Wednesday, June 3, 2020

"Lincoln Weeps"

Commentary by Bill Mauldin appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on
November 23, 1963, one day after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Another new post appears below.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Camp Bonheur

Endpapers of Parlez-vous Francais? A First Book in French

There’s a book that my mother has kept since the summer of 1940 when she received it as a gift.

Parlez-vous Francais? A First Book in French is heavy and thick at 500 pages, and surely was a textbook.  It’s inscribed in the formal manner of parents born around the turn of the century: “With love to Gloria from Mother.”  My hunch is that it was packed in my mother’s suitcase when she went off to Camp Bonheur in Northville, N.Y., a town at the northern tip of the Great Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondack Mountains.

Sacandaga Lake, 1920s

Camp Bonheur had existed since the early 1920s.  Its director, Miss Rich, and all of the counselors were New York City high school teachers. The camp was for Jewish girls and had special classes in French and music.  One of Miss Rich’s assistants, Mrs. Drukker, performed as a soprano on various radio programs of the day.

1940 proved to be the happiest summer of my mother’s childhood.  That autumn her mother, Rose, became sick with tuberculosis and more or less disappeared into hospitals and sanitariums.  The cycle persisted until after World War II when antibiotics became widely available.

Tuberculosis was an epidemic and Rose’s story was not unusual.  But my mother never went to camp again.

Before she became sick Rose doted on her only child.  On Saturdays, they would take the trolley across the University Heights Bridge, from 207th Street in Inwood, the northernmost Manhattan neighborhood where they lived, to Fordham Road in The Bronx. 

University Heights Bridge with trolley tracks, 1938
(Municipal Archives, City of New York)
There they shopped at Alexander’s department store and saw movies at Loew’s Paradise, a palace-like theater typical of its time, and had a bite at Krum’s, which was a soda parlor, chocolatier, and candy store all rolled into one.

Tucked in along Fordham Road was a grocery store owned by Louis and Ethel Berenson. 
He had been a music teacher until the Depression when he was forced to switch his profession. The Berensons lived on Sedgwick Avenue, which ran north and south along the Harlem River near the Bronx campus of New York University.

Fordham Road stores, 1940

They told Rose about Camp Bonheur, where their daughter Cora went every summer.  

And so, in June the girls took a bus to Albany and then another bus to Northville, a picturesque town not far from the camp which could be reached by walking over a bridge. 

By 1940, going away to summer camp had long been part of the American experience.  Christian youth ministries and the YMCA founded camps in New England as early as the 1880s.  It was not until after World War I, however, that camps for Jewish children were established, largely in the Northeast.  Among the first was Camp Cejwin in Port Jervis, N.Y., founded in 1919 by the educators Albert and Bertha Schoolman, who were Zionists.

Indeed, Zionism was woven into the fabric of many Jewish camps where both the American flag and a Hebrew flag were raised and lowered each day.* 

The Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish aid society established in 1900, started Camp Kinderland, which emphasized Yiddish culture and taught socialist ideals, in 1923.

But most Jewish camps focused on the Americanization of the children of Eastern European immigrants while affirming their religious identity in the face of anti-Semitism. 

Postcard of Northville Bridge, 1940

Through camp activities like hiking and swimming, the children might also overcome the stereotype of Jews as weaklings with no stamina or tolerance for pain.   

That idea was promulgated by a well-respected University of Wisconsin sociologist, Edward A. Ross, whose book, The Old World in the New (1914), popularized the idea that Jews were the unfortunate opposite of the tough pioneers who led the Western Expansion in the United States.

Incidentally, Ross coined the term “race suicide,” which referred to the declining birthrate among white Americans, an issue of grave concern to anti-immigrants and eugenicists.    

My mother, who is 92 years old, did not grow up in a especially religious family.

No doubt, however, that Camp Bonheur was part of the scaffolding of her life as a young, first-generation American.

Gloria Stromberg, late 1930s

*A precursor of the Israeli flag was used between 1920 and 1948 during the British Mandate for Palestine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Mysterious Princess Zizianoff

Illustration from a New York Times story
about Princess Zizianoff, April 1921

Once there was a Russian princess who wanted to live in America. 

It was after the Great War, after the Bolshevik Revolution.  She had visited New York City during the early 1920s on a six-month visa and found it to her liking.  Since then the Immigration Act of 1924 had slammed the door shut, even on royal aspirants from Western Europe.  But the French quota had yet to be filled.

