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Getting to know a half-sister posthumously: 'I think I would have liked and admired' her

The writer’s half-sister, Roberta “Bobbie” Joughin, shown at 12 or 13, became an anthropologist in Mexico.

Family photo

The writer’s half-sister, Roberta “Bobbie” Joughin, shown at 12 or 13, became an anthropologist in Mexico.

CARROLLWOOD — My late half-sister, Roberta Joughin, unknown to me until I was at Florida State College for Women in 1940, unexpectedly reappeared in my life through an old newspaper article.

What a handsome 28-year-old anthropologist she is, doing research in the wilds of Chiapas, Mexico, according to a May 1953 interview by a Los Angeles Times reporter. Before embarking on that project, she served in the WAVE, or women's branch of the U.S. Navy, in World War II.

The last mention of Roberta, also known as Bobbie (named for our father, Robert T. Joughin, former sheriff of Hillsborough County), placed her in Mexico in 1953 after she married the second son of the ninth duke of Manchester. She was his fifth wife. One year later, after a wedding in September 1953, the duke died at 48 in Mexico.

All of this information came to me a few years ago through Philip Allen, a British cousin who is a lawyer and collaborator with me on family genealogy.

I've had to discard my early notion that she might be a society fortune hunter. The reporter who tracked down Bobbie in the Chiapas jungle said her dream had been to help anthropologist Franz Blom discover buried cities and to study descendants of Mayas called the Lacandon group. She was working on a doctorate at the University of Mexico.

She had graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles. Her mother, Flora, lived and worked in Los Angeles.

I think I would have liked and admired that young woman.

The grainy photograph that appeared in the newspaper is one of just two pictures I have of Bobbie. The other, a snapshot found in my father's house after his death in 1961, shows a preteen in a riding habit on a low hill in the desert. An inscription on the back, written for my father, says, "Lovingly, Roberta."

I was apprehensive and somewhat jealous. Until college, I had thought I was my father's only child. I knew she was two years younger than I, born in 1924, and my father mentioned in his will that he had "already taken care of her." She was said to be living in Mexico.

I had heard conflicting stories about her Jewish mother and also about her own existence. Each of my three aunts told a different story; one claimed that my father had no other children. I had heard hints that Flora, who owned a business with my father in downtown Tampa, might have had an affair with him before my mother died a few weeks after my birth in 1922.

Family prejudices could have made the new marriage difficult. My mother belonged to the prominent Jackson family, early founders of Tampa, and also Sacred Heart Church. Her father and grandfather had been mayors.

In 2003, when cousin Philip discovered Bobbie's place on the family tree, we still had no idea about her career, or why she died at 40 with no children of her own. We knew she had met the duke in Mexico.

Further startling information came to light a few years ago, when a friend of mine made an Internet discovery. A book, Fieldwork Among the Maya: Reflections on the Harvard Chiapas Project, by Evon Zartman Vogt, revealed Bobbie's anthropological work.

Vogt related that Bobbie had been working with University of Chicago field workers in 1956. She had owned a spacious colonial house in San Cristobal, he wrote. She was "one of the more interesting members of the expatriate Euro-American colony who had purchased houses in San Cristobal and spent part or all of each year in Chiapas."

He wrote that she was from a well-to-do Sephardic Jewish family in New Orleans. A close friend, well-known anthropologist Calixta Guiteras-Holmes, always stayed at her house when she was in town.

In 1960 Bobbie had the idea of establishing an anthropological field station at her ranch on the outskirts of San Cristobal. She had bought 40 hectares of land mostly for grazing horses and cattle. That year the University of Chicago, Stanford University and Harvard University signed a contract with her to rent the property and buildings for five years. The place became known as El Rancho Harvard, or the Harvard Ranch. Until 1981 the Harvard Chiapas Project continued renting the ranch.

Vogt wrote that Bobbie died of a heart attack on Aug. 31, 1962. Other records list 1964 as the year of her death. The heir to the property was Bobbie's longtime friend Calixta, who also had been named guardian of an Indian child, Tete, whom Bobbie adopted shortly before her death.

Calixta decided to sell the ranch in 1980 because Tete had grown up and, according to Vogt, become an accomplished ballerina in Havana. Calixta moved to Cuba and became an anthropological adviser to Fidel Castro.

Roberta Joughin Montagu left her mark in anthropology through the Harvard Ranch, which housed field workers for many years. She wrote scholarly papers that are mentioned on the Internet.

Vogt's book mentions her Land Rover, which she used to drive him around to become familiar with the locale.

But there still are big gaps in our knowledge of this "very personable young woman," and I wish I had known her. We would have had much in common. Our paths could have crossed when I worked for Associated Press in 1945 in San Diego as an editor.

Journalist Lula Dovi is retired and lives in Original Carrollwood. Her first Times article about her cousin appeared in North of Tampa on Feb. 23, 2007.

Getting to know a half-sister posthumously: 'I think I would have liked and admired' her 10/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 6:27pm]
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