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Rose Pastor Stokes Was More Than a Celebrity — She Was a Working-Class Hero

Early-twentieth-century American socialist Rose Pastor Stokes became a media celebrity after she married a wealthy heir. But her political life was much more interesting: she was one of the Socialist Party’s most effective speakers, inspiring the era’s striking workers with rousing orations.

The real passions of Rose Pastor Stokes's life were her loyalty to labor struggles, the class she was born into, and the city in which she fought.

There are many good reasons to go on strike: pay, safety, shorter hours, freedom from harassment, the simple joy of telling off the boss. For Hindl Pastor, a refugee from czarist Russia’s pogroms who was working in a London tailor shop sometime around 1890, it was windows. The boss had whitewashed the shop windows to stop the women working there from looking up from their sewing and out at the London streets. Hindl led a weeklong walkout. The boss took off the whitewash. In Rebel Cinderella, a biography of Pastor’s daughter, the socialist, writer, and labor militant Rose Pastor Stokes, historian Adam Hochschild notes that her mother’s strike “set an example she would never forget.”

Biographies of organizers — and labor militants in particular — are a tricky business. By the nature of their subjects, the author is writing about someone who believes in collective action as a driver of history while trying to tell an individual history. Stokes was, for a time, a media celebrity thanks to her improbable marriage, in 1903, to James Graham Phelps Stokes, heir to many overlapping fortunes in shipping, banking, real estate, textiles, and mining. She counted Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, John Reed, and many other left luminaries as friends and comrades. Her story serves as a way into the communities and organizations that nourish moments of radical ferment.

Hochschild, most well known for his searing histories of slavery and Belgian colonialism in the Congo, at times seems to delight in having a lighter story to tell. After arriving in the United States, Rose first landed in Cleveland, Ohio, where she worked in cigar factories starting at the age of eleven and trained herself to work while reading. Her first poems were shared with a group for single Jewish women called “the Friendly club”; her first publication was a letter to the Yidishes Tageblatt that recounted the prize of such expression to a worker: in the time it took her to write the letter, she made two hundred fewer cigars. Impressed with Stokes’s writing, the editor took her on as advice columnist and eventually reporter, prompting her to move to New York.

The story of Rose and Graham’s meeting reads less as the fairy tale suggested by the book’s title than a meet-cute from a romantic comedy: Rose is assigned to cover the flourishing settlement house movement and overcomes nerves to interview Stokes, one of a handful of rich idealists then living at University Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The collision between social classes leads to comedy alongside the struggle, as when, in 1906, Stokes holds a conference on socialism for twenty of his elite friends who arrive by carriage at (one of) his parents’ mansions in Connecticut, only to be ridiculed by the press and receive a stern letter from his parents, who were away on vacation.

But the convergence of these worlds tells more interesting, less comical stories as well. They aren’t really about the clash of Rose and Graham’s respective universes: as in our own gilded age, they live in settings barely recognizable to each other; this would come to be true of Rose and Graham themselves for large stretches of their marriage.

The story of Rose’s marriage, and the possibility that Graham might become a class traitor (he doesn’t), are less compelling than the story of the world Rose comes out of, and the one she comes to inhabit. At the settlement house, she meets not only Graham but Emma Goldman and Olive Dargan, a working-class writer from Appalachia who becomes Rose’s best friend. In this particular romantic comedy, these friends are not the plucky sidekicks but the heart of the matter. They bring Rose fully into the world of early-twentieth-century New York City and the immigrants, workers, artists, and writers who took aim at the wealthy during a period with the greatest inequalities and concentrations of wealth until our own.

Graham Phelps Stokes, 1909 (Clarence H. White / Princeton University Art Museum

Rose poured herself into this struggle, using her talents as a writer and, especially, an orator. The temptations of Graham’s world never swayed her convictions. Her mother’s struggle, her early experience of deprivation, and the years in the cigar factory had set her course for life. She would call her memoir I Belong to the Working Class, and despite not holding a regular job for most of her marriage, this remained the defining fact of her life.

Rose was keenly aware of the ironies of her part of the story: while working in cigar factories, unions had seemed distant and unwelcoming; it was only after her marriage that she was invited to join the American Federation of Labor. During the legendary garment workers’ strike of 1909, during which Rose sometimes delivered ten speeches a day, she lamented the attention given to the “mink brigade,” the wealthy ladies marching in support. Rose preferred to throw herself into fundraising, speaking, and supporting workers on the line, and she was central in supporting the most important strikers of the period, from the mill workers of Lawrence to the silk workers of Patterson, New Jersey (for which she, John Reed, and others staged a pageant in Madison Square Garden).

If she rejected the celebrity spotlight and the trappings of Graham’s world, Rose saw no contradiction between her labor radicalism, her artistic interests, and cultural radicalism. She was one of very few writers at the time who translated Yiddish writers for an American audience, and she was part of the Heterodoxy club “for unorthodox women.” An instinctive feminist, she agitated for birth control and successfully championed the defense of a young immigrant woman who shot the doctor who raped her.

Almost from the start, Graham’s story departs from Rose’s. While he appears to have genuinely and deeply loved Rose, he didn’t see other working-class people as equals, and his vision of socialism depended on saving it from the hoi polloi: “Socialism,” he wrote to an old family friend, “has hitherto appealed altogether too much to relatively inefficient and uncritical people, and altogether too little to men and women of initiative, efficiency and power.”

Unsurprisingly, Graham grew increasingly unhappy as his wife traveled, wrote, and agitated, leaving him to his own half-hearted efforts in maintaining the family fortune. By the time their marriage reached its end, he had taken to yelling at the maids for letting her radical friends into the house.

