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….