BOSTON — At the turn of the 20th century, the US was captivated by a real-life fairy tale love story. Rose Pastor, a Russian Jewish immigrant and former cigar factory worker, improbably met and married James Graham Phelps Stokes, scion of a wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family.
Their storybook romance had an unexpected chapter. Although Pastor married into the American aristocracy and took the name Rose Pastor Stokes, the couple embraced and fought for progressive principles such as organized labor, racial equality and birth control. They joined the new Socialist Party, hosting dinner-table conversations with like-minded thinkers including Eugene Debs, Margaret Sanger, W. E. B. Du Bois and Emma Goldman.
Although their marriage was fractured by political disagreement during World War I and ended in divorce, it lasted two decades and helped make Pastor Stokes the most-mentioned woman in American newspapers over a three-year period from 1918 to 1921. She was the subject of two books and a silent film, and helped found the American Communist Party before falling into obscurity. A new biography reintroduces her — “Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes,” by celebrated author Adam Hochschild.
“Rebel Cinderella” debuted earlier this year, before the COVID-19 health crisis. Coincidentally, its pages contain a now-all-too-relevant reference to a momentous event from 1918: “A worldwide influenza pandemic, its spread accelerated by the great troop movements of the war, was taking a staggering toll.”
Before the current pandemic reached crisis proportions in the US, Hochschild’s itinerary included a March 4 talk at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, in partnership with the Wyner Jewish Heritage Center and the Jewish Women’s Archive, which The Times of Israel joined.
“To me, it’s just surprising how she disappeared from the public eye,” Hochschild told The Times of Israel after the event. “To me, she’s such an interesting person. She made such an entire leap from the culture, class and surroundings she was born in.”
She was born Rose Wieslander in 1879 in Augustów, a garrison town that was part of the Russian Empire. Her parents separated shortly after her birth, ultimately divorcing. Pogroms compelled mother and daughter to leave for England, where they spent seven years in poverty in London’s East End Jewish ghetto. Her mother remarried to Israel Pastor, and the family immigrated across the Atlantic to another Jewish ghetto, in Cleveland, Ohio.
She made such an entire leap from the culture, class and surroundings she was born in
For the next decade, starting at age 11, Rose worked in a cigar factory. The smell of tobacco permeated workers’ clothing and skin. Their lungs were weakened by its dust. Cigar rollers had the second-highest rate of tuberculosis in the US after stonecutters; Rose would have lung problems for the rest of her life. Yet she needed the work. After her stepfather abandoned the family, she became the sole provider for her mother and six younger siblings. But her earnings were not enough and two siblings had to be placed into foster homes.
Her first big break came at age 21. She learned that the New York Jewish Daily News — or Yiddishes Tageblatt — was looking for readers to write about their lives. Rose’s submissions were accepted. After two years of writing from Cleveland, the newspaper offered her a full-time reporting job in New York.
“Soon it would be the largest city in the world, the largest Jewish city in the world,” Hochschild told his Boston audience.
Living and working in the Lower East Side, Rose chronicled its Jewish immigrant population. She became acquainted with a popular way to help the poor — settlement houses, or all-inclusive resource centers made famous by reformer Jane Addams in Chicago.
Volunteer workers at settlement houses tended to be from the upper class. Six months into her new job, Pastor’s editor asked her to interview one such worker: James Graham Phelps Stokes, known to friends as Graham.
Stokes was an heir to vast fortunes in such fields as mining, banking and real estate. His socially prominent family owned the largest private home in the US at the time — a 100-room summer house in western Massachusetts. In an apocryphal account, his mother mistakenly thought that his brother was bringing 96 guests to visit; she replied that they could only accommodate 50.
“It felt like going into another world, one that [Pastor] did not know if she would be comfortable in,” Hochschild said.
Yet her interviewee had a social conscience.
“She was charmed by the tall young man who seemed to have the conditions of the poor very much at his heart,” Hochschild said. “He was obviously charmed by her.”
She is really very nice and she really doesn’t look all that Jewish
Thus began an unlikely romance. When Stokes’s parents found out, they initially reacted with disbelief and hostility. According to Hochschild, Stokes’s mother considered Rose a “Russian Jewish cigar worker,” although his parents conveyed somewhat thawed feelings in a subsequent letter: “She is really very nice and she really doesn’t look all that Jewish.”
Asked about Rose’s mother’s reaction, Hochschild replied, “I’m sure she was happy. She was well-supported… As soon as Rose married Graham, he provided support for her mother and six younger siblings,” with those in foster homes reunited with their original family.
When the couple married on July 18, 1905 — the bride’s 26th birthday — the event attracted worldwide publicity, in part because it united extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and in part because it was an ethnographic union of Jew and gentile, which Hochschild called extremely unusual for its time.
