A Rebel With a Cause: This Jewish Radical Was Once the Most Talked-about Woman in America

How did Yiddish-speaking factory worker Rose Pastor marry into one of America’s richest families yet end up dying a pauper? A new book by Adam Hochschild, ‘Rebel Cinderella,’ recounts her remarkable story

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Rose Pastor Stokes pictured at her desk in 1906.
Rose Pastor Stokes pictured at her desk in 1906. Credit: Rose Pastor Stokes Papers (MS 573). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

You don’t need a doctorate in psychology to understand what drew Adam Hochschild to the story of Rose Pastor Stokes. Her name may not ring a bell today, but a century ago Stokes – the subject of Hochschild’s new book, “Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes” – had more mentions in the press than any other woman in the United States.

Hers was a rags-to-riches story that captivated the American imagination: A penniless, Yiddish-speaking young Clevelander whose formal education ended after two years marries the scion of one of America’s wealthiest and most socially prominent families. The couple then remain in the public eye because they openly devote themselves to political and social causes, putting them at odds with the economic interests the groom’s family represents.

Rose and her husband, Graham Phelps Stokes, went far beyond being what we might today call limousine liberals – that is, progressive-minded aristocrats who wrote generous checks to left-wing causes. They joined the Socialist Party of America, which in the years before World War I, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, was a formidable political force. In its name, they traveled the country, participating in and sometimes speaking at demonstrations, picket lines and political trials.

Eventually, however, the divisive politics of the time, and perhaps their respective individual histories, prevailed over their mutual love, deep as it was. Like two celestial bodies whose orbits brought them into close proximity for a time and then pushed them apart, it seems as if they caused each to become increasingly radicalized – she to the left, he in a rightward drift. That sad trajectory is the story Hochschild tells in the book.

Politically, there was much of himself that the author could recognize in Rose Pastor Stokes. Today 77, he has spent an entire journalistic career devoted to covering issues of social and economic justice, in both the United States and globally. His highly acclaimed books have included, to name but two, 1998’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” about a rapacious Belgian monarch’s plundering of the Congo Basin; and 2016’s “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.” At the same time, his own upbringing and background more resembled that of Rose’s blue-blooded husband, albeit with one major difference.

Adam Hochschild and the book cover of "Rebel Cinderella."Credit: Barbi Reed / Book Design: Margaret Rosewitz

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The Phelps Stokes family controlled businesses “that ranged from banking and real estate to mining and a railroad,” Hochschild writes. So wealthy were Graham’s parents that they could build a 100-room vacation “cottage” in the Berkshire mountains that was for a time America’s largest private home.

Hochschild’s own father was president of the American Metal Company. During Adam’s childhood, Harold Hochschild was often abroad visiting company-owned mines in what were then Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo.

But whereas Graham’s father’s ancestors, the Stokeses, were descendants of the Plantagenets, the royal household that ruled England for over 300 years, and his mother’s family, the Phelpses, could trace their presence in America back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 – unparalleled claims to WASP heritage – Harold Hochschild was the son of a German Jew who had immigrated to the United States in 1886. However, as WASP wannabes, the Hochschilds invested great effort in avoiding being identified with more recent waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, such as the one that brought Rose to America in 1890.

In his highly moving 1986 memoir “Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son,” Adam Hochschild recalled that the eclectic blend of guests invited regularly to Eagle Nest – his family’s vast summer estate in New York’s Adirondack Mountains – almost never included Jews, aside from a handful of relatives and old friends.

Adam himself was educated at an Episcopalian boarding school, where he attended chapel each morning. It was not until he was in his twenties that he first entered a synagogue – and that was when his work sent him to cover a story.

With “Rebel Cinderella,” Hochschild delves into the relationship of an individual couple who initially bridged and later personified the class divide that traumatized American society in the early decades of the 20th century. Although often overlooked when people look back on that period, it’s a gap that bears no small resemblance to the inequality and social polarization that characterize U.S. life today. Hochschild’s attention to the parallels is edifying, but he also serves up an entertaining tale that gains additional irony and meaning thanks to the author’s superb attention to detail and character.

Rose and Graham on their wedding day, July 18, 1905.Credit: Rose Pastor Stokes Papers (MS 573). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

Love at first write

Rose Pastor first met James Graham Phelps Stokes in 1903, when she was sent by her employer, the Yiddishes Tageblatt – America’s largest Orthodox Yiddish daily at the time – to interview the idealist young aristocrat. Born in 1879 in Augustow, then part of czarist Russia and today in Poland, Rose had been 11 when she and her mother arrived in the United States, after an eight-year sojourn in England, joining her stepfather in Cleveland. There, Rose began working immediately as a cigar roller. “Once your hand is trained,” she wrote of cigar-making in a memoir she wrote years later, “you can think the whole day.” While Rose thought, she cultivated a stunning command of the English language, wrote poetry, and developed a strong sense of class consciousness. She was also a gifted singer.

