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Mystery Photo Contest: The Lady in the Hat Revealed!

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Cary O’Dell at the Library’s National Recording Registry runs our Mystery Photo Contest. In this guest blog, he’s back with the story of  a mystery solved. If you’d like to take a crack at some of these, see the links below. 

The Lady in the Hat is a a mystery no longer.

Well, it took four years…but we solved another Mystery Photo Contest entry!

This one has been known as The Lady in the Hat, for obvious reasons (that feather!). But she’s a mystery no longer, and her real name is….well, hang on.

Careful readers will recall that several years ago the Library’s Moving Images section received a huge collection of film, TV and music industry photographs. Publicity stills, most of them, head shots and glamour poses. Nearly all of them were properly identified and we dutifully filed them away. But there were others. The unlabeled, the unidentified, the completely unknown…mystery photos! Not only were these faces of yesteryear not familiar, the pictures had no dates, locations or titles.

To identify them, we tried reverse-image searches on the internet. Consulted databases. Passed the pictures around the office. Nothing.

So we turned to you, gentle readers!

We’ve posted pictures on several blogs over the years, asking you to help. We’ve received hundreds of guesses, tracked down the best hunches and have been able to name a few. Just last year, cult film fan Joe Bob Briggs and his fans identified Esther Anderson, a Jamaican model, actress and filmmaker, who once starred in “A Warm December” with Sidney Poitier. (See both of the previous links to try your hand at more mystery solving.)

Esther Anderson, the Jamaican actress and filmmaker, in a photo included in the Mystery Photo Contest.

The Lady in the Hat proved a bigger mystery, though.

We had some very good guesses (Louise Fletcher, Susan Oliver, Lola Albright, Shirley Bonne, Marina Vlady), but none were correct.

Until now, that is. She was hiding in plain sight, a recurring but infrequent guest star in a television series that everybody of a certain ages remembers.

Here’s how it happened: Like many film and TV fans, I belong to Facebook groups devoted to old movies and vintage television shows.  There, a few weeks ago, someone posted a photo of the British actress Janette Scott.  She’d been in more than 30 movies in the 1950s and 1960s, things like “No Highway in the Sky,” starring James Stewart, and “As Long as They’re Happy,” in which she starred opposite James Buchanan. Looking at her picture, I noticed a resemblance to the lady with the funky hat. And the more I searched for Janette’s images, the more I became convinced that this mystery had been solved.

Never shy, I tracked down her address (she’s back home in England) and mailed her a copy of the photo with a short cover letter. Impatient, I also called her son, the singer James Torme (his dad was Scott’s ex-husband, the late Mel Torme). When I got him on the line, I emailed him The Lady in the Hat photograph.  I was very excited. “IS THIS YOUR MOM?!” I all but shouted.

He opened the attachment, took one look and said — lickety-split and without hesitation – “No.”


The full contact sheet that came to the Library with no identifying material.

But then, a week or two later, someone posted a picture from “Hogan’s Heroes,” the goofy CBS sitcom that ran from 1965 to 1971. Remember? The world’s most incompetently run Nazi prisoner of war camp? Col. Klink? Sgt. Schultz? “I know nnootttthhiiinnggg!

Well. Every few episodes in the first season, Col. Klink’s secretary would show up, the lovely Helga. She was even a clandestine love interest for the show’s hero, played by actor Bob Crane.  (In real life, they had a relationship, which was included in Paul Schrader’s 2002 film, “Auto Focus.”)

I thought, “You know…”

The actress was Latvia native Zinta Valda Zimilis. She and her family fled Soviet occupation during World War II, made it through Nazi Germany and eventually to the United States. Once in Los Angeles, she went by the stage name of Cynthia Lynn. She had a 14-year film career of mostly television guest spots in the likes of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Mission: Impossible” in addition to “Heroes.” Her last role, according to the Internet Movie Database, was a tiny one in “Harry O” in 1975.  Her character was just called “Chick.”

She then apparently left the business at age 39. She wrote memoir of her youth in Europe when “Auto Focus” came out and died on March 10, 2014, in Los Angeles. But it turns out her daughter, Lisa Brando, is very much alive. (Lisa also had a famous dad — Marlon Brando. This was getting weird.)  I tracked down her email address and sent her The Lady in the Hat photo with the standard query.

She soon emailed me back. I opened it, fingers crossed. This is what she wrote: “WOW!!!  YES!…That’s my mother!  I have never seen these before.  THANK YOU so much!”


Ladies and gentlemen…Cynthia Lynn.

Actually, I think I was a little more excited than Lisa. The Lady in the Hat, revealed at last! Plus, it felt even better to send her a picture of her mom she hadn’t known of before.

Four years and a mystery put to rest. At the Library of Congress? All in day’s work.

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Comments (13)

  1. What a great story – hats off to you for your persistence!

  2. Brava Neely! We all need distractions — especially when they involve solutions to problems. Now, what can you do about the virus?

    • LOL, thanks Eleanor! All the problem-solving on this is Cary O’Dell’s; I’ll ask him to get on this virus thing right away. 🙂

  3. A day’s work…or 4 years! Ha!

    Congrats on your stick-to-it-ive-ness!

  4. It was interesting to read)

  5. I love this story! Keep up the good work!

  6. So is the original page updated regularly, or is there an up-to-date page I can send to some folks? This way their not looking for people already identified.

    • Hi Robert,

      Only two or three have been identified, I believe, including Esther Anderson, as mentioned. I’ll ask Cary to fill in any other names when he has a chance, as he knows the details. But, mostly, it’s wide open.


  7. Have you considered a side career as a genealogy researcher?

  8. “Librarians are pathologically unable to leave a question unanswered” was advice given to incoming frosh in their Eng Comp class. The speaker was a former teacher of mine, urging her students to make friends with college library staff right away. Yay, us! Kudos to this shining example.

  9. this story is amazing

  10. Hi just to add to this post, I’m Tony Tutini Son of Cynthia Lynn. Yes the one and only son and I never publicly post anything about my Mother or I, that has always been my sister. Yes these photos are of my Mother and I have never seen these as well thank you for posting them. As my mother was in the process of moving she had most of here photos and keepsakes go up in flames when her motorhome caught fire several years before she passed. We have very few original photos left so this is great news. She told me that before she moved to Hollywood she was a model in New York and growing up she would often share stories, memories, photos she had and there were hundreds. My Father Lee Sands was also an actor when he met my mother, she came into his music store to buy a piano for her mother and my Grandmother “Alice Ericson” who was also known as a very good Latvian Opera Singer considered “Diva”. She was the driving force behind my Mothers career and helped raise Lisa and I while my Mother and Father were busy in Hollywood. I have so much more I would love to share about who she was and why she left the business.

    • Hi Tony,

      Thanks for such a wonderful note! lMs. Lynn certainly had a fascinating career and we’re glad you can add this photo to your collection. I’ll make sure the people in our film division see this.

      Again, thanks so much for writing, and all best,

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