laurel Canyon (which is also part of Los Angeles).  Her parents separated when she was five months old and she grew up with her mother.  Her father moved to Big Sur and she didn't see much of him.

The mystery in the family was Christina's paternal grandmother.  Her paternal grandfather was Paul Applegate, but almost nothing was known about the grandmother except that she was supposed to have died young.  Christina's father, Bob Applegate, didn't really know how his mother died but had heard some rumors.

For the program, Bob drove down to Los Angeles to talk with Christina about what he knew and remembered.  Apparently there was some interest in the family about genealogy (or maybe it was at the behest of the producers?), because a sister got a copy of Bob's birth certificate from New Jersey. He was born Robert William Applegate on November 10, 1942 in Trenton, New Jersey (but he thought he was older!).  His birth certificate showed his parents as Paul Applegate and Lavina Shaw (age 21).  They were both born in New Jersey and were married.  Lavina's address was shown as 522 Market Street in Trenton.

Bob remembered his grandmother (his dad's mother) telling him at the breakfast table one morning that his mother had died.  He thought he was about 7 or 8 years old when it happened, which would have made his mother about 28 years old.  His grandmother told him his mother was found outside of a bar beaten to death.  (What a horrible thing to tell such a young child, whether it was true or not!  Either Grandma was blunt in general or really didn't like Bob's mother.)  Christina said, "Let's hope that that's not true," and since this program is heavy on foreshadowing, that pretty much let us know it wasn't going to be true.  She also said, "This is gonna be crazy," so we knew to expect some twists and turns.

Christina went to Trenton to start her research.  She hoped to find out why Bob had lived with his grandmother there.  She met genealogist Joseph Shumway (an employee of ProGenealogists, part of the empire) at the Office of Vital Statistics.  She told him she was looking for her grandparents' marriage certificate.  (I really wish they would stop with these blatantly fake lead-ins.  Everyone should know by now the research is done ahead of time, so quit pretending already!!)  Soon after, an unnamed clerk (c'mon, guys, give the poor man an on-screen credit!) brought a copy of the marriage license to Shumway.  The license gave Bob's parents' names as Paul Schallar Applegate, born January 20, 1914, and Lavina Victorine Shaw, born October 9, 1921.  Lavina's parents were listed as Ovid Shaw and Lavina Weaver, and her address was 522 Market Street, the same address as on Bob's birth certificate.  Paul and Lavina were married in June 1941.  So this was a great start.  Shumway said he would "look" to see if there was a divorce for Paul and Lavina and sent Christina to the Trenton Public Library to find out about Lavina before she was married.

At the library Christina met with Kimberly Matthews, the library director.  (Just remember, when you do your research, the odds on you getting to meet with the director of the facility are slim and none, and Slim just left town.  Oh, unless you have paying for everything.)   We were treated to more lame dialogue -- Matthews told Christina that it was a "total long shot" they might find something in the newspaper, but that they should look anyway.  So of course, what did they find but an engagement announcement.  (It was obvious they were looking at, but of course they wouldn't show that, because they have to pretend that all the records you need are on Ancestry.  Plus they would probably owe GenealogyBank a product placement fee.  I'm sure they're still trying to find a relevant article on their own site,  They then found a photo of Bob's mother Lavina with her sister Delilah (also on GenealogyBank), but I know from testing it myself that they didn't find it by searching on Lavina's name.  I had to search her sister's name for it to turn up.

The photo was in the Society section of the Trenton Evening Times of August 26, 1934.  The caption said that Lavina and Delilah were the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Ovid Shaw and that they had just come back from an extended round of social visits, including an automobile tour around New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  The family was living at 111 Ward Avenue.  So at one point the Shaw family obviously had some money, even a few years into the Great Depression.

Then Matthews wanted to check Market Street to see what kind of neighborhood it was in.  Matthews told Christina to "take a look on" (oh, good, we can go back to our safe haven) at the 1940 census.  The family was living at 522 Market Street, the same address as on the marriage license and birth certificate.  Matthews had Christina specifically look at the "Duration of Unemployment . . . in Weeks" column, which showed that Ovid had been unemployed 12 weeks of 1940 and Lavina 8 weeks.  The family was no longer well off, a common occurrence as the Depression wore on.

Christina left the library to head to her next stop, because Shumway had told her that he had found court documents.  Her musings to herself included a comment that Paul and Lavina had never actually lived together, which was totally unwarranted.  She knew that they had married in June 1941 and that her father was born in November 1942.  Not only is that a year and a half they easily could have lived together, she didn't even know for sure yet (oh, wait, she really did, didn't she?) that they hadn't stayed together.

Christina went to the New Jersey State Library, where she met with family law professor Meredith Schalick of Rutgers University.  Schalick walked Christina through the file of documents that had been found regarding Paul and Lavina's divorce.  Lavina filed the original complaint in October 1942, a year after Bob was born.  It was a contentious divorce, with accusations of cruelty, abandonment, abuse, alcoholism, and adultery.  From what was discussed, it seemed mostly to come down to "he said, she said", because there didn't appear to be testimony from anyone else, except for a statement from Paul's mother that Lavina idolized her baby.  Before Schalick showed the final resolution, she cautioned Christina that in the time period in question, it was extremely unusual for a mother to lose custody.  Lavina didn't lose; she was awarded custody of Bob because the defendant (Paul) had not shown her to be an unfit mother.  So it appeared that Bob actually stayed with his mother until about 1946 or so, when he was 5 years old.  Schalick also cautioned that pages might be missing from the file, but didn't explain why she thought that might be the case or what she thought those missing pages might add to the story.