Hochschild doesn’t dwell much on the parallels between the Gilded Age the Stokes lived through and our own, but it’s impossible not to think about them. The staid world of Graham’s family (still defined by pretentious European culture), the social calendar, noblesse oblige, and the social registry (of which Rose was the first Jewish member) can feel a long way away, especially when Rose painstakingly tries to make good with her in-laws, sending the appropriate flowers or fruit basket even when it was clear she would never be more than tolerated.

There was also at least one Trump-like figure in the family: Graham’s uncle William Earl Dodge Stokes, a real estate figure who shared the current president’s taste for publicity, suing family members, stiffing creditors, spewing racism, and engaging in weird displays of casual cruelty, if with a bit more flair and creativity: “A playboy in an extravagant era, he gave one notorious dinner where all the guests received small covered bases which, when they were commanded to open them, revealed bullfrogs that hopped out and wreaked havoc among soup bowls and wine glasses.” Enraged at Rose’s support for a 1912 strike of waiters and hotel workers that included the employees at his Ansonia Hotel, William exacted revenge on her six years later, when he urged the FBI to search her house while they were building their case against her under the Espionage Act.

Rose Pastor Stokes Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library

 

It is here that the echoes of our age intensify, as Stokes’s story enters a hothouse period of agitation and repression triggered by the United States’ entry into World War I and the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. (Notably, the book, completed before the pandemic, contains just a few sentences on the 1918 influenza epidemic.) Even for readers familiar with the story, it’s bracing to be reminded of its scope — around 1,500 Americans arrested under the Espionage Act for opposing the war; 10,000 arrested in the Palmer raids of 1920, one of which left a Russian community center in New York looking “as if a bomb had exploded in each room . . . typewriters had apparently been thrown on the floor and stomped on.”

Hochschild is particularly effective at selecting chilling instances of how state repression and political violence drenched everyday life. In 1917, when the prospect of Russia leaving the war fused with anti-German, anti-pacifist, and anti-socialist sentiment, a man was killed for not standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Among many political arrests were 1,300 for displaying a red flag. Rose was detained at Eugene Debs’s trial for clapping at his lawyer’s statement. A mélange of state and nonstate actors were responsible for the brutal crackdown: the FBI; the national guard; off-duty soldiers who beat people up in the streets; the American Legion, which blocked the entrance at one of Rose’s speeches, after which the police arrested her; and thugs from a group called the “American Protective League,” which made a habit of showing up at her speeches.

Stokes’s foray into electoral politics encapsulates the high stakes, political daring, and repression of those years: in 1918, two years before Eugene Debs threw his hat in the presidential race from prison, Stokes ran as a Socialist Party candidate for the New York State legislature and was hauled in by police for voting: not because she was a woman (New York had granted women the franchise before it was won nationwide in 1920), but because of her felony conviction under the Espionage Act. As historian Joshua Freeman recently recounted, all the socialists lost that year due to cooperation between Republicans and Democrats to defeat them, and the next year, five would win seats only to be expelled from the legislature on grounds of “disloyalty.” This year will be the first time since that as many socialists will serve in Albany.

In 1919, Hochschild reminds us, 4 million workers — one out of five in the country — went on strike. The National Guard was central to the bloody response. The National Guard unit charged with defending Lower Manhattan — including Wall Street — was known as the “Blue-Blood Regiment,” so named for including the sons of families like the Rhinelanders, and led by Graham, who by this point was living a separate life from Rose, attempting to find meaning in his life by suppressing revolt even as she found it by creating it.

For Rose, however, that meaning — the joys of comradeship, of public speaking, of feeling herself a part of history — was about to fall apart. Loyal to the Russian Revolution, she joined the American Communist Party upon its founding and denounced her old friend Emma Goldman for writing My Disillusionment in Russia. (Her deep friendship with Debs, who had confided in her in letters from prison, survived their disagreement over Russia.) But her organizing and writing with the Communist Party lacked the energy she’d had as a socialist.

Eugene Debs, longtime friend of Rose Pastor Stokes.

 

Around the same time, she began to consider divorce, though this would only come about when she began a romance with a fellow communist. (New York only allowed couples to break their union in the case of adultery.) In a typically clueless reflection, Graham told Rose that he didn’t see their estrangement as having anything to do with politics; it was simply a matter of her refusing him proper respect. Rose more astutely imagined that Graham had “reverted to type,” to the values of the class he was born into. After the end of her marriage, her political work ended altogether, and Graham lost whatever lingering ties he had to Rose’s world and beliefs. In his memoir, he would devote page after page to the business doings of his family and his National Guard posts. He never once mentions her.

Hochschild connects the abrupt end of Rose’s political activity to her shift from socialism to communism and the end of her marriage. It seems likely, however, that the repression of the period played a role as well. Whatever her bravado about her many arrests, the threat of ten years in prison took its toll. Having experienced the thrill of speaking to passionate crowds and participating in era-defining labor struggles, and identifying deeply with the Russian Revolution, the marginal role of the Communist Party and the Left in the ’20s was a painful blow.

In her last years, she remarried and struggled again with the poverty that had marked her youth, having refused, whether out of principal or pride, to accept support from Graham or his family, who seemed unwilling to provide it in any case. Tragically, her last years were marred by cancer and her entrapment with an antisemitic health guru. Following him in desperation, the rebel who escaped Tsarist Russia died in Frankfurt the year Hitler took power.

The last chapter of Hochschild’s biography is entitled “Love is Always Justified,” a phrase Rose used to describe the affair that allowed her to end her marriage. Hochschild suggests it applies to her marriage as well, whatever the outcome, but it seems more appropriate when describing the real passions of her life: her loyalty to her mother’s struggle, the class she was born into, and the city in which she fought. Rose Pastor Stokes’s marriage may have gotten her into the papers, but in the end, it may have been the least interesting thing about her.