Friday, March 24, 2017

William J. Behrens and the Man of Steel


About four years ago, I joined a genealogical research site called Ancestry and began investigating the Hugues branch of my mother's family tree.  In a relatively short period of time, that tree has grown to over 1,100 verified names.  That may sound like a lot of names but, in genealogical terms, it's not that impressive.

Think of it this way:  Assume that you want to build a comprehensive family tree that extends from the present day back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776).  That's a span of 241 years or approximately 10 generations.  Let's also assume that, as you progress down through the generations, three children from each family marry and have (on average) three children of their own who marry,  and so on, down through the generations.  The chart on the left shows how quickly a family tree based on these simple assumptions can explode into almost 200,000 names!  All of this is a roundabout way of saying that there are quite a few names on my Hugues Family Tree that have not been fully explored.  One such name belongs to a man named William J. Behrens.

William J. Behrens was my mother's second cousin.  He was the son of Henry Behrens and Martha Mehan and was born in San Francisco, CA, on September 12, 1921.  Per Ancestry's California Marriage Index, William married a woman named Noel Heill in Los Angeles, CA, on August 27, 1953.  He died in Los Angeles on February 12, 2011, at the age of 89.  That, in a nutshell, was everything I could find out about William J. Behrens.  Ancestry contained no other information about his wife and no leads at all regarding children.  After a while, I marked William Behrens as a "cold case" and moved on to other names. 

Who called him "Papa"?
Last week, though, a colleague on Ancestry (and also my third cousin) posted a photo of the gravestone of William J. Behrens.  I already had this photo but I clicked on it anyway, just for the hell of it. Surprisingly, I saw something I hadn't noticed before.  Above his name was the word "Papa".  To me, this was a strong indicator that he had, indeed, fathered at least one child.  The game was once again afoot!  I dusted off my Ancestry research skills and dove in. 

Pay dirt!
It had been quite a while since I'd done any research on this guy so I was hoping to find a fresh, new lead.  That hope was quickly dashed.  After about an hour of searching I hadn't turned up anything meaningful on him or his wife, Noel Heill.  In fact, other than that reference in the California Marriage Index, I had absolutely nothing on his wife, not even a date of birth!  I decided to bring up a scanned image of that marriage index to see if it contained anything else of use ... and did it ever!  William's wife was not named Noel Heill.  Her name was Noel Neill!  If that name means nothing to you, it's probably because you weren't born before 1960 and didn't watch the Superman TV show on channel 11, WPIX, starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel.  Noel Neill was the name of the actress that played Lois Lane!

All this seemed a little too good to be true.  Before I could announce this monumental discovery, I needed ironclad proof.  Now that I had Noel's correct name, this turned out to be pretty simple: 
  1. The California Birth Index confirmed that William J. Behrens, with a mother whose maiden name was Mehan, was born on September 12, 1921.
  2. The Minnesota, Birth Index confirmed that Noel Darleen Neill was born on November 25, 1920.
  3. The California Marriage Index (above) confirmed that William Behrens (age 31) and Noel Neill (age 32) were married on August 27, 1953.  Both ages correspond exactly to the information contained in their birth index records.
On top of that, there's this excerpt from a Wikipedia entry on Noel Neill:
Personal life
In 1943, Neill married makeup artist Harold Lierley in Hollywood, California. The marriage was annulled shortly afterward. Neill then married William Behrens in 1953 in Santa Monica, California; the marriage ended in divorce in 1962. While still married to Behrens, the Superman television program was cancelled. 
That sealed the deal for me.  In the TV series, Lois Lane never married Superman.  But in real life, William J. Behrens was her Man of Steel! 

George Reeves and Noel Neill in the 1950's

Noel Neill died last year. In her obituary, the New York Times failed to mention any children, noting only that she had "no surviving family members".  Since Behrens was in his 40's at the time of their divorce, it's probably a safe bet that he, too, died without children.  Maybe the word "Papa" on his gravestone was simply his nickname:  "Papa Behrens", a play on "Papa Bear".  Whatever.  It's time to close this case again and move on to a new name.  


Postscript:

Here we go again.  While writing this story, I couldn't resist the urge to continue researching.  When the Ancestry well ran dry I switched to a second genealogical site called Family Search.  I created a search using everything I now knew about Noel Neill and William Behrens and hit ENTER.  Unbelievably, my results included a copy of their actual marriage certificate from a database called "California, County Marriages, 1850-1952":

Mind blown ... again!
This document confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that William John Behrens, my mother's second cousin and the son of Martha Mehan and Henry Behrens, married Noel Darleen Neill in 1953.  But it also raises a brand new issue:  Before marrying Noel Neill, William Behrens had been married twice before!  So maybe he does have descendants after all!

The game is afoot!

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