Almost next door to the New Jersey State Library is the State Archives.  Christina went there with Schalick to look for Lavina's death certificate.  Schalick said she had called ahead and Joe Clutch was going to help them.  They told him they were looking for Lavina Shaw's death, probably around 1950.  He quickly found a death certificate for February 18, 1946, but it was for Lavina Weaver Shaw, Lavina Shaw Applegate's mother.  The address on the certificate was 522 Market Street (I wonder how many people drove past there the day after this episode aired?).

In the divorce proceedings, Lavina had said that her mother had helped watch Bob.  It was possible that the reason Lavina gave up custody of Bob was because her mother was no longer alive to help her take care of him.

From this Schalick made the huge leap to saying maybe they should look online for more information.  What was even more surprising about this is that they used the word "online" and didn't go to Ancestry!  Back they went to GenealogyBank.  This was another instance where they rigged the result, because if you search for Lavina Shaw, you don't find this article.  But somehow they found an obituary for Lavina V. Walton, Bob's mother, remarried to Charles S. Walton.  The obit listed her survivors as her husband; her son, Robert Applegate; and a half-brother, Victor Shaw.  Apparently Ovid Shaw had married a second time, whether because he and Lavina the elder divorced or because he remarried very soon after she died.  But that wasn't germane to the story, so they didn't even comment on it.

Now that they had a date for Lavina's death, they again asked Joe to look for the death certificate.  This time they were successful.  Lavina died March 30, 1955 from pulmonary tuberculosis, with contributory causes of cirrhosis of the liver, chronic alcoholism, and nutritional anemia.  Bob had been 12 years old when she died, not 7 or 8.  It wasn't the brutal death that his paternal grandmother had talked about, but it did lend credence to some of the accusations Paul Applegate had listed in the divorce case.  Christina commented that "we can't find out the why", but that Lavina had died of a disease and that it was a sad story, which I think everyone can agree with.

Something I wish they had followed up on in the episode was Lavina's marriage to Walton.  Depending on when it occurred, it might have been feasible for Lavina to try to regain custody of Bob.  On the other hand, her problems with alcohol might have precluded any such attempt by that time.

Christina asked her father to fly out to Trenton and they went over all of her discoveries.  I'm guessing it was pretty emotional, because instead of the back-and-forth between the celebrity and the parent that we usually have at this part of the program, it was mostly a voiceover.  At one point Bob asked, "Is there any good in here anywhere?"  The response surprised me a little:  Christina said that he had given her strength, intelligence, and talent, and that he had done that with no help.  Um, not to slam on the man, but didn't we hear at the beginning of the episode that Christina's parents divorced when she was only a few months old and he wasn't that involved with her life?  She also said her father "was given nothing to work with" as he was growing up.  This also surprised me, because we were never told that his paternal grandmother didn't love him or that she treated him poorly (well, other than her harsh comment about his mother's death).

Lavina's death certificate said that she was buried in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton. Bob and Christina went there and met Maude Snyder, the president of the cemetery, in the office.  She looked up Lavina in the index cards and told them where the plot was, but warned them there was no monument to look for.  She also told them that there was a plot reserved for Bob.  Bob and Christina wandered around a little while trying to find the plot by the row markers (I've done that!) and finally figured out which space it was.  Bob, obviously very choked up, said, "I'm gonna get you a monument, Mom."  In the most touching moment of the episode, the next shot, with a graphic on the bottom saying it was three months later, showed a brand-new monument with Lavina's name and dates on it, and "Mom, I found you."


  1. While watching this episode, my Aunt recognized her brother and sister in the page of the newspaper showing Lavina and her sister. The picture at the bottom of the page, where you can see a young boy and the top of a girls head- that's my Dad and my Aunt. Isn't that crazy? They have both passed away but their sister (who wasn't born yet)recognized them immediately. both my Aunt and my Mom have this exact picture. Just thought I would share this and how crazy it is to watch a TV show and see a picture of your Dad when he was 7 years old! He would have been 85 years old this year. We now want to try to find out why this picture was in the newspaper. My Aunt lives near Trenton and I would imagine she will go to the same place and find the article.

    1. Nancy,

      You must be talking about the photo of the Mulheron children? How amazing that your aunt recognized it right away. She doesn't need to go to Trenton to get a copy of the article, because the newspaper was online at GenealogyBank. Send me an e-mail message at, and I will send you a file with the photo of the children.


  2. This was very interesting. I'm glad I came across it. I, too, am related to both Christina and her mom, Nancy, but my family is from her mother's family's side. It is timely to look up details about Christina and her mom, Nancy because of the cancer issue. So many similar health problems with all the Priddies. The cancer gene BRCA 1 that Christina found out she has, and the fact that she's gone through cancer, as has her mother, and my other cousins and aunts and grandmother, and myself and my sister. It just keeps on keeping on. This is a very interesting site. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for writing. I'm sorry to hear about the incidences of cancer in your family, but I hope that the knowledge that you do you have a family history of it is encouraging family members to get checked early.

  4. I have found some old pictures and letters to and from Paul Applegate they are pre 1945 they are in good shape there is names dates extra. If me Applegate is able to be contacted she might like to have these. Contact me at.

    1. While it would be flattering to think that Christina Applegate reads my blog, the odds are against it. You might try finding out who her publicist or agent it and contact her that way.

  5. Interesting article. Turns out that my maternal grandfather and her paternal great grandfather were brothers.

    1. Thank you. It's a small world, isn't it?

  6. Does anyone know if Christina Applegate had Triple Negative Breast Cancer and was of Ashkenazi Jewish origin?

    1. Newspaper coverage might say whether she had triple negative breast cancer. I've never heard that she was of Jewish origin.


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