Inside a Progressive Hotbed in Early 20th-Century New York
On Rose Pastor and the Activists of the University Settlement Society
On the evening in July 1903 when Rose Pastor walked from the Yiddishes Tageblatt office to the University Settlement, she felt so intimidated by the prospect of meeting someone from the unknown world of wealthy Protestants that she corralled a friend she ran into on the street, begged him to accompany her, and in the interview let him ask Graham Stokes most of the questions. But she was surprised, she would remember years later, to be “enchanted by the very tall slender young man who both in features and in general appearance was so like the young Abe Lincoln, and so full of sympathy for the poor.”
In her story for the newspaper, she wrote that there was “a look in his eyes as he concluded that suggested an unutterable longing to change the world . . . so that none might suffer.” His face bore a “frank, earnest, and kind expression.” He was, she declared, “a deep, strong thinker” and “a man of the common people.”
At 31, seven years older than Rose and nearly a foot taller, Graham proved similarly smitten by his auburn-haired interviewer. As she was leaving, she recalled, “the tall young ‘Lincoln’ looked down upon me benignly from his height of six feet four inches (Lincoln’s height, too!) to say good night, ‘and I should like to read the interview before it is published.’”
She mailed it to him the next morning. Two days later he came to the Tageblatt office and was disappointed to find Rose out to lunch. Too shy to immediately try to see her again, he made sure that several months later she was invited for tea with the University Settlement volunteers. There, he promptly asked her back for Thanksgiving dinner.
More such invitations followed, and she gradually learned about the settlement house, which served both Jewish and Italian residents of the Lower East Side. Its roof was a children’s playground, and on the first three floors were classrooms for courses in English, history, economics, and other subjects, as well as space for art exhibits, concerts, and dances. There was a library of 6,500 books, a legal aid office, and something most tenements lacked: showers—no less than 41 of them, used by up to 800 people a day during the summer heat. The settlement sponsored a baseball team for neighborhood boys and ran two summer camps outside the city. Almost every volunteer managed a boys’ or girls’ sport or hobby club.
Although Graham had taken part in policing a strike while in uniform a few years earlier, his politics were changing, for he now found himself supporting organized labor. Like the other volunteers, he regularly attended the union meetings held at the settlement, going out to a nearby bar with the workers afterward. He not only lobbied and testified for a pioneering New York State law limiting child labor, but used his father’s office to produce and distribute leaflets for the campaign.
On the settlement’s top two floors, the aristocratic volunteers paid $45 a month for room and board and organized various activities just for themselves. Graham, for instance, led a group of men in a naked exercise class—something done at the time in imitation of the ancient Greeks. Yet the men also wanted to feel that they were sharing the life of the neighborhood. “Upon many stifling nights we dragged our mattresses up to the roof,” remembered his colleague Ernest Poole, “and we found a dim weird world up there, with the great hot glow of the city striking up into the sky but all around us dark shadowy roofs packed thick with acres of men and women and children, sleepers like ourselves.”
Every night the volunteers ate dinner prepared by a staff cook at a long table where, Rose wrote, there “were always between 30 and 40 residents and their guests. Seated somewhere not far from Mr. Stokes at the head of the table, I would listen, but rarely speak. What was there that I could say to all those learned gentlemen and brilliant ladies—to professors, publicists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, educators, scholars!”
Over time, an astonishing array of people were guests at the University Settlement’s table. They ranged from Jane Addams to the defense lawyer Clarence Darrow to the British novelist H. G. Wells to the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. The Scottish labor leader Keir Hardie, a child of the Glasgow slums who had spent a decade working in coal mines, came for dinner, as did his colleague in Britain’s House of Commons, Ramsay MacDonald, who would become his country’s first Labour prime minister. For such visitors, an evening at the University Settlement offered the intellectual stimulation of talk with bright young Ivy Leaguers and the frisson of knowing you were visiting the city’s most crowded slum.
There were relatively few women among these guests, but one of them was destined to become a friend (and, much later, a political enemy) of Rose. Ten years older than her, Emma Goldman was also a Russian Jew, born not far from Augustów. She had been inspired by Russian revolutionaries, particularly the women among them—and by the anarchists, male and female, she encountered after coming to the United States as a teenager. Goldman helped an early lover, Alexander Berkman, plan to assassinate an executive of the Carnegie steel mills at Homestead, Pennsylvania, who had ordered Pinkerton detectives to fire on striking workers.
The attempt failed, and Berkman was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Goldman turned away from such tactics, but not from the anarchist movement and its vision of a decentralized, egalitarian society where both men and women could realize their full potential. Nor did she abandon Berkman, working (unsuccessfully) with several comrades on a scheme to free him by digging a tunnel. She herself spent a year behind bars for “inciting to riot” during a demonstration against hunger, finding prison “the crucible that tested my faith. It had helped me to discover strength in my own being, the strength to stand alone, the strength to live my life and fight for my ideals, against the whole world if need be.”
Goldman shocked audiences by her fiery defense of free love and women’s sexuality, as well as her claim that the only difference between marriage and prostitution was whether a woman sold herself to one man or many. In a straitlaced age, she believed that “sex expression is as vital a factor in human life as food and air,” and would write of one lover, “In the arms of Ed I learned for the first time the meaning of the great life-giving force. I understood its full beauty, and I eagerly drank its intoxicating joy and bliss. It was an ecstatic song, profoundly soothing by its music and perfume. My little flat . . . became a temple of love.”
