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Megan Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak

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Brooke Shields, Who Do You Think You Are?

Posted: 03/ 4/11 05:27 PM ET

The following is the fifth in a series of celebrity roots profiles from the first season of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? Though it's not the part of her ancestry that was featured in the show, Ms. Shields is part Irish, so this seems to be an appropriate time to share her tale, given that March is Irish-American Heritage Month. Previous profiles can be found on Lisa Kudrow, Emmitt Smith, Matthew Broderick and Spike Lee.

Brooke Shields made her showbiz debut in Ivory Soap ads at the age of eleven months. By the time she entered Princeton at eighteen to study French literature, she could already look back on a celebrated career as a model and actress. Since then, we've continued to follow the stunning six-footer on stage and screen, as well as in the pages of magazines and her memoir.

Brooke's early years may have appeared glamorous to the outside world, but few knew of her life behind the scenes. Brooke's parents, Frank Shields and Teri Schmonn, divorced by the time Brooke was six months old. As Brooke explains, they could not have been more different. Her father, Frank, was from "aristocracy, old money, and Park Avenue," while her mother, Teri, came from a family that was "working class and saving every dime." Little wonder that Brooke claims she never knew where she truly belonged and felt "split down the middle."

Her early entrance into the world of adult responsibilities coupled with her divided family forced her to become self-sufficient. Unable to connect with her divided family, Brooke focused on her career. But her perspective changed with 9/11. Brooke was performing in Cabaret on Broadway at the time. Seeing so many families lose their loved ones made her keenly aware of the importance of family.

When approached about researching her roots, she decided the time was right. She would finally look into her divided family, starting with her mother's side. Teri was raised in Newark, New Jersey, but left as soon as she could. Brooke suspected that this was partly due to her grandmother Theresa, who treated Teri unkindly. Brooke disliked her grandmother; she found her "bitter, sad, and afraid," so she was curious to find out if Theresa's past could explain the reasons behind her bitterness. Brooke's knowledge of her maternal family was slim. All she knew was that her grandmother had a younger sister named Lillian and that their maiden name was Dollinger.

At the New Jersey State Archives, Brooke found Theresa's birth certificate, which showed that her grandmother was born in 1908 to John and Ida Dollinger. But it was Theresa's sister's birth certificate that raised questions. Lillian was born in 1915, but her record indicated that she was the fourth child, not the second as expected. Who were the other siblings? More digging revealed a pair of brothers born in between the sisters: John and Edward. Sadly, John lived only one week, but what about Edward? Why had her grandmother never mentioned him?

The discovery of John and Edward was the first in a series of revelations about Theresa's life. Her mother, Ida, passed away in 1919, leaving ten-year-old Theresa to step into her shoes. As the oldest, Theresa had to cope with her mother's death while becoming a mother herself to her younger siblings. How shattering it must have been, then, when Edward died in a drowning accident in 1927. To seventeen-year-old Theresa, it must have felt like losing both a son and a brother.

Though they would have paled in comparison, other hardships -- such as frequent moves in search of cheaper rent -- accompanied her grandmother's life. These insights enabled Brooke to understand better Theresa's resentment of her daughter Teri, who managed to escape the responsibilities and loss that Theresa had been forced to confront.

Turning to her father's side, Brooke prepared herself for a very different journey. Her striking, tennis pro grandfather Francis Xavier Shields had married into Italian nobility, so Brooke was aware she had aristocratic roots, but had never investigated them. She hoped to discover more by traveling to Rome, the birthplace of Donna Marina Torlonia, her socialite grandmother.

Visiting Villa Torlonia, built by her fourth great-grandfather, Giovanni Torlonia, she was intrigued to hear that he and his father, Marino, were behind the family's rise to prominence. Marino had shifted from textiles to banking, and Giovanni -- a gifted businessman -- served as banker to both the Vatican and Napoleon's army, multiplying the family's fortunes. Eventually, they were able to buy their way into the Italian aristocracy.

But to Brooke's surprise, the Torlonias didn't originate in Italy. Marino's marriage record noted that he was from Augerolles, France. Excited by the news that her Italian family was actually French, Brooke traveled to Augerolles in search of more information about her French ancestors. Escorted to a church in the area, she looked at the 1725 birth record of Marino Torlonia, who was born Marin Torlonias. The Torlonias family house was still standing, and Brooke was able to see the humble origins of her illustrious family.

But Brooke had one more lead to follow in France. A paternal family scroll traced one of Brooke's lines back to a mysteriously titled ancestor: Christine Marie, Madame Royale, who was born in 1606 in the Palais du Louvre. In Paris, Brooke learned that Christine Marie's father was King Henry IV, founder of the Bourbon dynasty. Belonging to this family meant that Brooke was also cousins with Louis XlV, perhaps the best-known monarch in European history, and a descendant of Saint Louis (Louis IX), the only king of France to have been canonized.

Brooke's explorations gave her the "gift of empathy" for her emotionally scarred grandmother, admiration for her industrious Torlonia ancestors, and a possible explanation for the affinity she's always felt for France. Brooke acknowledged that "there is something empowering" about "being able to find your place in the grand scheme of things." But most important, Brooke's discoveries helped her unify her previously separate halves. At the end of the journey, Brooke reflected, "I now feel much more complete as a person. It's been very freeing to me to realize that I don't have to solely come from one side." She now describes herself as "an amalgamation of all of these people and all of these genes and all of these experiences."

Note: The preceding profile is excerpted from the hardcover version of Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History. The paperback of the book (without celeb profiles) has just been released.

 
 
 

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