Was Great-Grandpa Don Draper?

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My great-grandfather, Joseph Zawodny, 1915 and a sepia-enhanced photo of actor Jon Hamm playing his character, Don Draper, on Mad Men

One day I realized that my great-grandfather may have been like Don Draper. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight years or really don’t watch television at all, “Don Draper” is a character on AMC’s Mad Men played by actor Jon Hamm. He’s quite a character, so let me explain before you get the wrong idea about my great-grandfather! I certainly don’t mean to imply that he’s an unfaithful womanizer like Don; in fact, my great-grandfather was faithfully married to the same woman for 42 years (which ended then due to his death). I also don’t mean to imply that he was a raging alcoholic like Don; my great-grandfather enjoyed drinking with his neighborhood buddies, but he’s the only one of my great-grandfathers that’s never been called a drunk by the family. Great-grandpa also wasn’t an “ad man” like Don – he worked for a tool and dye factory. Great-grandpa was also not a really awful father like Don – he had eight children and loved them all far better than Draper shows his love on tv.

So, if he was opposite from Don Draper in all of Don’s most identifying habits, why do I compare them? Because, like Don, he may have had a secret.

If you’ve never watched the show (which returns tomorrow night for its final seven episodes), go binge on Netflix. Mad Men is worth it for the storytelling alone not to mention the characters, fine acting, and overall style of the show. But I’m not going to call this a spoiler alert, because it happened way back in the first season of the show in 2007: Don Draper is not Don Draper. Don is really Dick Whitman. In the Korean War, he switched dog tags with the real Don Draper in an effort to get away from Dick’s sorry past. He returned from the war with the new identity – a man running from his past who reinvented himself only to still suffer the effects of the past.

In my great-grandfather’s case, it’s all mystery and conjecture. His name was Joseph Zawodny…or was it?

If the story had been told to me by my grandmother, I’d have enjoyed the tale and laughed about it later. Because Nan was like that, telling stories that were better than the actual truth. But this particular story was told by my mother – an extremely trustworthy source even considering she was about 8 years old when it happened.

What happened was Joseph died. It was 1944, three days after D-Day. Joseph was 64 years old and died rather suddenly after falling ill with pneumonia. My mother, with her parents (her mother was Joseph’s daughter) and sister, lived in the same house as Joseph for several years prior to his death. Shortly after his death, she recalls a knock on the door. A man presented himself to my grandmother and declared that his name was Joseph Zawodny…the real Joseph Zawodny. He claimed that my great-grandfather used his name to get into the United States. The man revealed that Joseph’s real name was Joseph Andrew Müller. My grandmother became quite irate at the man’s accusation and told him to leave. But my mother, the 8-year-old listening quietly in the corner, never forgot how shaken her mother looked afterwards.

When I began my genealogical research, I assumed I’d find the truth. My mother believed wholeheartedly that this mystery man, the other Joseph Zawodny, was telling the truth. I started my research. I found Joseph’s – make that my Joseph’s – entry into the United States on April 6, 1902. His wife, Wacława, followed him to Philadelphia the following year. Since they were already married prior to immigration, once I learned the town name I was able to research their marriage record. There it was: only two month’s prior to Joseph’s emigration, the couple got married.

I explained my findings to my mother – based on what I found, I don’t think the story of the fake name was correct. It was one thing to enter the United States on a “fake” passport, but I found his wedding with that same name. The town was small enough that others would surely have known if the man wasn’t who he said he was.

Rather than being happy about my research conclusion, my mother disagreed. “So he used his name to marry her then. In fact, maybe she married the real Joseph (Józef) Zawodny, but was really in love with our Joseph Müller. Rather than scandalize her family, they left…with him using her real husband’s name.”

Mom seemed pretty proud of this “assumed a new identity for love” theory. I had to admit, it was a good story. And one other little family history fact led credence to it – for some reason, my great-grandmother’s parents were so upset at her either marrying or leaving Poland that they never communicated with her again. My grandmother told my mother that Wacława’s letters to her parents were returned unopened. Her parents were alive for almost twenty years after she emigrated, so it did beg the question – why were they so upset with her?

For good measure, I actually started researching some of the other Polish immigrants named Joseph Zawodny. There were a few, and I figured if I could tie one back to Dobrosołowo, where my guy was married, or to the nearby town where he was born, it would give me reason to pause. But so far, the other immigrants named Joseph Zawodny arrived from elsewhere.

Genealogists love a good story. But we love proof of a good story even more. So far, all of my research into Joseph’s life is consistent. He always provided the same date of birth, which neatly turned out to be the birth date of a man named Józef Zawodny in Komorowo, a small town in Russian-occupied Poland quite close to the German-occupied border.

There’s just one thing… Józef’s baptismal record and marriage record indicated that his name was Józef with no middle name. On almost all of the American records, the man now called Joseph also did not indicate a middle name. No middle name on his draft cards, insurance applications, children’s birth or death records. No middle name ever provided until 1938 when Joseph applies for Social Security. On the application, he writes his name as “Joseph Andy Zawodny.” Andy? As in Andrew (or Andrzej in Polish). Ironically, he filled it out on 4/1, April Fools’ Day, but I doubt that is significant…humorous, but not significant.

If this were a television show, the camera would zoom in on the name “Andy” and fade to black for a commercial break.

I know who my great-grandfather was. He was a loving father and husband and a devout Catholic. That should be enough, but I want to know the story because, as my Mom puts it, why would someone take the trouble to come to the door and make that story up?

The genealogical proof standard has led me to believe he did not pull a “Don Draper” and he was the man he claimed to be in all the records I’ve found. In fact, the only way to possibly dispute it is through DNA testing, because his Y-DNA line is still active. Unfortunately, none of Joseph’s other children ever heard the story of the mystery man at the door – or if they did hear it, they heard it from my grandmother who liked to tell stories. So I haven’t yet attempted convincing a cousin to help me solve the mystery.

Was Joseph Zawodny really Joseph Müller? Even if I find out through DNA testing, I will never know the true story of what would compel a man, much like the fictional character of Don Draper, to reinvent his identity by assuming another man’s name. If he did, he’s the anti-Don Draper in a sense, because no matter who he had been, he became a good man – for that’s the man his family knew here in America. On television, poor Don already was a good man as young Dick, but in trying to elude his past and creating Don he’s become a man who tries to be a good man, but is never quite sure if he’s really good enough and fails at being truly good. Hopefully, Don’s story will end well in the upcoming weeks. I may never know the end of Joseph’s real story – or rather, the beginning!


3 thoughts on “Was Great-Grandpa Don Draper?

  1. Pingback: Best Bytes for the Week of 10 April 2015 - Little Bytes of Life

  2. Hello Donna, very interesting story…wonder what my brother’s DNA will show. I had never heard this before but it’s very curious. Would like to reconnect with you sometime if you’re up for it. Sorry we lost touch (my bad) but my job at the time was all consuming as were my family commitments. Am retired now so have a bit more time to do things. Let me know if you are available some time.

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