How does the modern woman measure her worth, by the money she earns, or the man she marries? This dilemma lies at the heart of Salome of the Tenements, a novel (1922) and movie (1925), and it pulses through the biographies of four women who collaborated on this cultural production: Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia Yezierska, Sonya Levien, and Jetta Goudal. Alan Robert Ginsberg's engaging new book The Salome Ensemble analyzes the Salome narrative and explores the possibilities for self-invention available to immigrant Jewish women during the first third of the twentieth century. In the United States, Ginsberg argues, Stokes, Yezierska, Levien, and Goudal "learned that identities are multiple, plural, and elective" (1). All four of these women changed their names, pursued creative careers, and became romantically involved with gentile men. Like the biblical Salome, they made strategic choices [End Page 311] about what to reveal and what to hide as they engaged in a complicated dance with American popular culture.
The story begins with Rose Pastor Stokes (1879–1933), who went to work rolling cigars in Cleveland at age eleven. In 1901, a letter to the Yiddishes Tageblatt describing her life as a working girl set her on the path to journalism. On assignment in New York City, she met James Graham Phelps Stokes, a wealthy socialist. Their 1905 wedding became a tabloid sensation. Rose's fame as the "Cinderella of the Sweatshops" obscured her leftist labor activism, as well as her work as a playwright and translator of Yiddish poetry. World War One divided the charmed couple. J.G. Phelps Stokes became a patriot and Rose a communist. Like many radicals, she was charged with espionage for critiquing the war. The couple divorced in 1925. Rose married a younger Jewish communist man before succumbing to breast cancer in 1933.
Anzia Yezierska (1885–1970) met Rose Pastor Stokes at the Jewish Alliance in 1902 or 1903 and watched with fascination as Stokes's marriage lifted her into wealth and fame but ultimately chafed against her idealism. According to Ginsberg, Yezierska saw Stokes as "a new kind of Salome, a dangerous, subversive, defiant, and inspiring woman who wielded feminine power to impose her will and achieve her goals" (56). This observation, combined with Yezierska's own quest for acceptance and her affair with the philosopher John Dewey informed Salome of the Tenements.
Coming of age on the Lower East Side, Yezierska aspired to artistic and professional achievement typically denied to women. She hated her jobs as a servant, cook, and sewing machine operator, and she saw her mother and sister as enslaved by the expectations of Orthodox Jewish marriage and motherhood. Determined to be a writer, Yezierska "fled the responsibilities of personal relationships while nevertheless pressing others for emotional or professional support" (101). In a similar vein, Sonya Vrunsky, Yezierska's protagonist in Salome of the Tenements declares, "My life is one endless running away from the things that drag me down" (85). Publication eluded Yezierska until age thirty-five, when she got a break from her friend Sonya Levien, a protégé of Stokes who worked as an editor at Metropolitan Magazine.
Yezierska felt uncomfortable with the trappings of success and rejected the compromises required for lucrative work in Hollywood. In contrast, Sonya Levien (1888–1960) gracefully scaled the ladders of assimilation and professional achievement. Ginsberg suggests that Levien shied away from confrontation because her anarchist father, Julius Opeskin, had been sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, but the negative examples of her friends may have been equally as powerful. Stokes suffered public [End Page 312] disgrace and financial hardship due to her dissenting political views. Yezierska, who dwelled on the contradictions between the old world and the new, seemed perpetually unhappy.
In the early 1920s, Levien, her husband Carl Hovey, and their four children (two from Hovey's previous marriage) moved to Hollywood, where Levien established herself as a leading screenwriter. She hosted lavish Sunday lunches at her Malibu home, serving tea and crumpets along with rye bread...