In the early years of the last century, she was one of the most written-about women in America, the subject of literally thousands of newspaper articles. Today, socialist activist Rose Pastor Stokes is all but unknown.
Her current obscurity may soon be remedied, however, thanks to a new book by Berkeley writer Adam Hochschild.
Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes tells the story of an impoverished Jewish Russian immigrant who married a white, Protestant, old-money, New York millionaire and lived happily promoting the socialist agenda until World War I and the Russian Revolution helped destroy her marriage.
A former cigar factory worker, Rose Pastor arrived in New York City in 1903, and two years later married James Graham Phelps Stokes, scion of one of the legendary 400 families of Big Apple high society. The marriage made headlines around the globe, as well as scandalized the more conservative members of the Stokes family, who did not appreciate Graham and Rose’s support of the Socialist Party and her impassioned speeches on behalf of birth control, union labor and worker safety. At Caritas, the 100-room “cottage” designated the largest private home in the United States, Rose and Graham played host to many of the day’s left-wing luminaries, from Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair to Jack London to Margaret Sanger.
“Although all but forgotten today, no American marriage of its time won more public attention,” Hochschild writes in the book’s preface. “It brought together a man and a woman whose backgrounds differed so starkly that, if a novelist had invented them, we would find the tale wildly implausible.”
Berkeleyside spoke by phone with Hochschild, 77, at his home in Berkeley. He had been scheduled to read and sign Rebel Cinderella at Mrs. Dalloway’s on March 13, but the event was canceled because of the coronavirus threat.
Born in 1942 and raised in New York City by a German-Jewish father and a Protestant mother, Hochschild attended Harvard before moving to the West Coast to pursue a career in journalism.
“Well,” he corrected, “I came out here actually in pursuit of my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Arlie Russell Hochschild, then a graduate student at UC Berkeley.”
Hochschild has fond memories of being 22 and working as a daily news reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Those were the days when we used manual typewriters. You banged out your story, and then the editor checked it over and put it in a pneumatic tube and it was whooshed off to another part of the building where the typesetters set it in type. A little while later there’d be a whoosh and a thump and the proof would come back. To me, it felt like I’d arrived in the real world.”
After his tenure at The Chronicle, Hochschild joined the staff of the now-defunct glossy political periodical Ramparts. Later he co-founded the left-wing magazine Mother Jones, still available in print and online after more than 45 years. He currently lectures at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, living north of campus with Arlie, a professor emerita in sociology.
While still in college, Hochschild traveled to South Africa, where his interest in social justice was kindled.
“I was actually in the country when Nelson Mandela was arrested at the beginning of his 27-plus years in prison, he said. “I was with people on this small newspaper who were in a country where your political opinions were not just a matter of arguing with somebody across a dinner table, but could result in spending years in jail.”
In 1964, Adam and Arlie traveled together to Mississippi to help register voters.
“It was a hugely important experience, being exposed for the first time to what life was like in the American South. Everything was segregated. Three of our fellow civil rights workers that summer were killed.”
Hochschild is the best-selling author of 10 books, including King Leopold’s Ghost, about atrocities in the Congo, and To End All Wars, focused on WWI. Both were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. Bury the Chains, an examination of England’s slave trade, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the PEN Center USA Literary Award. Other books by Hochschild include The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin; Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939; and most recently Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays.
Hochschild demurs when asked whether he considers himself a journalist or a historian. He prefers simply “writer.”
“I always like to find a time and place where some kind of struggle about issues of social justice is going on, and then to write about people who are engaged in that battle on one side or the other.”
In the case of Rebel Cinderella, Hochschild discovered Rose Pastor Stokes in a photograph of American members of a delegation to Moscow for the Communist International in the 1920s.
“And here was this woman with a Jewish face – a quite striking face — and with this New York high society name. I wondered, what’s her story?”
Hochschild didn’t immediately investigate her story, but years later he found mention of her in another source that piqued his interest.
“For a three-year period, roughly 1918-1921, she was the woman whose name appeared the most often in American newspapers,” Hochschild said. “There were five or six men, like Henry Ford or Woodrow Wilson, whose name was more often mentioned, but no other woman whose name was mentioned more often.”
It was partly her public speaking skills that made her famous, her reported ability to move crowds to tears without needing to consult notes. She led strikes for restaurant and garment workers and handed out birth control information at Carnegie Hall. President Woodrow Wilson called her “one of the most dangerous influences of the country.”
Wilson’s opinion aside, the Stokes’s marriage at first seemed like something out of a fairy tale.
According to Hochschild, “Here was Prince Charming come along to rescue poor Cinderella from her humble hearth. They got a tremendous amount of attention.”
For almost two decades, the couple enjoyed remarkable lives of prosperity and activism. Then came the World War. Graham supported it, while Rose vehemently opposed it. She also supported the Russian Bolsheviks, and fell afoul of the Espionage Act by speaking against America’s participation in the war, earning a 10-year sentence, although she ended up serving no time.
In all the tumult, Rose and Graham’s marriage grew strained. Hochschild said, “Graham Stokes, even though a Socialist, I think had a very traditional idea of marriage, that he would be the font of wisdom and set the tone for what they did and how they thought.”
The couple divorced. Rose fell out of the limelight, re-married and died of breast cancer in 1933 at the age of 54. Graham wrote an autobiography that was never published; Rose’s was incomplete at the time of her death but published decades later.
What most surprised Hochschild as he researched Rebel Cinderella was the extent to which violence was directed at activists of the day.
Hochschild said, “As I got deeper into it, I realized just how politically repressive the United States was during the three or four years that followed American entry into World War One. I’d always known that there was a ‘Red Scare’ at that time, but just the number of people who went to prison and the fact that Rose could be sentenced to 10 years for speaking out against the war [surprised me.]”
Throughout his career, Hochschild has concentrated on the struggle against social injustice, be it apartheid in South Africa, domestic terrorism in Mississippi or the gulags in Stalinist Russia.
What is the legacy of Rose and her rebellious associates?
Hochschild said, “I think we are all in debt to the early radicals and dreamers, because the steps that we have made – unemployment insurance, workers compensation insurance, Social Security and Medicare and so on—these were things that people started talking about way back then. And we still have quite a ways to go to achieve even that western European welfare state.”
Hochschild said he sees a lot of similarities between Graham and Rose’s era and our own.
“People were outraged back then about the enormous inequality of American life,” he said. “But today the share of the country’s wealth and income held by the top one percent is (even) higher than it was when Rose and Graham married in 1905.”
“All of us should be working for the candidates we believe in,” he said. “Not just in the Presidential race but in the down-ballot races as well. All of us should be volunteering, if we can, to help register voters in parts of the country where voter suppression is going on.”