In photographs, however, the woman who wrote such lines does not quite look the part. She is a determined figure whose pince-nez gives her a no-nonsense, school-teacherly air. One admirer describes her as having “a stocky figure like a peasant woman, a face of fierce strength like a female pugilist, a harsh voice, a dominating mind.” A slightly outthrust chin telegraphs conviction—and defiance, as she faces a police photographer taking mug shots after one of her many arrests. A charismatic, mesmerizing speaker, she would become America’s best-known anarchist.
In Goldman, Rose found a woman who lived, breathed, and defined her life by membership in a millenarian political movement—and who had spent time jailed for her commitment. She traveled under false names when the authorities were looking for her, and could always count on being sheltered by devoted comrades. In an era when women could not vote and faced other, huge barriers, Goldman offered a dramatic example of the power an outspoken woman could wield on the lecture platform.
“I began to speak,” Goldman wrote of her first public appearance. “Words I had never heard myself utter before came pouring forth, faster and faster. They
Small wonder that Rose found Goldman an inspiration and the University Settlement “a seething center for the exchange of ideas,” although initially she was too timid to discuss them with the volunteers or guests who seemed to know so much more than she. But her love of the printed word made her all the more eager to share their world, for almost all the volunteers were working on books or articles. She began teaching an occasional class at the settlement, and Graham invited her to join a group of volunteers who were studying the work of Lester F. Ward, a prominent sociologist.
This was the heyday of muckraking. A rising young author named Upton Sinclair was sending Graham, chapter by chapter, a draft of a novel he was writing based on seven weeks spent undercover in Chicago stockyards and meatpacking plants. Sinclair found, he wrote, “that by the simple device of carrying a dinner pail I could go anywhere.” No one yet imagined the tremendous impact this book would have, but Rose was thrilled by the way Graham seemed in touch with the country’s most exciting activists and writers.
Graham left no record of his own feelings, but he clearly saw in Rose some quality he had not found in the many eligible young women of his own background he had met over the years. And perhaps in some way he also found in her a connection to something he may have been seeking when he moved into the University Settlement: an America of immigrants, of factory labor, of grinding urban poverty, a nation that, whatever its simmering discontents, was somehow more “vital,” in the word of the day, than the surroundings he had grown up in.
After the dinners, he would see Rose home along gaslit streets, and soon he met her mother and the younger children in the small apartment in the Bronx, a step up from the Lower East Side, to which they had moved. A year after they first met, Rose invited him there for a modest meal celebrating her 25th birthday, and, as he told her later, “It moved me profoundly when you gave me a glass of milk, bread and butter, an egg, and a banana. You were so simple and so solemn about it!”
Being with Graham made Rose acutely aware of her own lack of education. Among his friends who visited the settlement, for instance, was an older couple whose daughter acted in ancient Greek plays—in Greek. In 1904, the couple invited Graham and Rose to visit them at their summer home on a lake in Quebec. With difficulty, Rose saved and borrowed enough money for a train ticket, and was touched that Graham, who could have afforded a sleeping- car berth—indeed, his family could have bought the railroad— sat up with her in a coach seat all night.
Among the other houseguests in Quebec Rose found another woman who, like Emma Goldman, would become a role model. A decade older, Olive Tilford Dargan was born to parents who were both schoolteachers in Appalachia. She herself had started teaching as a teenager and, after spells in college and as a stenographer, began writing plays and poetry and married a fellow poet. For Rose, she was proof that a “working girl” of far from aristocratic background could find success as an author. She and Rose quickly became best friends, exchanging many visits and hundreds of letters over the years to come.
But most of her time on this vacation Rose spent talking with Graham. As was common for someone of his class, he had been baptized an Episcopalian, but he had long been intrigued by the idea that all religious traditions could be combined, and he had a particular interest in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Quebec, he and Rose took turns reading aloud to each other from Edwin Arnold’s book-length poem, The Light of Asia, about the life of Buddha. Imagine who might have come to Rose’s mind as she heard the story of the young Prince Siddhartha, born to a family of great privilege, who leaves home to seek cures for human suffering.
It was on this trip, a year after they first met, that Rose and Graham became engaged.
On their way home from Canada, in the village of Keene, New York, surrounded by forested Adirondack peaks, the couple spent a few days at the communal home of two more friends of Graham’s, John and Prestonia Martin. Socialists and feminists, they were wealthy enough to employ a servant and to own a large house with outbuildings, perched on a hillside commanding spectacular views. In keeping with socialist idealism, however, the Martins expected their guests to take part in earnest discussions of philosophy and politics, and to contribute two hours of hands-on work each day.
This could be chopping wood, clearing brush, gardening, fetching provisions by horseback, or washing dishes—men and women alike donned aprons. Once a week, everyone’s clothes were placed in a large washing machine while, to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” the guests sang, “The clothes go washing on.” Fifteen to twenty-five guests drew chore assignments from a hat daily and proudly recorded them in a little notebook passed around at supper. Rose had never imagined anything like it: well-to-do professionals, artists, intellectuals, even a college president, all celebrating what she had worked so hard to escape—manual labor. But something else made a still bigger impression on her:
“I had never seen mountains before.”
Excerpted from Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes by Adam Hochschild. Copyright © 2020 by Adam Hochschild. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.