How do you track down the real life inspirations for a fictional character from a book written over 60 years ago? I decided to start by finding out more about Lily Wu’s creator Juanita Sheridan. If I knew more about her life in Hawaii, I might be able to find out who the Chinese women she hung around with were. A call to Tom Schantz at Rue Morgue Press provided me with a lot of interesting tidbits about the mystery genre from a very friendly expert, but not much more on Sheridan. How about Ross Hart, Sheridan’s son who owned the copyright to the books? Unfortunately, Ross Hart was MIA. Tom had lost touch with him over the past several years and had not even been able to pay him his royalties. Tom feared he might be dead. “You know if you can’t find someone to pay them money, they are really gone.”
Google didn’t bring up any other helpful information.
What to do? Employ Robin’s Rule of Research #1 — ASK A LIBRARIAN. Patrick McNally at the Hawaii State Library had been a great help when I was working on archival sources for PATSY MINK: AHEAD OF THE MAJORITY, so I went back to him for help. He didn’t even blink an eye when I told him what I was trying to do. Juanita Sheridan reportedly had 8 different husbands and while in Hawaii she had been married to an architect named Fritz Elliot. That’s about all I had to go on. Patrick pointed me around the corner to the State Archives to check marriage records and suggested several other places I could look for clues, including a wonderful precursor to the White Pages – The Polk directory. Searching for the name Elliottt in both places yielded results!
Juanita Lorraine Lundy had married William Frederick Elliott on May 9, 1936 at Fort Ruger, a small military base near the slopes of Diamond Head. The location and Army chaplain denoted a quick military ceremony. They were both 29 years old. No Chinese maid of honor or best man was on the certificate, but I did have the full name of Juanita’s Hawaii husband and the last name of her previous husband – Lundy. A look into the 1937/38 Polk directory confirmed that Juanita and William both lived at 556 10th Avenue, just a few blocks away from my grandparents’ first house where my father was born!
Juanita was a stenographer at American Factors and William was a draftsman at Ray Morris, a reputable Honolulu architecture firm building affordable houses in Hawaii. Juanita began to take on a more solid presence in my imagination. As I traced her handwriting on the marriage certificate. I imagined a young haole couple standing at a bare bones altar exchanging modest gold wedding bands — and somewhere just off in distance, maybe around the next corner, or the next week at the grocery store or the following month at a lunch counter, Juanita was going to run into the real Lily Wu. I knew I had to keep looking.