Before I go head long into this article, I want to first say that I love Rebel Wilson. While her comedy may not always be my personal pint of lager, I admire her talent. We should remember that a part of her persona is to be outrageous, interesting and the girl for whom you can say… “yes, she went there”. She is brave, and that cannot be denied. Her outlandish claims are part of the self-characterization that she has created. While I could be completely wrong on this count, I have never had the personal opinion that she intended for people to actually believe most of what she says. Because of that, it is also my personal opinion that we should not judge her or cast her in an unnecessary negative light. So few can truly say that they know her or her intentions. So who are we to have any preconceived ideas of her motives. Let us allow her comedy to exist for what it is without personal condemnation or accusation. This article is not intended, in any way, to be an attack of Miss Wilson. Rather, as a genealogist, I feel a certain need to correct the score on any erroneous ancestral claims in order that misinformation isn’t unintentionally continued on to future generations. This is written for that purpose only.
So, after that little public announcement of not casting the first stone – let’s get on with it.
In May of 2015 Rebel Wilson was a guest on The Graham Norton Show, a fantastic chat show in London (I am a huge fan). Recently I was watching some clips from the show, as I often do from my little bungalow in Hollywood, when Rebel Wilson came across my screen. This particular clip by BBC America on YouTube is only 1:48 in length and titled “Rebel Wilson and Disney Land’s SECRET CLUB”. A link to the original clip will be posted at the bottom of this page, please view it to see the original interview and to see more clips from The Graham Norton Show. (psst… the episode with Adele, Jack Whitehall and Miranda Hart is one of my personal favorites). Of course I knew immediately that the title was referring to Club 33. The highly exclusive and “secret” spot at Disneyland opened in 1967 and is not so secret among the residents of Southern California. In watching the clip, Graham tried to get the truth out –
“Graham: But, Rebel Wilson, also, has a very famous relative.
Rebel: Um, I am actually a distant relative of Walt Disney.
Graham: Now are you really?
Rebel: Yeah, my great aunt married him.
Audience member: No way
A moment later Graham asks:
“Graham: Were there any perks growing up a relative of Walt Disney?
Rebel: Well, I tried to get in Pirates of the Caribbean and they said no, but I have actually been to the very exclusive secret club at Disneyland called Club 33. Um, which costs $25,000 just to join. It’s so secret, there’s like a secret door and you go in and they have lots of alcohol there.
Graham: Are you making this up?
Rebel: No, it’s totally true.”
Logo of Club 33
Graham’s face says it all that he isn’t believing a word of it until Matt LeBlanc (famously remembered as Joey Tribiani on the American sit-com “Friends”), another guest on the show, confirms the existence of the club. So if Club 33 exists, which it does, then maybe her claim as the great-niece of Mrs. Walt Disney is also true. And what genealogist can pass that up?!? Well, it seems a lot of them, since a full year has passed and I’m the first to have checked on this. I was intrigued.
The first thing I did was look to see who Mrs. Walt Disney was, as I had no knowledge at all of her identity. A quick search of the internet tells us that her name was Lillian Marie Bounds and that she was born on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho in 1898. Now already this is interesting because we also know that Rebel Wilson’s real name is Melanie Elizabeth Bownds. So – Bounds and Bownds are phonetically identical which means that we can’t count out the possibility that there is, in fact, a very distant familial connection many generations back. However, this was also a red flag for me as the spelling of surnames were primarily solid by the turn of the 20th century when Lillian was born. So if Rebel is descended from one of Lillian’s brothers, why are the names spelled differently? But you never know, so this bit of info just piqued my interest more to get to the bottom of this.
I first decided to look more closely at the family of Lillian Marie Bounds Disney (1898-1997). This was very simple due to the somewhat uncommon surname in a relatively rural area. I found that Lillian was the daughter of Willard Pehall Bounds (1857-1916) and Jeanette “Nettie” Short Bounds (1854-1931). Willard and Nettie were married on November 2, 1879 at the home of A. C. Short in Columbia County, Washington Territory. I have a copy of the marriage certificate. I also found the family in the 1900 Federal Census in Spalding, Nez Perce, Idaho and in the 1910 Federal Census in Lapwai, Nez Perce, Idaho. These census records tell us that Willard’s father was born in Missouri and his mother in Tennessee. Digging a bit further we find that Willard was the son of James L. Bounds and Rachel Linville. Earlier census records confirm that James L. Bounds was born in Missouri in 1830 and, in fact, James and Rachel lived next door to Willard and Nettie in 1900. These records further tell us that James’s father was born in Virginia. So we have a solid trace of the family of Lillian Bounds Disney in the United States back to the very early 19th century. This tells us that one of Lillian’s brothers, or the son of a brother, would have had to move to Australia in order for Rebel’s claim to be true. Going back to those census records will now come in handy. In both 1900 and 1910 Nettie Bounds noted that she had eleven children, but only ten of them were still living. Luckily for us all ten of them were living with Willard and Nettie in 1900. They were listed in that census as follows (also pictured above):
- Roy O born Sep 1880
- Grace born Mar 1882
- Grover born Nov 1883
- Harry born Feb 1885
- Wade W. born Apr 1890
- Oscar S born Oct 1891
- Ruth L born Mar 1893
- James L born Mar 1895
- Hazel M born May 1896
- Lillian M born Feb 1898.
