What the Heinleins Told the 1940 Census

On April 26, 1940 Arthur Harrell rang the bell at 8777 Lookout Mountain, a house on a winding street in the hills above Laurel Canyon. A woman answered the door. Harrell displayed his Certificate of Appointment as a U.S. Census enumerator and explained the purpose of his visit. Then Harrell took a fresh form out of his portfolio and began to ask the now-familiar questions.

That’s how the encounter with my test subject began, according to 1940 U.S. Census records and related documents made available for the first time on April 2.

To learn how to use this new resource I decided to look up Robert Heinlein’s census information. He was an LA local in 1940, and knowing the ground is a big help when working with this archive. Certainly, you’re more interested in Heinlein than in my relatives. Best of all, every science fiction fan knows where the author of “– And He Built a Crooked House –“ lived in those days. (Or thinks he does. At 8775 Lookout Mountain, the house in the story would have been Heinlein’s next door neighbor.)

Public demand for 1940 census information overwhelmed the government website with tens of millions of hits in the opening hours — initially, I couldn’t get into the archive at all. Over the next two days service was upgraded and I’ve experienced no problems since then.

Users may download or view online scans of the handwritten census forms in JPG format. Because these records aren’t searchable by name, although that will come in time, searches must be done geographically — by county, city, and street name. Research is time-intensive even when you know exactly where your subject was living in 1940.

Robert and Leslyn Heinlein bought the 8777 Lookout Mountain property in June 1935. By 1940 they were able to pay off the mortgage using the proceeds from Robert’s fiction sales. That was the year several of his most brilliant stories saw print — “The Roads Must Roll” (later selected for inclusion in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One), “If This Goes On —,” “Coventry,” and Blowups Happen.

However, it’s evident that Arthur Harrell, the census taker, was not a science fiction fan and he knew nothing about the occupants when he arrived. Nor was he any better informed when he left, which is the truly bizarre part of the story.

  • The census forms report that the woman who answered the door gave her name as Sigred Heinlein. She lived at 8777 with her husband, Richard Heinlein, and their 4-year-old son, Rolf.
  • Richard and Sigred both were born in Germany. They had become naturalized U.S. citizens. Their 4-year-old son had been born in California.
  • Richard worked as an artist in the motion picture business. He worked year-round, 30 hours a week, and made $4,200 a year. They owned this house, worth about $4,500.

Was that truly Leslyn Heinlein at the door? Did she tell the 1940 census taker a story? Why? Kind of makes my head spin.

Perhaps a better title for this post is “Leslyn Baffles the Busies.” Busies is something Robert Heinlein liked to call people who felt entitled to poke their noses into others’ business. Maybe Leslyn, in the true libertarian spirit, decided to slap some perjury on this bureaucrat and send him on his way.

If it was a prank, it was successful. Before drawing that conclusion, however, two questions deserve to be asked. (1) Could this be a mistake, some kind of mix-up? Maybe some other family named Heinlein lived there? Robert and Leslyn weren’t the only folks in town with that surname. (2) How could she get away with it?

The possibility of a mistake seems remote. William Patterson’s Hugo-nominated biography shows the Heinleins at this address in 1940. Two contemporary directories confirm it as well. The 1939 Los Angeles City Directory shows this condensed entry – “ [Heinlein] Robt A (Leslyn M) USN h8777 Lookout Mountain av. The same address appears in the Los Angeles Extended Area Telephone Directory, Southern California Telephone Company, 1939, which lists Robert at 8777, and Rex I at another Hollywood address (likely his brother; the father was in the VA hospital, though both were in LA at the time), plus several more unrelated Heinleins – none named Richard, Sigred or Rolf.

As for getting away with it? In 1940 a census taker wrote down whatever people told him. Proof of identity was not requested. No verification was requested. All that was required by the Instructions for Enumerators [PDF file] was to get the information from an adult, not a child or servant. They were to mark an “X” beside the name of the household member who gave the answers. (Which was “Sigred” at 8777.) In a pinch, a neighbor could be asked for the information and the source’s name would be noted. Everybody was expected to be honest and answering in good faith.

In respect to the real couple at 8777, Robert and Leslyn, the only accurate answer on the form is that they had lived at the same place on April 1, 1935. Enumerators wrote “same place” if the people had lived in the same city in 1935 or “same house” if that applied. The Heinleins purchased the Lookout Mountain property in June 1935. In April 1935 they had been living down the hill in what is now West Hollywood. Therefore “same place” was the right answer.

Whatever personal details about the Heinleins anyone dreamed of discovering in these unsealed records – forget about it. The Heinleins always liked their privacy and even the 1940 U.S. Census did not penetrate it.

