Sunday, June 7, 2009

Earl Derr Biggers: A Life, Part 1

As a girl (and even now), some of my favorite movies were the old Charlie Chan mysteries that used to come on Fox Movie Channel late at night. Later on, I discovered the Charlie Chan books by Earl Derr Biggers and found that I equally loved them as much as the films. Not many people today have heard of the fictional detective, which is a shame because at the height of his fame (1920's and 30's) he was ranked up there with Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Worse still is the fact that the detective's creator (and the author of many other plays and books) is little known nowadays. Though I have nothing against it, I've never been into "celebrity genealogy" (tracing the family trees of famous people just because they're famous) nor was I ever terribly curious to look up any celebrity on Ancestry or other genealogy databases. Mr. Biggers, however, is different. I was first drawn to his life story when I learned that he was from Warren, Ohio, the same town as many of my paternal relatives and ancestors. I also think it is a shame that he is so underrated and under appreciated an author which is another reason why I wanted to put together some kind biography for him (anything is better than the sparse tidbits currently available). I've also been looking for some way to combine my two biggest hobbies, reading (mostly mysteries) and genealogy.

What is known about Earl Derr Biggers is that he was born 24 Aug 1884 in Warren, Ohio to Robert J. Biggers and Emma E. Derr. He went to Harvard University and graduated in 1907. He lived in California much of his life and died there on 5 April 1933 from a heart attack.

I started my search for information on Mr. Biggers in the same place many of us do, the US census records. Since the earliest possible census he could have been in (the 1890 census) was essentially lost, I looked for him in 1900. He is listed as living in Warren with his parents, Robert and Emma. Apparently he was also an only child and the family was living at 309 Washington Ave. Robert J. Biggers is listed as being born in Canada (English) in Jan of 1860, his wife, Emma is listed a being from Pennsylvania, born Sept 1863.

Although I knew Mr. Biggers graduated from college in 1907, he is listed as living with his parents in Warren in the 1910 census as a 24 year-old. Since most colleges issue alumni directories, I searched for Harvard's on Google Books. I found Mr. Biggers in the 1914 and the 1919 Harvard Alumni Directories:

This is interesting because 1919 was also the year Mr. Biggers went to Hawai'i for the first time and first got the idea of Charlie Chan (though it would be another four years before the first book was written). By 1919, however, Mr. Biggers was already an established writer with the classic (and big hit at the time) Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913) as well as Love Insurance (1914), Inside the Lines (as a co-author) (1915) and The Agony Column (1916).

I looked around for more Harvard publications on Google and came across The Harvard Graduates' Magazine from March of 1913:

And again in 1915 (where his play Inside the Lines is mentioned):
Since he was of the right age range, I looked for him in the WWI draft cards and he came up in Pelham, New York (not surprising since the 1919 alumni directory also places him there):

I also learned that by now he was married to an Eleanor (from his draft card). By the 1920 census, the family is in Pasadena, California. They have a son, Robert, who was born around 1915 in New York. Eleanor is listed as being born around 1888 and is from Massachusetts.
Interestingly enough, Eleanor and Earl Derr Biggers appear in July of 1914 at Ellis Island, having just come back from Liverpool on board the S.S. Celtic:
By the 1930 census (three years before his death), the family is in San Marino, California. By now, he is a pretty famous author and his greatest creation, Charlie Chan, has not only appeared in print but is also appearing in motion pictures, first in The House Without A Key in 1926 (starring George Kuwa). By 1930, Charlie Chan had also appeared in two other films and by 1931 the series as it is popularly known now began with Warner Oland in the part (largely considered the best actor in the role although he was in fact from Sweden and not Chinese).

One thing I was particularly excited to find was Mr. Biggers passport application from 1920. In it, he lists a planned trip through China, Japan and Hong Kong. I like to think the trip was for background information on his greatest character and who knows if this is true or not. On the portion of the passport that asks for the purpose of the trip is typed the word "pleasure" only to be crossed out and written in large letters over it "RECREATION."

(Biggers with his wife and young son from his passport application dated January 22 1920)

Earl Derr Biggers suffered a heart attack in late March of 1933 in Pasadena:

(from the Oakland Tribune, dated 1 Apr 1933)

He died a few days later on 5 Apr 1933.

(from the Oakland Tribune, dated 16 Apr 1933)

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