Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Interrogating Joseph Mandelkern


In 1886, Joseph Mandelkern left his desk job in Bialystok City Hall and immigrated to America. His plans were far grander than many an Eastern European newcomer. He already knew that he would become an impresario. 

After settling in New York City, Mandelkern placed a newspaper announcement that he had established a “New Yiddish Theatre.” Then he sailed off to London to recruit famous Yiddish-speaking performers. He had his eye on Jacob P. Adler, once a juvenile delinquent; now a renowned European actor.*

Wackily, the trip was funded by two wealthy Chicago clothiers named Rosengarten and Drozdovitch who thought that New York had no business staking a claim on Yiddish theater.

But the deal fell apart and Mandelkern came home instead with the team of Moishe Finkel and Sigmund Mogulesko, who had been a smash hit on the Romanian stage.

It didn’t bother Mandelkern that they were not a hit in New York. He had bigger fish to fry.   

In 1889, Mandelkern traveled to Russia, Rumania, and Austria in search of more performers. Until the early 1920s, he would visit Russia recurrently through pogroms, war, and revolution.

Most Jews who fled Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century did not intend to return to the land of persecution. Joseph Mandelkern’s ambition left no room for fear. Armed with a document which took two years to obtain, he managed to dodge reprisals—to put it mildly—from Cossacks and “Uligani,” as hoodlums were known.

In June 1910, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported:


It appeared yesterday that while Oscar Hammerstein, the impresario, had been barred out of Russia, it is said, because of his Jewish parentage, and also because it had become known that he was seeking to persuade Russian singers and dancers, favorites of the Czar, to leave Russia, Joseph Mandelkern, another Jewish impresario of this city, had been freely traveling through the Czar’s domains. Mr. Mandelkern, who lives at 20 East 120th Street in this city, just received in Moscow and St. Petersburg, had great success in contracting with popular ballet and operatic favorites of both cities for American tours.


Evidently Mandelkern liked to show off, tempt fate, and challenge authority.

That is why I wish the brilliant, effervescent dance critic Ann Barzel were still alive to explain Mandelkern to me. I met Ann in the summer of 1982 when she spent two weeks in Jackson, Mississippi covering the International Ballet Competition for Dance Magazine and Dance News.

At 77 years old, she had been devoted to all aspects of dance since the age of fourteen although she didn’t care for “Twyla Twerp.”   

Since I was the Competition’s director of public relations, Ann and I spoke often even before the competition. In particular, she shared insight and background on the esteemed jury co-chaired by Robert Joffrey.  

Ann Barzel contributed an essay to the program
for the 1982 International Ballet Competition.

Until the last minute, we did not know who would represent the Soviet Union as co-chair. Ann thought it would be Sofia Golovkina, director of the Bolshoi Ballet School, and she was right. 

A few days after the appointment, Miss Golovkina called me to ask about proper attire for the galas to which she had been invited.

“I plan to wear the silk pajama,” she confided.

Ann loved the story.

Born in 1915, Sofia Golovkina would have been too young for Joseph Mandelkern to pluck from the arms of Mother Russia and put on tour in the United States.

But Ann—with her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of ballet and the business of dance—might have been able to explain Joseph Mandelkern’s rapid ascent as an agent and producer.

Was he a Czarist, a socialist or a capitalist? How did he manage to poach all of those Eastern European dancers and actors? And why did he leave the United States so hastily in 1924?


To be continued.   

*Jacob Adler’s daughter founded the Stella Adler School of Acting in 1949.


Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The Unexpected Journey of Mary Rankin Cranston


In New York City toward the end of the nineteenth century, Mary Rankin Cranston lodged in a boarding house on West 56th Street and worked as a librarian at the American Institute of Social Service.

Not long before she started to call herself a “social engineer” and sailed to Europe to make a study of working conditions, she had fled the South and a husband twenty years her senior whom she married when she was a belle of Atlanta.

