The Salome Ensemble: Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia Yezierska, Sonya Levien, and Jetta Goudal. By Alan Robert Ginsberg. Syracuse University Press, 2016.
If you don’t know who Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970), Sonya Levien (1888-1960), and Jetta Goudal (1881-1985) are, you should. Their lives are a study in connections, as friends, role-models, and political and artistic influences: Pastor Stokes was the inspiration for Yezierska’s best-selling 1923 novel, Salome of the Tenements, which Levien then developed as a screenplay for the popular 1925 silent film of the same name, featuring Goudal in the starring role. And as Robert Ginsberg makes clear in this thoroughly-researched, admiring-but-honest group biography, the lives of these four women are interwoven with the fabric of early 20th century American culture.
Pastor Stokes, Yezierska, Levien, and Goudal were all immigrants to the United States, fleeing the limited opportunity and deadly oppression that would have been the fate of young Jewish women living in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Each desired education, work, service, recognition, and independence—and each pursued those ends relentlessly, taking advantage of the relative social and cultural freedoms available in New York and Hollywood at the time.
Pastor Stokes was largely self-educated, and began her career as a journalist while working in a New York sweatshop, writing about the lives and labor conditions of factory girls. Becoming established as a writer went hand-in-hand with her immersion in social and political causes, particularly working in the settlement houses that mentored and educated immigrant women like herself—and, as it turned out, Levien and Yezierska. Pastor Stokes caused a society sensation when the pretty, socialist, Jewish factory girl caught the eye of James Graham Phelps Stokes, a Yale grad, and scion of a wealthy industrialist family. With his connections and money, and her passionate commitment to workers’ rights, the couple found themselves to be an improbable but successful activist team, until Pastor Stokes’ zeal outstripped her husband’s, and ideological differences led to their divorce. Pastor Stokes became more deeply involved in the communist movement, at once a self-identified American patriot and Bolshevik supporter.
Her activism got her in trouble: she narrowly avoided a lengthy prison sentence when federal prosecutors tried to make her a test case for the recently enacted Espionage Act of 1917. Formulated to control “subversive” political activity in response to the political upheaval of World War One, the act set the pattern for future persecution of those with “un-American” sympathies during the Cold War at mid-century. When Pastor Stokes was found to have “merely” criticized the Wilson administration, and not the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, or the American way of life in general (62), the initial guilty verdict was vacated. Undeterred, she continued her political work, helping to establish the Communist Part of America, writing and speaking on behalf of the communist cause. She remained a committed activist until her death in 1933.
Ginsberg coined the phrase “Salome Ensemble,” drawing his inspiration from Albert Einstein’s notion that “knowledge of certain phenomena can only be obtained by observing them as groups…’ideal ensembles’…Special, complete knowledge of them is attainable only by understanding their characteristics both as a group and as individuals. They become entangled and affect each other in ways that make it impossible to perceive their actions as other than connected, but their separate identities are never effaced” (xix). Ginsberg sketches a nexus, a set of relationships that started with Pastor Stokes at the center, but which then extended to include the three other women, as well as their many connections, as their individual careers overlapped with seemingly every social, political, and artistic movement between the World Wars. Pastor Stokes met both Yezierska and Levien at a settlement house, and the combination of her indirect example and direct support helped both women to achieve their professional goals. Pastor Stokes hired Levien as a secretary after her marriage to Stokes; that opportunity gave Levien the boost she needed to go on to a career first in law, then in magazine journalism. Yezierska, also largely self-educated throughout her youth, won a scholarship to Columbia Teacher’s College, a career she didn’t particularly want, but which allowed her to focus on her real passion, writing. When Yezierska was struggling to find an audience for her fiction, it was Pastor Stokes’ connection with Levien, then the editor of a popular magazine, that provided Yezierska her big break. As her writing career started to take off, both she and Levien were lured to write for the nascent film industry in Hollywood—Yezierska didn’t like the constraints, but Levien throve…and was able to use her position to adapt her friend’s novel about her other friend’s life, Salome of the Tenements, for the silent screen, starring her friend and artistic collaborator Goudal.
Jetta Goudal’s membership in the Salome Ensemble was more tangential than the others’—she worked most closely with Levien but had no particular connection with the other women. Nevertheless, Ginsberg makes a case for including her on the basis of her life’s trajectory being so similar to the others, and so similarly influential. In addition to her acting career, Goudal was one of the first actors to challenge the 19th century mindset of the early studios, which saw performers more as indentured servants than as artists—Goudal’s lawsuit against Cecil B. DeMille set an important precedent for actors’ rights. The case also permanently damaged her career. Goudal is said to have been one of the inspirations for Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma Desmond, a has-been silent-screen star, in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
In reviewing Ginsberg’s study of the Salome Ensemble, I struggled with the same challenges as he. These four women knew everyone (political alliances and conflicts with Emma Goldman! affairs with John Dewey and Rudy Valentino!) and were involved with everything: publishing and the literary scene, the workers’ movement, the early film industry, artists’ rights, censorship, education, the evolution of American Judaism, the WPA, war, politics, the economy….Trying to keep track of their connections with one another and linking them to the whole of early 20th century American history is something of an organizational nightmare. To his credit, Ginsberg has done exemplary archival research, and is meticulous in situating the women in their historical context—from specific biographical detail, to the ways in which the women’s lives can be read as emblematic of changing roles for immigrants, workers, and women in the early 20th century. Ginsberg struggles a bit to make this complex, exhaustive tale engaging—there’s a kitchen-sink quality here, with every possible historical reference thrown in with bits and pieces of cultural critique; and in trying to give each woman thorough, individual attention he ends up repeating details about their overlapping lives. The effect is sometimes dry, sometimes unfocused, and sometimes redundant.
But—while Ginsberg’s work isn’t always the liveliest read, he tells a great and important story. Give this sprawling, but careful narrative a chance, and allow yourself to share in his unabashed admiration for Pastor Stokes, Levien, Yezierska, and Goudal. And then track down a copy of Salome of the Tenements and read that too.