a young man and an older woman walk down the street together
Margie and Andy Samberg (Photo/Courtesy "Finding Your Roots")

Andy Samberg gives his Berkeley mother a gift: the truth about her birth parents

This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

Margie Samberg knew from the time she was 7 that she had been adopted.

The revelation came in the early 1950s when she was a first-grader at the Dalton School in New York and had a conversation with friends about whether any of them were adopted. Samberg, whose last name was then Marrow, went back to her home on the Upper East Side and asked her parents. To her surprise, they said Samberg and her brother were not their biological children. Then they quickly told Samberg that her birth parents, young lawyers in California, had been killed in a car accident.

“That cut off any possibility of me ever finding them,” said Samberg, 72, a slender woman with long brown hair and a gentle voice. “They were saying ‘don’t even bother to look, we are your parents.’”

Samberg had a close and loving relationship with her family growing up in post-World War II New York. Her father was an industrial psychiatrist who authored 11 books. Her mother was an artist, although she never forged a public career. The house was full of books, conversations about politics and art, and love. But the question of who gave birth to Samberg never went away and grew even stronger after she moved to Berkeley in 1970, married Joe Samberg, a photographer, in 1978, and started having children.

“As I got older, I was constantly thinking ‘who was my birth mother? Who was my birth father?’” said Samberg, who worked with deaf children at John Muir Elementary School in Berkeley for more than 20 years.

Samberg learned that in 1946, when she was three months old, her parents had adopted her from Louise Wise Services in New York, an agency that placed Jewish infants with Jewish families. Samberg wrote to the institution seeking answers but, under New York’s closed adoption laws, the agency could not release the names of her parents. It could only give out descriptive information, such as the fact that Samberg’s mother was Jewish, her father was not, her maternal grandfather had been a doctor and her grandmother had been a therapist. A private detective that Samberg and her family later hired dug up some other biographical details — including the fact she had an aunt who was a famous opera singer — but nothing that led to the discovery of Samberg’s birth parents.

That is, until the PBS show “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” stepped in.

On Tuesday, the show, which does genealogical research on celebrities, broadcast a segment about Samberg’s son, Andy Samberg, the comedian who just co-hosted the Golden Globes and who stars in the television comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Andy is Samberg’s youngest child. He grew up in Berkeley, went to Berkeley High and made a name for himself performing with his BHS classmates Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone in the group The Lonely Island. That led to an acting job on “Saturday Night Live and fame.

The producers of “Finding Your Roots” approached Andy to see if he would be on the show. He had turned down similar requests before. Andy, according to his mother, father and sisters, is exceedingly private. He and his wife, Joanna Newsom, don’t, for example, post photos of their child on social media.

But the question of the identity of Samberg’s birth parents had been a frequent topic of discussion at the Samberg home in the Claremont neighborhood of Berkeley, and the children knew how much their mother yearned to see what her parents looked like.

“We had our dad’s story, which was great,” said Darrow Samberg, one of Samberg’s two daughters. “But mom’s story was a big question mark.”

So Andy, for the first time, seriously considered doing the show and opening up his life — if his mother agreed.

“When I was asked to do this, the first call that I made was to my mom and I said, ‘I know that you’ve always been curious,” Andy says on the TV show. “There’s a chance they could figure this out. I don’t usually do stuff like this because I generally don’t like putting too much personal stuff out there. And so I would absolutely not even consider it a little bit unless it’s something you want to do.’”

It only took Samberg a brief time before she said yes.

With 15 professional genealogists on staff to sift through census data, birth and death certificates, marriage records, military records, and more, “Finding My Roots” got to work on the Samberg show in August 2017. In the last few years, the show has increasingly relied on DNA as a way to figure out ancestry, according to Sabin Streeter, a senior producer for Ark Media, which makes the show. One of the show’s consultants is Cece Moore, a genetic genealogist who looks at public DNA databases to make genetic matches.

The staff asked Margie Samberg for a copy of all the documents she and the detective had received from the Louise Wise adoption agency. They also took DNA samples for her and for Andy.

a man and a woman sit a table looking at documents
Joe and Margie Samberg look through photos of her family. (Photo/Berkeleyside-Frances Dinkelspiel)

Then the waiting began. For six long months, Samberg did not hear anything. Then the show called to schedule a taping in Los Angeles on Dec. 13, 2017. The producers asked Samberg if she wanted to be featured on the show along with her son. Samberg declined but decided the request meant there would be news about her birth parents. The show does not release any information to families before the taping.

When Margie got ready to fly to Los Angeles, her husband Joe asked what she wanted out of the experience, he recounted during a recent interview with Berkeleyside. While the family had collectively agreed to have “Finding Your Roots” do some digging into the past, everyone had been somewhat concerned that the research would uncover negative information about Samberg’s family.