Born in 1873, daughter of a druggist who called himself a doctor, Mamie Rankin must have had a serious reason for leaving Henry Cranston. Now known as Mary, she “came to New York with a definite and clear idea of what she wanted to do,” according to Success Magazine, which saluted her in 1905. 

Cranston had never expected to earn a living but, after training as a librarian, she collaborated with two eminent reformers—Dr. Josiah Strong and Dr. W.H. Tolman—who had just established the Institute. Social betterment and eliminating urban poverty were their crusades.  

Dr. Josiah Strong

Dr. Strong, a Social Gospel adherent whose chauvinistic beliefs about Anglo-Saxonism and Protestantism would be considered unacceptable today, sought solutions to alienation and destitution. Dr. Tolman, who had studied the nascent field of sociology at Johns Hopkins, focused on problems of industrialization and “fresh-air” programs like vacation schools.  

It was within this Progressive agenda that Mary Rankin Cranston found a home. A librarian untypical of her time, Cranston created from scratch a “social clearing-house,” she explained to Harper’s Monthly in 1906. All available data and written material related to social improvement and urban issues were gathered in the Institute's library. 

She enthusiastically loaned most of the 1,500 volumes, 5,000 pamphlets, and countless articles to social workers, municipal officials, politicians, business people, clergy, journalists, and students worldwide.


Cranston contributed articles to various publications,
including "Homes of the Poor in Large Cities" in the January 1902
issue of Social Service.

While expanding the library, Cranston took time to pursue her own research. “The Housing of the Negro in New York City,” which appeared in Southern Workman, in 1902, was widely reprinted.  She wrote:


If white people have found it a hard proposition to obtain decent homes in New York, it has been even worse for the “brother in black” who must here as everywhere else take what he can get without any choice in the matter. Wherever the Negro has gone—North, East, South and West—he has found the same prejudice, more or less strongly expressed in various localities, but always the same thing at the last analysis. Theoretically some may advocate social equality but usually with the mental reservation that it shall be at a safe distance from its champions. It is this prejudice which forces the colored population into almost unhabitable quarters in our cities, large and small.


Photographs that illustrated Cranston's
 article, "The Housing of the Negro in New York City."

A year later, in “The New Industrialism,” Cranston observed:


The most serious disadvantage to the workingman of the introduction of machinery lies in his danger of becoming a mere machine himself.

Cranston’s lectures and articles began to draw attention from philanthropists like Helen Miller Gould, daughter of the robber baron Jay Gould, who had inherited several of his millions in 1892 and spent much of it on social reform.   

Then, suddenly, came change.

Perhaps Cranston seized the idea from the backyard and vacant-lot gardens which had sprung up as antidotes to life in the dirty, unpastoral city. Perhaps she burned out. Either way, by spring of 1910 she was ensconced in an old farm in North Brunswick, N.J.; occupation: poultry farmer.  

Cranston spent her savings to purchase the property, which she named “Pendidit” because writing had provided the necessary money. In 1911, Country Life in America featured her as part of its “Cutting Loose from the City” series.



The first page of Cranston's article, "Fourteen Acres and
Freedom" (Suburban Life, 1913)

Cranston remained a writer and occasionally published articles about farming. And in 1916, the same year that her first husband, Henry Cranston, died in Georgia, she remarried. She and Matthew B. Thomas, a farmer, were together until her death in 1931.   

One can’t help asking a few questions about Mary Rankin Cranston Thomas. Of course, many a nineteenth-century Southern belle extricated herself from society and sought education and purpose.  

But there’s that twist—walking away from what seemed to be the passion of her life. Especially when she had achieved such success.

Perhaps Cranston’s change was simple: she answered a second calling.


Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Story of Henry Littlefield - Part 2


Henry Littlefield's grandfather, Walter Littlefield,
was an eminent journalist, editor, and author.

The journalist Walter Littlefield could tackle any subject.


Emile Zola: Novelist and Reformer - 1902

Russia in Revolution - 1905

The Birth of United South Africa a Unique Event - 1910

Should We Build a Channel Tunnel? - 1917

Dante in Art and Translation - 1922


This list is the tip of the iceberg. In beautiful economical prose, Littlefield wrote about the American West, the charms of New England; war, European politics, the Wahhabis’ 1924 invasion of the Hejaz . . . 