She had begun writing for the Tageblatt after a letter of hers to the editor led him to invite her to become a contributor. Her women’s column, “Heart to Heart Talk: Just Between Ourselves, Girls,” was so popular that in 1903 she was asked to move to New York and join the paper’s writing staff. Now she turned out features, editorials and other pieces, while continuing to dole out advice that would suit an Orthodox audience. This included warnings of the dangers of intermarriage, for example, and the need to keep “our children … away from all Christianizing influence” –advice she would not take to heart.

Graham Phelps Stokes was a 31-year-old medical school graduate who acceded to his father’s request that he relinquish his dream of becoming a medical missionary and be initiated into the family’s complex web of businesses. Graham’s condition was that he also be left time to pursue charitable work, which is how he ended up on the board of the University Settlement house on the Lower East Side – one of a number of community centers that offered a variety of services and training to the immigrants pouring into the U.S. in those decades. Graham both lived and worked there.

Hochschild writes, tellingly, that “Graham thought of himself as a reformer, not a revolutionary. In his mind, eradicating poverty did not require the redistribution of riches belonging to families like his own.” That would eventually be a fateful difference between him and Rose. Initially, though, the attraction was deep and mutual.

Years later, recalling their meeting, Rose would write of how she was “enchanted by the very tall slender young man who both in features and in general appearance was so like the young Abe Lincoln, and so full of sympathy for the poor.”

Rose soon became a regular invitee to the settlement house, where Graham and the other volunteers – fellow do-gooders from the upper classes – often hosted visiting politicians, scholars and cultural figures at their communal dinner table.

A year after they met, the couple became engaged. When Graham’s parents heard of his plan to marry an “Israelitish maiden,” as Rose put it, they were disappointed, though by all accounts they liked Rose personally and treated her well. And their wedding, in July 1905, was a festive affair. The real problem was not that their daughter-in-law was Jewish, but that she and their son became active and visible figures on the American left.

Shortly before they announced their engagement, Rose, who wrote later that she “could not bear the thought that my marriage might prove a barrier between my class and me,” had returned to work at a cigar factory in New York for a few weeks, under an assumed name. (Her colleagues figured out who she was, and gave her a heartfelt send-off on her last day.) During their honeymoon voyage to England on the RMS Cedric, Rose would descend daily from her first-class suite for a visit in steerage.

Largely on the strength of Rose’s charisma, grace and communications skills, the couple quickly moved into the center of a circle of some of America’s best-known cultural and left-wing political figures. Their every move was tracked by a press anxious to satisfy the appetite of a public hungry for news of this fairy-tale couple.

During the initial years of their marriage, Rose and Graham’s ideals overlapped, and together they lent their names to the American labor movement; to Margaret Sanger’s campaign to have birth control education legalized; to the cause of racial equality (before there was a significant civil rights movement in the United States); and to the fight against conditions in Rose’s native Russia.

Fifteen-year-old Rose, third from left in back row, with fellow Cleveland cigar workers.Credit: Rose Pastor Stokes Papers (MS 573). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

A bridge too far

Talking to Haaretz by phone from California, where he teaches at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley, Hochschild elaborates on Rose’s social versatility: “I studied her speeches closely: When she spoke to labor union members, she was able to talk about her own experiences on the floors of cigar factories,” he says. “When she talked to middle-class groups, she was able to talk about the Triangle fire [a devastating conflagration at a New York sweatshop in 1911 that killed 146 textile workers], and conditions in New York tenements in a way to make them care. When she talked to Christian religious groups, she talked in terms of Bible stories, and she seemed to know her Bible.”

At their homes – a townhouse in Greenwich Village and later a private island off the Connecticut coast – Rose and Graham hosted some of the most talented progressive figures of their era: Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, Upton Sinclair and a visiting Maxim Gorky. “Big Bill” Haywood, the charismatic leader of the radical Industrial Workers of the World labor union, which drew in Rose as an activist, was also a regular visitor.

In 1906, Rose and Graham both joined the Socialist Party, with Rose quickly becoming a much-in-demand campaign speaker. At one rally, during a 1912 action by hotel restaurant workers, she urged the ethnically diverse strikers to remain united, whether “Russian, Pole, Irishman, Frenchman, or Greek.” The poet in her emerged as she made an analogy, explaining how the Brooklyn Bridge “is suspended by …. wire as fine as a hair. But this wire is wound in with countless other wires until it makes a cable strong enough to support the bridge.”

