Curious about her roots, the late Donna Asmus placed ads in The Genealogical Helper in the 1980s, inviting others searching the Mullenger family to contact her. Most readers skimming through the magazine’s pages didn’t recognize her name, nor did they realize the family history enthusiast had been the star of an Emmy-nominated TV series 15 years earlier.
By James Pylant
Copyright © 2016
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Born Donnabelle Mullenger on 27 January 1921 in Denison, Iowa,1 she was the oldest child of a farming family. She learned to bake bread, drive a tractor, and milk a cow, as well as look after her four siblings.2 Donnabelle lived with an aunt while attending Los Angeles City College, intending to become a secretary instead of an actress. “You see, everything with me happened pretty simply,” she explained. It happened after she was crowned Campus Queen and her pictures appeared in local newspapers. That prompted a call from a talent agent. Screen test offers came, and Donna signed a movie contract.3 She was renamed Donna Adams before the studio finally decided on a new moniker—Donna Reed.4
At age 25, she was famously cast opposite Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1945). A string of other roles followed, including one that garnered her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the 1953 film From Here to Eternity.5 Five years later came The Donna Reed Show, which stumbled in the ratings before gaining a foothold. The series ended after eight seasons.6 The sitcom gave its star a second award with a Golden Globe as Best Female TV Star in 1963.7
After the sitcom ended, Reed refocused her time on raising four children, following politics, and eventually a new hobby—genealogy, an interest sparked after the television miniseries Roots aired. “Genealogy had answered Donna’s craving for blood ties at a time when her more immediate family members were scattered and dying,” says the Jay Fultz, author of In Search of Donna Reed.8 Indeed. Her mother had died in 1975,9 followed by her father’s death in 1981.10 Donna and her third husband, Colonel Grover Asmus, had relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she corresponded with relatives in a search for ancestors William Reform Mullenger and Mary Tyler, English emigrants who settled in Iowa.11 The same year her father died, Donna and her husband made a trip to England and met descendants of both the Mullengers and the Tylers.12
After moving back to California, Donna the genealogist became especially keen to discover the fate of a long-lost aunt, Emma Mead Mullenger, whose last known residence was Davenport, Iowa, in 1878. She advertised in The Genealogical Helper, offering to pay $100 to whoever provided first proof (each) of Aunt Emma’s marriage(s), death date, place of burial, and descendants. Reed wanted to find living cousins.13 “Our family has been greatly extended through these searches, and I like everyone very much,” she explained.14
In the mid-1980s, after the actress began tracing her family tree, she stepped into the role of Miss Ellie (originated by Barbara Bel Geddes) in the CBS hit Dallas. It was a brief stint; Reed was fired when Bel Geddes returned to the series the following season. Donna Reed died at age 64 of pancreatic cancer on 14 January 1986 in Beverly Hills. “She was so open and nice, and didn’t play the star at all,” said Leonard Katzman, producer of Dallas.15
- Donna Asmus, no. 557-24-7690, “U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936—2007,” online database (www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 January 2016), gives her birth data and names of parents.
- “Hollywood’s Newest Good-Bad Girl,” Family Weekly Magazine, 2 March 1954, p. 11.
- Paul Harrison, “Harrison in Hollywood: Fact That Donna Reed Had Easy Time in Getting Featured Roles Makes her Career Interesting,” Fitchburg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Mass.), 3 March 1942, p. 5.
- Jay Fultz, In Search of Donna Reed (University of Iowa Press, 1998), pp. 43-44.
- “Donna Reed (1921—1986),” online biography, Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001656/ : accessed 20 January 2016).
- Joanne Morreale, The Donna Reed Show (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Jay Fultz, In Search of Donna Reed (University of Iowa Press, 1998), pp. 180-181.
- Hazel Jane Shives Mullenger memorial no. 66,929,505, online database with images (www.findagrave.com : accessed 19 January 2016), includes a photograph of Mrs. Mullenger’s tombstone showing the years of birth and death.
- William Richard Mullenger memorial no. 66,929, 426, online database with images (www.findagrave.com : accessed 19 January 2016), includes a photograph of Mr. Mullenger’s tombstone showing the years of birth and death.
- “Bureau of Missing Ancestors,” The Genealogical Helper (November-December 1979), p. 16.
- Fultz, In Search of Donna Reed, p. 181.
- Display advertisement, The Genealogical Helper (March-April 1983), Vol. 37, No. 2, p. 118.
- Fultz, In Search of Donna Reed, p. 181.
- Associated Press, “Donna Reed, Oscar Winner who Found Fame on TV, Dies of Cancer,” The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.), 15 January 1986, p. 1.