But the yearning that had gripped Samberg since she was 7 years old still obsessed her. Who was she? Why had she been given up for adoption? Did she have any family in the world she didn’t know about? Even though Samberg had been lovingly raised, had created a beautiful family of her own, she couldn’t let go of the idea that something was missing.

“I would like to see what my mother looked like,” Samberg told her husband.

Samberg and Joe met Andy at a house the PBS show had rented in Los Angeles. While the host, Harvard Professor Skip Gates, was talking to Andy on camera in the living room, Samberg and Joe were following along behind a curtain in the kitchen. The show reveals each guest’s family connections through a “Book of Life” it makes. Each page has a photo or document that offers a portal to the past.

On the show, which can be streamed, Gates asks Andy to open the book. On the first page, there is a photo of a young woman with dark eyes, wavy dark hair and bangs.

“Do you know who that is?” Gates asks. He then tells Andy that it is a picture of Samberg’s mother, a woman named Ellen Philipsborn, who came from a German-Jewish family that immigrated to Berkeley during World War II. Just as Andy saw the photo, so did his mother.

an old photo of a dark-haired woman
Ellen Philipsborn

“All of a sudden, from the pit of my stomach, this emotion came out of me,” said Samberg. “There was no controlling it. That was the child that had never seen her mother.”

“I have never seen her lose it like that,” said Joe. “She looks at the picture and she bursts into tears. She is sobbing. She can’t stop sobbing.”

The force of seeing a photo of her mother the first time was overwhelming, Samberg said. She had wondered for so long what she looked like and she finally had an answer.

The revelations were just beginning. Gates asked Andy to keep turning the pages. One of the pages held the photo of a handsome sailor. It was Samberg’s father, Salvatore Maida, who had been born in Sicily, had come to the U.S. as an infant and had grown up in Philadelphia, Gates said.

Looking at the photo made everything click in place. Both Samberg and Andy looked just like Maida, who had a long nose and dark skin.

“I thought, ‘ Oh my god, it’s Andy,’” Samberg recently said about looking at her father’s photo for the first time. “It was a spitting image of Andy.”

a man in glasses and a sailor uniform
Salvatore Maida

The three Sambergs were in Los Angeles but there were other Sambergs around the globe eagerly awaiting any news. Andy got on his phone and hurriedly sent out a series of texts to his sisters, one in Alameda and one in Israel. Soon texts were flying back and forth, said his sister, Darrow.

“Ok. Are you guys ready?” Andy texted. “Here is what our grandmother looked like,” and he sent along the photo.

“Here is what our grandfather looked like,” he texted next, along with Maida’s photo.

Even though the news was delivered electronically, the impact was immense. Darrow was in Alameda hosting her daughter’s 13th birthday party at an arcade. “I was struck by emotion,” she said. “I had to go out on the street. I must have looked like a crazy person.”

Johanna Samberg, another daughter, was in Israel. It was early in the morning but she had slept poorly that night while waiting to hear if there was any news.

“I remember waking up at 5 a.m. and my phone was going ‘bing, bing, bing,’ with all the texts coming in,” she said. “I was so filled my heart started to swell. It was a really crazy emotional experience.”

But there was more news. Samberg’s mother Ellen never had any other children. But Maida had had four children — and three of them lived in the Bay Area, one just five minutes away from Samberg’s Berkeley home.

Shortly after the taping, Samberg sent emails to her half-brothers:”Hi, brother, this is Margie. I’m your sister. I would love to talk to you on the phone. What’s your number?”

Samberg had been born in New York and had moved to Berkeley in 1970. For 48 years she did not know her mother had lived in Berkeley and her half-brothers on her father’s side had been nearby that entire time.

How did ‘Finding Your Roots’ figure out who Samberg’s parents were?

The show pursued two different tracks in looking for Samberg’s parents. It turned out that a scrap of biographical detail released by the adoption agency was critical. The agency had said that Samberg had a famous opera singer aunt who was a German-Jew living in India. The show staff was able to identify her through newspaper and journal articles. Her name was Gerda Philipsborn. They then looked at Gerda’s family and found that her brother, Artur Philipsborn, had fled Germany as Hitler rose to power. He made it to Berkeley in 1938 with his wife, Regina, and three daughters, Nora, Renate and Ellen. The show reached out to Jamie, Renate’s daughter, and asked for a DNA sample. It came back as a strong match and proved that Jamie and Samberg were cousins. So the show knew that Samberg was a Philipsborn.