“It was literally front page [news], ‘James Graham Phelps Stokes to Wed Young Jewess,’” Hochschild noted. “There was a blaze of publicity for two decades to come.”
However, Hochschild said, “Their lives did not fit the Cinderella script… She and Graham were always conscious of the enormous disparity of wealth, that they lived in a country of people living and working in dangerous conditions.”
To remedy this, the Stokeses joined the newly-founded Socialist Party. It was led by Eugene V. Debs, the leader of a railway workers’ union, who ran for president of the US in 1908, one of five times he did so. That year, Pastor Stokes campaigned for both Debs and her own husband, who was a Socialist candidate for the New York State Legislature from the Lower East Side.
She would soon be recognized as one of the great radical orators of her time
The Socialists lost both campaigns that year, but Pastor Stokes took up new causes as a journalist, writer and activist, addressing some of the hundreds of thousands of workers going on strike in the US each year.
“It’s when she first comes into her own as an organizer,” Hochschild said. “She was an immensely popular speaker in English or Yiddish, as the occasion required. She would soon be recognized as one of the great radical orators of her time.”
She and her husband networked with the era’s progressive luminaries.
“It’s one of those things that was so fascinating to write about,” Hochschild said. “They were friends with some of the most interesting people in the US at the time.”
They included African-American civil rights leader Du Bois and birth control pioneer Sanger. A frequent guest was Goldman, whom Hochschild described as an anarchist firebrand who liked Pastor Stokes but not her husband.
“Emma Goldman was very blunt,” Hochschild said. “Goldman was a straight shooter. She couldn’t understand how Rose could put up with it.”
Speaking again with The Times of Israel again following the onset of the racial justice protests that have swept the US and the globe, Hochschild emphatically said that if Pastor Stokes were alive today, there’s no question that she would be out on the street demonstrating.
“She was certainly well aware of racial discrimination, and I describe in the book how she insisted on forming a chapter of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society at a Black college in the South that she visited, even though her husband and other more cautious Socialists opposed the idea,” Hochschild said.
“They were friends with Du Bois and were supporters of the NAACP. And she was well acquainted with how brutal American police forces could be, having seen them deployed against striking garment workers in New York — a strike she played a big role in,” he said.
The onset of WWI revealed tensions between Rose and Graham. As the conflict raged overseas, with an eventual 9 million soldiers and many more civilians dead, her continued pacifism contrasted with his growing militancy. Their rift worsened when the US joined the Allies in 1917. Although too old to fight, Graham Stokes enlisted in the National Guard, while his wife traveled the country criticizing the war effort. Another gulf was Rose’s support of the Russian Revolution, which not only upset Graham, it led his controversial uncle William Earl Dodge Stokes to take a momentous step against her.
“Uncle Will” alerted the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI, that its agents might find evidence of sedition at his niece’s Grove Street residence in New York. A worse result followed when she gave an antiwar speech in Kansas City and was arrested for dissent under the Espionage Act.
Pastor Stokes was bailed out by her husband, but she was sentenced to a decade in prison. Although the case against her was dismissed on appeal, she held on to her views, to her husband’s dismay. She even visited Soviet Russia in 1922 to attend the Communist International in Moscow, meeting Vladimir Lenin and hearing an address by Leon Trotsky (born a Jew, Lev Davidovich Bronstein).
Within several years, the couple had divorced.
Graham Stokes went on to remarry within his social class and developed an interest in a fusion of Hinduism and Christianity. He never mentioned his first wife in his memoir, although Pastor Stokes’s unpublished memoir mentions him frequently.
She remarried as well, to a much younger American Communist bureaucrat known to history as Victor Jerome. The new couple lived in poverty, and when Pastor Stokes developed cancer, they needed to raise funds for her treatment. While Hochschild writes that it is doubtful that her ex-husband helped, his sister Helen did provide financial assistance.
Ironically, Pastor Stokes’ treatment included visits to Germany to see future SS officer Dr. Hans Holfelder; Hochschild writes that she apparently was unaware of his anti-Semitism. In 1933, when she died in Germany, Hitler had already been in power for a few months. The world was again on the cusp of evil, needing voices to speak against it.
Hochschild hopes that his book will inspire the Rose Pastor Stokeses of today.
“Unfortunately, so much of the problems the US had then, we still have today,” he said. “There’s an increasingly wide gap between the top one percent and everybody else today. It was the case when Rose and Graham married in 1905.”
“Anti-Semitism is still with us,” he said. “Paranoia around immigrants is still with us. Eagerness to deport people from the country is still with us. All of these problems are still there.”
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