Back to the Search: Dedications, Obituaries & Live Voices

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.  

My father (far right) with his barefoot sister and brother in 1937. Their house was 5 blocks away from Juanita Sheridan's


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).  

Robin Lung, blog author, middle row 2nd from left. The two haole boys in the front row are both barefoot.


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.  

Irving Wolfe from The Lower Hudson Journal News


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.

Posted in Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence, Female Role Models, George Houser, Irving Wolfe, Juanita Sheridan, Juanita Sheridan's Associates, Juanita Sheridan's Husbands, Rue Morgue Press, The Chinese Chop, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A Few Words About Li Ling-Ai

Li Ling-Ai 1930s

The guardian angel of my blog, she sits in the upper right corner, looking over every post on my home page.  You might be wondering why she is there and how she is connected to Lily Wu or Juanita Sheridan.   I can’t tell all now — what would be the fun of that?  But for those of you who like to peek at the end of the book to read the last lines before starting the first chapter,  I will give you a little background on this amazing Chinese woman who is one of the characters in Finding KUKAN,  the new documentary film that I’m developing.

Born in Hawaii on May 19, 1908, Li Ling-Ai or Gladys Li as she was known by her family and childhood friends,  was the sixth of nine children and grew up in an  unconventional household.  Her parents were among the first Chinese doctors practicing western medicine in Hawaii during the late 1800s.  Her mother Kong Tai Heong was a popular obstetrician and way ahead of her time.  Choosing to keep her maiden name, Dr. Kong kept a busy professional practice while raising nine children.

Li Ling-Ai’s father was Li Khai Fai, a principled physiologist who was vilified by many Chinese for reporting one of the first bubonic plague cases to the authorities in 1900, resulting in what author James C. Mohr calls “the worst civic disaster in Hawaiian history” next to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor — the accidental burning of the entire Chinatown district and the forced quarantine of all its inhabitants.

Chinatown fire 1900

1900 Chinatown quarantine

Despite criticism, Li Khai Fai never wavered from his reformist beliefs.  He was an outspoken political activist who helped found one of the first Chinese language newspapers in Hawaii and the Mun Lun Chinese language school that still exists today.  He was also a firm believer in the United States democratic system and imbued all of his children with the notion that being a good American and a good Chinese went hand in hand.

Drs. Li Khai Fai and Kong Tai Heong with family (courtesy Andrew Li)

Thus, Ling-Ai was the epitome of East meets West.  She was given a classical western education at prestigious Punahou School (President Obama’s alma mater) while learning Chinese language, dance and music from Chinese Imperial Court scholars at Mun Lun.  She developed an early affection for the stage, gaining acclaim as a published playwright and director while still in college, and creating a dramatic persona for herself that would attract attention throughout her life.

In 1935, the Los Angeles Times daily columnist Harry Carr met Ling-Ai in the journalism class he was teaching in Hawaii.  He described her in his column as “brilliant, indolent, and beautiful.  She comes to the class arrayed like a princess of Cathay in long Chinese gowns.  She has been over the world intellectually and physically.  She is a dramatist and a dancer, cynical, gay and withering in her powers of intuition.”

Though she defied tradition in many ways, Ling-Ai identified closely with her father and his efforts to bring reform to China.  After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, it became her mission to bring China’s plight to the attention of the western world.  Educating Americans about the history and culture of China was an integral part of that mission, and she would employ her dramatic personality and exotic beauty to do so.

Could Li Ling-Ai have been the real Lily Wu?  Like Lily, did she know how to shoot a gun and was she good at solving crimes?  Did she wear handmade lingerie and dab herself with insanely expensive Tabac Blond perfume?

You are welcome to do your own detective work, or keep reading this blog to find out.

Posted in Chinatown Hawaii, Female Role Models, Kong Tai Heong, Li Khai Fai, Li Ling-Ai, On A Dream and a Dare | 11 Comments

Angie Tudor, Animation & Anna May Wong

What do all three have in common? No, not the letters AN.  It’s  JUANITA SHERIDAN!

Juanita Sheridan's first novel features the Chinese reporter Angie Tudor

Angie Tudor is the Chinese female lead in Sheridan’s first novel WHAT DARK SECRET co-written in Hawaii with the Michigan transplant dentist Dorothy Dudley.  In many ways Angie Tudor is the precursor to Lily Wu.  She’s beautiful, cosmopolitan in outlook, daring and brilliant.  But she is not as fully formed as Lily — being one of those “unwanted Chinese babies” she was dropped off at a mission on Kauai and has no Chinese family background to hearken back to.  She is a University of Hawaii graduate, has a couple of advanced degrees from Peiping, speaks 12 different Chinese dialects, is the best reporter on the staff of the local paper, is a “bit of a sleuth” and respected enough by the haole elite to be the only Asian invited to a dinner party made up of island high society, ex diplomats and military brass.  Of course the dinner party is interrupted by a very bloody stabbing murder during an island wide blackout drill (interestingly this was written before Pearl Harbor).   WHAT DARK SECRET has other wonderful period details of Honolulu life and is chock full of scandalous intertwining love affairs.