Nina Zizianoff had been born in Chambery in 1878, so it made sense for her to go to Paris to ask the American consul, a diplomat named Donald Fairchild Bigelow, to grant her a permanent visa.  To Nina's great surprise, on Christmas Eve of 1925 he turned her down. 

In an interview with American newspaper reporters, he accused the princess of having been an international spy for the Central Powers during the war.  She was deported to Siberia after being caught, he said, and now worked as an agent of the Soviet government while masquerading as an anti-Bolshevik.

Princess Zizianoff, newspaper illustration, 1921

No way would he grant a visa to Nina.  And yes, Secretary of State Frank Billings Kellogg backed Bigelow one hundred percent. 

“References to political activities which make me undesirable in America are extremely amusing and of an astonishing ingenuity,” the princess told the New York Times.  “On the contrary, I am a lover of American things and am eager to become one of you myself.”

The widow of a prince who had been close to the Czar and his family, Nina Zizianoff began selling herself to the American public in 1921, introducing herself as a “princess who became a peddler,” having defied deprivation and death before escaping from Russia to Vienna.  There she penned a long autobiographical article that was picked up widely by U. S. newspapers.  

The headlines proclaimed: 

She Lived Among Killers, Grafters and Children Trained to Brigandage

Princess Nina Zizianoff’s Thrilling Escape from the Bullets of the Russian Firing Squad Only Doomed Her to Years of Starvation

Her own story and her portrayal of Russia under the Bolsheviks may have been part of a grand scheme, but readers found it riveting.

The proletariat, promised land, liberty and ownership, instead is now a silent horde controlled by terror and hunger, she wrote.  The Russians are children.  They believe and want everything.  They will endure everything and are overjoyed by trifles.

Imprisoned in Siberia – because she had worked without a permit in an open-air market in Petrograd, she claimed – Nina saw prisoners chained together hand to foot, just like Russia dragging its chain, hoping for death.

Children over the age of six were taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools, where they occupied barracks, starving and dressed in rags but singing:  “Long live our red liberty!  The Soviet is our family!”  

The bourgeoisie have become agents provocateurs, she wrote.  People disappear, arrested for all kinds of reasons.  At night the Communists shoot the traitors.  At dawn they load the  frozen corpses onto trucks.

While Nina may have won the hearts of Americans, the article evidently planted seeds of doubt at the State Department.  Princess Nina did not give up easily, however.  After Bigelow turned her down, she filed a lawsuit against a young woman named Irene Kaline, the daughter of a wealthy tailor alleged to have had an affair with Nina after his wife and family fled to safety during the Revolution.

As retribution Irene had accused Nina of being a spy, said the princess.  A long, complicated tale emerged involving a family servant, stolen heirlooms, libelous postcards, and exonerating documents that might be stashed in a house in Prague.

The lawsuit fell apart but in 1927 Nina filed another one – this against Donald Bigelow, who had since moved on to an appointment in Tangier.  She charged defamation and libel and asked for 500,000 francs in damages.  The suit became a very big deal as it moved through the French courts.

Donald F. Bigelow appears in the third row,
far right; American Foreign Service Journal, 1936

At issue was Bigelow’s diplomatic immunity.  His lawyers admitted that Bigelow should not have publicly referred to Nina as a Bolshevik.  In fact, he should not have discussed the case with reporters.  However, since he had merely expressed the position of the State Department, how could he be personally liable? 

Invoking an 1876 consular treaty, Bigelow’s lawyers further argued that American consuls could not be tried in France except for the commission of a crime.  But the Tribunal of the Correctional Court of Paris was not buying.  In January 1928 it ruled against Bigelow, stating that the consul’s remarks about the princess did not constitute part of an “official act” and ordering him to pay the cost of the appeal.

While the decision was important enough to be debated in the American Journal of International Law, there is no evidence that Bigelow paid anything to the court or to Nina Zizianoff. 

The princess designed her own trademark,
which she planned to use on branded products
when she finally became a U.S. citizen.

The princess filed one more lawsuit in December 1929, going after the newspaper that first reported Bigelow’s accusations.  A French court fined Richard Grozier, editor of The Boston Post, 20,000 francs and condemned him to two months in prison.  But unless Grozier were to set foot in France, the judgment could not be enforced. 

