The Salome Ensemble: Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzio Yezierska, Sonya Levin, and Jetta Goudal. By Alan Robert Ginsberg. Syracuse University Press, 2016. XXIV + 363 pp.
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 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...