Soon after my search began, I picked up a copy of the out of print title on Ebay.  From the Schantz’s biography, I knew Sheridan had written the book prior to leaving Hawaii, so I searched through the Hawaii newspaper index to see if I could find any articles mentioning Sheridan or the book.  An entry for a Honolulu Advertiser article printed on September 26, 1940 looked promising: “Fomer Disney Scripter Writing Hawaiian Mystery.”  A quick microfilm search brought me an amazing sight — staring out of that humming antiquated lightbox known as a Microfilm reader was the author herself .  It was my first sight of Juanita Sheridan and I gasped so loudly that everyone around me turned around.

Juanita Sheridan, aka Johnny Elliot, from the 9/26/40 Honolulu Advertiser

“She’s cute and thin and has a cat!” is what I wrote in my journal that day.  I was surprised because Janice Cameron, the first person narrator of the Lily Wu novels who is the fictional stand in for Sheridan, is constantly talking about her weight problems and troubles with men.  I was particularly thrilled about the cat at the typewriter.  I also like to write with a cat next to me.

My Scottish Fold Quinn as a kitten, hanging on the hard drive

I printed up the hazy microfilm photo and pasted it to my desktop printer for motivation.  I printed up another copy to put in my briefcase, meaning to whip it out to whenever I met an older Chinese woman and ask, “Does this woman look familiar?”

Anna May Wong publicity photo, 1930

The actual article, written by Naomi Benyas, was loaded with possible leads to follow up on.  Juanita is referred to as Johnny Elliot (a nickname that she uses in the dedication to THE CHINESE CHOP).  She and co-author Dr. H. Dorothy Dudley are planning to enter their finished mystery novel that includes “all the gory details”  In Farrar Rinehart’s $30,000 contest.  The are also planning to send the published book to Anna May Wong in hopes that she will “consider it a suitable story for her talents and make it into a movie.”

I had just seen a TCM special about Anna May Wong and knew how Wong had struggled to get decent acting parts.  My esteem for Juanita Sheridan went up a notch thinking of how progressive she must have been for her time to create a strong leading role for a Chinese woman.

The article goes on to give a wonderful description of early working conditions at the Walt Disney Studio: “Mrs. Elliot was the first script girl with the Walt Disney studios eight years ago.  She was also the only woman working there in the midst of the 125 men, and “had myself a time.”  A slim, tanned, jolly person, Mrs. Elliot began with the Disney group back when Mickey Mouse was in his heyday, when the studio was just built and her typewriter and desk were shiny and new.  Once she was the voice of a goldfish in one of the cartoons; another time she was the voice of a little pig.  Anything and everything in the way of work was the Elliot responsibility: to steer the movie stars about the studio, to take notes from three directors at once, to be the offstage voices.  Story conferences were really something, held in a huge room with a piano and a long table.  Present were the director, the musical director, the artists, the gag men, the pianist and the stenographer, Mrs. Elliot. Often, she says, she used to lie on the floor and take her notes.  Conferences would last for two or three days, with “cokes” and candy bars being shipped in to step up the process of script writing.  Everything was very informal, very free and easy,” she said.  “If I came to work in a new dress, a caricature of me was up on the bulletin board in five minutes and everybody laughed at me.”  Those conferences were free-for-alls with everyone arguing fiercely, then acting out their ideas.  Mrs. Elliot was supposed to take notes of all the ideas and straighten the whole thing out for the drawings, with photographic angles taken into consideration.  Each artist had the scenes he could do best and those too she had to keep straight — which artist handled the dance scenes, which the burlesque, which the dialogue.  Once for six weeks she had to dance the minuet up and down the halls to show the artist how to draw that minuet correctly.  He was a German and didn’t know minuet steps.  At that time she wished she were German, too, so she wouldn’t know them either.  Eventually Mrs. Elliot wrote two scripts on her own and sold them to Disney, both based on myths.  They were not so successful financially since people come to Disney cartoons not to be educated but to be amused, she said.

Sheridan’s books have great visual details and I have to think that her experience at Disney influenced the way she wrote them.  I’ve often thought that the Lily Wu books would make a great film series.  Like  THE THIN MAN goes all female and part Chinese.  They would be sardonic, sexy, and a great vehicle for 1930’s fashion items, deco interiors, and Django Reinhardt music.  Ironically one of Sheridan’s Lily Wu books was turned into the pilot for the TV series HAWAIIAN EYE, but the female characters were turned into men.  The Anna May Wong version of Sheirdan’s books has yet to be made.

So… I had the nickname, I had the past Disney career, I had the cat.  I still didn’t have a clue about the Chinese women friends.  The search must go on…

Posted in Angie Tudor, Anna May Wong, Female Role Models, Hawaiian Eye, Janice Cameron, Juanita Sheridan, Lily Wu, Rue Morgue Press, The Chinese Chop, The Thin Man, Walt Disney Studios, What Dark Secret | 1 Comment

What’s In A Name? or Robin’s Rules of Research Part I

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.

