A good mystery author is always hiding clues for readers. Juanita Sheridan’s book dedications are cryptic clues to various passages in her life. A couple of these dedications are still mysteries to me, but I have figured out a few: The most obvious one is in THE MAMO MURDERS, Sheridan’s third Lily Wu mystery. It reads, “For that guy with luau feet, my favorite son , Ross”. Ross Hart was Sheridan’s only child and, after Sheridan kidnapped him from his grandmother and legal guardian in LA, he lived with Sheridan in Hawaii for 5 years from 1936-1941. He was 8 years old when he arrived and like most children in Hawaii he probably walked all over the place with bare feet. “Luau feet” refers to the kind of feet that develop naturally, without the hindrance of shoes – abnormally wide, splayed-toed, and heavily calloused on the bottom.
When I was growing up, it was still a point of pride to have “luau feet” tough enough to walk across hot black asphalt or sharp lava rocks without any shoes. In elementary school my classmates, haoles included, only wore shoes to go on excursions to the symphony (mandatory as I recall) and to take the annual class photo (optional depending on how much your parents were concerned with appearances).
Using the term “luau feet” in a book dedication marked Juanita Sheridan as a “local girl” no matter what her race. It’s a sign that Hawaii really got under her skin. It’s also a testament to the strength of Hawaii’s pidgin language that the term persists and is still commonly used today.
The dedication in THE CHINESE CHOP was a little more difficult to decipher at first. It reads, “For Irv, who said, ‘Johnnie, is Johnnie.'” At first I thought Johnnie referred to a past lover or husband of Sheridan’s who needed to be forgiven for some transgression or other. Once I discovered Sheridan’s nickname in Hawaii was Johnny, however, I took another look at the dedication. If Johnnie referred to Sheridan, then who was Irv? Could he be one of her 8 husbands? I Googled “Irv Sheridan” and “Irving Sheridan,” but nothing promising came up. Then I tried the name Irving Wolfe since the four Lily Wu books are copyrighted to Juanita Sheridan Wolfe.
BINGO! A write up about an Irving Wolfe in Rockland County popped up — According to the Schantz bio, Sheridan had built a house with one of her husbands in Rockland County. Unfortunately the Irving Wolfe I had just found had just passed away the week before — what timing! Fortunately, the Lower Hudson Journal News had written a very nice obituary and printed photos of his memorial service.
When you are looking for dead people, you really appreciate a well-written obituary. Irving’s was quite extensive. He was widely known in the community as a humanitarian, a peace activist, and a founding member of an interracial cooperative community called Skyview Acres which had begun in 1949. There was no mention of Juanita Sheridan, but his surviving widow was listed as his SECOND wife. He could have still been married to Juanita earlier in his life.
Another founder of Skyview, George Houser, was interviewed in the obituary. Perhaps he could tell me if Irving had been Juanita’s husband. Houser himself had led an incredible life. Trained as a Methodist minister, he spent a year in prison for resisting the draft in 1940, and in 1947 was part of an early Civil Rights movement called the Journey of Reconciliation. (Check out PBS doc about the movement “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow.” ) George sounded like Juanita’s kind of guy, so I called him up.
George’s wife Jean answered the phone and I got real chills when she confirmed that Irving Wolfe HAD been married to Juanita in the early days of Skyview– FINALLY! A live voice who knew Sheridan! Jean went on to say that Irv and Johnnie, as everyone at Skyview called Juanita, were among the first residents in the community and had worked on building their own house. Johnnie was known in the neighborhood for her mystery novel writing — Jean even had a book or two of hers running around the place — but Jean had no idea who the Chinese women she based her books on might be.
Who might know that? Jean suggested I contact Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence, Johnnie and Irving’s old next door neighbor who still lived at Skyview. It turns out Dr. Lawrence also had an amazing story, being one of the first black women psychiatrists in the country and the first practicing child psychiatrists in Rockland County.
Juanita Sheridan’s life was getting more and more interesting to me. All of her associates seemed to be such colorful and dynamic people — I was sure the real Lily Wu(s) would prove to be so too.