Ruthelma who?
January 24, 2013 12:26 PM   Subscribe

What are you best strategies for researching a little known actress?

Last night, I watched the 1933 b-list movie The Circus Queen Murder. The movie was light and engaging, and I was very taken with the previously unknown to me Ruthelma Stevens. I've gotten in the habit of googling movies and actors while watching TCM, but aside from the above, and the fact that she also worked on stage, there's very little of substance about ole Ruthelma online.

My experience was pretty similar to this person's, who's written some of the only blog posts about her. Well, this all got me irrationally curious and I ended up spending an additional 4 hours or so crawling the web. I've looked at newspaper archives, got a trial membership at, prowled census records, done everything I know how to do online in search of Ruthelma Stevens.

I came up with a few extra tidbits, but not much. I'm wondering how y'all would take this further, barring travel. She costarred with Adolphe Menjou in at least 2 movies, and I'm wondering if his 1947 biography, "It Took Nine Tailors, might contain any anecdotes or references - I just don't want to spend $35ish dollars at Abe to find out (although the book is quite charming, otherwise, by all accounts.) I actually don't mind spending some money if it adds to these slim pickings about an otherwise unexplicably unremarked-upon life.
posted by Bourbonesque to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I know you said " no travel," but I'll mention this in case you are ever in New York City for any other non-related reason and need an hour to kill -

The Lincoln Center branch of New York's public library has a huge clippings file, and you would probably find info on her there. You go up to that floor of the library, check the card catalog (it's an old school card catalog, at least it was when I wa there last) to get the call number for the file folder, and fill out a little card with that number and hand it to the researcher; and then after they go get it, they bring you this big manila file folder packed with all sorts of random stuff that has to do with her. You can ask to have a couple things copied (for a couple pennies more per page than if you did it yourself - they usually don't let you do it because the paper tends to be old) if you want.

If she was in theater, you may also want to check if your own local library has a bound periodicals section; if it does, check if it has the New York Times. And if it does, check in there for mentions; you may find some reviews and such from when she was in shows.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:39 PM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Based on the location in your profile, it looks like that book is available at University of Minnesota libraries -- maybe you can do an interlibrary loan, if you have those in your city?
posted by vickyverky at 12:40 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

It Took Nine Tailors is indexed on Google Book Search (snippet view only). "Ruthelma" or "Stevens" don't appear to appear in that book, but there are other hits in Book Search.
posted by steef at 1:15 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can try the Academy Library, but it's easier in person--do you know anyone in LA? And she was in The Scarlet Empress., too.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:05 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

In situations like this where you can't even find the person through census records, I'd start considering that she may have had a stage name and that she has another totally normal name where more documents might be found. So in addition to what people have offered here, I'd check

- Library of Congress American Memory - they sometimes have weird random archives that contain things
- The Making of America Archives (second archive) (possibly too early for what you are looking for)
- National Archives and Records Administration
- Scanned book archives like Google Books, Hathi Trust and OpenLibrary (many of them overlap)
- Academic archives like JSTOR which has some stuff available via their register and read program
- non-American digital archives like Europeana and the National Library of Australia or the National Library of Ireland
- geographically useful searches like NYPL (hey here's a photo of her!) and the IBDB which you've found

I'd also go to my local library and see if they had any performing arts databases or genealogy databases that I could access from the library, or at home, where I could do more searching. My library, for example, has Heritage Quest which is another way to search the census. You can also try something like where you can track her down in the death index (contains birthdate and SSN) if that's helpful. Her SSN starts with numbers indicating that she is actually from NY which is also useful information. This page has her birth AND death dates, something I read said she died on her birthday and that wasn't true. This article seems to indicate that by the fifties she was a traveling hoisery saleswoman. Each little piece of information goes into a new search and then you see if you can massage anything else out of it.
posted by jessamyn at 2:22 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Media History Digital Library could be a great resource for you. I would especially look at their scans of industry yearbooks (which often had short bios and other life details in their directory sections) and also at fan magazines from around when she had films coming out (you can look up release dates on IMDb pretty reliably).
posted by bubukaba at 2:34 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know you say you've looked at newspaper archives, but have you actually gotten an account with I do a lot of research for fun and profit, and this is my go-to place when I can't find something anywhere else online, it is well worth the money. comes up with almost 200 results for the exact phrase "Ruthelma Stevens", and you might get more with just the unique first name and a targeted location or year range.