Entrance to Main Library in Honolulu

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 Sheridan's marriage certificateJuanita 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.

Posted in Archival Research, Female Role Models, Juanita Sheridan, Lily Wu, Patsy Mink, Rue Morgue Press | 2 Comments


What’s the big deal about a Chinese woman in a mystery novel anyway?

Childhood reading selections (courtesy University of Minnesota)

Growing up in 1960s Hawaii I was one of those avid readers who would borrow my limit from the library every week and read books under the covers with flashlights after lights out (aided and abetted by my older sister of course).  I loved finding a book series and reading through them – the Betsy and Tacy books, Beverly Cleary’s  Ramona Books, and later on anything by Agatha Christie.

It never occurred to me that I was missing any Chinese role models in my fiction reading.  I was a fourth generation Chinese growing up in a middle class suburban neighborhood.  My local librarian was a white woman and 99% of the books in the library were filled with white characters – l loved them.  I went through many great adventures with them, learning about life, language and the endless world beyond Hawaii as I went.  It’s no wonder that I grew up longing for curly blonde hair and a soda fountain in the basement.

It wasn’t until college and my first fiction writing class that I started to hunt for literature that spoke to my own identity – stories that had Hawaii as a backdrop or modern Chinese woman characters.  Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE WOMAN WARRIOR was a revelation.  After decades of hunting I’ve accumulated a nice collection – almost a half bookcase worth.  Thankfully fiction, like food, has become multi-ethnic.  Still these books are pitifully small in number compared to the overall number of published books out there  —  And if you like a good mystery, the selection featuring Chinese women in Hawaii are very slim indeed.

That’s why I got so turned on when my friend Clarissa gave me  Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu books to read.  Not only are many set in Hawaii, they feature a strong, independent Chinese woman in fun mystery stories with great period details.  Hawaiiana experts may find some of the Hawaiian culture details misleading or inaccurate, but Sheridan has a sharp eye for characters and the racial nuances that existed in Hawaii and the mainland in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Janice Cameron, the haole (Caucasian) novelist who narrates the stories and is Lily’s partner in crime solving, tends to idolize Lily (a little like Watson and Holmes) but describes  enough of her faults to make her a likeable heroine that you’d be happy to go out drinking with.  Besides her expertise with a gun, Lily’s way of putting down a snobby heiress or prejudiced policeman with a well-turned phrase is one of the things I like best about her.  Her fearless approach to life is something any fiction-reading woman, Chinese or not, might want to emulate.

Clarissa Tartar mystery maven on left Robin Lung blog author on right

Posted in 1960s Hawaii, Female Role Models, Juanita Sheridan, Lily Wu, Maxine Hong Kingston, Rue Morgue Press, The Chinese Chop | Leave a comment

The Source

Tom and Enid Schantz are the heroic couple who formed Rue Morgue Press and brought Juanita Sheridan’s books (and Lily Wu) back to life.  According to the back jacket copy of the reissued paperback version of THE CHINESE CHOP, Sheridan’s Lily Wu books (published between 1949-1953) are the first series to feature a Chinese-American female sleuth.

The jacket copy describes Lily Wu as  “a self-assured 25-year-old who can assume whatever demeanor best suits her purposes.  Critic Anthony Boucher (for whom Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, is named) proclaimed her as one of the best female sleuths of the era — and the only he was devotedly in love with, citing his respect for her professional skills and delight in her personal charms.”

Imagine a New York Times book reviewer falling in love with a fictional Chinese woman — it doesn’t happen every day.  But Lily Wu is not your average subservient Flower Drum gal.  She’s an equal match for even a hardened NY Times reviewer.  What’s even more remarkable is that she actually exists.

The Schantz’s colorful biography on the life of Juanita Sheridan reveals that Sheridan based Lily Wu on a few of her real life Chinese friends.  Sheridan herself lived in Hawaii for 6 years between 1935-1941, and 3 of the 4 books are set in Hawaii.

Could the real Lily Wu have been hanging out with my Chinese grandmother in Hawaii in the 1930’s?  Such a possiblity made me start looking at my grandmother in a whole new way.  It made me start looking at the history of Hawai`i in a whole new way .

Murders!  Scandals! Romantic Intrigue!  Corruption! — suddenly 1930s Hawai`i became a lot more interesting to me.  How much of it was truth and how much was fiction?  That was what I set out to discover.

Posted in Juanita Sheridan, Lily Wu, Rue Morgue Press, The Chinese Chop | Leave a comment

The First Step

Juanita Sheridan circa 1950 (courtesy Ross Hart)

My first introduction to Lily Wu was through my friend Clarissa Tartar the vintage mystery maven.  She gave me a copy of THE CHINESE CHOP by Juanita Sheridan (the author pictured above).  After reading it I was hooked  on Lily Wu.  I read all the rest of the books in the series.  Lily Wu solves crimes.  She is Chinese.  She is beautiful.  She smokes and drinks and is smarter than the police.  She has roots in Hawaii and New York City and moves with equal comfort in both worlds.  Stay tuned to learn more…

Posted in Juanita Sheridan, Lily Wu | 2 Comments