On December 3, 1922, the film “Hungry Hearts” had its premiere in Los Angeles, a week after its opening in New York. The silent movie, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by E. Mason Hopper, was based on a book of stories by Anzia Yezierska.
The Polish-born Yezierska (her date of birth is thought to have been between 1880 and 1885) arrived in the United States with her parents and eight siblings in the early 1890s. Like tens of thousands of other Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the family lived on the Lower East Side, where her father studied Torah and her mother supported the family with menial jobs. Anzia, who had received the new name of “Harriet Mayer” when coming through the Castle Garden immigration station (she reclaimed her original name when she was in her late 20s), went to great lengths to acquire an education for herself, something that led to frequent clashes with her parents (her formal education as a girl didn’t go beyond elementary school before she had to start working), and eventually to her moving out and taking up residence at the Clara De Hirsch Home for Working Girls.
On the basis of a fabricated high school record, Yezierska was accepted at Columbia University’s Teachers College, graduating in 1908, following which she taught elementary school for several years. She began writing fiction in 1913.
Generally, her work revolved around female immigrants, Jewish, and later Puerto Rican, on the Lower East Side, who seek independence and prosperity. Often the Jewish male characters are depicted as ineffectual or worse, with some relief coming from a relationship with a Gentile or assimilated Jewish man who serves as a mentor.
Although Yezierska was married twice, and had a daughter with the second of her husbands, the great love of her life was the (non-Jewish) philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey, whom she met when she audited a class of his at Columbia, and who was more than 20 years her senior.
“Hungry Hearts,” a collection of 10 stories, came out in 1920, and was Yezierska’s first published book. Most of the stories are about the oppressive lives of immigrant women trying to get by; in most cases they are crushed by a combination of difficult circumstances and bad luck. The Goldwyn Company paid Yezierska $10,000 for the rights to the book, and even brought her to Hollywood to work on the screenplay. She returned to New York after several months, however, and although she received a credit as co-author of the script, she was disappointed in the happy ending tacked onto the movie’s story. (The New York Times described it as “incredible and mushy.”)
In the 1930s, Yezierska cataloged trees in Central Park, as part of her employment by the Depression-era WPA Writers Project. In her life, she published four novels, one of them autobiographical, and several books of stories. She continued to write until her death, in November 1970: Her final story, “The Open Cage,” was about the indignities of aging.
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