But, unless Ruthelma wrote about her life anyplace, you might not be able to find much else about her. The movie people were all about promoting their movies, and unless her story helped do that it might never have been put down on paper. The only people who know more about her life might be her family, so if you want to go that far down the rabbit hole, that'll be the most thorough method of learning about her.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:58 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Figure out which studio produced her movies and researching that might give you some leads. they might have archives and records of her appearances and stuff too, though I have no idea how you could access that stuff. You might be able to find magazine clippings or interviews.
posted by windykites at 3:08 PM on January 24, 2013

Thank you all for responding! In my rush to post, I wasn't very clear on what I was looking for, which is more personal information, rather than notices of premiers and the like. Person behind the persona, etc.

(vickyverky, I'm embarrassed to admit that, as a former interlibrary loan processor at an academic library, requesting an ILL never even crossed my mind. Hey, I was up late with all this very important research. )

Jessamyn, thanks for your extensive post. I did find a lot of what you're mentioning - the birth and death dates, for example, and even the hoisery ad (of which there's actually several in various local papers.) In regards to her SSN, I found this site, which indicates that her SSN was *issued* between 1936-1950 in NY. There's another newspaper ad which mentions her 'from Wichita, by way of the University of California', and another mentioning her secret marriage in Yuma to Waldo Hancock Logan of Chicago (and later divorce).

Yes, there are definitely (faint) trails to follow there, but based on the limited searches I've done for marriage records in Yuma County in 1938, for example, or births in Kansas in 1903, or yearbooks for Berkeley/UCLA, etc. I think I'm running up against the limits of what's available online. I'll definitely check out the Media History Digital Library, though - I had no idea it existed, and looks like a pleasurable timesink even if it doesn't render anything userful about RS.

On preview, also thanks for the link to the site, Azrael. I think I'm willing to spend $30 for a quarterly subscription to see what's there. (I was using Google's news archives.) I'm not quite so curious that I want to start tracking down family members, though. :)
posted by Bourbonesque at 3:30 PM on January 24, 2013

I just took a brisk turn around ProQuest, and found her married name of Ruthelma Stevens Logan, in a 1968 obit for her sister.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:54 PM on January 24, 2013

Okay so you've also looked up Ruthelma S. Logan and found out where she was living in the 1940 census? And Waldo Logan's other marriage? There is a Ruthelma Garnet who was two years old in Wichita in 1920, though the file is blurry and her age could have been 20 or even 27. Sibs are Leslie (M) and Eudora and Ava (F). It lists the other family members, parents Fred and Grace. He's from Kentucky and she's from Illinois. They're both in their 40s so it could easily be a weird typo. I find following family members around through the census is sometimes a good way to track down other supporting documents.
posted by jessamyn at 3:56 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Waldo's quite the guy--his former spouse married Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.. He was also an inventor. The wedding annoucement has Ruthelma as the daughter of Mrs. Beatrice Stevens, "a San Francisco clubwoman".
posted by Ideefixe at 4:02 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Waldo's quite the looker, too.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:04 PM on January 24, 2013

Here's her entry from the "Who's Who In The Industry?" section of the 1935-36 Motion Picture Almanac, which at least confirms known facts:

STEVENS, RUTHELMA: Young brunette actress from the New York stage. m. Waldo H Logan, non-professional. Writer for the Famous Syndicate in New York City. Under contract to Columbia Pictures and appeared in "The Night Club Lady." In 1933: "The Working Man," Warner; "Circus Queen Murder," Columbia. In 1934: "Curtain at Eight," Majestic; "The Scarlet Empress," Paramount.
posted by bubukaba at 4:08 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Heh, I think Idee's getting fixe-d on Waldo. :)

This is great stuff, y'all, and I really appreciate the additions. I feel a domain name and a long-term, slow-moving research project coming on.
posted by Bourbonesque at 7:36 PM on January 24, 2013

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