It seems unlikely that Nina Zizianoff would have returned to Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.  She probably spent the rest of her life in France, and her name never appeared in an American newspaper again.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Imagining the Park

Century-old vines in the Wisteria Pergola, Central Park, 2017

Photo by Claudia

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

James L. Ford Postscript

Cover of James L. Ford's Forty-Odd Years
in the Literary Shop
(third edition, 1896)

A few weeks ago when I wrote about the journalist James L. Ford, my husband said that he liked the post a lot. Naturally, my first thought was that he would want to hear more.

Indeed, there is a postscript, a short piece called “The Dying Gag” that Ford published in the late nineteenth century. It’s about a tiresome joke that keeps making the rounds of the New York variety shows, the type of joke that has been delivered hundreds of times and now elicits groans instead of laughs. 

Ford sets the scene outside the stage door: “. . . a wild blustering night, and the wind howled mournfully around the street-corners, blinding the pedestrians with the clouds of dust that it caught up from the gutters . . .”  

Before long the pedestrians come in from the cold. They stand around backstage while a frail figure – the “Old Gag” – makes its way to its dressing room, dozes off, and is awakened by the stagehands who cluck about how he should keep resting. Nevertheless they help him onto the stage.

The Old Gag speaks:

“And so you say, Mr. Johnson, that all the people on the ship were perishing of hunger, and yet you were eating a fried egg. How do you account for that?”

“The ship lay to, and I got one.”

As a wail rises from the audience, the Old Gag stumbles back into the arms of the stagehands. They carry him to his dressing room but cannot rouse him.

“The Old Gag,” writes Ford, “was dead.”


Returning to the book to make sure to get the joke right, I noticed that my copy, published in 1896, once belonged to a man named John Tatlock, Jr. I decided to chase him.

At first it appeared that there were two men named John Tatlock, Jr., both born in 1860. Each man plowed through the nineteenth century and died in 1926, having reaped the harvest of upper-class American life. 

One Tatlock was a scientist and the other an actuary with the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. Both were born in Williamstown, Massachusetts and graduated from Williams College, each like his father.

Of course, it turned out they were the same person.

Even as a child, John Tatlock, Jr. had a passion for astronomy. During college he studied with a brilliant astronomer, Truman Henry Safford, who incidentally was a calculating prodigy. * Tatlock graduated in 1882 and stayed on for a year to continue his work with Safford at the Williams College Observatory, the nation’s second oldest one in regular operation (erected in 1836).  

Screenshot of a drawing of the Williams College
Observatory, mid-nineteenth century
Tatlock then became the astronomer at the Washburn Observatory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Subsequently he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Beloit College. Tatlock’s particular interests were occultations of stars by the Moon, and meridian circle observations. The latter involves the movement of celestial bodies across a local longitude. (Someone correct me, please.)

By the 1880s many colleges and universities had added astronomy to their curriculums and were trying to raise money to build observatories. But Beloit couldn’t make it work and Tatlock resigned in 1885.

“The funds of the college are so low that the authorities do not feel justified in keeping the observatory in a state of scientific activity,” the Chicago Tribune reported.  

“This is another one of the many cases in which science does not pay except as it can be placed directly at the service of some business-man.”

John Tatlock, Jr. (date unknown)

Tatlock promptly moved back East. He married a socialite, Kate Chamberlin, in 1886, and was offered the plum position of associate actuary at the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. Later he worked for Prudential Insurance, became a bank president, and founded his own actuarial firm.

A fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of London and the New York Academy of Sciences, Tatlock remained devoted to astronomy. In 1897 when the Yerkes Observatory opened near Geneva Lake in Wisconsin, he was among the honored guests.

BIG EYE TO OPEN declared a newspaper headline:

Scientists from All Over the Country Will Be There.
Hitherto Hidden From the Sight of Man.

One must wonder whether Tatlock would have preferred to stay an astronomer. 

*When Safford was nine, a local priest asked him to find the square of 365,365,365,365,365,365. In less than one minute, without paper and pencil, Safford produced the answer: 133,491,850,208,566,925,016,658,299,941,583,225. Some observers said that Safford spun around the room like a top, rolled his eyes, and appeared to be in agony as he figured out the problem.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Literary Days of James L. Ford

When James L. Ford died in 1928 – blind; both legs amputated – he and his beloved sister Mary had long forsaken the city. 

