The Salome Ensemble and the Dialectics of Visibility: Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia Yezierska, Sonya Levien and Jetta Goudal
Columbia University. American Studies
Columbia University. American Studies
Four women, a journalist, a novelist, a screenwriter, and an actress, joined forces in the nineteen-twenties in a project of artistic and personal creation. They produced tangible, material results, in the form of a popular novel and a Hollywood movie, which advanced the careers of the collaborators. In this process they also participated in and contributed to a profound social and cultural shift which continues to reverberate in society almost a century later. While helping each other, they advanced the status of American women, workers, immigrants, the downtrodden and the dispossessed. Together these four women invented a fictional character, an imagined combination of their own selves, who pursued love, professional success, and artistic fulfillment with passion, effort and tenacity. She reflected the attractive and the subversive aspects of her creators. She was dubbed a "Salome" because she actively pursued her desires, using all of the powers she could summon, including sheer force of will, intelligence, and sexual allure. This "Salome of the Tenements" of the novel and the movie of that name delighted young women while offending genteel sensibilities throughout the nation. The journalist, poet, playwright and political activist Rose Pastor Stokes, the cooking teacher-turned-novelist Anzia Yezierska, the lawyer, magazine editor and screenwriter Sonya Levien, and the stage and screen actress Jetta Goudal comprised a purposeful community of discourse, a foursome, a group, a quartet, an ensemble. Each played an instrumental role in the creation and performance. They began as four penniless Jewish immigrants to America who were powerfully attracted to wealthy, educated, sophisticated, aristocratic men from old, established American Protestant families, men of letters and titans of industry. To these women the attraction was more than erotic. They were drawn to these men as role models, as icons of Americanism; they did not only want to marry these men, they wanted to be them. Disillusionment inevitably followed. To the men, these women were beautiful, passionate, alluring, exotic intelligent, challenging foreigners whose very differences from women of their own set made them desirable. The women of The Salome Ensemble were strong, resourceful, creative, intelligent individuals who together accomplished what they could not do alone. Rose was the mentor, Anzia wrote the novel, Sonya wrote the screenplay and Jetta starred in the movie. They each profited directly from that collaboration, but they also helped and affected each other and millions of others profoundly far beyond that immediate production. Their joint venture provided entree into social, intellectual, artistic, and political communities that crossed class, ethnic, national, and philosophical lines. They questioned authority, quested for status, won applause and opprobrium, experienced love and loss, changed laws and minds. Theirs is a compelling, and nearly-forgotten history. They discovered and experienced art as a social, not a solitary activity. They engaged with newspaper and magazine editors, book publishers, movie producers and directors, other journalists, writers, poets, politicians, educators, philosophers, lawyers, judges, playwrights, and actors. They willfully chose affiliations, personal and professional. They sought solidarity and empathy which can only be freely offered, not imposed. There was for The Salome Ensemble no apparent contradiction in the fact that individuals often achieve self-fulfillment and realization only as members of a community. That seamlessness of individualism and community informs the story of these four women and their artistic creation. They were able to pursue altruism and autonomy together; to act in the interests of self and society simultaneously. Sharing some elements of The Metaphysical Club of philosophical pragmatists, the women of the Heterodoxy Club, of which Rose Pastor Stokes was a member, the Imagined Communities identified by Benedict Anderson, the Beloved Community of New York Intellectuals of Randolph Bourne, and the Little Platoons of Society described by Edmund Burke, The Salome Ensemble was similar to these other communities of discourse, but it also was significantly different. These women assembled a kind of pre-digital social network which allowed them to work as individuals together, in a mutually beneficial affiliation which produced lasting works of art and offered them to an emerging mass consumer public. In moving those productions through the intellectual, commercial, industrial, and technological mechanisms and institutions of the age, they shaped and changed expectations, perceptions and the mechanisms and institutions themselves. Although their names are faded from memory now, when the book and movie were released, all four of them were famous. They were Zelig-like in their connections, friendships, rivalries, and romances among the intellectual world of New York City, the emerging Hollywood image machine, labor unions, political activists and agitators, international Socialists, anarchists, poets, novelists, nascent mass media, and women's rights proponents. This paper investigates the relationships between these women and the public world they inhabited. It includes both a micro-history focus on the lives of four individuals, and an investigation of the macro context in which that history took place. At the same time, I examine and place this community of discourse in a moment in literary history at the transition from romantic sentimentalism to social realism and literary modernism.
The author of this work can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
M.A., Columbia University.
2012-04-12 16:08:42 -0400
2013-05-14 08:50:20 -0400