Note: The Heinlein record is in E.D. 60-173. If you download the set of files, the image you want is m-t0627-00404-00111. Viewing online page-by-page, that ought to correspond to page 11 but I guarantee nothing….

23 thoughts on “What the Heinleins Told the 1940 Census

  1. From what I’ve heard, subject to correction to someone who witnessed it as opposed to my hearing it through a third party, Samuel Konkin would just say “No,” and shut the door, with his emphasis getting stronger with each visit from a census taker, from “Go to Hell!” to “Fuck off and die!” until they gave up. Clearly the then-Mrs. Heinlein was politer than that.

  2. I am not surprised the Heinleins might fool a census taker. I am just amusd that we now possibly have proof.

    In 10 years, the 1950 census might be even more interesting.

  3. She could have been telling him the truth. A friend has volunteered to look up some information on my mother’s side of the family, and according to the 1920 & 1930 census, I have an Aunt Carmillo (really a Carmela), and in the 1920 Census, an Uncle Vince born the same year as my Uncle Jimmy (never heard of him, and I’ve never heard my grandmother had twins), and my Uncle Tony is named Richie.

    Every single report I’ve ever supplied information to has incorrect information, usually something trivial, like how many years separate my two sons. When you introduce humans into the process, you introduce errors.

  4. @David: Thinking more about this hypothesis, why did she give them the correct surname? Was the name “Heinlein” on the mailbox?

    Incidentally, in the course of my search I also came across the the census information for Kurt Siodmak (scriptwriter of The Wolfman), a Heinlein acquaintance who was born in Germany and lived with his family in the same part of town. But none of Siodmak’s family members were named Sigred or Rolf.

    I’ve also looked at some LA directories from the next three decades. There are other Heinleins — none named Richard, nor any name starting with “R”.

  5. Bill Patterson has suggested, and convinced me, that Mr. Harrell probably transcribed erroneous information. Both Leslyn and Robert were experienced political activists, and likely to have respected the usefulness of accurate census information on potential voters.

    Perhaps the Heinleins’ address and surname got mixed up with another family’s information. I wonder whether the correct address of Richard, Sigrid (Sigred?), and little Rolf might be found in sources outside the Census.

    As downloaded from the Census site, these images are immense (over four megabytes). I’ve placed an abridged image of the “Heinlein” portion of this census form online on Picasa for those who want to examine it:
    https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/GVvOWyZLtDq2e_RV6w9xWtMTjNZETYmyPJy0liipFm0?feat=directlink

  6. Mike, I’m surprised – but first I’d like to thank you for having the presence of mind and creative bent to have thought of looking this stuff up in the first place.

    I’m surprised that neither you nor anyone else has twigged to the answer to this little census mystery.

    The census taker visited a crooked house.

  7. @Steve: Case closed!

    @Bill: The transcription error theory is attractive, but how did Bill convince you?

    The theory begs certain questions of its own. First, if Harrell made a transcription error, which is to say he entered data from the wrong Individual Census Form on the Population Schedule for the family at 8777 Lookout Mountain, then why did he get the last name right? Second, if an error is nevertheless the explanation, there must be (as you say) people named Richard and Sigred whose Individual Census Forms were the source of the transcribed information. (Sigred, not Sigrid — look at other examples of handwritten “e” and “i” on the same page, the letter in the Heinlein entry for Sigred is clearly an “e”.) There are searchable LA city directories online from 1939. Several Sigreds are listed, none of them married to a Richard.

    Since you got me wondering about Mr. Harrell’s accuracy, I searched the LA city directory for the two families preceding the Heinleins on that census form, the Bennetts and the Crumps. I found both couples listed by the same name and address in each place — so, no mistakes in the census entries that came just before the Heinleins. At least we can say that Harrell didn’t make up the stuff on that page.

    Robert Heinlein talks about using census information as political source material in Take Back Your Government, however what matters here is Leslyn’s attitude (if she possibly gave the answers shown on the Population Schedule). Patterson’s sketch of her in his biography of Heinlein is exactly that of a person who doesn’t feel bound by inconvenient societal norms. What if she felt the census was an unwarranted intrusion? While more can be done to check the transcription error theory, I haven’t ruled out the prank theory either.

  8. I’ve been doing genealogy research on my family for a long time and already knew that it was common to lie to the census takers. One side of my family is half-Egyptian (and dark-skinned), half-German, yet on their census forms they’re always listed as “Austrian” and “white” in the same way the Coneheads on Saturday Night Live were “from France.”

