In a time when it was said that a woman’s name should appear in the newspapers only to announce her birth, engagement, marriage, and death, Rose Parker Stokes was the woman’s name most often appearing in American newspapers between 1918 and 1921. She was also the subject of a popular novel, Salome of the Tenements, published in 1922. Within less than a decade, her name disappeared from the public space, while the names of those who were key figures in her life—Eugene Debs, John Reed, Emma Goldman, and others—have never disappeared from scholarly or popular attention.
The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 was followed by a wave of pogroms during which “angry mobs rampage through towns, cities, and Jewish shtetls, or hamlets, raping women, looting shops and homes, and attacking Jews of all ages.” Pogroms against the Jews in Russia were nothing new. But the new repression that included new legal restrictions on the daily life of Jews and where they could live resulted in a wave of Jewish emigration to Western Europe and America.
Rosa Harriet Wieslander, an orthodox Jewish refugee from the Jewish shtetl of Augustów, was only 11 years old when she arrived in New York City in November 1890. Like so many immigrant children, Rosa found employment as cheap labor producing, but not enjoying, the wealth that earned America before World War I the epitaph, “the Gilded Age.”
Rosa spent her first 12 years of employment rolling cigars. She earned 77 cents for her first week’s work, roughly $22 today. Later, she earned 13 cents for every 100 cigars she rolled, enabling her to occasionally earn as much as $8 in a week, roughly $240 today.
Immigrants, especially Jews, were looked down on by most Americans. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge described those from Russia as “inferior people,” and as “dangerous to America as the Goths and Vandals who trampled over Rome.” The author Henry James, after visiting the Lower East Side of NYC, described the Jews he saw there as “swarming . . . small, strange animals—snakes or worms.” The future president, Woodrow Wilson, described the immigrants coming to America at the turn of the century as “multitudes of men of the lowest class [possessing] neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” It was as if, Wilson said, that “the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.”
Rosa’s life took a dramatic turn in 1903. She was writing articles for the Yiddishes Tageblatt, the nation’s orthodox Jewish newspaper. She wrote articles calling for an end to “Jew-baiting and Negro-lynching” and calling attention the grinding poverty in which the working classes lived. One evening in July, she met young James Graham Phelps Stokes, a member of one of America’s wealthiest families. Despite his wealth, “Graham,” as he was known, was committed to championing the cause of justice for the working classes, and after meeting and marrying Rosa in July 1905, advancing the cause of socialism.
Socialism prior to World War I was not smeared by an association with Bolshevism and communism that resulted from the Russian Revolution in 1917. It attracted many evangelical Christians and reform minded members of the wealthy classes, who the press sometimes referred to as “millionaire socialists.” Graham and Rosa joined the Socialist Party of America. Graham ran unsuccessfully as a Socialist candidate for the New York State Assembly in 1908.
Rosa’s marriage to Graham Stokes was a real-life Cinderella story. Their residence of Caritas Island off Connecticut’s Long Island Sound coastline became a sort of aviary frequented by the who’s who of intellectuals who identified themselves as socialists, trade-unionists, anarchists, suffragists, poets, etc. Among those in the circle around Graham and Rosa were, at various times, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, William F. Cochran, Clarence Darrow, Upton Sinclair, John Reed, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jack London, “Mother” Jones, Lincoln Steffens, and many more. Rockwell Kent referred to Caritas as “the very citadel of the Socialist movement.”
Two events in 1917 doomed the socialist movement in America and eventually were responsible for destroying Cinderella’s marriage to her prince charming. The first was the Russian Revolution that ended with a Bolshevik victory and the establishment Marist-Leninist totalitarianism. The second was Woodrow Wilson’s decision to lead the United States into the Great War in Europe to secure a victory for England and France, thus protecting the immense financial investments of America’s bankers and industrialists.
Once the United States entered the war in Europe, Graham became an ardent supporter of the war effort, while Rosa became a fervent defender of the Russian Revolution. Rosa never wavered in her support of the new Soviet Union, whereas some of her socialist friends who actually visited the USSR—e.g., Emma Goldman—returned totally disillusioned. Rosa and Graham separated and eventually divorced. Rosa went to Frankfurt, Germany in February 1933 to undergo a new radiation treatment for cancer developed by a prominent doctor who was an outspoken anti-Semite, who later became an SS officer who gave “a notorious illustrated lecture portraying cancer cells as Jews and victorious beams of radiation as Nazi storm troopers.”
Adam Hochschild is a historian in the best tradition of Barbara Tuchman, Paul Johnson, Bruce Catton, and others who write scholarly researched history in a style than can be enjoyable to read as well as informative. I have read 2 of his earlier books, King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) and To End All Wars (2011) and adopted them as reading for history courses I taught as a history professor. When I first heard of Rebel Cinderella, I knew I was in for a great reading experience. I was not disappointed. Rebel Cinderella appears at just the right time. The 2020 presidential election has opened up interest in the history of socialism in America’s history, as well as comparisons of the era known as the Gilded Age and our own time, considered by many to be a second Gilded Age.
As both a retired history professor and one who enjoys a good book, I wholeheartedly recommend Adam Hochschild’s Rebel Cinderella : Rose Pastor Stokes: Sweatshop Immigrant, Aristocrat’s Wife, Socialist Crusader (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020).
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always go under the mercy.