From Hollywood back to Derry

STEPPING BACK IN TIME . . . Thomas visit's the home of his birth mother during his first visit back to Derry. (1703SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer
STEPPING BACK IN TIME . . . Thomas visit's the home of his birth mother during his first visit back to Derry. (1703SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer

Thomas Waterfield, the adopted son of 1940’s Hollywood icon Jane Russell, retraced the footprints of his Derry born mother Hannah ‘Florrie’ Kavanagh yesterday as he travelled to her birth place in London Street, before visiting the site of the former Springtown Camp, where she had grown up.

Thomas who was visiting Derry for the first time is now 61. He was 15 months old in 1951 when his biological mother Hannah, who was then living in London, allowed Hollywood actress and sex symbol Jane Russell to adopt him. The sensational story hit the tabloid headlines of the time and saw Hannah thrust into the limelight and berated for her controversial decision to give her son to the star who she believed would give him better opportunities in life. Yesterday, during an emotional reunion, Thomas met, Sandy McDermott, brother of the late Hannah Kavanagh.

Local writer Willie Deery, who detailed the compelling story in his book, ‘Springtown Camp, from the Inside,’ accompanied Thomas, and his son AJ, during their brief visit to the city which was recorded by BBC Radio for a documentary which will air later in the year.

Speaking exclusively to the ‘Journal’, Thomas, who now lives in Arizona, said it was “quite an honour” to be in Derry, and meet one of his biological relatives.

“It’s pretty cool to meet your blood, and this is something that’s so so special to me,” he said.

“It’s interesting because I feel like I’ve come full circle, I’ve been reading over some of Willie’s book and now, here I am, and it’s such an adventure to be on with my young son. To see where my birth mom was born and where she grew up is just amazing.

“I mean you can talk about it, and hear about it, but it doesn’t become real until you walk those cobbles,” he smiled.

The father of two, who is an accomplished musician, said his adoptive mother, who was a major Hollywood star, had always been entirely open with him about his background.

“There were never any secrets with her and she was happy to give me whatever information she could about my birth mother. That side of things was always pretty open and I’ve known for as long as I can remember,” he said.

In 1968, aged 18, Thomas travelled to England and met Hannah Kavanagh, and his siblings Michael and Theresa. He recalled that meeting yesterday.

“I think looking back I was too young to really realise or appreciate how much it meant. I remember we all had dinner, and it was very pleasant, but it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve realised how much Hannah did for me.

“I can only imagine the deep emotions she felt and what she went through and she did that because she wanted a better life for her son. I’m not a mother but I have a son and I can’t imagine what it must have felt for her to give her little boy up, but she did it with the best intentions.”

Thomas’ teenage son, AJ, who is joining him on his trip, said learning the family’s history had been a profound experience.

“It’s kind of shocking. I’d heard stories but I had no idea how big a deal my father’s adoption was. To be here now, knowing about Hannah’s story is amazing. I’ve never seen a place so beautiful or met so many friendly people as I have here in Derry.”

Thomas meanwhile is hoping to return to Derry next year to tell the story of the Russell family history.

“Derry is a big part of the story and we’ll be telling it on stage with music and talk and we’re hoping to make it a big old Irish party,” he laughed.

Willie Deery said the visit was an emtional one for everyone involved.

“What Hannah Kavanagh did, she did out of sheer unadulterated love. No woman could have greater love for her child than to hand that child over to have a better life.

“What she did was absolutely selfless.”

Hannah’s brother Sandy, who still lives in Derry, said he was too young when his sister left for London to remember her but said he was delighted to meet his nephew and grand nephew.

“He got a good life and it all worked out for him. She made sure it all worked out, but it’s great to meet him now because we’re all family,” he said.