On the Matter of Robert Edmond Alter
by Victor A. Berch

   When Steve Lewis posted an article by Peter Enfantino on Robert Edmond Alter’s contributions to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine with a bibliography of Alter’s writings by Peter Enfantino, Steve and myself, I was hardly concerned with the man. I just took it for granted that the biographical dictionaries had covered his vital statistics.

Carny Kill

   Then, a few weeks ago, Steve received an e-mail from Tom Grueter saying that he was going to forward a list of Alter’s publications which Alter’s agent, Larry Sternig, had put together for him some years ago. It was soon after the bibliography arrived that I decided to look into Alter’s background. I looked at his entry in Contemporary Authors and took note that his parents were listed as Retla Alter and Irene (Kerr) Alter.

   The entry went on to say that Robert Edmond Alter was born in San Francisco on December 10, 1925. Therefore he should show up in the 1930 US Census record.

   Much to my chagrin, no record of Robert Edmond Alter nor any variation thereof (such as Robert E. Alter, R.E. Alter, Robert Alter, R. Alter) with that birth date materialized. This was quite puzzling. Perhaps, I thought, it would be easier to track down his parents in 1930. And I proceeded to do so.

   Well, one can imagine my surprise when the census entry showed Retla Alter as head of the household, Irene Alter as his wife, and Robert Pedroni as his stepson.

   One of the features of the 1930 US Census to be recorded by the census taker was information on how old each married person had been at the time of their first marriage. Upon examination of the record, it showed that Retla Alter had been 34 years old, which meant that he had been born sometime in 1896, and that he had been first married at age 34, and that meant that he had just been married.

Thieves Like Us

   Irene Alter’s record showed that she was 27 years old, which meant that she was born in 1903 or thereabouts and that she had been 24 years old at the time of her first marriage. Robert Pedroni’s age was given as 4 years and 4 months old. The date that the census was taken was April 13, 1930 , which would place Robert Pedroni’s birth date in December of 1925, exactly the time that Robert Alter’s birth date is recorded.

   It was then that I decided to see whether there were any death records for the Alter family. Had any of them passed away before the Social Security Death Index could reveal any information?

   Well, two records were found in the SSDI: that of Robert Alter’s mother and that of Robert himself (although not yet 65 at the time of his death, someone had claimed his death benefit.). But my subscription to Ancestry.com provided me with access to the California Death Index, 1940-1997, where all three records for the Alter family were found. Moreover, my subscription included access to the California Birth Index, 1905-1995.

   For Retla Alter, his death record revealed that he had been born Jan. 7, 1896 in Pennsylvania, had died in Los Angeles, CA July 29, 1945 and that his mother’s maiden name had been Darn (a little research on my part found this to be a mistranscription of some sort, as the actual name was Dorn).

Swamp Sister

   For Irene Alter, it stated that Irene Mary Alter had been born June 5, 1895 in California and died March 10, 1984 in Los Angeles, CA and that her mother’s maiden name had been Flanneley and her father’s surname had been Kerr (surprise! she was actually older than Retla by a half year. Oh! Did I mention that the census was taken by one, Effie Kerr? Could there have been a wink-wink when it came to giving the census taker her age? Possibly).

   As for Robert Edmond Alter, the California Death Index showed that he was born December 10, 1925 in California. Died May 26, 1966 in Los Angeles, CA and his mother’s maiden name was Kerr. All of which conformed to the entry in Contemporary Authors.

   My final search would be for the birth record of a Robert Pedroni which would match the record of Robert Edmond Alter. No matter what I tried, nothing materialized. Yet, there was a birth record for Robert Edmond Alter. He was born December 10, 1925 in San Francisco county, and his mother’s maiden name was Kerr. How could that be? What happened to Robert Pedroni?


   I decided to get the answer regarding step-children from my local City Clerk and the explanation was quite simple. Should a step-child be legally adopted, the birth record is amended to reflect the family name of the adopting parent. So, at some point after 1930, it can safely be assumed that Robert Pedroni was legally adopted by Retla Alter and took on his stepfather’s family name.

   Yet, I have that nagging feeling that I would like to know who had been Robert Edmond Alter’s birth-father. Maybe Robert had that feeling at some point in his life. Perhaps, one day Ancestry.com will have a database of California Marriage Records.