So, if Rebel Wilson was the great-niece of Lillian Bounds Disney, it means she would have to be the granddaughter or great-granddaughter (depending on if she was using the term “great-aunt” correctly) – of either Roy O Bounds, Grover Bounds, Harry Bounds, Wade W. Bounds, Oscar S. Bounds or James L. Bounds. Six sons and a lot of possibilities! Various records including census records, cemetery records, military registrations, voter registrations and city directories allowed me to confirm the full names of these sons as Roy Obediah Bounds, Grover Claude Bounds, Harry Hawcroft Bounds, Willard Wade Bounds, Oscar Sidney Bounds and Lloyd James Bounds. I’ve found death dates in the United States for five of them between 1958 and 1979 with the only exception being Oscar Sidney Bounds. Although I did not find death information for Sid, as it seems he was more commonly known, I did find him living in Lewiston with his mother when he registered for the draft of WWI on June 5, 1917, and I also found him married with two daughters and working as the Chief of the Fire Department in Lewiston in 1930.
So far it’s not looking good. We have all of the brothers of Lillian Bounds confirmed and they clearly lived out their lives in the United States, mostly in Idaho and California, with no known connection to Australia. I also looked into most of their children, the nieces and nephews of Lillian Disney, but I’ll refrain from including their information here for privacy reasons. Suffice it to say that they also do not seem to have any connection to Australia. There is of course that last unknown child. Nettie noted in 1900 that she had one additional child that was no longer living by that time. We know she and Willard were married in Nov 1879 and their first child was born in Sept 1880, 10 months later. The next child after that was born in Mar 1882. This tells us that, if we take the usual nine months between children into consideration, there is a slight possibility that there was another child born in June of 1881 that had passed away by 1900. However, it’s more likely that the missing child was born around 1887, filling in the otherwise regular gap between the births of Harry in 1885 and Wade in 1890. Or, maybe, just maybe, to give some benefit of the doubt, maybe there really was a son born in June of 1881 who moved to Australia where he married and had a child before dying at the age of 19. Very very unlikely, but, you never know. Stranger things have been discovered in genealogy.
So we’ll put that aside for a moment. The next step is to move on to Rebel Wilson and work backward. After all, perhaps there was something I missed. We now know so much about the family of Lillian Disney that it should be fairly simple to find a connection to Rebel Wilson – if one exists.
This is where the research got a bit tragic. I was first sorry to learn that Rebel’s father passed away recently on June 16, 2013. Although it doesn’t seem that it’s generally talked about, his name was Warwick Richard Bownds and, like Rebel’s mother, he was a very well respected dog breeder specializing in Beagles. The Warwick Bownds Memorial Show was presented on April 19, 2014 in his honor. He also worked for a time at the Parramatta PCYC Club. They posted the below memorial on Facebook and wrote the following tribute to someone that was clearly a good friend:
“We take a moment to remember an awesome man who worked at our club. Warwick Bownds was a wonderful person, good natured who helped and assisted people – one of the true PCYC people with great values in life skills. Warwick gave his time selflessly, worked above and beyond what was expected of him and he never complained. He was liked by all who met him, Police, staff, volunteers and all members!”
From his memorial we also know that he was born April 29th, 1951. I searched further to see if I could discover who his father was when I came across a tragic post in The Canberra Times dated October 6, 1971.
“Mrs. Bownds claimed the damages for the benefit of herself as the widow of Robert Edward Bownds and for the benefit of Mr. Warwick Richard Bownds, a son”.
At first I wasn’t sure what this was referring to until I found earlier newspaper articles in The Canberra Times from 1968. Robert Edward Bownds, paternal grandfather of Rebel Wilson, was driving in Canberra on the night of July 29, 1968 when he came into a poorly lit construction area with little signage. His car hit a barrier. He was tragically killed in the accident and the construction company was found to be at fault.
Searching more on Robert Edward Bownds I found that he enlisted into the Australian armed forces during WWII in Paddington, New South Wales, Australia. In his enlistment record he gave his birth as September 21, 1916 in Griffith, New South Wales and he gave his next of kin as “John Bownds”.
Directories from 1943 to 1949 show that there was only one family with the name of Bownds in Griffith – John Bownds and his wife Eliza Catherine of Farm 927. While nothing specifically states that John and Eliza were the parents of Robert Edward Bownds, they must have been very close relatives for Robert to list John as his next of kin. A notice in the newspaper regarding his estate tells us that John passed away in 1953 and cemetery records list that John James Bownds died October 2, 1953 in Griffith at the age of 82 – born in 1871. An unconfirmed genealogy online also names him as John James Bownds born Oct 28, 1871 in Belvoir, Victoria, Australia to Robert Bownds and Julia Mary Egan. The same genealogy also lists John and Eliza as the parents of Robert Edward Bownds.
While I can’t personally confirm the names of the parents John James Bownds and the exact date of his birth are correct, the cemetery listing saying that he was 82 in 1953 is enough to tell us that he could not possibly be a brother of Lillian Bounds Disney, whose parents were only children when John was born. Willard Bounds was 14 in 1871.
So… in the end… I’m sorry to say that there does not seem to be any documentation to support that Lillian Bounds Disney is the “great-aunt” of Melanie Elizabeth Bownds, also known as Rebel Wilson. On the other hand, who cares. She’s a talent and fun and entertaining. Now we can move past this one, correct the record, and enjoy the show.