So I’m probably some kind of cousin to Ricardo Cortez, whose movie career spanned from the 1920s through the 1950s. I want to highlight his life, and then get into how we’re likely related.
Ricardo Cortez was born Jacob Krantz in 1900 New York City to Austrian-Jewish immigrants Morris Krantz and Sara Lefkowitz. The 1910 U.S. Federal Census shows him, his parents Morris and Sara, and his four younger siblings Malina, Bernard, Helen, and Samuel. “Samuel” would take his older brother’s screen last name and become Stanley Cortez, a successful cinematographer.
Prior to becoming an actor, Jacob was a boxer and a Wall Street runner. He began acting in the late 1910s in uncredited parts, and his first credited role was in Sixty Cents An Hour (1923). With his dark good looks, he was given the screen name Ricardo Cortez, taking advantage of the popularity of “Latin lover” stars like Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro. When eventually it was discovered that he was not Spanish or Latino, they passed him off as French and then finally Viennese. In fact, his obituary and at least one biography of him incorrectly gives him as being born in Vienna.
His career grew throughout the silent era, and luckily for him he was able to transition to talking films (not all actors were successful at that, as it meant one’s voice now mattered and it also required a totally different style of acting). He also directed several films for 20th century Fox in the late 1930s. In the late 1950s he retired from the movie business and became a stock broker on Wall Street. He died on April 18, 1977 at the age of 76.
Jacob married three times: his first wife was Alma Rubens, a stage and silent film actress. She was half Jewish but vehemently denied her paternal roots all her life. Rubens had been married twice before, making Jacob her third husband. They married first on January 30, 1926, but her divorce to her second husband Daniel Carson Goodman hadn’t been finalized, so they had to marry again the following month. Sadly, Rubens had a drug addiction, and died of pneumonia following an arrest for cocaine possession in 1931 (yes, even 100 years ago, Hollywood was rife with drugs and scandal). Jacob subsequently married Christine Conliff Lee (1934-1940, divorced) and then Margaret Belle (m. 1950), to whom he remained married until his death.
Now for our likely family connection…
My paternal grandfather was born in Krasnostav, in what is now Ukraine, west of Kiev, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1921 at the age of 19. My dad said that my grandfather claimed that Ricardo Cortez was a cousin to him (my last name is a longer version of “Krantz”). He unfortunately wasn’t specific on what degree of cousin, but since Jacob’s father was named Morris and my grandfather’s father was named Menashe — which is “Morris” in English — their fathers were very unlikely to have been brothers. But I doubt they would have known they were cousins if the relationship was very distant, so I’m going to guess second cousins. I would love to trace Jacob’s line back and try to confirm the connection and also be be able to push back further on my own paternal “Krantz” line. “Austria” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Austria-Hungary, which included what is now western Ukraine. So they were geographically pretty close, and a connection isn’t as unlikely as it might at first seem.
I was able to find a death record for Jacob’s father, and found out from it that Jacob’s paternal grandfather was also named Jacob Krantz. That Jacob was named for him indicates that his grandfather was dead by the time he was born (in Ashkenazi Jewish naming conventions, you name your firstborn son after his grandfather but only if the grandfather is deceased; if he is still alive, you don’t, because you don’t want the angel of death mistakenly taking the baby instead of the grandfather).
Jewish headstones often include the deceased’s Hebrew name, which is “their name, son/daughter of their father’s name.” So headstones usually allow you to learn someone’s father’s name and push back a generation in the absence of death records.
But Jacob’s parents immigrated just before he was born, so the grandfather almost certainly died in the old country. Which means there’s little chance of finding records or headstones to get HIS father’s name, who could potentially be my great-great grandfather. So frustrating to clear one brick wall only to come to another, bigger and more formidable brick wall.
I’ll keep you posted if I make any further discoveries about my likely but unproven connection to movie star Ricardo Cortez.
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