James Francis Cagney Jr. is generally associated with his Irish ancestry. So what's he doing in the Norwegian American Hall of Fame?
This passage from John McCabe's book, "Cagney," provides the answer:
"Cagney's mother, Carolyn Elizabeth Nelson, a woman of full figure with a head of vivid red hair...had a heritage of which she was very proud, a living heritage in the person of her lovably eccentric father, Henry Nelson, a river barge captain. Captain Henry (he was the only man aboard the tiny tug) insisted on being called Captain and stoutly maintained the title until he died. He boasted of his Norwegian blood and spoke vaguely of being well known in Norwegian maritime circles."
Shortly before his death in 1986, Cagney told an interviewer, Gregory Speck:
"My mother's father, my Grandpa Nelson, was a Norwegian sea captain, but when I tried to investigate those roots I didn't get very far, for he had apparently changed his name to another one that made it impossible to identify him within the rest of the population."
Cagney's father, a hard-drinking Irish-American bartender, died at the age of 42. The mother kept the family — comprised of herself and three children — together. Cagney, who became one of the most heralded and beloved actors in the history of motion pictures, gave major credit to his mother for his success.
He was a member of a Hollywood coterie which a syndicated clumnist had dubbed the "Irish Mafia." Cagney once commented:
"Sidney Skolsky, always a man to make news where he could, first called us the Irish Mafia. That there was some Irish blood can't be doubted, but [Ralph] Bellamy has not one drop of Irish blood, Frank Morgan was German, and Lynne Overman is also a Teutonic name. I am one-quarter Norwegian."
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