In 1913 James purchased an old cottage, early nineteenth-century with a white picket fence, in Brookhaven Hamlet on the south shore of Long Island.  Then around 1920 he and Mary decided to move there permanently, bidding farewell to an equally nineteenth-century brick townhouse on West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village. 

The Copley portraits and mahogany chairs went with them, whisked away from the “large new hippodrome city,” as one of James Ford’s friends described it, “in which everyone must be either a tiger or a ring master or a spectator.” 

A decade earlier, as James swam in anesthesia in Roosevelt Hospital, he reportedly was willing to depart for good.  But he stayed alive for Mary, cheerful and busy to the end according to visitors.  

Caricature of James L. Ford
The siblings were born in the mid-1850s and grew up during the “Flash Age” – James’ term, which I’ve never seen anywhere outside of his own work.  That is what he called the post-Civil War era of newly minted fortunes and ill-gotten gains, “vulgarity, crime and loose living,” as he wrote in Vanity Fair; the Tweed Ring in power, the uninspired emergence of the brownstone city. 

Neither James nor Mary – a fierce feminist – opposed change per se, but their spirits resonated largely with the daguerreotypes stashed in the top drawer of the writing desk in the parlor.

The family descended from New England colonists.  After marrying in 1850, the parents moved to St. Louis.  By 1860 they had returned east and settled in Brooklyn, now with two sons. 

For several years James studied at a boarding school in Stockbridge, Mass. while his older brother Arthur, a graduate of the Columbia School of Mines, became a railroad engineer.  Arthur was in Colon, Panama, repairing a bridge, when he died of yellow fever in 1880.  Fortuitously he had already introduced James to the Railroad Gazette, a job which launched his younger brother’s career in journalism.

 Railroad Gazette, 1876

James’ first assignment for the trade journal was to describe a new industrial process that converted coal-dust into fuel.

I shall never forget the pride and delight that filled my soul as I stepped aboard the Hudson River steamboat.  “Little do these passengers dream that I am a reporter,” I said to myself as I walked proudly down the gangway . . .  Still greater was my delight when I read my account in the columns of the Gazette and realized that I was actually in print.

A perfect summation of the pleasure of the byline.

From the Railroad Gazette Ford leapt to the New York Ledger, the New York Sun, and the New York Herald.  He made his biggest mark as a theater critic at the Herald for more than two decades, until the newspaper mogul Frank Munsey purchased it in 1920.  James resigned immediately in protest and disgust, for Munsey boasted a terrible reputation for ravaging the guts of the newspapers he owned.

Cartoon depicting the ruthless newspaper tycoon, Frank Munsey

Undoubtedly present at every major theater opening between 1880 and 1920, James hobnobbed with the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, the Barrymores, Edwin Booth, and George Arliss. 

He also documented the underbelly of American theater – minstrelsy that promoted the Uncle Tom stereotype and the “New York Negro,” a dandy in a top hat and suit.  The comedy team of Harrigan & Hart, along with performers like “Johnny Wild” who colored their faces with burnt cork, drove these popular shows well into the 1920s. 

Illustrations of Johnny Wild characters appeared in
Ford's 1921 memoir, Forty-Odd Years in the Literary Shop.

A sharp social observer, James regaled readers with tales of actors, agents, socialites, Knickerbockers, Bohemians, and women and men of letters in his candid books and articles. 

Another opium smoker was Pearl Eytinge, a woman of vivacious charm and no mean accomplishment . . .  I have seen her lying in a joint in Bleecker Street reading poetry to a pickpocket beside her; I have seen her on Mr. Wallack’s stage playing an ingenue part to which she was ill-suited by temperament and manner of life; and I have seen her at one of the great masked balls at the Academy of Music, the center of a group of fashionable admirers. 

Pearl Eytinge
(from Find-a-Grave)

James’ final book, Forty-Odd Years in the Literary Shop, was his best.  On page four he reflected:

The shifting decades offer a long vista, dim in sundry places but shining brightly at its furthest end on a wide, shady garden where, under wise and loving parental guidance I had a little sister to play with and a kind elder brother to kick me when I tried to be funny. 

Brookhaven home of the Fords, 1920s