A research journey that started with an address on a World War 2 draft registration card for John Hammersley-Heenan ended with a woman who created one of the film industry’s most prestigious awards.
I’ve been gathering information about the Hammersley-Heenan family for several years, tracking them from their origins in Birr, Queen’s County, Ireland to destinations far and wide, including India, South Africa, England and Wales. But I hadn’t expected any of them to live in Hollywood for more than twenty years.
In my research on the Heenan surname I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to addresses in census reports or parish records. I just made a note of them, compared them to other known addresses for the particular individuals and moved on.
But this entry got my attention because Hollywood seemed an unusual residence for a man who was a civil engineer.
It triggered a host of questions.
- Why had John Hammersley-Heenan chosen to make his home in the place most closely connected with the film industry?
- Did he have any connections with that industry – personally or professionally?
- Where exactly in Hollywood was his house and what kind of property was it – a modest house or a large mansion?
Stylish French/English home
Google Maps and Google Earth gave me the answers to some of those questions. Number 2471 Hollyridge Drive, his home in 1942, turned out to be a substantial house on the edge of Beachwood Canon, a residential area directly under the famous Hollywood sign and much favoured by film personnel.
In an estate agent’s listing from about 2019 it described as a three bedroom, two bathroom house built in 1937 in French Norman style with “an English nod”. The agent calls it “an amazing Beachwood Canyon classic turned out with high style. Emotion blended with warmth. A rarity.”
It’s been extensively renovated since John Hammersley-Heenan and his wife Ailsa Linley (Robinson) lived there,. From the estate agents photographs we get a sense of a house with elegantly furnished spacious room and a secluded pool. It was sold for $2.169000 at the end of 2020, which gives you some sense of the desirability of this property and the success of John’s consulting business.
This was not however the first home in Hollywood occupied by John Hammersley-Heenan. He seems to have moved frequently within the Hollywood area – I found a further four addresses for him between 1933 and his death in 1960.
An Actress At Home
In 1936, according to the registration of his father’s death, John Hammersley Heenan was living at 7521 Lexington Ave, Hollywood, which looks to be a fairly modest house in West Hollywood. A previous occupant was a silent film actress called Esther Wood. She doesn’t seem to have been one of the big names in the film industry judging by her entry in the IMDb database which lists only three short films in 1919 and 1920.
The Movieland Directory website lists two other people who lived at that address in the 1920s and 1930s – an actor called Harrison Blake and an actor/producer by the name of John Robson, neither of whom could have made much of a name for themselves since they don’t get even a listing in the IMDb database.
By 1941 he had moved to East Hollywood. Google Street View couldn’t give me a clear picture of number 1268 N Kingsley Drive but an estate agent’s description calls it a “1920s California bungalow” located 8-10 minutes from Downtown Los Angeles and Burbank studios.
Two years later, in 1943, and he had moved again, this time to 4251 Kraft Avenue, North Hollywood, which is a modest looking bungalow. He had re-married in the meantime, to Dorothy Bower, probably having separated from his first wife (she returned to England and died in 1991). How long John and Dorothy had been married is unknown.
His final home was a more substantial house in North Hollywood, at 4104 Farmdale Avenue Dorothy died from pancreatic cancer in 1949 and where John died aged 80 at 9am on Jan 17, 1960 as a result of acute pneumonia. Information on the death certificate was given by his son Barry Heenan of the same address.
The Film Connection
That name Barry Heenan provided a clue to answer my question of a connection between John Hammersley Heenan and the film industry Barry Heenan was the assumed name of his first-born son John Barry Hammersley Heenan. The boy arrived in the United States in 1932, intending to make it his permanent residence.
In 1941 when he made a declaration of intention to become a citizen of the USA, he described his occupation as “actor”. I can find only three films in which he had roles: Above Suspicion (1943), Forever and a Day (1943) and The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947). Although these films featured some of the big names from the early days of Hollywood, including Buster Keaton and Joan Crawford, Barry Heenan’s roles were relatively minor.
There is, however, a far more significant connection with Hollywood through John’s younger sister Nora.
She had married in Finchley, London in 1917. Her husband Alfred Benson Laing was a Captain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the time. He was discharged on medical grounds in October 1918 as a result of lung problems. The couple moved to Phoenix, Arizona, shortly after the birth of their first child Patrick in 1919. A second child, Maureen, was born in Phoenix in January 1920.
The couple seemed to have had a difficult time in the early years of their marriage. In the 1930 census neither of them has an occupation listed against their name. In a 1953 radio interview Nora talked about this period of her life and how she turned to religion for answers: “Many years spent in the hush of the Arizona desert, alone except for an invalid husband and two babies, brought me to a realization that there was something more to living than the merely physical.”
There is a story – unattributed – that the couple’s financial position was so perilous that they decided to make their way to Alfred’s home country of Canada via British Columbia. But they ran out of money when they got to Los Angeles so stopped and lived there. He became a builder and a writer in trade journals.
Nora became a journalist and a highly respected one at that. She was a correspondent for national newspapers in London, Australia and India. As a founder of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association she created the Golden Globe Awards for excellence in motion pictures. The 1st Golden Globe Awards were held in January 1944 and have continued annually ever since, recognising actors such as Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando and (most recently) Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman.
Nora died in Burbank, Los Angeles in 1982 at the age of 91.
Her daughter Maureen Dragone also became a Hollywood based journalist and continued her mother’s association with the Golden Globe awards. Prior to her death in 2013, she was the only living Hollywood Foreign Press Association member to have attended all 70 Golden Globes ceremonies and was bestowed with an honorary “lifetime membership” to the association.