Walter Littlefield was a reporter and editor at the New York Times (1898-1941), a literary correspondent for the Chicago Record-Herald (1903-1913), and the author, editor or translator of books about James Russell Lowell, Dante, Lord Byron, and Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Littlefield's best-known story about Dreyfus
appeared in Munsey's Magazine in 1899.

His coverage of the Dreyfus Affair rendered him an expert on the case and enabled him to make the leap from his native Boston to New York City in 1898. He and his elegant, Italian-born wife, Luigina Pagani Littlefield, would live in Greenwich Village until the 1940s.

Born in 1867, a descendant of English colonists, Walter began publishing his own short stories in 1889, the year he entered Harvard to study languages and history. On the side he tutored college-bound students in comparative literature, fine arts, and languages.

After he graduated from Harvard, Walter Littlefield
taught and tutored in Boston.

By 1893 Walter had graduated and married Luigina, a “gifted musician with a voice of more than ordinary richness, educated at the Notre Dame Academy,” the newspapers reported.

She was the daughter of Dr. Joseph Pagani, who studied medicine in Rome and Palermo before immigrating to the U.S. in 1865. Inexplicably, Pagani received a medal from Dom Pedro II, the last monarch of Brazil, and was a member of an ancient Russian Aryan order. 

Surely influenced by Luigina, whose West Twelfth Street salon drew the American and European intelligentsia, Walter developed a passion for Italian culture and politics. He fell hard for Mussolini in 1921, corresponding regularly with Dux, as he called him, and reporting for the Times:


Mussolini is being called a dictator. But so was Garibaldi, when he seemed to be carrying on war in defiance of the orders of King Victor Emmanuel. It is easy to mistake, in times of political turmoil, the words of a disciplinarian for those of a dictator. Like Garibaldi, Mussolini is a severe disciplinarian, but no dictator. How can he be when he swears to recognize the authority of his Majesty? 

One year later, the Times published Walter’s poem, “Fascisti.” In appreciation of the poem, Victor Emmanuel declared Walter a Commendatore della Corona d’Italia (Knight of the Crown of Italy) in 1933.

Littlefield wrote his poem in the early 1920s.

Between his knighting, the Reichstag fire, and other momentous events, Walter must have been unusually preoccupied in 1933 when he and Luigina became the grandparents of Henry Miller Littlefield, son of their son Henry Mario Littlefield. 

Actually, Henry Miller Littlefield was the second child of Henry Mario Littlefield, who had a daughter by a previous marriage and would soon head to Reno to divorce his second wife, Elizabeth, mother of newborn Henry.

Reno, 1933: "wild scenes were enacted at the
office of County Clerk 'Boss' Beemer."

Luigina died in 1945 and Walter in 1948, by which time they had left West Twelfth Street and moved, oddly, to the town of New Canaan, Connecticut. By then, Henry Miller Littlefield was a teenager.

Since he told students that he grew up without a father, one wonders whether he ever met his paternal grandparents. He grew up to become an imaginative historian and teacher of whom Walter and Luigina would have been proud (even if they disagreed about Mussolini).


Please see previous post, "Story of Henry Littlefield," March 8, 2023.


Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Story of Henry Littlefield


During the 1960s when my brother and I were growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., our parents and their friends occasionally mentioned Henry Littlefield, who taught American history to the city’s high school students.

It was wonderful that such an imaginative young man counted among a faculty still inhabited by Victorian women who were creeping into the modern era.

