Author’s Note: I would like to personally thank Mrs. Wendy Morse for generously answering all of my questions regarding her mother, Jean Ackerman.
THE EARLY YEARS
Jeannette McCraw opened her eyes to the world for the first time on Friday, December 11, 1903 (though she later would claim it was 1906) in New York City’s borough of Manhattan.
Jean’s father, Alexander McCraw, Jr., was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on June 10, 1879 to Alexander Sr. and Jane Williamson. Alexander Sr., a railway ticket counter operator, sought a more prosperous life for his family. When Alexander Jr. was 7 years old, his family immigrated to the United States.
Jean’s mother, Marie, was born to Fredric Mueller and Marie Bach in Germany in April of 1881. Her family emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1884 when Marie was 3 years old.
Jean’s parents met in New York City and were married in Brooklyn on September 28, 1900. Their first child, Alexandria, was born a little over a year later in Manhattan on February 11, 1902. Sadly, Alexandria never saw her fifth birthday. After Jean, second eldest, came Adam in 1905, James in 1906, Margaret in 1911, Polly in 1914, Ruth in 1916 and finally little Ralph in 1919.
Like many immigrant families, Jean’s was not a wealthy one. Her father listed railway conductor, shipyard worker and mechanic amongst his many early professions. The family struggled to make ends meet on Alexander’s meager salary. He even got himself into a spot of trouble, when in 1910, he was briefly incarcerated in New York City’s infamous Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. It is unknown what he did to land himself there, but Blackwell’s was a common destination for petty crimes and disorderly conduct.
Not much is known about Jean’s childhood. She never really spoke of her formative years. At one point her father took a job in Puerto Rico and uprooted his family. Jean’s little sister Polly was born there in 1914. It wasn’t long though before the family returned to the States and settled again in Brooklyn.
Jean was a beautiful child and delighted in all the attention that was bestowed upon her. This love of attention played an important role in drawing her to the lights of the stage and specifically to the doorstep of Florenz Ziegfeld.
The Ziegfeld Follies reigned supreme on the Great White Way throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Inspired by the Folies Bergère of Paris, the Follies enticed young girls from far and wide. The elaborate stage productions, lavish costumes (and the lack of them!) and spectacular song and dance numbers appealed to many of the impressionable girls looking to escape their mundane and in many cases poverty-stricken lives.
It is not known exactly how Jean came to call on Florenz Ziegfeld, but the master showman himself was the one who interviewed her. It wasn’t long before she was the toast of the town. Her name started appearing in the papers, she was receiving diamond jewelry from suitors and she was invited to fabulous parties (most notably ones thrown by scandalous mayor of New York City, Jimmy Walker). She quickly became acquainted with the famous celebrities of the day and dated quite a few of them as well.
Jean performed for Ziegfeld in the 1927 Follies, “Rosalie” and “Whoopee!” in 1928, “Midnight Frolic” in 1929 and “Smiles” in 1930. At some point during this time, she married Richard “Dick” Ackerman. Little is known about this marriage or the groom. Jean divorced him in January of 1930.
Although her run with the Follies only spanned four years, Jean always looked back on them as the best years of her life.
MARRIAGE & RETIREMENT
Marriage number two took place on May 11, 1931 to wealthy, New York City stockbroker, Walter Hirshon. Walter was born February 2, 1907 to businessman Charles Hirschhorn (later changed to the more English sounding Hirshon) and his wife Rhonie Hofheimer. Walter’s mother passed away when he was only 3 years old. Unlike Jean, Walter grew up without money woes. His father was the President of the General Cigar Company. Upon his death in 1925, Charles left an estate worth in excess of $2.2 million.
Jean retired from the stage after she married Walter and devoted herself to becoming a prominent, New York City socialite. They took many trips together to Europe and hosted elegant parties. It wasn’t long before motherhood started calling. In 1937, Jean and Walter adopted a baby girl, whom they called Wendy Jean.
It seemed that Jean had it all: a handsome husband, a beautiful daughter and a decadent lifestyle. She was the envy of many a young woman. But alas, appearances aren’t always as they seem. Jean and Walter divorced in 1940.
Walter remarried the following year to Dorothy Joy “Dolly” Richards. They had one daughter, Diana Joy, born in December 1941. Sadly, Dolly passed away in France at the young age of 35. Walter married socialite Dorothy Hart in 1953, the ex-wife of both William S. Paley (President of CBS) and Randolph Hearst (son of the famed newspaper mogul). That marriage also ended in divorce. He wed for the last time in 1961 to Helen Gross, to whom he was married until his death on May 12, 1991 in Sands Point, Long Island, New York.
Jean’s daughter Wendy spent second to ninth grade in boarding school, coming home to live and attend high school at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan. After graduation, she went away again to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. During her high school and college years, Wendy became close with stepmother Dorothy Hart’s two children from her previous marriage to Paley. Wendy’s father also became legal guardian of his brother’s two children around this same time. They saw a lot of each other and traveled together to Europe. Wendy’s half-sister, Diana Joy, who was much younger than the others, tagged along just the same.
On September 18, 1959, Wendy married Franklin Burr Morse, Jr in Long Island, New York. They have two children, a son Robert and a daughter Laura, and eight grandchildren aged 14 to 25.
THE LATER YEARS
Jean never remarried. She kept the name Hirshon for the rest of her life. There was a rumor in the papers that she was engaged to actor Ed Wynn, but there was no truth to it. Jean left New York and spent the final years of her life in Florida. She passed away from cancer on November 26, 1960 in Miami-Beach, just two weeks shy of her 57th birthday.