Over the past few years, I’ve been examining Ray’s unfinished autobiography and stories he told close friends and digging through magazine and newspaper articles and other documents to verify – or dispute – Ray’s own accounts of his life.
Ray was regarded by his close friends as an unreliable narrator, often telling stories about himself that seemed implausible. However, most of the stories Ray told in his autobiography about his life after he came to Hollywood around 1920 can be backed up with some kind of historical record or, at least, look possible. If newspaper articles and other primary sources don’t at least verify some version of his story, they do verify most of his travels and the places he worked.
However, verification of Ray’s account of his family and early upbringing has eluded me. Despite years of research, his family background, early life on the ranch in Sierra Blanca, his time in an English boarding school, breaking into show business in English music halls, along with his tales of Pancho Villa, just never quite panned out.
Dates and circumstances might line up, or I could place people with Ray’s family name in the areas Ray talked about. Ray would seem to know details of the geography and circumstances, making the stories seem possible, but no newspapers or other primary documents would conclusively make the case that the stories could be true.
Finally, someone has been able to sort out the truth about Ray’s origins.
Recently, I was contacted by fellow researcher and Bourbon enthusiast Charles C. Cage. Charles has looked into several aspects of Ray’s life and work in the past, particularly around New Orleans and Ray’s murder trial. Charles’s main work is in the area of fine antiques and he regularly does genealogy and historical research to document provenance of objects.
Based on Charles’s research, this series of blog posts will outline what we can document about Ray before he turns up working in Hollywood. We’ll look at Ray’s family, his real name, and childhood, and examine how this impacts how we look at Ray’s version of events.
It turns out that Ray’s stories of his family and early life are fabrications, but he left a few clues over the years that finally enabled Charles to piece together the story. The big break in the research came with an article he found from a 1931 El Paso newspaper about a supposed inheritance that Ray was receiving. We had found articles about this before, which Ray claimed was a publicity hoax a couple of weeks later, but this piece offered more details and quotes directly from Ray himself.
The newspaper article (“Juarez Entertainer Said Heir to About $1,500,000”, El Paso Times, July 27, 1931, p1) discusses Ray inheriting a fortune, while still planning to work at Hugo’s Lobby No. 2 in Juarez as a female impersonator.
“Waddell is known at Hugo’s as “Big Bertha.” He got the nickname from one of his songs. His stage name is Rae Bourbon,” the article notes.
“I won’t get the money for two weeks,” Waddell said, “so I will have to keep my job. The first thing I am going to do is to make a tour of the world. I am going to take Bert Scotch with me. We have been together for nine years. I am always going to look after him.”
“I am not going to spend more than five or six months on my tour. I don’t want to remain away too long from my work. I want to give up vaudeville and the present work I am doing and go on the legitimate stage. Nine hundred thousand dollars will open a lot doors in (sic) me which otherwise would remain closed.”
Ray goes on to state that his mother died in 1929 and she told him before her death that he had been left a large estate by his father. The estate had recently been settled, leaving Ray with an inheritance of $900,000 in cash and property in Texarkana and oil wells in Wink, Texas – a total to $1.5 million. Ray said his step-father, Alfred C. Hughes, from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and his attorney had been working on his father’s estate for some time.
Newspaper articles would subsequently appear where Ray claimed the inheritance story was a publicity stunt dreamed up by his agent. But there’s a possibility that Ray did have some type of inheritance or settlement from the death of his mother – more research will have to be done to track this down in the future.
The Keys to Ray’s Real Name and Family
Charles used the names and places mentioned in the article as a starting point – Ray’s step-father, Ted Hughes, his mother Elizabeth, and his father Frank Waddell, as well as two locations mentioned by Ray, Texarkana and Hot Springs.
First, Cage found documentation of the marriage of Elizabeth and Ray’s step-father, Ted Hughes, and then records for Ray’s father, Frank, carefully connecting each piece of evidence to another to finally trace the family to Ray himself.
The “smoking guns” for Cage were two articles in found in the McKinney (Texas) Democrat from April 5th and 12th, 1906. The first stated, “Mrs. Frank Waddell of Texarkana is visiting her husband’s sisters, Mesdames J.L. White and J.P. Nenny, and aunt Mrs. R. M. Board. She is accompanied by her little son Hallie Board Waddell.” The second notice, from a week later, stated that the Waddells, including the son, Hallie Board, returned to Texarkana the previous day.
J.L. White was Frank Waddell’s sister, Lou Hattie Waddell, who married James Louis White. Fanny Waddell was Frank’s sister who married James Patrick Nenney. The aunt was Adelia Willingham, the sister of Frank’s mother who married Robert Milton Board. All of these women lived and died in McKinney in east Texas.
Cage then found an entry for Ray and his mother in the 1920 Texarkana census, listing his mother as Mrs. A.C. Hughes, born in Kentucky, and Ray as “Hal”, age 18, a student, born in Texas. Ray’s step-father, Ted, may have been traveling at the time. Rather than taking over the family ranch when he married Elizabeth, as Ray said, Ted worked as a railroad fireman and traveling salesman.
The Truth About Ray
Ray didn’t grow up in Sierra Blanca, on the far western end of Texas, as he claimed in his autobiography. Instead, he grew up and lived in Texarkana, on the east side of the state, until he left and went to Hollywood. Rather than being the offspring of European royalty, his mother’s family originated in Kentucky and lived in Texarkana and his father’s family was from Arkansas. Instead of a cattle ranch, his parents were involved with cotton plantations and later ran a hotel. Ray’s real name was Hallie Board Waddell.
Ray, on official documents produced in the 1930s, would claim his real name was “Richard ‘Hal’ Waddell” and that he was born on August 11,1902 in Texarkana. Later, in the 1960s, he would claim 1892 and Mexico as his date and place of birth.
The names mentioned in Ray’s autobiography for his father and mother, his step-father, and his father’s sister, Lou, are real. However, he changed the year and location of his birth, facts about his childhood and teen years, and even his real name.
Early in his career, Ray seemed to be more truthful about his date and place of birth, with the more fantastical stories about his background emerging first in the 1940s and later in his life. In the next post in this series, we’ll take a closer look at Charles’s research and outline the true story of Ray’s background. Finally, in a third post, we will examine the story and some possible motivations for Ray to manufacture his past.