In 1964, Henry Littlefield published “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism” in the American Quarterly.1 This article was the first to interpret L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book as a tale of politics and society in late nineteenth-century America. Nearly 30 years later, Littlefield recalled the summer of 1963:


Toward the end of July, I was reading the opening chapters of The Wizard to my two daughters, then ages five and two. At the same time, in the [summer school] history course I taught, we were going through the Populist period and the 1890s. I lived just a few blocks from the school and remember running to class the next day, to my classroom on that hot, airless third floor.2  

Excitedly, Littlefield told the students: “Guess what? In The Wizard of Oz . . . Dorothy walks on a yellow brick road . . .” He suggested that the Scarecrow was a farmer who felt stupid and the Tin Woodman a laborer dehumanized by industrialization. Dorothy and her little band, marching toward the Emerald City, represented Coxey’s Army, and the Wizard could be any president, really, but likely William McKinley.

A. B. Davis High School, around 1915

The students were enthused but the article languished until 1977, when Gore Vidal wrote about it in the New York Review of Books. By that time, Littlefield had earned his PhD at Columbia University and moved on to Amherst College and then California where he taught at Golden Gate University and the Naval Postgraduate School.

By the mid-1980s, Littlefield’s thesis about Oz and populism had developed its own academic niche. Some of its proponents scrutinized Oz as an allegory in which each word, each moment, was loaded with symbolism. 

And they were self-righteous to boot, in the opinion of Michael Gessel, then editor of the Baum Bugle. Like Littlefield, he regarded the book as a parable on populism that happened to serve as an excellent teaching tool. Both men dismissed “outlandish” interpretations.3

Born in Manhattan in 1933, Littlefield grew up without a father, he once confided to a student.4 But he does not seem to have discussed his family, which was full of intrigue and achievement.

Around 1935, Henry’s mother, Elizabeth Miller Littlefield, divorced his father, Henry Mario Littlefield, in Reno. As was often the case in these sticky situations, Elizabeth’s parents invited their daughter and grandson to move into their brownstone on West 148th Street. 

Jesse Preston Miller, known as Dr. J. Preston Miller, ruled the household. The son of a Greenville, S.C. grocer, Miller had made his way north around 1900, married, and established a successful medical practice.   

J. Preston Miller, M.D.

Henry's father may have disappeared, but the boy's paternal grandparents lived on West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village. It cannot be known whether he ever trekked downtown to visit them. What a time that would have been!

In 1940, Walter Littlefield was at the peak of his influence as foreign editor of the New York Times although his wife Luigina’s fabulous Manhattan salon had wound down in the late twenties . . .


Walter Littlefield

To be continued.


1 Henry M. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” American Quarterly, Spring 1964, 47-58.

2 Henry M. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Allegory,” The Baum Bugle, Spring 1992, 24-25.

3 Michael Gessel, “Tale of a Parable,” The Baum Bugle, Spring 1992, 19-23.

4 Richard J. Garfunkel, 

*The Baum Bugle, founded in 1957, is the official journal of the International Wizard of Oz Club:

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Understanding Herma


Herma Wager around 1919

Herma was the fourteenth of fifteen children born to Robert and Harriet Wager of Ohio.

Just after the American Civil War ended, Rob, as he was called, left his childhood home in Parham, Canada. He traveled 500 miles along lakes Ontario and Erie to reach Toledo, Ohio. Then he pushed forty miles farther west to Stryker, a railroad town incorporated in 1855.  

Within a few years he met Harriet Justus of Defiance, Ohio, and they wed in 1869 when she was sixteen and he twenty-three. His older sister, Jen, who stayed in Canada, seems to have never recovered from Rob’s departure nor those of anyone she knew—whether to the blur of America or to heaven. 

In a series of small, black-edged letters, which arrived in black-edged envelopes addressed in her spidery script, Jen grieved for twenty years. The worst was Ma, in 1881:


I miss her every place I look, I can see something to remind me of her something that she has made or fixed and it seems almost more than I can bear, I am alone so much, too, Pa and Hiram are in at mealtimes and evenings and the rest of the time I am alone. I think if I had someone to talk to and keep me from thinking it would not be so hard. 

One year later Pa, his eyes streaming with tears, took to his bed and never got out. Next to go were the pretty, young schoolmarm and the neighbors’ children. 

