Sunday, June 7, 2009

Earl Derr Biggers: A Life, Part 2

I realize you can't do a very good biography of someone if you don't include the people around them. While my last post followed Mr. Biggers life, this one attempts to trace some of his family tree and close to him.

Robert J. Biggers we know from the last post, was born in Jan of 1860 in Canada. I also know from the 1900 census that he and Emma married around the early 1880s. In his 1920 census record he says that he emigrated in 1865 and I believe I found him in Warren in 1880, working as a clerk in a store and living with his family. Listed are his parents, William (b. circa 1829 in Canada to parents from Ireland. He is listed as a "tanner and currier") and Mary (b. circa 1832 in Canada, also to Irish parents) as well as siblings William H (b. circa 1856, Canada), David (b. circa 1857, Canada), John (b. circa 1859, Canada), Marnie (daughter, probably named Mary) (b. circa 1867, Ohio), Maggie (b. circa 1868, Ohio) and George S. (b. circa 1871, Ohio). Looking the children up in the Ohio Deaths database on FamilySearch revealed that they all pretty much remained in Warren and that Mary's maiden name was Stewart. Of the children whose certificate showed up were William H., James W. (born 1853, does not appear with family in 1880), John and Mary (who is listed as "Marnie" above). It also looks like the family was from Ottawa before coming to the US.

Emma E. Derr also comes up in the Ohio Deaths database. She was born 15 Sept 1863 in Greenville (Mercer Co.), Pennsylvania to Reuben Derr and Mary Bortz. She died 6 May 1950 and is listed as a widow.

Robert and Emma were apparently moved out to California to be with their son because they appear in Pasadena in the 1930 census. Robert must have died sometime between 1930 and 1950, where I don't know. He and Emma were married 17 Oct 1883 in Trumbull Co., OH.

From Earl Derr Biggers passport, we learn that his wife Eleanor was born 8 Feb 1888 (in Massachusetts) and that their son, Robert, was born 7 June 1915 (in New York). Through newspaper clippings, I learned Eleanor remarried after Mr. Biggers death (a Mr. Cole) and that she sued Jack Benny for copyright infringement:

(Oakland Tribune, dated 25 Oct 1960)

I believe Eleanor died in Monterey, California on 4 Mar 1976 (her DOB lists her as born in 1887). She was born Eleanor Ladd "of Medford, Mass." (from Mr. Biggers obituary) and they married in 1912. Eleanor appears in the 1910 census with her mother, Harriet and a brother, Philip, living in Medford. In the 1900 census, Eleanor's father is still alive and they are living in Medford. The family consists of: Austin C. Ladd (b. June 1854, Mass.), Harriet A. (b. June 1857, Mass.), and Philip H. (b. July 1885) as well as Eleanor.

Earl Derr Biggers and Eleanor Ladd's son, Robert Ladd Biggers, first appears in a Harvard Alumni publication (from Google Books):

Not much is known about Robert after that except that he died in Los Angeles on 5 Apr 1967 (from CADI), almost thirty-four years to the day his father died. A final notice to any creditors he might have had appeared in July of 1967:

I for one enjoyed learning a bit more about one of my favorite authors, and one of the most underrated authors in my opinion. If you ever have a chance to read one of his books or see a film based on one of his works I highly recommend it. Sure some of the writing and content is a little dated and falls into stereotyping in some places, but I think if you look at his works as a hole you'll find a good story, interesting characters and a compelling plot. Here's to you, Mr. Biggers- hopefully one day you'll be more appreciated.


  1. Hi, Leah

    I read with tremendous interest your post on Earl Derr Biggers. His Charlie Chan novels have been great favorites of mine and I have also been a student of Chan Apana, the
    legendary Honolulu detective, upon whom Charlie Chan was howsoever distantly modeled. I also have collected a number of obits, from
    the Pasadena Public Library, re Mr. Biggers' death. My reason for wanting these obits was to learn, if Mr. Biggers had had any children. Reading about his son, I Googled his name and found your posts. Beyond my interest in Mr. Biggers as the 'creator' of Charlie
    Chan, I have wondered, for many years, if Mr. Biggers ever left any
    notes or possible diary entries,re his stay in Honolulu, where he met
    Chan Apana. I have lived in Hawai'i
    for a number of years, and would be fascinated to read any observations Mr. Biggers may have left. I had hoped perhaps his
    offspring might have such, if they existed. Knowing, form your post, about Robert's death in the 60s, I
    am writing to ask, if Robert may have left any diaries of his father's; or if Robert, himself,
    had children or other relatives, who may have inherited any effects
    of Earl Derr, that might contain writings on Hawai'i.
    If you have any knowledge of or suggestions re my questions, I'd be
    grateful to hear back from you.

    Bob Freedman

  2. Leah,
    Could you let me know,if
    my communication reached you?
    I have no experience with blogs
    or posting and the Google response
    to my post made me think it was not
    Bob F.

  3. My mother was a Ladd. Eleanor Ladd was mother's mother's cousin. My mother remembers Earl der Biggers visiting their home, summer's at Cape Cod, and also visiting the der Biggers at their home. From what I was told mother always stated the real Charlie Chan was modeled after Earl's butler/house boy who was Chinese.


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