    In some cases, people were even able to change their names and birth dates. My paternal grandmother was able to legally change her birthdate and set her race as “white” because the state of Nebraska didn’t have a copy of her birth certificate. She discovered this when she went to apply for Social Security Disability payments. I was sitting next to her as she fed the lies over the phone, biting my finger so I wouldn’t laugh out loud.

  9. The Los Angeles voter registration records online at Ancestry.com show Robert and Leslyn Heinlein living at 8777 Lookout Mountain in 1938, 1940, and 1942, with Robert listed as a “retired naval officer” and his wife, Leslyn, as a housewife. Both registered as Democrats. Cool find! As a long-time Heinlein fan and avid genealogist, I’m impressed :)

    Kimberly

  10. Errors are always possible. The 1901 England and Wales census lists J.R.R. Tolkien, and his mother and brother, but nobody else of that surname, as “Tonkien”.

  11. I have been doing genealogy for over 40 years and the family stories don’t always match up with the truth. Many times immigrants lied about their heritage so that they would not have to explain themselves. Sometimes they were here illegally and did not want to be found out. The census records are interesting because of the half truths that show up and the research that has to follow up afterwards. I have come across wonderful stories and great people in my research. The 1940 census is known for what it does not show, more than for what it does show.

  12. “The 1940 census is known for what it does not show, more than for what it does show.”

    The 1940 census data is too new to be “known” as anything yet!

    I have worked extensively with census data on Ancestry.com, especially 1900-30. Errors are common, yes, but overall census-to-census consistency for individuals is high.

  13. On the assumption that “transcription error” is far too boring to be accepted as reality, here are some possibilities listed in order of how likely I find them:

    1) Leslyn Heinlein was drunk or high when the guy came to the door, and decided to goof on him.

    2) The Heinleins decided soberly to provide slight misinformation, just so that any future abuse of the Census records would not connect to them directly.

    3) Alternate universe phasing over into this one temporarily.

    4) The Heinleins actually were Sigred and Richard from Germany and had a son named Rolf and were living an incredibly deep double life.

    5) The Heinleins were letting their German cousins, who have somehow never made it into any other record, live with them and the cousins just happened to be the ones at home when the Census came and there was no reason for them to lie, and Sigred didn’t list her American cousins as living there for some unknown reason.

    I would dearly love to find out what the hell was going on here.

  14. Great stfnal analysis!

    Theory “zero” should be that the census taker was too lazy to walk uphill to that section of Lookout Mountain Ave. so he decided to make up the answers. Sort of like H.L. Mencken and the other reporters from Baltimore papers did when they were assigned to cover a murder in an especially dangerous part of town.

  15. Interesting.

    I followed your info to examine this page. Film actor Dean Jagger (whose age is listed as 32 in 1940) appears on the same page as the Heinleins.

    I didn’t try to check Leslyn’s biographical information in Patterson’s book (or in an old article about her that I remember from someplace — The Heinlein Journal, perhaps). However, I wonder if the occupation information could have been for a job SHE had at the time, and was just written on the wrong line on the form.

    Another off-the-wall theory is that she could have used the visit from a census taker to practice a German accent. Maybe she was taking an acting class — or was rehearsing a part in an amateur theater production.

  16. Yes, I spotted Dean Jagger on that page. Although he’d been working steadily throughout the Thirties – Revolt of the Zombies (1936)!- everything he’s famous for came years later. There are a lot of film industry people in that same Enumeration District, it being right on the edge o Hollywood.

  17. Mike, as a sometime Heinlein scholar, I went hunting for this form the moment I had the URL for the 1940 Census in my hands (Gary Farber pointed it out). I wrote what I found and shared it with a few friends by e-mail (as a sanity check), hoping to be the first to blog about it… and was slightly dismayed when you scooped me.

    The transcription error theory is attractive, but how did Bill [Patterson]convince you?

    As I said, Leslyn was very active in politics, and presumably had made use of voter-registration lists in campaigns, so had a notion of the value of accurate census data. The same can be said of Robert.

    Evidence is not conclusive either way, but this argument inclines me to believe the mistake theory where, earlier, I’d been ready to believe the prank theory.

    “…however what matters here is Leslyn’s attitude.” Agreed. And I have nothing further to contribute that can rule out either theory. We may never know.

    Mr. Harrell covered some houses near the Heinleins on 25 April 1940, and returned to visit others on 26 April. Perhaps the chances of error were increased in compiling data taken on different days.

    Carl Fields: “However, I wonder if the occupation information could have been for a job SHE had at the time, and was just written on the wrong line on the form.”

