Brooke Shields

By Matt Elton, 1 July 2010 - 11:05am
From Italian royalty to William the Conqueror, the actress and model traces connections to some of history's most famous figures
Brooke Shields

From Italian royalty to William the Conqueror, the actress and model traces connections to some of history's most famous figures.

Born in New York in 1965, Brooke Shields was thrust into the spotlight from an early age by her mother – and career manager – Teri.  Her modelling career began when she was less than a year old, and her childhood appearances on the covers of Vogue and Playboy generated much controversy.

Decades later, her high-profile marriage to tennis star Andre Agassi also made the headlines, with the couple splitting in 1999. Brooke went on to marry fellow New Yorker Chris Henchy, and the couple now have two daughters, Rowan Frances and Grier Hammond.

Brooke has also developed an impressive acting career, with an award-winning role on television sitcom Suddenly Susan and parts in theatre productions around the world. It's not just her acting career that has an international angle, though: her late grandmother Donna Marina Torlonia was an Italian princess, and her family tree also boasts connections to Catherine de Medici, Lucrezia Borgia and William the Conqueror.

Her parents, meanwhile, come from very different backgrounds: her father from 'old money' and her mother from a run-down immigrant neighbourhood in New York. This deprived upbringing proves to be somewhat at odds with the more regal lineage Brooke discovers on her journey – as royal genealogist Charles Moseley puts it, "I've come across a few extraordinary genealogical links, but never anything like this – you've got it all!".

Full episode recap

Brooke’s parents divorced when she was a mere five months old, and she feels they were never really suited for each other: her father was from European old money, raised in New York, and her mother, even with socialite aspirations, was from a working class German immigrant family from Newark, New Jersey.

Looking at two photos of her younger self side by side, one pictured with her mother, and the other with her father, the gulf between the two sides of her family is painfully apparent: “Just like this picture, it was split right down the middle,” says Brooke.

Also discovering a photograph of her mother and her grandmother, Brooke reveals that she has long resented her grandmother for “the way she treated my mom – snide remarks all the time and [never giving] her any credit.” Brooke travels to New Jersey to gain insight into her grandmother’s past in an attempt to resolve some of these feelings.

At the record office she discovers the names of her great grandparents, John and Ida, and that they had four children. However, Brooke had only ever known her grandmother to have one younger sister, Lillian. The genealogist discovers birth certificates for two brothers between the sisters, John and Edward. While it is clear that John died in infancy, there is no apparent explanation for Edward. “I want to find out more,” Brooke exclaims. “It makes you feel like a detective.”

Death certificates reveal that Brooke’s great grandmother Ida had died at the age of 38 from uterine cancer, leaving Theresa to raise her two younger siblings from the age of ten. Her brother Edward later drowned in her care while wading in the Passaic River to cool off during a heatwave. Recognising that her grandmother had raised her brother like a son, Brooke starts to sympathise: “This is deep loss, your heart just goes out to her,” she says.

Brooke now decides to investigate her father’s side of her family, enlisting the help of genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts. He manages to trace the lineage of Brooke’s paternal grandmother back four generations to Giovanni Torlonia, a wealthy banker to the Vatican who married into high nobility. However, the line stopped at his father, Marino Torlonia, a cloth merchant who founded the Banca Torlonia. Roberts explained that Torlonia is not an ancient Italian name, and that Marino must have changed his name, thereby erasing his past.

Intrigued, Brooke travels to Rome to meet with Daniela Felisini, a professor of economic history at the University of Rome, and an expert in the Torlonia family’s past. She learns that her ancestor Giovanni was a fantastic entrepreneur with a great mind for business, and saw an opportunity to supply the French army when Napoleon invaded northern Italy and in doing so built up the first private bank in Italy.

A wedding certificate showed that Giovanni’s father, Marino, came from Augerolles in rural France. He was born Marin Torlonias, and was servant to his uncle, a local abbot. When the abbot was placed under arrest, accused of being a spy, Marin masterminded an escape that eventually led them to Rome. Deep in snow, Brooke visits Marin’s original family home, a humble cottage. “This is my favourite part of the journey,” she marvels. “This is where it all started!” ;

Finally, Brooke explores another branch of her father’s ancestry that leads back to Christine Marie, a French figure who bore the title ‘Royale’ on the tree that Robert had drawn up for her. Searching for the name on the Ancestry website, she learns that Marie was born in the Palais du Louvre in 1606, the child of King Henry IV (one of the ancestors of Louis XIV).

At the Cathedral Basilica of St Denis, Brooke is able to visit the remains of the king – a small urn containing his heart. She climbs the stone shelving to reach out and touch it, much to the reserved horror of her escort, Charles Mosely. At the Palace of Versailles, Mosely introduces Brooke to a statue of Louis XIV and describes him as “your first cousin, many many generations removed.”

Mosely then takes Brooke to a grand painting of St Louis, her ancestor of some 25 generations removed, the French king and crusader from whom Henry IV descended. “I’ve come across some extraordinary genealogical links,” Mosely admits, “but never anything like this. A saint, a pope, a great king, a still greater king, a great emperor, you’ve got it all!” “I’m not sure what to do with it,” says an overwhelmed Brooke, “but I will guard it with my heart!”. – Luke Hayward

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