By J. L. Starkey
The world’s a stage, they say;
but the show ain’t always amusing.
-L. Frank Baum
Sometimes, there are just too many choices. Exhibit A of that fact is this week’s 52 Ancestors prompt.
It’s cousins. That’s right – cousins. That means I have ten thousand choices on the list of candidates for ancestor of the week. (OK…I’m exaggerating. It’s actually 9,999 choices.)
When life hands you too many choices, sometimes it’s best to let technology make the decision, and with the help of a Random Number Generator, this week I did just that.
Drum roll, please…the ancestor of the week is – that one?
I can’t write about that person! Everyone knows all about my eighth cousin once removed. A Google search of the name produces an astounding 21.4 million results. Can you imagine being that person’s sister? She must have felt invisible, but she probably had a story too. In fact, someone should really –
Suddenly, I realized that there was really only one choice to make.
Mary Jane, It’s Time to Tell Your Story
Born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, on 24 September 1915, Mary Jane Gumm was the eldest daughter of Francis and Ethel Gumm . We share William “The Immigrant” Baugh as our common ancestor, which means we have deep roots in Colonial Virginia. Our similarities end there, however.
Like her parents, Mary Jane was a talented singer and dancer. As a child, she performed with her younger sister at The Grand Theatre in Grand Rapids, which was managed by her father at that time. In the early 1920s, the youngest Gumm sister joined the act. She was the one that the family nicknamed Baby, and she was a natural performer .
Over the next decade, the sisters performed at home and on the road, and they finally settled in Hollywood. In 1929 they appeared in their first movie, a short entitled The Big Revue . Two more short films followed, along with radio shows and live performances.
By that time, Mary Jane was known as Suzanne (or Sue), and the sisters had changed their surname on the advice of a show business expert.
But Suzanne’s name was about to change again, and with it, her entire identity.
“She goes by Sue now.”
From the beginning, the youngest Gumm sister stole the show from her siblings, and by 1935, executives from both Paramount and MGM noticed the talented little girl from Minnesota. Baby was going to be a star – there was no doubt about that .
Sue, on the other hand, had other plans. She apparently disliked the bad reviews she received, and that factored into her decision to leave show business when she married musician Lee Kahn. In a pre-wedding interview, Sue said she would not sing professionally again without her husband’s consent.
“He’s the leader of the orchestra now,” she commented .
Sue and Lee married in Reno, Nevada, on 14 August 1935 . Just two months later, she was relegated to the background when Baby signed a seven-year contract with MGM .
The summer of 1935 brought big changes for the woman formerly known as Mary Jane, and as she began the next stage of her life, something happened to her identity.
It began to disappear.
_______________’s older sister
Sue was still in the news, but she was no longer referred to as Mary Jane, or Suzanne, or even Mrs. Lee Kahn. The media was in the business of selling papers, and Sue’s famous sister could sell papers like few others could at that time.
The woman formerly known as Sue was now simply known as ___________________ ’s sister.
In 1937, Sue returned to show business (apparently with her husband’s blessing), and performed with Lee at a Lake Tahoe country club. Advertisements included the name of Sue’s famous sister, perhaps to boost attendance and revenue at the venue .
It was a sensible marketing decision. Sue Kahn was not a household name, after all.
Her sister, however, was a different story.
By 1940, Sue and Lee had quietly divorced, and Sue had returned to Hollywood full time . Her first job there was a small role in the 1940 Fred Astaire musical Broadway Melody of 1940. She would receive no credit for the bit part .
Her famous sister, on the other hand, would receive an Oscar that year .
In September 1941, Sue remarried, this time to musician Jack Cathcart . Even for this event, however, she would remain in her sister’s shadow, with reports noting that _____________ ’s sister was getting married .
It was probably an easy editing decision. After all, headlines with Sue’s sister’s name were a hot item that year. Less than two months before Sue’s wedding, her famous sister had eloped with a divorcee twelve years her senior; the ensuing scandal remained in the headlines for months .
In 1943, as her sister’s star continued to rise, Sue accepted a job in MGM’s fan mail department.
Again, she remained in her sister’s shadow, with reports noting that ____________ ’s sister Sue had taken the job .
Would she never be her own person?
She wasn’t alone in her frustration. Later that year, the third Gumm sister would file a petition for a name change, explaining that her surname “would tend to distract public attention .”
Yes, Sue was still in the news.
But the headlines? Those belonged to her sister.
In Baby’s Shadow
Sue’s life did not get easier after she married Jack, and in 1963, the couple divorced amid rumors of infidelity. News reports gleefully compared Sue’s divorce (which was granted “in a matter of minutes”) to her famous sister’s legal woes. At that time, her sister was in the midst of a messy (third) divorce that would drag on for years .
But Sue’s divorce was settled quickly, and when it was finalized she told reporters, “I’m glad to get it over with.” It was a chance for a new start, and maybe she felt hopeful as she made that statement.
Sadly, just ten months later, Sue reached her breaking point.
It should have been a private matter, but it did not remain private. In December 1963, Sue was hospitalized in critical condition after she took an overdose of sleeping pills .
Was her pain newsworthy? The press thought it was.
After all, she was _____________’s sister.
Sue’s downward spiral continued after she left the hospital, and just five months later, the woman once known as Mary Jane Gumm was front page news for the final time.
On 28 May 1964, Suzanne Cathcart was found dead in her Las Vegas home. She was just 48 years old .