The wires holding Rose and Graham’s relationship together, however, were not bound tightly enough for it to remain fast against the events of the 20th century’s second decade: the start of World War I and the subsequent decision of the United States to join the battle; the overthrow of the czar in Russia and the crushing of the nascent democracy by the Bolshevik Revolution; and the growing economic divide in America, in which the Phelps Stokes family, despite the individual decency of most of its members, could not help but be in conflict with the working class from which Rose came. During the same years, the federal government undertook a crackdown on political dissent in the country that led to the banning or closing of some 75 periodicals.

As Rose became increasingly radicalized, Graham turned reactionary. He vehemently supported President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to declare war on Germany in April 1917, and lobbied hard to get an active commission in the New York National Guard, though he was already 45. For a brief time, Rose convinced herself to support the war, but quickly recanted.

A story about Rose Pastor Stokes in the World newspaper, 1905.Credit: The Evening World. (New York, N.Y.), 08 April 1905. Library of Congress.

One of the factors that convinced her she was on the wrong side – and an example of Hochschild’s talent for mining golden nuggets from his archival research – was an invitation she received that same year from Margaret Wilson, the president’s daughter. Margaret asked Rose to join her and her father at the White House for “a quiet family dinner.” In the margin of the note, Rose asked herself rhetorically, “What is wrong with me that I elicit such an invitation” from “[t]he White House after all – the seat of Capitalist power!”

Rose joined the leadership of what became the American Communist Party. Graham sent letters to a Yale classmate now working at the State Department, offering sometimes fantastical leads about German agents he believed had infiltrated the country. Rose openly defied the law in the hope of being arrested and sent to prison, while Graham marched in parades with his National Guard regiment. All the while, they remained a couple.

Finally, Rose was charged with violating the misleadingly named Espionage Act, after she spoke in Kansas City in 1917 against U.S. participation in the war. Hochschild tells us she wouldn’t have been charged if she hadn’t written to the Kansas City Star complaining that it misquoted her as having said, “‘I believe the government of the United States should have the unqualified support of every citizen in its war aims.’” In fact, she protested, “I made no such statement and I believe no such thing.”

Martyrdom denied

Rose was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but her conviction was overturned on technical grounds on appeal – and since the war was over by then, the government declined to retry her. It was not her only arrest, but she could not achieve the martyrdom she craved. Writes Hochschild: “To Rose’s frustration, no one seemed willing to send a Stokes to jail.

In 1925, there was no such thing as no-fault divorce in New York state: one of the parties had to have engaged in adultery, something Rose did that year (after the couple had already separated), leading Graham to very publicly sue her. Rose refused to ask for alimony and overnight found herself returned to a life of penury, such that when she developed breast cancer in 1930, friends had to raise funds to help her pay for treatment. She died three years later, at age 54, while undergoing treatment in Germany (shortly after Hitler’s rise to power). Graham remarried, this time to someone of his own social class who didn’t challenge his views, and died in 1960 at age 88. Neither ever had children.

At the time of her divorce, in an interview in the New York Times, Rose railed against the state law that “will not permit one to get a divorce unless one is willing to be made a subject for scandal.” At the same time, she expressed no regrets, telling the reporter: “Love is always justified, even when short-lived, even when mistaken, because during its existence it enlarges and ennobles the natures of the men and women experiencing the love.”

Graham’s parents (seated, left and center) with their descendants at their Adirondack estate in 1907. Graham is standing, hands crossed on counter; Rose is on floor, second from right.Credit: Image from Stokes Records, vol. 3, by Anson Phelps Stokes

Hochschild’s affection for such a fine spirit shines through clearly in this portrait of Rose Pastor Stokes. But he says she disappointed him for having become “a starry-eyed Soviet true believer in the last 10 or 12 years of her life.” He’s sorry that she didn’t have “the good sense of her good friend – until they broke with each other – Emma Goldman, who went to Russia for two years, filled with all sorts of hope, but who had the wisdom to see it for what it was and to write a scorching denunciation of the Soviet Union.”

Still, it’s hard not to fall in love with Rose Pastor Stokes, who was blessed with unusual intelligence, passion and humanity. It may be that the arc of her life journey was more than even she could reasonably negotiate. But she certainly gave it her all. And we can be grateful to Hochschild for rediscovering her and bringing her back to life in the pages of his book.

“Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes,” by Adam Hochschild; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $30

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