Thus there was always bad news from Jen except when she went overnight to Kingston and bought new trimmings to fix up an old dress.

It’s not that death didn’t follow Rob to Ohio.

Herma came along in 1896, more than a decade after her sisters Estella, Florence, and Luella, her brother Charles, and a baby boy who didn’t live long enough to be named, had passed.

By now the family had moved to Wauseon, where Rob no longer worked as a farm laborer but as a section foreman for a manufacturer of plumbing equipment.

In Wauseon the houses marched up and down the street, close together with picket fences between them and front porches where friends gathered. The turn of the century approached and the family felt happy. In 1900, when Harriet was forty-seven years old, she gave birth to her last child, George.

The Wager family in Wauseon, early twentieth century.
Herma sits to her mother's right and Bob stands, far left.

But the happiness fled. Rob died in 1901 and George died in 1902. He caught typhoid fever from his brother Clyde but Clyde recovered and George—dear baby, he was just starting to talk.

“Oh we miss him so much,” Harriet wrote to Jen, still brooding in Canada. She put on her own black costume and wore it for the rest of her life.   

Herma had never been a smiling kind of person but now, when the camera captured her out in the yard in a white voile dress, she looked distant and sad. Only the sight of her brother Robert, whom she adored, could cheer her.

Bob Wager dressed as a cowboy

Bob, as they called him, was Herma’s favorite among the Wager brothers: Warren, Sheldon, Foster, Clyde, Elwood, and Floyd. Three years older than Herma, Bob was her protector and comforter, her imp who became a handsome, responsible young man.

He left home in his late teens, moved to Cleveland and worked for the Willard Storage Battery Company, an early manufacturer of automobile ignition batteries. Around 1912, amid skyrocketing demand from car companies, Willard opened plants in Atlanta and Huntsville. Bob was assigned to the latter.

The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, and three months later Bob enlisted in the Naval Aero Service. He trained at Pensacola, the nation’s sole naval air station, as a flier and mechanic.

R-6 Seaplane, Pensacola, 1917
(National Museum of the American Navy)

Aviation was still primitive. In the U.S., military officers planned to use planes for observational purposes rather than in combat. Of course, this view changed quickly when the generals got to Europe. Still, the U.S. never kept up with the allies’ aviation capabilities.

Bob arrived at the newly established U.S. Naval Air Station in Moutchic, France in December, and within six weeks he died of cerebrospinal meningitis. Many enlisted men were struck down by tuberculosis, pneumonia, and meningitis even before the influenza became a pandemic. Bob’s story is not unusual, perhaps only to the extent that he was the first Wauseon boy to die in the Great War. He is buried in France. 

In 1920 Herma married William Carroll Keenan, a veteran who went by “Cal” during that particular heyday of nicknames. They had two sons, Bill and Bob, both of whom recalled an impersonal, detached mother. They couldn’t get away from her fast enough.

When Bill and Bob grew up and married, their wives disliked Herma, too. The grandchildren found her visits uncomfortable. 

So what of Herma? No one has spoken of her for a half-century or more. There is little reason to tell her story to each new generation, to make sure her name and face are imprinted in the minds of her descendants.

Still she demands some understanding, my husband’s disagreeable grandmother. 

I think that Herma may have suffered from untreated post-partum depression. And she never recovered, even partway, from her brother Bob’s death nor that of little George who toddled around the farmhouse and probably was her charge.

Perhaps she saw Bob and George in the faces of her own sons but could not summon for them the same depth of feeling. It may be that everything that lived and laughed for Herma was back, way back before the twentieth century inflicted its blows.


Harriet Justus Wager died in 1918.
As Herma grew older, she came to resemble her mother.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

The New One


My well-worn copy of Mary Poppins and
Mary Poppins Comes Back

I’d better hurry up and write about my granddaughter before she forgets her story!

Since she was a few weeks old, C. has been whispering to the world as if she were confiding great wisdom. Speaking sotto voce in a just-between-us manner, C. seems to be sharing the secrets of the universe with anyone who will listen. She reminds me of Annabel.