Though initial reports stated that Sue suffered from pancreatitis and chronic health issues, her death certificate listed asphyxiation due to aspiration and seizure as her official cause of death. To this day, however, some sources state that she died by suicide.
Tragically, even in death Sue would be relegated to the background. On the day of her death, her famous sister collapsed and was hospitalized in Hong Kong.
Speculation over her sister’s diagnosis was rampant, with theories ranging from heart attack to poisoning as potential causes for the crisis . She would not learn of Sue’s death for several days, and she would be unable to attend Sue’s funeral .
If the woman formerly known as “Baby Gumm” had seen the headlines on that horrible day in May 1964, she would have noticed something very strange…and very sad.
It was almost as if Mary Jane Gumm/Sue Kahn/Suzanne Cathcart had never existed. Instead, the banner headline in Sue’s hometown newspaper was worded to attract attention and to sell papers.
After all, Sue never was a household name .
- Minnesota Birth Certificates Index. Minnesota Historical Society. Certificate #1915-13378. Retrieved from http://people.mnhs.org/bci/: accessed 21 Sept 2019.
- Shipman, David. Judy Garland: the Secret Life of an American Legend. Hyperion, 1993. (See also: Clarke, Gerald. Get Happy: the Life of Judy Garland. Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2001.)
- “A Trip Down Memory Lane,” http://greatentertainersarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/judy-garland-and-gumm-sisters.html.
- “Child of Former Citizen Stands High in Contest,” The Daily News-Journal, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 27 Mar 1930, p. 1, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “At Reno She’ll Make It A Duet!” The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco, California, 15 Aug 1935, p. 17, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Girl Trio Member Deserts It To Wed,” Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, 15 Aug 1935, p. 6, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Curtain Calls,” Oakland Tribune, 1 Nov 1935, p. 28, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Judy Garland,” Who’s Who at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1937, digital image 62 of 156. Retrieved from archive.org.)
- State Line-Country Club Advertisement, Reno Gazette-Journal, Reno, Nevada, 15 Jun 1937, p. 2, col. 3-4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “United States Census, 1940.” Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California; Roll: m-t0627-00407; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 60-219. Ancestry.com. United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
- “Judy Garland’s Big Sister Gets Film Role,” Salt Lake Telegram, Salt Lake City, Utah, 28 Aug 1939, p. 17, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “British Grab Top Honors As Academy Awards Given” The Miami News, Miami, Florida, 1 Mar 1940, p. 13, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Judy’s Sister To Wed,” Detroit Free Press, Detroit, Michigan, 9 Sept 1941, p. 1, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Judy Garland’s Sister To Marry,” Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Wisconsin, 12 Sept 1941, p. 13, col. 2-3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Singing Screen Star Elopes With Divorced Composer,” St. Louis Star Times, St. Louis, Missouri, 28, Jul 1941, p. 22, col. 1-2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Theater Topics,” The Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2 Mar 1943, p. 31, col. 8. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Judy Garland’s Sister Wants To Drop Last Name,” The Austin American, Austin, Texas, 20 Aug 1945, p. 1, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Judy Garland’s Sister Granted Divorce In Vegas,” Nevada State Journal, Reno, Nevada, 3, Feb 1963, p. 6, col. 3-5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Hospitalized,” Indiana Evening Gazette, Indiana, Pennsylvania, 4 Dec 1963, p. 14, col. 5. Retrieved from newspaperarchive.com.
- Death Certificate, Suzanne Cathcart, 1964-64-001201-64-001800, digital image 51 of 621. Nevada Department of Health, Carson City, Nevada; Nevada Death Records, Ancestry.com, Nevada, Death Certificates, 1911-1965 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
- “Judy Garland Critically Ill In Hong Kong,” The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, California, 28 May 1964, p. 3, col. 7-8. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Judy Garland Out Of Coma,” Pasadena Independent, Pasadena, California, 29 May 1964, p. 33, col. 3-5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “Singer’s Sister Dies in Las Vegas,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, Santa Cruz, California, 20 May 1964, p. 16, col. 4-8. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Singer Judy Garland to Hong Kong Hotel,” The Lincoln Star, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2 Jun 1964, p. 17, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “Judy Garland Sister Dead Here,” Las Vegas Sun, Las Vegas, Nevada, 28 May 1963, p. 1. Retrieved from newspaperarchive.com.
Poor Mary Jane/Sue/Suzanne. Thank you for sharing her story.
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Great write-up! I’ve read 3 bios on Judy to the point where I saw the surname Gumm and knew instantly who you were talking about yet I had no idea Mary Jane/Suzanne lived that far in the shadow of her sister or the nature of her tragic death! It’s wonderful that you gave her her own story back and put her name out there even if the papers wouldn’t. You’re a good cousin!
Thank you so much! I am fascinated by those early days in Hollywood – and to see my ancestors there is just surreal. There are so many amazing stories (both good and bad) waiting to be told.
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Loved this, I do 52 Ancestors and have stuck to ancestors but may well diversify1
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I love finding the stories of distant cousins..it’s so much fun!
Great post on Suzanne! It’s such a shame she lived in her sisters shadow. I don’t think her death was a suicide. Her death certificate lists “accident” and the cause is “asphyxiation” due to a “convulsive seizure”. I can email you a copy if you want.
I have a digital copy of her DC, which does list asphyxiation. It was poor wording on my part, and I’ve made a slight correction to better represent the facts.
I apologize for the delay in responding to your comment…it has not been our best summer around here!