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Sources and Secrets

"Sources and Secrets" panel at CUNY Graduate Center on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of Women Writing Women’s Lives biographers’ association. The panelists were: Marnie Mueller, author of the novel,The Climate of the Country; Carla Kaplan, author of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance; and Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of the seminal three volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Sources and Secrets: Marnie Mueller

The memoir/biography I’m speaking about today is the story of my friendship with Mary Mon Toy, a Japanese American performer. Her secret was the source of my wanting to write the book. I thought I knew her well when she was alive. I was her friend from the time we met in 1994 at a focus group for the Japanese American National Museum. That evening we found that we were the only two people in the room who had lived in the Japanese American internment camps during World War Two, she in Minidoka in Idaho, incarcerated against her will, and I was born in the Tule Lake Camp in northern California where my Caucasian parents had gone to work to try to make an intolerable situation tolerable for the people forced to live there.

Mary had always told me that she was only half Japanese, that her father had been a Chinese doctor in Molokai, Hawaii, in Father Damien’s leper colony. He had died when she was two and her mother had remarried an Issei man and they’d moved to Seattle. It was only after Mary’s death, when I became executor of her estate, that I discovered that this was a false story. She had been born in Seattle to two Issei parents. She was totally Japanese American or Nisei.

As I went through her vast collection of theatrical photos, scripts, and press clippings, I saw that she had self-described, sometimes as Chinese American, at others as half Chinese and half Korean and often as ethnic Hawaiian. Never as Japanese American. Why had she masked her ethnicity, I wanted to know.

I had no problem documenting the progression of her four decade career beginning with her rapid rise from showgirl on the Chop Suey circuit, to white vaudeville, to glamorous lead singer at swank night clubs, to the Latin Quarter, to legitimate Broadway theater in the African American musical House of Flowers, to a role in The World of Suzie Wong, and on to television and film. She was not famous, but she always got work. She was not hidden behind any famous man. She was out there entirely on her own, making her way through the obstacles of discrimination against Asian Americans, sexism, and not the least ageism, due to her late start.

What I didn’t have was documentation of her private life before I knew her, save for torrid letters from her many lovers, in which I could discern the pattern of her affairs, letters from other actors, a smattering of correspondence from her recently deceased brother, and remembrances of a few of her still living friends. Almost none of the people I spoke with were aware that she was Japanese American, and certainly not that she had been interned with 120,000 other people of Japanese descent during World War Two.

I decided to follow her secret to see what I could unearth on a political and personal level. But I needed to know her real name. Not an easy prospect, as she’d covered her tracks well. I eventually pieced together her birth name, Mary Teruko Watanabe. There was also a last name Okada that had been appended to her social security records. I threw that into the mix and along with her birth date, I submitted a request for her files from the National Archives, a source I also used to research my parents’ tenure in Tule Lake. I hit pay dirt. The Roosevelt era is our government’s most documented period in American history. And the files on the internment camps yield shockingly intimate and detailed private material on the internees. The tragic incarceration of people of Japanese descent is a boon to researchers. I learned that Mary had wed Shigesato Okada two months before Pearl Harbor, the event that precipitated the mass internment. I learned that she developed enormous dermoid ovarian tumors and suffered the removal of her ovaries in the camp hospital during the same week in August of 1942 when I was born in another tar papered covered hospital a thousand miles away. I discovered the only extant letters written by her, in which her intelligence, diligence and ability to negotiate at the age of twenty six the most trying of tasks, obtaining release from the camp for herself, her husband, her brother and her parents. I learned that her marriage to Shig did not survive the tribulations of their almost two years in camp.

Mary Teru Watanabe Okada arrived alone in New York City in the fall of 1943, where she attended the Juilliard School on scholarship. In 1946 at the age of 30 after being told by her music instructor that she could never get a role in opera, not even as Madama Butterfly because she was Asian, she scoured the trades. She answered a call for “Oriental girls 5” 6” and over,” and landed her first job as a showgirl in the “Slant Eyed Scandals” at the China Doll Club on Times Square. Teruko Watanabe Okada gave way to Mary Mon, a China Doll and later to Mary Mon Toy.

Why did she change her name? I first surmised it was because she was performing before servicemen many of whom could have just returned from the Pacific front and could even have been involved in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as I dug deeper, I discovered in our government’s confidential files, that in the spring of 1944 after she had been living in New York for six months, she was called before a War Relocation Panel in Manhattan for the purpose of determining if she should be sent back to camp. Shig went through the same ordeal in Cleveland. He had an FBI file in which he had been described as an agitator in camp. Mary was assumed suspect by association with him. They were both cleared and finally awarded permanent leave clearance. In the very same month a disturbing incident erupted whereby Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, usually pro immigrant, vociferously complained for all to hear that the government was in his words “dumping” Japanese Americans from the camps onto New York City and he wanted them sent back to the West Coast.

Mary’s friend the choreographer and dancer, Emiko Tokunaga, almost the only person to whom Mary had confided that she was Japanese American, told me that Mary was afraid to reveal herself, afraid that she could be sent back to camp or even expatriated to Japan, a place she’d only visited on one trip as a teenager to meet her mother’s family.

Which brings me to the question of, should I have revealed the secret that she hadn’t completely revealed even to me, the person she had entrusted with her bodily care during the last years of her life, the person with whom she had the bond of having been in a camp, who knew her darkest hour.

But think of this, as her career progressed a piece of her was always missing, the piece that the American government had criminalized, her ethnicity. In 1974 she performed in an off-off Broadway play entitled Santa Anita ’42, based on the Santa Anita Assembly Center which was notorious for having housed people in horse stalls that hadn’t been cleaned of manure and straw. Mary had been housed in another, equally inhumane Assembly Center as she awaited transport to the Minidoka camp. When I reached the director to ask how she had identified herself to him and the rest of the cast, he said she told people she was half Chinese and half Japanese. Did she tell them she was in a comparable assembly center? “No,” he said, “which is weird because most actors share their applicable experience in rehearsals.”

It’s said that we become the lie. I know the truth of that. I, too, passed during my childhood up into my young adulthood, hiding the fact of being Jewish behind my father’s Christian name. I know the terror of being found out. I know how hard it is to give up the secret. But I also know the enormous relief of finally revealing oneself. Mary was never able to totally let go of her cover. Though she walked on picket lines in the 1980s protesting Yellow Face casting, in print interviews she still identified herself as a Chinese American actor. She would always insist to me that she had to write her own obituary, that no one else could get it right. When I sent her obituary to the New York Times I unwittingly perpetuated the lie.

I’ve come to understand that Mary longed for her Japanese connection. When we went out to dinner, we had to eat Japanese, especially Japanese country food that her mother made when she was alive. We never ate Chinese food. When Mary died, she left all of her considerable estate, close to half a million dollars, to her first cousin in Japan, a man she barely knew. And in her will she stipulated that I was to send her ashes to Japan for a Buddhist burial.

Mary’s story is illustrative of the power of shame and fear of exposure that has lived within people of Japanese descent as a result of their internment. Her choice to pass was not made out of cowardice, but one of resilience, fueled by her need to go forward into the America that had betrayed her. I’ve decided to tell what she had not been able to divulge so that the world can know who she was in the totality of her self. A small act of reparations on my part, or Redress as it’s called in the Japanese American community.