Annabel was the youngest of the Banks children in the “Mary Poppins” books. Readers will have known her only as a baby. She has been mentioned in a few scholarly essays. Some critics have noted that her character is profound while others consider her trite. I don’t care either way.

From the first time I read about Annabel, I was hooked.   

Inside cover of Mary Poppins

The 1964 Disney film is familiar to millions who may not realize that it is based on a book by an English writer named P. L. Travers. Onscreen, the main characters are Jane and Michael Banks, their parents, and Mary Poppins.

If you’ve watched the film but never read the book, you would not know about the twins, John and Barbara. The truth is that they are rather colorless and it is understandable that Disney did not include them.

Annabel is different. She came along in Travers’ sequel, Mary Poppins Comes Back, published in 1935. This book opens with the unsupervised Banks children flying a kite in the park. The kite becomes lost in a cloud and won’t let itself be reeled in until bystanders gather to pull as hard as they can on the string. 

Suddenly, an object bursts from the cloud and slowly descends to earth as the children make out a familiar shape. 

“Ah!” Jane gave a shout of triumph. “It is she!”

And so it is. Mary Poppins has returned and will stay till the chain on her necklace breaks, she says.

Halfway through her second stay, Mary Poppins is handed an infant, Annabel, immediately after she is born to Mrs. Banks.

Presiding over Annabel in the children’s nursery, Mary Poppins is joined periodically by an impertinent starling who lives on top of the chimney and joyfully regards the infant as one of his own fledglings. One day the starling brings along a young bird, who asks where Annabel came from.


First pages of "The New One," chapter about Annabel

In response, Annabel gestures with her hands—just like my granddaughter—and explains to the starlings: 

"I came from the Dark where all things have their beginning . . . I come from     the sea and its tides . . . I come from the sun and its brightness . . . Slowly I moved at first . . . always sleeping and dreaming. I remembered all I had been and I thought of all I shall be."

Later, when Jane and Michael and the twins crowd around Annabel, they ask where she came from. Happily, Annabel embarks on her story: “I came from the Dark—” But Jane interrupts.

“Such funny little sounds! I wish she could talk and tell us.” Annabel kicks her legs and starts to cry. After all, she is telling them where she came from. 

My granddaughter manages to captivate every person who leans over and smiles at her. We listen raptly although we—grown, fumbling humans—do not understand what she is telling us. Whatever it may be, she expresses a certain urgency in sharing her thoughts. 

Perhaps, like Annabel, she is saying: “I heard the stars singing as I came and felt warm wings about me.” But she will not recall her journey forever, as the starling realizes one day. With a tear in his eye, he exclaims to Mary Poppins:

“She’s forgotten it all. I knew she would. But, ah, my dear, what a pity!”

P. L. Travers' 1996 obituary, New York Times

            During the 1980s, as she entered her own 80s, the famously private Travers sat down to discuss the origin of Mary Poppins. The nanny was not a character she invented, Travers insisted; Mary Poppins grew out of the author’s longstanding interest in myths, fables, and rites of passage. 

“I think if she comes from anywhere that has a name, it is out of myth,” she told the Paris Review in 1982.

And myth has been my study and joy ever since—oh, the age, I would think, of three. I’ve studied it all my life. No culture can satisfactorily move along its forward course without its myths, which are its teachings, its fundamental dealing with the truth of things, and the one reality that underlies everything.   

In a 1988 essay, Travers described Annabel’s story perfectly: “There are worlds beyond worlds and times beyond times, all of them true, all of them real, and all of them (as children know) penetrating each other.”     

Indeed, the “Mary Poppins” books delve deep into symbols, mysticism, and transcendence. We just don’t realize it because Travers was such a good storyteller. I hope my granddaughter will be one, too.

Many dissertations and books offer
analyses of the Mary Poppins books.

Interrogating Joseph Mandelkern

  In 1886, Joseph Mandelkern left his desk job in Bialystok City Hall and immigrated to America. His plans were far grander than many an Eas...