Early 20th-century America viewed through the life of one extraordinary woman

Rose Pastor Stokes was a Russian-Jewish émigré socialist who married one of the richest men in the U.S. Together they promoted socialism – until their divorce in 1917.

couple in wedding clothes
Rose Pastor and James Graham Phelps Stokes on their wedding day in 1905.

You’re unlikely ever to have come across her name before, but you’ll be fascinated by the remarkable story Berkeley author Adam Hochschild tells about her life in his latest excursion into popular history. Rose Pastor Stokes was one of the most famous and influential people, women OR men, during the crucial years that spanned the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. From 1905 to 1921, she continuously captured newspaper headlines for her unlikely marriage to one of the country’s wealthiest men and her relentless campaign on behalf of the labor movement and socialism in America.


Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes by Adam Hochschild (2020) 320 pages

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Born Rose Wieslander to an Orthodox Jewish family in the Russian Empire (present-day Poland) in 1879, she emigrated with her mother to the United States in 1890. At the age of eleven, she went to work in a New York cigar factory, and for the next twelve years, she experienced the debilitating poverty, chronic hunger, and life-threatening working conditions that millions of other immigrants went through in Gilded Age America. As Hochschild notes, “cigar workers suffered the second-highest death rate from tuberculosis of any occupation in America; only stonecutters had it worse. . . All her adult life, she would be troubled by lung problems.” And like thousands of others, the experience radicalized her, pointing her in the direction of the growing socialist movement in America.

“From rags to riches to radical”

After a brief and unhappy marriage left her with the surname Pastor and little else, Rose stumbled into a romantic relationship with one of New York’s most eligible bachelors: James Graham Phelps Stokes. Graham Stokes was the scion of one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in America. (If you’re familiar with business, you may recall the name Phelps Dodge Corporation, a huge mining company that was only one source of the family’s wealth.) The two met when Graham became involved in the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; Rose was assigned to interview him there for a newspaper.

She and her millionaire husband promoted socialism in America

The match was unlikely in several ways other than the economic disparity: he was seven years older and six-feet-four, more than a head taller than Rose; he was Episcopalian, she Jewish, at a time when antisemitism was rampant; and he held a bachelor’s degree from Yale and an M.D. from Columbia, while she had benefited from little formal education. Yet Graham harbored progressive sentiments highly unusual for his class and shared with Rose a conviction that revolution was necessary if not inevitable. The two fell in love and married, despite intensive opposition from his family — and Rose’s life for decades thereafter was never the same. The Phelps-Stokes-Dodge clan “had never imagined welcoming into its ranks an immigrant former cigar worker who had never finished elementary school.” Rose was Cinderella come to life.


A decade in the American Socialist Party

Rose and Graham’s engagement and wedding were front-page news, and their marriage became the source of endless fascination in the press for years to come. That fascination grew when both Rose and Graham joined the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and the IWW of “Big Bill” Haywood; the two subsequently appeared jointly onstage at scores of public events for both organizations. However, the pair split from the Socialist Party in 1917; Graham enthusiastically supported the U.S. entry into World War I, and Rose reluctantly came to agree. (Not long afterward, Rose became a founding member of the American Communist Party.)

A popular speaker at IWW and Socialist Party events across America

Although painfully shy at first, Rose soon proved herself to be a powerful and charismatic orator, routinely overshadowing other speakers, particularly her husband. For years she was one of the most sought-after attractions at socialist and labor gatherings, speaking either in English or in Yiddish. She was also a popular columnist in the Yiddish press, first in the Orthodox Yiddishes Tageblatt and later in the socialist Forverts (later the Jewish Daily Forward).

A who’s who of the left in the early 20th century

Displaying his customary skill at research, Hochschild brings Rose to life on the page with excerpts from her personal diary, her unfinished autobiography, and the abundant contemporary press accounts. During the two decades when she and Graham were together — they divorced in 1925 — they hosted many of the country’s most illustrious progressive intellectuals and social activists.

They numbered among their friends for varying lengths of time Debs, Haywood, Emma GoldmanElizabeth Gurley Flynn“Mother” JonesClarence DarrowMargaret SangerUpton SinclairJack London, and Max Eastman as well as Russian (later Soviet) author Maxim Gorky. By illustrating the interaction among these iconic figures, and describing Rose’s involvement in public debate about the leading issues of the day — the Panic of 1907, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, World War I, women’s suffrage, the post-war Red Scare — Hochschild opens the door on a colorful and consequential period in our nation’s history. Rebel Cinderella is popular history at its best.

This review first appeared on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.