    She did have a movie job at the time Robert Heinlein met her, years before– in the music department at Columbia Pictures. However, just a few months after the 26 April census visit, Leslyn attended a General Semantics conference. In his book, Bill Patterson reports that on her application form she claimed her occupation as “Housewife; secretary to husband’s writings; general hand[y]man in political campaigns.” So I don’t believe she had an outside job at this time.

    Note that many of the neighbors along Lookout Mountain Avenue worked in the “motion picture production” industry– you can find some of them in IMDB– so it’s a plausible occupation for the mysterious Richard if he is an overlooked neighbor.

  18. @Bill: Thanks for all your insights. And I was surprised not to get scooped myself, as much time as I needed prowling up and down the pages of listings which are just as twisty, wandering and out-of-sequence as must be the case given the layout of Lookout Mountain Ave.

    Yes, I looked at the Internet Movie Database, too. Seems like another place where it helps if you already know exactly what you’re looking for. If there is a movie industry artist named Richard who fills the bill, perhaps a reader here knows how to drill into the IMDB more efficiently than simply returning a list of everybody named Richard who ever had a credit.

    I have written to the National Archive asking if the Individual Census Forms were preserved, on the remote chance it might be possible to compare the source document with the Population Schedule.

    I’ve heard from several people who have dug up Isaac Asimov’s 1940 information and when they post something I will point to it.

  19. I always thought “The Roads Must Roll” was a failed story; the protagonist tries to bully the union guy, and that made me angry.

    Back to the census and the gummint in general: Robert Heinlein mentioned several times to me and Charles Brown of Locus that periodically the IRS would send someone out to audit his taxes, and he would insist on proper procedure which definitely included a prearranged appointment, and might have included a warrant. He found them tedious and distracting, and felt no obligation at all to make their lives easier.

  20. @Rachel: I have no doubt there was something in his tone or the fuller context of Heinlein’s conversation that would bear out your point. Just looking at this as stated, though, Heinlein’s audit strategy was simply an exercise of his rights. All exams are done by appointment. And rather than a warrant he may have been referring to a summons which, in his era, any revenue agent could have issued on his own authority. A formal Information Document Request is the standard tool but at times the same request is cast in the form of a summons in expectation of a court dispute.

  21. My 2012 census enumerator instruction was to accept what data was told to me as truth — we never asked to see formal identification, nor did we need SSN or legal immigration status

  22. Sorry — hit enter too soon! Make that “2010 Census enumerator”!!

    After we’d made three good-faith attempts to find one of our subjects face-to-face or ascertain if a residence was inhabited, we would then pursue what information could be gleaned from neighbors, landlords, city records.

    I thought my fellow enumerators were honest and hard-working — as with 1940, 2010 was a lean year for jobs and the Census had a plethora of highly-educated workers.

    But that doesn’t mean that Heinlein’s 1940 enumerator couldn’t have just declined to make the climb and “made it up” or there was a transcription error. Or someone who answered the door at the Heinlein’s decided to play a practical joke that day…

  23. I sent this e-mail to the National Archive:

    QUESTION TEXT:
    Concerning the 1940 Census. The instructions to Census enumerators reference both Population Schedules and Individual Census Forms. Is my inference correct that a census taker filled out an Individual Census Form at each household and afterwards transcribed the answers to the summary Population Schedule?

    Were the Individual Census Forms also preserved? I want to know because my research into the Heinlein family revealed that the relevant Population Schedule listed the correct address and last name, but all the other names and info were clearly wrong. (Heinlein is a famous author and the subject of a detailed biography.)

    So I wondered if there was an original source record — Individual Census Form — that could be compared to the Population Schedule to see if the enumerator in 1940 made a transcription error.

    Today I received this answer:

    Dear Mr. Glyer,

    The Individual Census Forms were to be left for absent households to fill out for the census taker. If the household was at home, they were unnecessary, and the census taker filled out the regular population schedule. If the household was not at home, he/she left an Individual Census Form. Information on the Individual form was supposed to be transcribed into the regular population schedule, although I have seen at least one which was just inserted at the end of the ED. Since the information was transcribed onto the regular schedule, the Individual Forms were not kept permanently (with the exception of at least that one I have seen).

    It is entirely possible that the errors you’ve found were the result of someone transcribing the data from an Individual Census Form. However, there’s no way to verify what happened, as the Individual Forms no longer exist.

    If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us again.

    Sincerely,

    Katherine Vollen
    Archives Specialist
    Research Services
    National Archives Building

    To sum up — if somebody was home when the census taker called, the answers went straight onto the Population Schedule, which is the summary document now available online. An Individual Census Form was only left if no one was home.

    While we still can’t conclusively answer the mistake-or-prank question from this information, I’ve learned there was a lot less transcription involved in the census process than I originally thought.

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