Over one year ago, on January 27, 2009, there was a rare celebrity sighting at the nation’s oldest historical society, the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). Actress Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for HBO’s Sex and the City, visited the reading room to work with material from the Society’s manuscript collections as part of filming for the inaugural episode of NBC’s new series Who Do You Think You Are? The program, an American adaptation of the hit British documentary series by the same title, follows well-known celebrities as they discover their proverbial roots, researching their ancestors in an attempt to learn more about their families and themselves.
During her visit, Ms. Parker registered as a researcher and followed the standard MHS rules that apply to researchers working in the reading room. The one, highly unusual exception was that the Society allowed the film crew to follow her and record her as she researched her ancestors. Reference librarian Elaine Grublin spent some time with Ms. Parker in the catalog room, helping her identify and call for the material she wanted to see, and then brought the manuscripts to her in the reading room. Ms. Parker’s examination of the materials led to some surprising discoveries.
After filming wrapped, Ms. Parker stopped in the lobby to chat with a couple of Emerson College students that had also been conducting research. She stayed on into the evening for a tour and the chance to see some of the Society’s treasures, asking detailed questions about the collections. While looking at selected materials from the Adams Family Papers, Ms. Parker noted that her birthday, March 25, was the same date that Thomas Jefferson wrote his last letter to John Adams.
When an MHS staff member pointed out that a portrait of Lieutenant Frederick Hedge Webster, who was killed in action in 1864 while serving in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, bore an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Parker’s husband, Matthew Broderick, who played Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, also of the 54th, in the film Glory, she enthusiastically agreed.
Unfortunately, the MHS cannot disclose which documents Ms. Parker requested to see or what she learned from her research. Instead, those interested will have to tune in to the series debut on NBC on Friday, March 5, 2010, at 8:00 PM to learn more about the Society’s role in Sarah Jessica Parker’s journey of genealogical discovery and enjoy the MHS and its reading room staff’s 15 minutes of fame.
For more about the Massachusetts Historical Society, visit their website at www.masshist.org.