Tracing down Samberg’s father was much more difficult, according to Moore, the DNA detective. She uploaded Samberg’s DNA into the Ancestry DNA database (which had the DNA of 8 million people) and got a number of matches of possible cousins. Moore started to build out the family trees of those people to find connections. There was one woman who had a long stretch of DNA that matched Samberg’s, but the woman did not respond to Moore’s attempts to reach her. Moore needed to determine who that woman’s father was in order to create a family tree, she said. For weeks nothing broke. Moore could see that many of the DNA matches came from people who had come from Alimena, Italy, a small town in Sicily, though, so she determined that Samberg had Italian heritage. Moore finally got a break when a private group, Reclaim the Records, won a lawsuit forcing New Jersey to make its marriage records public. With that, and a lot more digging and a request for DNA samples from relatives, Moore suspected that Samberg’s father was Salvatore Maida. But could she place Salvatore in Berkeley where Samberg’s mother, Ellen, had lived?

How did Margie Samberg’s parents meet?

Salvatore Maida had been born in Sicily and raised in an insular Italian community in Philadelphia. He longed to escape, according to one of his sons, and had tried, and failed, to enlist in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He eventually enlisted in the Navy. Moore was able to find military records that showed Maida was stationed in Alameda. He was never deployed overseas but worked in the Richmond shipyards.

Ellen Philipsborn was 24 and was studying child psychology at UC Berkeley. (Her father was a psychiatrist.) She also had a job at the California Labor School in San Francisco, a well-known political and cultural center that held classes on art, history, literature, women’s history, the industrial arts and other topics. It turned out that Maida, an artist, had taken classes at the school. So the researchers at “Finding Your Roots” believe the couple met there.

When Gaetano Maida learned that he had a half-sister he had never known about, he was happy, but not surprised. Gaetano had been 12 years old and living in New York in 1964, when his father, Salvatore Maida, told him they were about to get two visitors: his two other children. Gaetano had never known he had a sibling other than his brother, Pietro.

It turned out that Salvatore had been involved with a woman, Pauline Kerber, in the 1940s and they had had two children, Nino and Jenny, together. Nino was born seven months after Samberg was born. (After Maida and Pauline split up, Maida married Gaetano’s mother, Reiko Urabe).

Gaetano believes his father never knew that Samberg’s mother, Ellen, was pregnant. He was just a young man exploring the world, and they probably had a brief fling.

A 1946 photograph taken at the Balalaika nightclub in San Francisco with Salvatore Maida on the left with Ellen Philipsborn sitting next to him. The identity of the other couple is not known.
A 1946 photograph taken at the Balalaika nightclub in San Francisco with Salvatore Maida on the left with Ellen Philipsborn sitting next to him. The identity of the other couple is not known.

“He was a small-town immigrant boy who had been liberated by the Navy to have a cosmopolitan life,” said Gaetano. “It was probably a liberated lifestyle he embraced.”

Since it was 1946 and being an “unwed mother” was not socially acceptable, Ellen Philipsborn fled to New York, probably to hide her pregnancy, said Samberg.

“She was a single young woman who was very career-oriented,” said Samberg. “To raise a child as a single woman in 1946 and to try to have a career in academia would not happen.”

So after Samberg was born, her mother gave her up for adoption.

No one knows if Philipsborn and Maida had a one-night stand or a more extended relationship. But their children believe there was genuine affection. Their proof? The Maidas found a 1946 photograph in their father’s papers (he died in 1990) of the couple on a date at Balalaika, a well-known night club in San Francisco. Samberg’s first cousin found the identical photograph in her aunt’s papers. (Philipsborn died in 2007).

Finding a new family

“Finding Your Roots had reached out to Gaetano’s brother, Pietro Maida, to ask for a DNA sample but did not reveal the name of the celebrity being profiled. But after the reveal in the taping, Samberg reached out and was astounded to learn she had half brothers — Nino, Gaetano, called Tano, and Pietro. A half-sister Jenny lived in Washington state.

a large group of people gathered in a living room
Samberg’s new extended family gathered Tuesday to watch Finding Your Roots. Margie Samberg is on the white couch flanked by her half-brothers Gaetano, Nino and Pietro. (Photo/Berkeleyside-Roy Robles)

They arranged a get-together and found that, although technically they were strangers, they had a strong connection. A brief meeting turned into a five-hour gabfest.

“It was like ‘let’s continue the conversation we’ve been having for 70 years,’” said Gaetano. “There was no hesitation to embrace the idea we were family. It was weird.”

Since December 2017, Samberg’s newly discovered relatives (which include Jamie, her first cousin on her mother’s side) and her family have met frequently. They have celebrated holidays together, some Jewish, some rooted in Italian history.

“All of a sudden, we have three uncles and their families,” said Darrow. “It feels like all of a sudden we have family here in the East Bay. They are super warm and nice. We couldn’t have asked for more.”

The extended family gathered Tuesday night to watch “Finding Your Roots.” Andy was not there; he was in New York taping an episodes of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” But the discovery had clearly moved him.

“I am overwhelmed with happiness for my mom,” Andy said on the PBS show. “This is a great day for our family.”

Frances Dinkelspiel
Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel is a journalist, author and co-founder of Berkeleyside.