Ship records can provide fascinating information about someone from the past. Examining passenger lists can also give you interesting information about your subject’s traveling companions — who was single and who was married, if they were traveling with spouses or children, if there were foreign diplomats or movie stars on board, who traveled first class and who was in cabin class, where did they embark and disembark etc. While checking out Juanita Sheridan’s fellow passengers on her first trip home from Hawaii I came up with a surprising discovery and the first Lily Wu suspect of the case. The discovery all started with a Charlie Chan detour and the online appearance of Juanita Sheridan’s missing son Ross Hart.
When Rue Morgue Press owner and Juanita Sheridan publisher Tom Schantz found out about my desire to turn my search into some kind of documentary film. He suggested that I could think of Lily Wu as a kind of female Charlie Chan (although Lily was a much more realistic portrait of an Asian American than Charlie was). Some of the old Chan movies had just been restored and were available on Netflix. They seemed to be getting some buzz by reviewers on-line. I had never read a Chan book and had only a vague recollection of the Hollywood Chan’s portly bowing figure and sly smile (neither one seemed to suggest good reading to me in my youth). I picked up a copy of THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY and THE CHINESE PARROT. I found them to be surprisingly entertaining with evocative settings and fully formed female characters.
Tom also let me know he’d been able to track down the once-thought-possibly-dead Ross Hart, Juanita Sheridan’s son by her first husband — none other than Ross Hart Sr. After some prodding, Ross answered a few of my email queries and provided some great memories of living in Hawaii, including walking barefoot down to the beach at Waikiki to go surfing, and making money delivering papers and shining shoes for tourists coming off the cruise ships (all things my father reported doing as a kid too). Ross also reported seeing long lines of sailors outside one of the “cat houses” by the Chinatown waterfront called the Rex Room (something my father may have also seen but never told me about). Apparently long lines of men calmly waiting out in the open for their turn to go in to one of Honolulu’s many houses of prostitution was a common sight before and during WWII. For a great first-hand account of the “legalized” prostitution brought in by the US military to Hawaii, see Ted Chernin’s wonderful article “My Experiences in Honolulu Chinatown Red-Light District” from the Hawaii Journal of History. Another great account comes from the fiction book THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER by William Bradford Huie.
Huie’s fictional prostitute Mamie may have been based on the infamous Jean O’Hara who exposed the graft connected with Honolulu’s red light district in her slim book HONOLULU HARLOT.
Another thing Ross revealed was that Juanita had visited Hawaii long before she moved there in 1935. Juanita first came to the islands in 1928 on a rather grim mission. She was trying to chase down the husband who had left her with a 2-month old baby in California. Ross Sr. had fled to Hawaii presumably to escape paying alimony. So, on June 26, 1928 Juanita, with baby Ross in tow, arrived in Hawaii for the first time via the S.S. Maui looking for her husband.
I don’t know if Juanita was ever able to track Ross Sr. down, but years later in her third Lily Wu book THE MAMO MURDERS Sheridan would write a very realistic scene of a desperate young mother (Cora) confronting her wayward husband (Denis Desmond) in a Maui hotel bungalow — “…Every day somebody comes with another bill– payments on the car, the furniture, on the house — you never even paid your helper the last three weeks before you left! And the baby’s been sick; he’s had chicken pox, and I’ve almost gone out of my mind, worrying!” We can only guess about what part of that fiction story came from fact.
What we do know is that Juanita and baby Ross stayed in Hawaii a little over a month and returned to California on the S.S. Maui on August 1, 1928. Juanita was listed as Mrs. Ross Hart, married. Her husband was not on board. He would return to California three weeks later, listed as single.
So, who accompanied Juanita and baby Ross across the sea after what must have been a very disappointing first trip to Paradise? In a quick scan of the passenger list one name popped out at me: EARL DERR BIGGERS — the famous author of the Charlie Chan novels himself was on the boat!
Could Juanita have met the famous detective novelist aboard ship? Could that have been the impetus for Sheridan’s creation of Lily Wu, “the female Charlie Chan”? Did Juanita traveling alone with a young baby raise questions? Sympathy? Who else was on the boat that she might have gravitated to?
Checking the next page of the ship’s passenger list, another name popped out at me: Wai Sue Chun. For some reason that name sounded familiar to me. She was a year older than Juanita, from Honolulu, single, and seemed to be traveling all by herself. She was one of only 5 passengers on board with obviously Chinese surnames. Did Juanita and Wai Sue become friendly on the ship? Did Juanita confide in Wai Sue and ask her for help with her marital problems? Could Wai Sue have been the budding inspiration for the first Chinese female sleuth in an American detective series? Did Earl Biggers try to pick Wai Sue’s brain for details for his next Chan novel? Did all three of them get together on the ship and hatch out a plot? Where was Wai Sue going anyway? And what had Earl Biggers been doing in Hawaii?
I was to find the answers to a few of these questions in the next few days…To Be Continued