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.
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.)
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.”
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!”
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.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.