On Being the Detective in Stella’s Life

Coffee and doughnuts — such a cheap and easy comfort.  When I was a teacher for Los Angeles Unified School District and we had faculty meetings, the coffee and doughnuts were the perfect temporary stimulation to get through the drudgery of discussing agendas irrelevant to classroom instruction.  What does this have to do with Stella Adler’s biography?  Well, it’s an anecdote about my sleuthing days, which I think I enjoyed more than actually writing the book.

I knew when I began to search for Stella Adler’s high school records that coffee and doughnuts would come in handy.  It all started with her FBI file.  I had to wait two years after applying for it through the Freedom of Information Act before it arrived (it took longer to receive her files from the War Department).  The file was 200 plus pages of information that opened up so many cans of worms this sleuth was beside herself following all the new avenues of research from lost passports to HUAC surveillance to the name of the public schools Stella attended.

You’d think this information would be accessible some other way, but no one has written Stella’s biography and when you go to interview people they don’t necessarily remember where or even if Stella attended school.

If I had been more astute I would have realized that Wadleigh High School in Harlem was the only girls’ school in Manhattan Stella could have attended at the time, but I didn’t discover this until after I learned the name of the school in her FBI report.  Being a good detective, as all biographers must, I walked through the neighborhood and eventually the halls of the high school itself, hoping to find more information.  The student records, I learned, had all been moved to Martin Luther King High School.  As for the neighborhood, it was nothing like the one Stella knew as an adolescent at the eve of the Harlem Renaissance.  I had to recreate that through more research.

Coffee and doughnuts in hand, the registrar at MLK High was very pleased to accept my offering and give me access to the dusty file cabinets in the basement of the school, which housed the city’s old student records.  She didn’t exactly leave me with the files as I had wished (stimulants like caffeine and sugar wear off quickly), but after half an hour of going through the A’s, dust coating my fingertips like chocolate frosting, I found Stella’s high school record.  You’ll have to read the biography to learn what was written there.

As you’ve no doubt realized, I didn’t write this post to praise the wonders of coffee and doughnuts as much as I did to relive my days feeling like Mr. Holmes himself, stealthily acquiring the keys to unlock the story of someone’s whereabouts, motives, crimes (Stella was written up as being tardy a lot).  Actually, the most fascinating thing was not even that I had tracked down the actual document.  I found it difficult to believe Stella attended public school.  I was under the impression her sole education was in the theatre, which I later realized it was, but she also learned her ABCs and arithmetic like any other American.  The Grande Dame was once just a kid sitting behind a desk in a classroom filled with other kids.

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